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When Americans think about Italian cuisine, we often think about pasta and pizza. But, Italian cuisine is tremendously varied from region to region, and includes roasted and grilled meats, fish and seafood, as well as plentiful use of fresh, seasonal produce. Pasta is most often a primi piatti, or first plate, and just a small portion to whet your appetite. The secondi is the entrée or main dish. The recipe that was the inspiration for this evening’s dinner is by Chef Scott Conant, chef and owner of Scarpetta, a renowned Italian restaurant with five locations.
It is an example of a secondi that one might enjoy in a coastal town in Liguria, Italy, or perhaps in sunny Sicily, where they source fish from three different oceans. The cuisine in Liguria is heavily fish and seafood based, because of the proximity to the Mediterranean Sea.
There is the salt-preserved cod in Italy, known as baccala, but tonight, we have fresh cod. Scarpetta literally means, “little shoe,” or the shape of the bread crust used to soak up every last bit of sauce in a dish, and the concentrated tomato “paint” that is used in this dish to infuse flavor into the cod is just the kind of sauce that you want to scoop up with bread until your plate is clean.
While Chef Conant states in the introduction to this cookbook that recipes are adapted for the home cook, be forewarned: this recipe involves multiple cooking processes, multiple flavoring sauces, and includes some ingredients that you may not be able to source, such as fennel pollen.
This is the reason that, while inspired by the flavor profile, I made adaptations of my own. If you wish to follow the recipe faithfully, I recommend that you prepare the “paint” and the finishing sauce the day prior to final cooking, and that you consider braising the fennel the day prior to the final roasting as well.
The flavor profile in this recipe appealed to me–olive oil, concentrated, almost caramelized sweet tomato flavor, the citrusy flavor of capers, plenty of garlic. I was reminded that this flavor profile is not unlike the prominent flavors found in Provencal cuisine, and thus my choices for the accompanying Brown Rice with vegetables Provencal.
Here is the Menu:
- Black Cod with Concentrated Tomato and Caper Sauce
- Roasted Fennel
- Brown Rice with Vegetables Provencal
- Green Beans with Olive Oil, Garlic and Sundried Tomatoes
Black Cod with Concentrated Tomato-Caper Sauce
- 2 pounds cod fillet, thick and skin on if available (skin on holds the filets together more successfully with this cooking method, although I accomplished it with skinless)
- 3 cups of chopped fresh, ripe tomatoes (Chef Conant’s recipe used canned, drained. I simply had an abundance of ripe Roma tomatoes on hand that appealed to me)
- 1/3 cup diced onion
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 Tablespoons capers, drained, rinsed and chopped
- olive oil
- salt, pepper
- 1 sprig fresh oregano
- 1 teaspoon toasted fennel seeds, ground
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a large stovetop to oven skillet. Heat on medium heat and add the onion. Cook the onion over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browning around the edges. Add the garlic and capers and cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the tomatoes and the oregano. Stir well to combine, and bring to a simmer.
I added about 1/4 cup of white wine at this point as an adjustment, because canned tomatoes in the original recipe would have more liquid even drained than the fresh tomatoes. At this point, the aroma is so appealing–garlic, the citrusy notes of the capers, fresh tomatoes releasing their fragrance from the heat.
Place the skillet in the oven, and roast for 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. This process produces a very thick, concentrated chunky mixture that you will process in your blender or food processer until smooth. Toast the fennel seeds in a small skillet over medium heat just for 3-5 minutes until they are fragrant. Then, grind in a spice grinder.
The final touch is the addition of the toasted, ground fennel seeds. Set it aside, and resist dipping into it!
When your other dishes are prepared and ready to serve, cook the fish. Place 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large stovetop to oven skillet, and heat on medium-high heat. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Add the fish to the skillet, skin side down. Salt the top side and paint the tomato sauce on with a pastry brush, painting top and sides. Place the skillet in the oven from approximately 8 minutes. Remove the skillet to stovetop and flip the filets gently. Paint the top side and return to the oven for 4 minutes.
For plating, I plated the Roasted Fennel slices first, then placed the fish partially on top of the fennel, and garnished with finely chopped fennel fronds.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F
Roasting time 45 minutes
1 large bulb of fennel, sliced horizontally in 1/3 inch slices, reserving the fronds. Toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until caramelized. Chef Conant’s recipe called for braising the fennel, and then draining it and roasting it.
I will try that on another day, as I understand that braised fennel is delicious, but I simply needed to streamline some of my steps to a completed dinner this evening.