By Andrea Maunder
I love salt cod. But it’s not something I think about cooking for myself too often. I like my fish and brewis in loads of butter and slivers of nicely browned onions; and my fish cakes, crispy and generously coddy, with mustard pickle. These dishes are by far the most popular way most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians enjoy salt cod, aren’t they?
But salt cod is beloved in cuisines around the world. It pops up in Nordic countries, the Mediterranean, Caribbean and even Asia; and is cooked in a myriad of styles and flavours.
Shopping for a few groceries at Bidgoods recently, I spotted gorgeous, thick salt cod steaks. They made me think of the mesmerizing, seemingly endless, displays I’ve seen in markets of Europe - northern Spain and the Basque country, in particular - and the artful and traditional ways salt cod is prepared there.
Andrea’s Salt Cod Inspiration
Makes 2 main course servings
2 (5-6 oz each) pieces of thick-cut salt cod
1/2 cup aromatic olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3-4 whole dried red chilies (less, or omit if you avoid spice)
2 large bay leaves (fresh or dried)
1/4 cup golden raisins, soaked in warm water to rehydrate a bit
1-2 tbsp white flour
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced in half-moon shapes
1 medium bell pepper, cut in julienne strips (green or equivalent in mixed colours)
1/2 medium quince, peeled, cored and cut in julienne strips*
12-14 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 cup diced tinned tomatoes, drained)
Tiniest pinch of kosher salt (fish is salty)
1/4 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1/4 cup water - or more as needed
Handful chopped fresh parsley to garnish
Couple lemon wedges to garnish
*If you can’t find a quince, choose any variety of underripe pear and add a touch of lemon zest to the ragout.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a medium frypan, warm the oil, garlic, bay leaves and whole dried chilies. Allow everything to warm up together to infuse the oil with the flavours. If it sizzles at all, remove the pan from the heat, turn down the burner and then return the pan. This is a very gentle heat infusion. When the garlic turns pale golden, remove the garlic, bay leaves and chilies, and set aside.
Turn up the heat to medium-high. Very lightly dredge the fish in flour, shaking off any excess. Sear fish on both sides, turning once it has browned. Since the fish is thick, it is not cooked through. Remove from pan and place on a parchment-lined sheet. Put it in the 350°F oven to finish cooking through while you make the ragout. Check after 5-6 minutes; it is done at 70°C if you have a thermometer. Remove fish when it reaches 70°C or flaky-firm to the touch - don’t overcook.
Meanwhile, return the bay leaves and chilies to the pan (reserve the garlic), and add onions. Fry a minute or two, then add peppers and quince (or pear and lemon zest) for a couple of minutes. Add a pinch of salt, drained soaked raisins and tomatoes. Add the vermouth/wine and let the alcohol burn off. Add water, stir again, and cover the pan to allow everything to soften and come together. Check a couple of times and add water if necessary. In 10-12 minutes the ragout should be cohesive, not watery. Lay the fish on top of the ragout to warm through (keep top side free of sauce to remain brown and crisp).
Remove bay leaves and chiles. Spoon the ragout on heated plates and place a piece of cod on top. Sprinkle the reserved toasted garlic on top, scatter on some parsley. Garnish with the potatoes, lightly sprinkled with kosher salt. Add a lemon wedge.
To make crisp potatoes: Scrub a couple smallish potatoes, cut them into ¼ inch slices and toss them with olive oil. Cook them in the air fryer on 350°F for about 12 minutes, turning once. You could also toss potatoes with a touch of oil and oven roast them. Go easy on the salt either way, as there is plenty in the cod.