In the beginning
I love fish; having been brought up on choice Scottish haddock that is no surprise. It remains my favourite fish, loving how it flakes, each bite a wave of flavour declaring its origin. Like all quality produce, it needs nothing to enhance its flavour; at its best simply cooked. Herring comes a close second; bringing memories of my grandmother who made her own baked roll mops and soused trout.
However, it was Spain that was to reintroduce me to cod. My mother refused to buy it, though I had enjoyed tasting it with chips on forays south of the border. The dried out slabs drowned in curdled cheese sauce offered every Tuesday in the university refectory, was a comic warning to freshers on the bland, grim food to be endured, though this was not the worst. It did not endear me to this fish appreciated in many cultures.
The Spanish love dried cod, which looks like a large dried out dishrag and I have to admit that I have never become a fan, even though I have tried it in various dishes. As I pointed out to Spanish friends when you are weaned on fresh haddock, it is difficult to appreciate this variety. I find the texture too chewy though salting does add character. The love of salt cod in Mediterranean countries comes from it beginning as a trading commodity; the northern fishermen bartered their cod from the wheat producing countries of the south.
Fish cooked in sauce is a delight in Spain, from Galician hake, the sauce made with Spanish paprika. The classic Basque dish of Hake in green sauce; the sauce a fusion of the gelatine given of by the fish with the onions and parsley blended in the sauce; a million miles away from roux sauces, which can over power the fish’s lightness. Fresh cod lightly battered and then cooked gently in tomato passata was to reintroduce me to the fish. Once again, local fresh ingredients being the source of the dishes flavour.
Spicing things up
Cod doesn’t have a lot of flavour, but it has large flakes with a firm texture. Making it ideal to bathe in sauce, the flavours complimenting each other. Having tried it in various ways my cook’s head, heart and hands took on the challenge. I have found it to be the best fish in curries for that very reason, with the flakes acting as a size contrast to the plain rice that accompanies this dish so well. My favourite cod in sauce dish has to be Moroccan fish tagine. I started to make my own preserved lemons when I was in Spain, citrus fruit being cheap, plentiful, and excellent quality. Mixing the spices, cumin, and cayenne in the pestle and mortar always makes me feel at one with my culinary creations rather than using anything electric, the warm rich fusion that emerges from the blending of the spices enhancing the sense of creation. Rubbing in the dry powder to the moist flesh of the fish, leaving it to sit before placing it in the tagine with tomato passata, homemade if possible. The aromas wafting from the oven as it bakes slowly, adding a touch of preserved lemon at the end transforms the flavour. Fresh lemon is not a substitute. Like the rice with fish curries, serving this dish with couscous the grain a contrast in size to the flakes, the sauce absorbed by the grains as it coats the fish flakes adding another texture dimension. I like the couscous plain, though some would suggest adding fresh coriander and lemon. A salad of cucumber and lettuce dressed with fresh lemon and olive oil cleanses the palate while savouring this spicy succulent dish.