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.
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.
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.
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.
adapted from Avec Eric
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
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.