Monkfish and purple potatoes.

The Stockton Indoor Farmer’s Market started up only three weeks ago — right across the street from my apartment! — but thanks to Dawn McBeth, the local baker who runs the market (which also sells baked good from her bakery, Ambrosia), filling it with one amazing vendor after the next, it’s already become my favorite in the county. Bobolink Dairy and Bakeyard is there every Sunday; Purely Pastured Farm, with their lamb, beef, and chickens, recently joined up; Highland Market is there with their astonishing beef; and the Red Rooster Spice Company sets up shop every weekend. Throw in Milk House Farm’s sourced vegetables, eggs, and freshly ground grains — and Metropolitan Seafood’s selections — and I haven’t had to leave my tiny town to go grocery shopping in weeks.

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The only tricky thing is, you can’t always follow recipes when you are at the mercy of the market’s offerings. Now I know I was touting the importance of recipe-following lately, and declaring that it’s taken precedence in my cooking, so I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that this recipe is my own creation, but it’s not my fault! I had thought I was shopping for a recipe of cod in a parmesan-sage broth; then I came upon the most gorgeous, day-boat monkfish I’d ever seen. Things needed to be rethought on the spot.

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Monkfish screams rustic, earthy, substantial. I love to use it in place of meaty proteins – beef, pork – because it stands up so well to strong flavors and textures. Even before I’d finished the buying the fish, I was thinking mushrooms, potatoes…red wine. We got some shitake mushrooms from Highland Gourmet (at a price so ridiculously low I won’t even mention it because I don’t want you to feel bad), then found some turnips, before going home to some green beans and purple potatoes (from Nonesuch Farm).

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Wanting something rustic, but not willing to totally abandon my plan for a fancy-pants dinner (this was not a one-pot of night), I came up with something rustic but refined: the purple potatoes were cut into medallions the width and height of the monkfish; the shitakes were sauteed and browned alongside the green beans and turnips; and the red wine butter sauce really satisfied my fancy urges, half of its butter being truffle-butter (which did wonderfully woodsy, earthy things to the whole affair).

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A few things should be mentioned before you cook this: first, when you saute mushrooms, you should put them in a hot-hot-hot pan with some butter — not overcrowding — then turn down the heat a little and DO NOT TOUCH THEM FOR THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES OF COOKING. Otherwise, they won’t brown properly, and if there’s anything I don’t like, it’s a mushroom that isn’t browned properly. (Which, in hindsight, makes me sound pretty weird.) After you let them go untouched for the first five minutes or so, and they are golden and browning on the first side, you can stir them as much as you want and also add other ingredients to the pan (but, again, not before those crucial five minutes are up!). The turnips should go in next, and you should be careful to make sure they brown as well, not messing with them too much either or they’ll go starchy and mush up. Then you add the green beans and cook, covering for a few minutes, until they’re tender and beginning to brown as well. More butter gets added along the way to help even more with the browning.

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One last note: trying to keep this recipe as simple as possible, we did a little test of cooking the first piece of monkfish in a pan with butter and nothing else, and cooking the second piece with rosemary sprigs and garlic cloves. Unfortunately for simplicity, the second was the clear winner, so I included that version in the recipe. The first piece was nothing to sneer at, though, so don’t worry if you’re pressed for time or out of rosemary and garlic. Otherwise, I’d follow all the steps, because they led to something great. Rustic, but refined enough for a dinner party; fancy-pants comfort food: a delicious little collaboration between my home-cook style and the things I’ve picked up from all that recipe-following lately.

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Monkfish with Purple Potatoes and Truffled Red Wine Sauce

serves 2 (or maybe 3 light eaters)

For the Truffled Red Wine Sauce
1 slice smoked bacon, chopped
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 celery stalk, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup dry red wine
4 tablespoons white truffle butter
2-4 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the Mushrooms

2 teaspoons canola oil
1 tablespoon or more white truffle butter
1/2 pound shitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced
a few handfuls of good-looking green beans, slim as you can find them, cut into 1 inch pieces

1-2 turnips, peeled and cut into a small dice

For the Potatoes
2-3 oblong purple potatoes, about 1 pound total
a few sprigs of thyme

For the Monkfish
¾ to 1 pound monkfish fillet, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 cloves of garlic
a sprig of thyme

In a medium saucepan, add bacon over medium high heat and render for 5 minutes. Add shallot, celery, and carrot and cook until softened but not browned, 5-10 minutes. Add chicken stock and wine and reduce by a little more than half, about 30 minutes or so.

Meanwhile make the mushrooms: add canola oil and truffle butter to a pan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add mushrooms and leave untouched in the pan for at least 5 minutes, until the mushrooms have begun to properly brown. Turn mushrooms and add green beans and turnips and cook until turnips are browned on all sides, adding more butter or oil if the pan gets too dry.

