It must be a food book, because it won the James Beard Award for food writing, but you could have fooled me: I would have called Mark Kurlansky's "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" an outstanding history book, a quick read, related with a literate story-teller's flair, with a few recipes scattered throughout to keep the food lovers happy.
I came only belatedly to this excellent book (it was published in 1998), lured perhaps by a hunger for cod inspired by my recent trip to Portugal, where there was at least a taste of bacalhau (salt cod) on just about every dinner table. White, flakey and mild, it's the kind of fish I love, and I couldn't resist trying some as soon as I got home.
OK, I confess: The hard, stick-like chunk of baccalà, the Italian equivalent of bacalhau that I picked up before Christmas, still languishes unused in my fridge.
But fresh cod: That's another story. I picked up a couple of pretty, gleaming white fresh fillets the other day and chose a very simple Mediterranean-style recipe (from Northern Italy) that would showcase the mild flavor of the fish rather than covering it up with veggies and spice.
Meanwhile, Kurlansky's book added a dimension to my enjoyment of the meal. I might have thought that an entire book about cod (which, like tuna, is often called by the somewhat redundant name "codfish") might tell me a little more about cod than I would really want to know. But there's a lot worth knowing about this fish, which as the book's portentious title hints, played a more significant role in world history than most of us likely realize. The early European explorers may have come to the New World in search of gold, or the mysterious East; but they stayed for cod, a product that has had genuine strategic importance in international politics for centuries.
Let Kurlansky tell the tale, though. If you're interested in the book, you can order "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" from Amazon.com in paperback for $10.50, a $3.50 saving, or in hardcover for $15.64, a $7.36 saving. Now that I've discovered this guy, I've ordered his other food-history book, "Salt: A World History." More about that another day.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
2 medium baking potatoes
1. Peel the potatoes and slice them as thin as you can. Put the potatoes in a large pan with plenty of salted water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 4 or 5 minutes. Drain and carefully cover with cold water, taking care to keep the potato slices intact.
2. Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Wipe a small baking pan with a little of the olive oil, and arrange about half of the potatoes on it in neat rows, each slice slightly overlapping the one next to it. Drizzle the potatoes with about 1 tablespoon (15ml) of the olive oil. Arrange the cod fillets on top of the potatoes, sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste, and drizzle on another tablespoon of the olive oil. Arrange the remaining potatoes on top, drizzle with the remaining olive oil and finish with a little more salt and pepper.
3. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the fish is flaky and the potatoes on top start turning crisp and brown.
WINE MATCH: A dry white wine is mandatory, and it had might as well be Mediterranean. I paired it with the Feudi San Gregorio 2004 "Serrocielo" Sannio featured in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor, but the wine was almost too intensely concentrated for this subtle dish. Next time, maybe something dry and crisp but lighter in style - a Soave, maybe, or Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006
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