Merlucciidae Common Name: Silver Hake, Whiting, New England Hake
Oh wow, I do love this fish. It's very popular in Spain, but the species in European waters may be different from that found in our own. I say that because I remember how after less than a week in Madrid Barry and I would both groan when we saw merluza on the menu. It was tasty, but hidden bones were always a serious obstacle to our enjoyment. I haven't had the same experience on this side of the Atlantic.
But maybe it's just the estimable fishmongers at Citarella.
Last night I put together a dinner of "Ligurian fish and Potatoes" (using an 11-ounce Hake fillet and two scrubbed-but-unpeeled red potatoes). Thanks for the recipe, Mark. The hake rested on a cushion of red-rimmed potatoes which were remarkable not just for their taste but for being deliciously juicy, yet still al dente, while staying crispy on some of the edges.
Along with the fish, bought at Citarella in the Village, a few blocks southwest of the Union Square greenmarket from which I had just left, I prepared some very small baby Bok Choy which I was surprised to still find in this increasingly-deserted open-air market at the very end of December (praised be the inventor of the cold frame). But then I also bought some delicious Niagara grapes from another vendor yesterday; how'd they manage that?
The recipe for the contorno, which I modified somewhat from this recipe I found on line seems a bit fussy, but it turned out to be way toothsome, and a sensational complement to the sweet, white fish. It amazes me that this excellent vegetable still makes only rare appearances in Western cook books; I mean, the Italians managed to find New World peppers and tomatoes without making a big fuss, so where's their bok choy?
GRILLED BABY BOK CHOY
After cutting them in half, brushing them with garlic-infused oil, and sprinkling them with lemon and thyme, I grilled the little cabbages face down in an enameled-iron ribbed pan for about four minutes, covering them loosely with a sheet of foil. I then turned them over and added drops of balsamic vinegar, grilling them for about three or four more minutes. Once they were on the plates, I topped them with a mixture of pine nuts which had been sauteed in the garlic-infused oil and then heated with the chopped dark green outer leaves I had removed earlier.
We had nibbled on taralli al peperoncino while we waited for the main course, and when we had finished the fish I brought out two very small cuts of slightly-aged Caprini Tartufo, accompanying it with thin slices from a loaf of Tuscan bread I'd also picked up at the greenmarket that afternoon, and some phenomenal dried Turkish figs.
Oh yeah, sure, there was wine. We shared a bottle of Spanish Naia Verdejo which we sometimes think of as our current "house white"; it cost us only $12 or so.
Even though I've written before about the meals we enjoy at home, when I had already begun this post I suddenly thought that it might be a mistake: Maybe because it was so good and because I seem to be boasting about it publicly, but mostly because while I know that not everyone might want a meal like this many who would are unable to assemble it for one reason or another.
I will admit that it helps, and is probably essential, to have someone you love to enjoy it with you, but that sounds like another assignment.
"Geography is destiny", may be only a cliché, but if you're not in a city like New York you may not be able to reproduce this or most of the meals which we enjoy and which I sometimes describe, but you may come up with something just as pleasurable to suit different resources and circumstances. It doesn't have to mean taking a huge chunk of time out of a day: While this main course took me a little over one hour to put together, a call to the local Chinese or Mexican will always beat the time spent in the kitchen preparing any meal, but on the other hand, it's not a chore. Finally, considering what real cooks have been able to do without great kitchens and without fat purses, I don't think that inadequate space should stop anyone who really wants to prepare good meals. In fact I started cooking for myself when I had only a sink, a refrigerator, a stove and two feet of counter space on one side of a one-room apartment ( I now have an additional 4 1/2 feet of counter, but that extra length is only 16 inches deep and my refrigerator is now tiny).
I know that limited funds should be even less of an obstacle. Were I were disposed to feel any embarrassment about what looks like indulgence in this meal, and it certainly was not an exceptional event for us, I would just remind myself that the cost of the entire dinner for two (including the portion cost of herbs, oils, lemon, vinegar, etc.) was something like $16.
But I also get great pleasure (and some physical and mental exercise hauling and bending) out of the planning, gathering and preparation of these dinners, not to mention my huge delight in the enjoyment and sharing of good food, and the good conversation it encourages, while also listening to music of which we might take almost no notice during any other part of the day.
Most days I wouldn't trade it for any restaurant, even if I do have to do the dishes.
[image from University of Southern Maine]