Slice potatoes into thick medallions (you want them to be similar to the size of the monkfish medallions you’ll slice later) and put them into another pan over medium-high heat, so that they are all touching the bottom of the pan in one layer. Add chicken stock or water, enough to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes, and cover. Cook for about 10 minutes, then remove the cover and cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the potatoes are browned, turning potatoes half-way through. Turn off heat and set aside.

To finish the sauce: whisk butter into the reduced wine, a little at a time, until it is a bit thicker and tastes good—not too tart, but not too oily—then season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

To cook monkfish: Add canola oil to a pan over medium-high heat. Just before the oil starts to smoke, place the monkfish in the pan, rounded (presentation) side down. Cook for five minutes, until the fish is golden-brown, adding a tablespoon of butter about halfway through and basting the fish once the butter browns. (The butter should seem burnt, but the whole pan should not be smoking.) Flip the fish, add another tablespoon of butter, and cook for another six minutes, basting the entire time (and adding the garlic and thyme about halfway through, so that it flavors the butter and oil without burning). Remove the fish from pan and set on a cutting board to rest.

To finish: Cut monkfish into medallions. Spoon mushroom and turnip mixture onto a platter and place a medallion of monkfish, then a slice of potato, over the mushrooms, and repeat until you use up all the monkfish. Any leftover mushrooms or potatoes can be placed around the edge of the platter. Spoon some sauce over everything (you’ll have sauce leftover — bring it to the table to pass around) and serve.

Cod basquaise.

Over the past few years my cooking has gone from recipe-following, to recipe-adapting, to recipe-making, and now back full circle to recipe-following.  I feel like I’m honing my skills recipe-following again, and I’m certainly having a lot of fun.  Whereas last year I was constantly trying to forge my own way—starting with a basic recipe and then adapting it until it felt my own—this year I’m opening myself up for instruction, willing to believe that maybe someone out there can cook better than me (shock!), and setting aside that pride thing that has been haunting me for years.  A new year’s resolution of sorts.

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It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to create recipes in order to be a legitimately good cook.  I think this is a problem that a lot of us food bloggers have.  We’re always searching for the next interesting post, trying to set ourselves apart from the others; we want to stake out some space in this game. (And there’s that sticky situation of always posting—some would say copying—recipes that people would otherwise have to buy the whole cookbook for. This issue gets to me now that I’m posting a lot of recipes from current cookbooks. I do believe that my enthusiasm for the cookbooks will help sales more than the recipe posting will reduce them, and that whatever I do affects sales very little… but that could just be an excuse.)  In reality, however, we probably all have a lot to learn from recipes; I know I do.  I don’t cook professionally in a restaurant.  I never had a mentor, or a childhood in Provence, not one single cooking class.  Recipes stand in for the pasta-making Italian grandmother I never had.

Pan roasted cod

So I follow recipes.  Not always diligently, but always thoughtfully.  I heed cook temps, tips, ingredients, while also taking into account my own tastes, my cookware and equipment, and ethical and sustainability issues.  If I have peperonata in the fridge, I’m not about to go out and buy fresh peppers for the cod basquaise recipe I’m following that night.  And while I didn’t make this recipe with cod the first time—the black grouper at the fish market was fresher—I made sure to try it again the next time the cod looked good and, unsurprisingly, it was better made with cod. I’d still make it with a different fish if I had the other ingredients on hand and there was no cod at the market, but I know cod is best.

Cod basquaise

The recipe is from Eric Ripert, and it’s a classic sauce basquaise (peppers, tomato) with the addition of red wine and serrano ham.  The vegetables are cooked until meltingly tender, then braised in the wine for a bit.  The cod is cooked with thyme and garlic for flavor, then served atop the sauce.  It’s robust and wintry, lush with red wine and salty ham.  Like most of Ripert’s simple recipes, it’s easy to think that you wouldn’t need to follow them really, that you could just go with the idea and wing it in your kitchen.  But if you cook the cod just so, use the correct amount of ingredients, and follow the times and simple instructions for cooking the sauce, you can rest assured that the result will be perfect.  I probably would’ve added the red wine too soon had I been going it alone, and the result wouldn’t be as silky. That’s the kind of thing I find so helpful about following recipes. So far, my new year’s resolution has rendered me some fantastic dinners.

Cod basquaise

Cod Basquaise

adapted from Avec Eric

The Basquaise

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup finely diced yellow onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
¼ cup small diced Serrano ham
1 cup leftover peperonata rustica (or 1/2 cup each of chopped red and yellow bell pepper)
1 cup tinned San Marzano tomato, drained, seeded, and diced
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper

The Codfish

2 tablespoons canola oil
4 (6-ounce) codfish fillets
2 springs thyme
2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan. Add onion and sweat until tender over medium-low heat. Add garlic and continue cooking until tender; add the ham and peppers. When the peppers are soft, add the tomatoes and simmer, stirring often, over low heat for 20 minutes. Add the red wine and reduce over medium heat until most of the liquid had evaporated. Stir in the chopped parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. This can be done the day before.

