It’s really annoying when fish you get at the supermarket isn’t as fresh as advertised. Take yesterday. I’ve spent a lot of time scoping out each market’s way of doing things—the Co-op’s dependable, but they don’t mark their package date so you have to figure out how fresh the stuff is by the sell by date…but the butchers there are terrifically helpful when you ask. The cheap/good market could care less about its fish counter, so unless I see something I know is a deal, I don’t bother about them. But the one fish counter I thought I had learned to trust was the Upscale Market. Upscale Markets, in my experience, frequently have the best deals hidden in the midst of the rest of their overpriced/underripe/extravagant luxuries inventory. They’re the ones who get the best cheap imported pasta from their distributor. They’re the ones who have the best markdown when you buy a case of wine (15%, as a matter of fact). They’re the ones who mark their slightly browning organic rib steaks down the farthest.
So they’re always on my shopping radar. I stop in there now and then to see what I can find. (Also, because they’re upscale, the bottle return area is never as jammed and filthy as at the other stores. A shopping hint.)
And lo! My patience with them was apparently rewarded. One day I was in there, looking at a pile of wild red snapper, all of which had been packed about, oh, a week ago. So I rang the little bell. And the nice man who came out, when I timidly asked if he had any snapper packed that day—his eyes lit up. He asked exactly how much I wanted, and when he brought out the package, it was cheaper than the stuff in the case. “Just went on sale,” he said, evading my look, and apparently going back to work. But I could see him watching me out of the corner of his eye.
He was happy. I knew he was happy. I was SURE he was happy to finally have a customer who actually NOTICED HOW FRESH THE FISH WAS.
Subsequent trips proved me right. His eyes began to light up just seeing me approach the counter. He has given me the freshest snapper, the freshest salmon, the freshest tuna, the freshest halibut that was in the store that day. (We’re inland, so we’re not talking sushi fresh. But the best I can get, anyway.) And, as a lagniappe, he’s also cut down enormous pieces of skirt steak to just enough for a dinner for one. More, he always looks happy to do it.
So I should have known better when I went in yesterday, and he was nowhere to be found. There were stacks and stacks of packages of all kinds of fish: snapper, salmon, halibut, flounder, sole…and all of it packed the day before, or, worse, DAYS before.
Only the cod was packed that day.
When I rang the bell, at first no one came. That should have warned me too. So I went away and came back and rang it again. A rather harried woman answered. And said, when I asked if she’d packed anything that day, “No, it was all yesterday.” Pause. “Is there anything else you need?”
No, I said, beating a hasty retreat. No, nothing at all. I grabbed the package of cod on the way out.
I should have known better. I really should have known. It might have been packed that day. But it had been sitting around there for at least a day longer, and she doubtless just got around to packing it that morning.
My guy never would have done that.
I should have known. At almost ten dollars a pound, I REALLY should have known.
But we have to live with reality. I’m a half hour away from the store. I can’t just run back and return it. The stuff’s not bad, just not as fresh as it should be. Which means, when I open the package at the dinner preparation hour that night, and get a whiff of cod where none should be, I give a sigh and rethink my dinner plans.
No point in just grilling it. Better to tart it up with something. So I sighed again, spread the fillet out, shook some coarse salt on both sides, and popped it back in the fridge. The salt, I figured, would firm it up and give it a better flavor.
I then gave the Beloved Husband a choice: Jamaican codfish stew, with chiles and coconut milk and cilantro? His eyes lit up. Then I said: Cod and Potato Pie. And his eyes (predictably, given that the potato is his ur-food) REALLY lit up.
So Cod and Potato Pie it was. Which in French is Cabillaud au Gratin. And the very refined recipe I have for it in a lovely book called The Art of Simple French Cooking calls for celery salt, and using a sieve to push the potatoes through, and scalding the milk that goes into them…and a couple of other things I either didn’t have, or didn’t plan on doing.
No matter. Our cod and potato pie was delicious. Easy, too, relatively speaking (once I got rid of that sieve and that scalding anyway).
And—very important—not many dishes dirtied in the making of this pie! Very important.
First I made a court bouillon to use for cooking the potatoes and then the cod. This is far easier than the name makes it sound. I threw, in a saucepan, a broken carrot, a broken up piece of celery, the insides of a garlic bulb (about six small cloves stuck together), some peppercorns, a bay leaf, a parsley stem, a sprig of thyme. Brought to a boil and simmered it till it smelled nice.
Then I peeled and chunked a pound of potatoes. Put them in the court bouillon, brought it back to a boil, turned it down.
In a heatproof mixing bowl, I stirred ¼ cup of milk, 2 tablespoons of butter, a bunch of chopped parsley, and a couple of cloves of minced garlic. Pepper. No salt. There’d be enough with the cod soon enough.
Preheated oven to 400 degrees. Put the heatproof bowl in the oven until the butter melted and the milk was warmed.
Took it out. When the potatoes were done, I scooped them out (leaving all that nice bouillon behind) and into the mixing bowl. Also scooped out the garlic bulb, popped the cloves from their skins, and added them. Mashed away with a potato masher, adding a little of the bouillon to get a nice texture.
In the rest of the bouillon, I added about 2/3 of a pound of cod, salt shaken off (not too severely), cut into pieces to fit the pan. Just brought it to where the heat shimmered on the top of the broth, and cooked till it flaked (about eight minutes, more or less). Then I scooped out the fish, chunked it up with my fingers, removing any bones, and tossed it in with the potatoes.
(I SAVED THE BROTH. Just clapped a lid on the pan and put it in the fridge. It’ll make a terrific veggie soup later in the week, all I have to do is add diced potato and carrot and celery and a chopped onion, and then…)
I stirred all this together, then decanted it into a casserole dish. (I forgot to butter the dish first. I ALWAYS forget to butter the dish first. And for the life of me, I can’t really see that it makes that much difference one way or another…)
The top of the dish, I spread with bread crumbs, which I made by crumbling a piece of New Sammy’s sourdough bread. Then I dotted the whole with butter. And popped back into the 400 degree oven until the house smelled wonderful (about fifteen minutes, give or take five or ten).
We had this with corn on the cob, and a tomato and marjoram salad (thanks, Paul, for the tomatoes). And it was just great.
Although it would have been even greater if the fish had been absolutely fresh.
But when you’ve got lemons, as long as they’re not utterly past the due date, make cod and fish pie. Or something like that…
And I’m afraid I consider it my duty as a citizen to tell the Upscale Market that they have to pay more attention when they pack their damn fish…