Buying fish puts cook between rock and hard place

These days, deciding to have fish for dinner feels like deciding to tiptoe through a minefield. No matter where you turn, there's an angry local fisherman protecting his livelihood or a finger-wagging scientist warning that today's dinner is tomorrow's extinct species.

What's a cook to do? Turn to the Internet, of course.

When faced with a fish dilemma, I consult a great little pocket guide created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their handy little chart — one for each of five regions of the country, which they update regularly — provides "science-based recommendations that help consumers and businesses make ocean-friendly seafood choices."

The pocket guide offers three categories of local options: Best Choices, Good Alternatives and Avoid, and in most categories, specifies farmed vs. wild caught.

So when I stopped at Whole Foods in Glastonbury one day last month on my way home from a friend's house and saw that one of their specials was wild-caught Pacific cod for $5.99 a pound, I consulted my chart and felt empowered to buy.

I am always greatly comforted in these matters when I feel as though an expert has my back. I can't know everything, but I can look for someone who I think I can trust and rely on them as a resource.

So I bought the cod and brought it home with one particular recipe in mind. I hadn't made it in a long time, but I remembered it as an African, braised, curry-flavored white fish and I was pretty sure the recipe was from "The Frugal Gourmet," Jeff Smith.

I looked everywhere. I checked the cookbook where I thought I'd find it but came up empty. I searched my various recipe boxes, my stacks of recipe cards, my recipe notebooks and then the bundles of photocopied recipes that are jammed in between cookbooks and stacked on shelves in various places throughout my house.

Nothing.

So I gave up and turned, once again, to the Internet, this time to Epicurious. This is a great website for when you have an ingredient, something fresh or exotic that you came upon and couldn't resist, but have no clue how to use it. You can type in the ingredient then narrow your search through a series of choices such as cuisine, meal/course, preparation method, etc.

I narrowed things down by making cod the main ingredient, choosing dinner as the course and selecting braise as the method of preparation because that's what I remembered as the method in my missing recipe. And voila, up popped Braised Cod with Chickpeas.

Epicurious cites a cookbook called "Shabbat Shalom" written by Susan Friedman as the source of the recipe. The introduction calls the dish a classic Moroccan Jewish preparation, taking advantage of North Africa's plentiful fishery and the staple starch of the Mediterranean, the chickpea.

Wherever it comes from, it sure is delicious. Surrounding the delicate fish with the thick and spicy chickpea stew feels counterintuitive, to say the least, but finishing the dish with a generous drizzle of lemon juice lightens and freshens and brings the whole thing together. I served it with the baked risotto from my last column, and my husband and I were happy indeed.

By the way, I did find that old favorite eventually. I had looked in the wrong "Frugal Gourmet" cookbook. It's called Baked Curried Fish and I've included the recipe here, at right.

Enjoy!

Braised Cod with Chickpeas

3 cups cooked chickpeas (see note) or two 15-ounce cans (I used one can of chickpeas and one can of butter beans because that's what I had in the cupboard.)

6 or 7 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

4 or 5 hot peppers or 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (I used the flakes, ½ teaspoon, and it was just the right heat for my taste.)

6 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground (Don't skip the toasting. I heated the seeds in a small frying pan just until I began to smell them, then ground them in a coffee grinder, but a mortar and pestle would work as well.)

2 pounds cod fillets, about 1 inch thick (imported, and wild caught only)

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Cilantro or parsley sprigs (I didn't have any.)

Lemon wedges (Do not skip the lemon juice. It makes all the difference.)

If canned chickpeas are used, rinse and drain them. Combine the chickpeas in a saucepan with the garlic, peppers or flakes, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and ¼ cup of water. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pot, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Remove and discard the whole peppers, if you used them. Add the cumin to the chickpeas and spread half the mixture in the bottom of a 9-inch-square baking dish. Place the fish on top, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and finish with the remaining chickpeas. Drizzle the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil over the top. Cover and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, until the fish is just flaky but not falling apart; check after 20 minutes. (I recommend removing from the oven after 20 minutes, then letting sit for 10 or 15 minutes. The fish will continue to cook but won't overcook.)

Serve the fish hot or warm, garnished with cilantro or parsley and lemon wedges. (I recommend squeezing at least ¼ of an average-size lemon over each serving. The fresh tanginess brings the dish to life.)

Note: For dried chickpeas, soak ½ pound (1¼ cups) overnight, drain, rinse, and cook in water to cover for 1 to 1½ hours, until tender. If you don't have time for overnight soaking, cover the chickpeas with cold water, bring them to boiling, turn off the heat, cover the saucepan, and set them aside for an hour, then cook them as directed above. (But honestly, the canned ones work just fine.)

Original recipe from "Shabbat Shalom" by Susan Friedland, by way of www.epicurious.com.

Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share comments and recipes with her at j.blanchette@theday.com.

Best fish choices in the Northeast

Arctic Char (farmed)
Bass: Striped (U.S. hook and line, farmed)
Catfish (U.S.)
Clams, Mussels, Oysters (farmed)
Clams, Oysters (U.S. wild)
Cobia (U.S.)
Cod: Atlantic (imported, hook and line)
Crab: Dungeness & Stone
Haddock (U.S. handline)
Halibut: Pacific (U.S.)
Lobster: Spiny (CA, FL and Mexico)
Salmon (AK)
Scallops (farmed)
Squid: Longfin (U.S.)
Swordfish (Canada and U.S. harpoon, handline)*
Tilapia (Ecuador and U.S. farmed)
Trout: Rainbow (U.S. farmed)
Tuna: Bigeye (U.S. Atlantic troll, pole)
Canned Tuna, Light: Skipjack (troll, pole)
Yellowfin (U.S. troll, pole)
Canned Tuna, White: Albacore (Canada and U.S. troll, pole)

*Limit consumption due to concerns about mercury content. Visit edf.org/seafoodhealth
Souce: Montery Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch


BONUS RECIPE: Kenyan Baked Curried Fish
3 yellow onions, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons peanut oil
For sauce:
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1-ounce can tomato paste
1 cup water

2 pounds white fish filets

Saute onions in the oil until clear. Set aside.

Prepare the sauce by simmering all the ingredients for 20 minutes.

Place the fish in a greased baking dish. Cover first with the sauteed onions and then with the sauce. Bake at at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

You might wish to serve this with steamed wheat tortillas, something that is very close to a bread common in many countries in Africa.

Serves 4 or 5.

Original recipe from "The Frugal Gourmet" by Jeff Smith.

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