Heat a pan until very hot, add the canola oil. Season the codfish on both sides with salt and pepper. Add the codfish to the pan and sauté until the fish is golden brown on the bottom along with the thyme and garlic, about 6-8 minutes, rubbing the garlic against the fish a few times, lowering the heat if necessary to prevent from burning. Turn the fish over and finish cooking the fish for another 2-3 minutes, until a metal skewer can be easily inserted into the fish and, when left in for 5 seconds, feels just warm when touched to the lip.

Spoon basquaise onto plates, place sautéed cod in the center and serve immediately.

Don’t Fear the Bluefish, Part Deux

When I first started blogging, I wrote a post about bluefish.  In it, I claimed that I knew the ultimate way to cook bluefish: to have Jim do it.  He let me in on his crisped-skin secret (scraping your knife against the skin to squeegee off any moisture before you cook) and it does indeed make a tasty bluefish, or any fish for that matter.  We do this crispy-skin method for fish about twice a week actually, with salmon mostly now, and it always gets great results.

But despite how good that method is, I’m telling you today: I’ve found a better way to cook bluefish, with the help of Rick Moonen of Fish Without a Doubt, who advised me on the right pan (cast-iron), the right cooking method (broiling).  The rest of the recipe came from my windowsill herb box.  I used basil, parsley, with a few cloves of garlic and the zest of a lemon, to make an herb butter.

If  you’ve never made an herb butter—with good butter and fresh herbs—then you are in for a treat.  I use them all the time, with different herbs for different proteins: sage or tarragon for chicken, rosemary or thyme for steak, dill or parsley for fish, or I just use whatever tickles my fancy (or needs to be picked from the windowsill).  I’ve never been disappointed with an herb butter and, after you start using them, you can’t stop.  I tried using an olive oil, salt, and pepper rub on a chicken dish that I’d done before with a sage-lemon butter, and oh-man was that disappointing. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Because once you try bluefish with herb butter, you’ll regret having it any other way.  Succulent and fresh, this recipe will turn any bluefish-hater around.  The bits of garlic in the butter get slightly burnt and give you that crackle-in-your-teeth contrast to the soft, buttery fish.  Both the basil and the parsley stand out of their own, while working well together—the parsley woody and green, the basil sweet.

To cook it, you put a cast iron pan in the oven so it sits right under the broiler, and broil the empty pan for about 15-20 minutes, so that it gets smokin’ hot.  Then you take the pan out (with good oven mitts!) and add a dollop of the herb butter.  Place the bluefish into the pan, skin side down—it will immediately cinch up and contract—and then place a few spoonfuls of the herb butter on top of the fish. (It may look like a lot of butter in the picture—and it is, about 2 ½ tablespoons.  Not all gets onto your plate but it helps to keep the fish moist when cooking.  And if you’re really worried about it, bathing suit season and all, eat a smaller piece of fish.)  Place the pan back under the broiler and broil for 3 minutes, then baste the fish by spooning the butter over it before putting it back into the oven to broil for another 2-4 minutes, until the fish is white throughout the fillet, yet still very moist.

To serve, put a piece of the fillet on a plate and drizzle some of the browned herb butter over it.  Green beans quickly cooked then tossed with olive oil and lemon are the perfect accompaniment.  Or some new potatoes on the side, little sponges to sop up the juices.  Whatever you eat it with, I’m sure you’ll love it.  Don’t fear the bluefish… just eat it.

Broiled Bluefish with Basil-Parsley Butter

serves 2

for the butter

  • 3 tablespoons good butter, softened
  • small handful basil
  • smaller handful parsley
  • zest of one lemon
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 (16-ounce) piece bluefish, skin on

Put butter in a small bowl, softening in the microwave for 5 seconds if needed.  On a cutting board, chop your herbs, garlic, and zest together.  Add the herb mixture and salt to butter and mash up to combine.  Season with black pepper

Put the oven on broil and place a cast-iron skillet in the uppermost shelf, or right under the broiler.  Let the cast-iron pan heat for 15-20 minutes, while the herb butter’s flavors are melding.

Season your bluefish with salt and pepper.  When skillet is smoking hot, take it out of the oven with good oven mitts and transfer to cutting board.  Add a spoonful of herb butter to bottom of skillet then place bluefish skin side down in skillet.  Transfer back to the oven and broil for 3 minutes.  Remove skillet and baste fish with butter.  Transfer back to oven and broil for another 2-4 minutes, or until bluefish is cooked through but still moist.

Serve bluefish with some butter drizzled on top and as much of the crispy herbs and garlic that you can pick up.  Goes particularly well with lemony green beans.