Cabillaud et Pipérade
If you followed along with parts 1 and 2, you would know that poaching the cod in oil is the last step to complete this dish. While it sounds like a fancy technique and I was admittedly intimidated by the instructions at first, it turned out to be a practical and delicious method to cook fish that I will utilize again.
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground white pepper (substituted with black pepper)
a head of garlic cut horizontally
minced Italian parsley
Fleur de sel
Since I spent so much effort on making the Soffritto and Piperade, I decided to invite some friends over to try this dish. I bought four pieces of skinned cod fillet and cut them into individual portions. Keller explains that any neutral, lean, and delicate fish will work with this application.
The big question now is how much olive oil to use. Keller suggests putting the fish in a pot and adding enough olive to cover them by 1/2 inch and then removing them and patting them dry. Since I can be clumsy and did not want to drip oil all over the kitchen or deal with an oily baking tray, I covered the fish with water instead, removed the fish and measured the amount of water left. I added the same amount of oil into the pot and patted the fish dry. I seasoned the fish with salt and pepper. Initially, I wondered whether the salt and pepper would dissipate in the oil but it turns out the flavor really penetrates the fish and it is a step that cannot be skipped.
While the fish soaked up the s&p goodness, I added the sprigs of thyme and the two halves of the head of garlic into the oil as the temperature reached 140°F. Then, the pot was removed from the heat and the aromatics were left to infuse the oil for half an hour. So far, easy enough.
Then my tummy churned at the thought of poaching such delicate fish in the oil. What if I cannot keep the temperature constant? I knew oil heats up much quicker than water and so I would have less control over it. What if the fish doesn’t cook through? How can I be sure it’s done? But before I knew it, it was time for the fish to go for a swim.
Keller instructs to poach the fish at around 120°F for 12 to 14 minutes. I decided to place the thickest pieces on the bottom and the thinnest on top so I can “fish” (hehe) them out as they finish cooking. He says that the oil should just feel warm and I should be able to keep my finger in it for 10 seconds. This created a battle between my mind, my finger, and the oil. It’s been said that in aviation training, pilots are told to trust their gauge no matter what. Not their eyes, not their partners, but the gauge. In the same way, I knew I should trust my thermometer but the oil just felt too cool for me to imagine that fish can cook at such tepid temperature. In fact, at 120°F, I could keep my finger in the oil practically forever. See, there are no pictures of the fish actually poaching because I was too busy sticking my finger in the oil and counting. Nevertheless, I skeptically obeyed, set the timer and monitored the oil temperature.
In the mean time, I simmered the prepared Piperade with all its juices and the chicken stock in a saucepan until the fish was ready.
I checked back at my fish and to my amazement, they did turn opaque as promised! I broke off a little piece and it was in deed cooked and was very tender and succulent. I would even describe it as buttery. I knew I had a winner!
I mixed the minced Italian parsley into the juicy and sweet pepper stew and divided it among four bowls. I gingerly retrieved each piece of cod from the oil bath and patted them dry with paper towels. I handled them with more gentleness than if I were bathing newborn babies.
To plate, the fish was placed on top of the sweet peppers stew, Fleur de sel was sprinkled on top, and some olive oil was drizzled over.
I did make one booboo. Keller was very specific about which side of the fish should face upwards at plating. Since the skin side is slightly pinkish, it should face downwards so the diners can only see the gleaming white side. That did not occur to me because I was hurrying to get the plates out before the fish cooled too much. A detail to bear in mind.
The fish turned out extremely delicate and moist and the salt and pepper really infused the mild flesh. (Slap on the wrist for not having white pepper on hand.) Disappointingly, I did not taste much of the garlic or thyme, perhaps because their flavors were masked by the fragrance of the extra virgin olive oil. I would definitely poach fish in oil again but would omit the Fleur de sel next time. It wasn’t necessary and the crunch did not combine well with the dish’s tender texture.
A major concern I had was the amount of good olive oil I would “waste” on this application. All in all, I used just shy of three cups of oil and afterwards, I strained the oil through two coffee filters and stored it in the fridge for future fish poaching.
The mildness of the fish paired well with the spicy and sweet Piperade stew. If it weren’t for the chillies and the Soffritto, the dish might have been too mild. However, I probably won’t go through the 4+ hours process just to make this stew again unless I intend on making a huge batch of Soffritto. I would still roast the sweet peppers but would simply finish it off with some sauteed garlic, onion, hot pepper flakes, some Chipotle peppers, and the chicken stock.
Nevertheless, this was a great learning experience and my friends enjoyed a good meal. Since I was serving three hungry boys, this dish alone was not enough. To accompany the cod, I made a super simple rice side-dish that cooked itself while I concentrated on my tasks at hand. I will share the recipe with you in the next post.