Thursday, December 3, 2015

Baked Cod with Tomato and Preserved Lemon

The first time I served this dish was at a 5-course meal to a group of at least 20 distinguished guests at a very formal, fine-china, best-linens kind of event. I was young and had never served a group that size before but thankfully the food was a great success. My friend helped me plate and serve each dish, and it all went off without a hitch except when the sauce from the extra plate of scallops (one guest was allergic to fish) poured off the little platter I was holding right into the lap of the guest of honor. I was mortified, but he was most gracious about it, and made a special point to say how much he enjoyed the scallops, sauteed in this same sauce. I may need to revisit that scallop version again soon. 

Baked fish for a group is challenging. I use this recipe to serve as many as 30 on a regular basis and have always had it turn out delicious with many rave reviews. The cod releases a lot of water as it bakes, so to maintain appreciable flavor as much water as possible must be reduced from the tomato mixture before applying it to the fish. The sauce can be made the night before, or even days before, but don't top the fish until just before cooking; fish proteins are delicate and the tomato acids could potentially cause them to breakdown and get mushy if left to marinate too long. 
Fish prior to cooking, note the red sauce is very thick.
My husband got the idea to make preserved lemon over a year ago. He read Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and cut up some lemons, shoved them into salt and put them on top of my refrigerator. A few months later I found them and when confronted about what this gross pot of yellow yuck was, he said just to throw them out, that he wasn't sure what to do next (and honestly they looked kind of gross.) So I dug the book out and looked up some recipes and decided I would give it try and I'm sure glad I did!  I add them to almost everything that calls for lemon (like the spanikopita shown above.) If you want to learn more, Ruhlman has a blog post on preserved lemon confit, but feel free to substitute 1-2 tsp of finely grated lemon peel and finish the sauce with a bit more fresh squeezed, if preserved lemon is not a kitchen staple at your house. 

I have always served this with yellow rice, seasoned with whatever I have on hand (like saffron when I have it), but this batch was particularly tasty with preserved lemon, turmeric, smoked paprika, and a bit of bullion in the water.  I keep it subtle, no reason to overpower the flavors of the fish, only compliment. Spanikopita is almost always an accompaniment too, I can never get enough spinach. 

Baked Cod with Tomato and Preserved Lemon
2 14 oz cans petite diced tomato
1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic
2 large shallots or 1 small red onion, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon Better Than Bouillon, No Chicken Base (or bouillon of your choice)
8 oz clam juice
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon preserved lemon, mashed (or 1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated)
3 lbs cod fillets, thawed but kept very cold

1/2 cup mayonnaise (I use Just Mayo)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup dry white wine
juice of one lemon, to taste
salt and pepper

Drain and reserve the liquid from the tomatoes. Saute the garlic and shallot in the olive oil over medium heat in a large nonstick skillet. Add the wine, bouillon, reserved tomato liquid, and clam juice and bring to a simmer to reduce and concentrate all the flavors until the sauce is thick enough that a spoon leaves a path when drawn across the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and add oregano, white pepper, and lemon. Taste for salt, the mixture should be very salty. Toss with the drained tomatoes.

Heat oven to 350-degrees. Oil a 9x13 baking dish and arrange the cod so that the fillets are touching. Layer the thin ends if they are varied thicknesses. Spread the tomato mixture evenly across the top of the fish and bake for approximately 20 minutes. The fish is done when it is flaky. Turn off the oven.

Prepare the fish 'gravy' ingredients while the fish is cooking by mixing the mayo, cornstarch and wine together in a small bowl. Juice the lemon.

Carefully remove the fish to a serving try, keeping the tomato topping intact. Place the fish back in the warm oven. Drain the remaining liquid into the nonstick skillet and bring to a boil. This mixture should be reduced further if the recipe is doubled, but a minute or so on the boil is enough reduction for a single recipe; reduce heat to medium. Wisk in the mayo mixture and allow the sauce to thicken. Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste.

Just prior to serving, add any remaining juice from the serving tray to the sauce and whisk to combine. Pour over the fish and serve immediately. Garnish with chopped parsley.
This dish is very forgiving. If cooking for a very large group, I simply tip the cooking juices out of the pan and reduce to make the gravy and pour back over the top of the fish in the original baking dish. 

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