Okay, here were the parameters:
I’d been to the market. Actually, I’d been to TWO markets…no, make that three if you count the new, helpless looking Asian market in the undertenanted mall by the freeway…so I had lots and lots of stuff to choose from for dinner. Great looking cod, a nice fillet of it just big enough for two. A huge bouquet of chard with green stems. A bag of recently dug Oregon potatoes with papery skins. Among others.
However, the day had not only consisted of those three markets, but also of a mall visit to Macy’s, an ineffective attempt to find a pair of jeans at the Gap, a semi-annual t shirt and sock buying trip to Target (I don’t even bother trying anything on; I just throw all the small black t-shirts on sale into a cart twice a year; that’s my seasonal fashion shopping), a half hour swim at the Y, a bento box lunch, discovery of flat tire, fixing of flat tire, visit to post office, and a double header at the dentist involving semi-annual cleaning and preventative cavity filling (complete with mouth distorting novocaine, very nasty).
I was tired.
I was very tired.
And yet, when I thought about my usual “I am tired but I have a nice fresh piece of fish from the market” choices I felt that kind of unutterable boredom that one gets, from time to time, when confronted with one’s own default settings.
In other words, I just didn’t want another piece of griddled fish atop some brown rice with asparagus and/or salad and/or avocado and/or buttered peas on the side. No. Please. Anything but that.
(And yet the aforementioned is one of my favorite dinners. Usually. Which just goes to show you have to pay attention or fall slowly into a slough of non enjoyment, which is almost a sinful slough, considering how much there is to enjoy if we just think about it.)
I poured myself a glass of wine and went to sit in my big chair by the fire with a stack of cookbooks. But everything I looked at just made me depressed and not hungry and even more tired. (It gets like that if you try to do too many errands in one day in the hopes of getting them all out of the way.) There was this one rather exotic recipe for Jamaican codfish curry that involved coconut milk and a bunch of other odd ingredients that I just happened to have, but when I mentioned it to the Beloved Husband he looked at me blankly before saying, “I’m sure anything you want to make will be great.”
Which was not the answer I was waiting for.
And also, I thought petulantly, I’ll have to clean the cilantro tonight if I do that.
I took another sip of wine.
Now this is what I do when I get into a cul de sac of this sort. I just sort of sit and stare into space. And while I’m sitting and staring into space, I try to pay attention to what’s going on inside me. And I ask whoever is in there (and there are a LOT of inhabitants of that space; try looking inside if you dare; I bet you discover whole circuses having a time completely independently of whatever you thought YOU were doing): “What do you feel most like eating? What sounds good to you tonight?”
Back came the plaintive answer: “Hollandaise. I want some hollandaise sauce. Butter and egg and lemon and tabasco, please. And don’t make a palaver about cooking it, either.”
This really shouldn’t have been startling given that whenever my body is tired out, it always seems to crave full fat. And lemon. For some reason it perks right up at lemon.
Also, I remembered, I learned years ago (from M.F.K. Fisher, of course) how to make a gentle hollandaise without much fuss and with minimal clean up needs.
This is how:
While you’re cooking the rest of your dinner, put a pan with water on top of a flame tamer and heat it to just below boiling. Then, for each person, take a pyrex custard cup, and cut a scant 1/4 cup of butter into each. Put in the water and let the butter melt. When it has melted, turn off the heat. Add the freshest egg yolk you can find, one to each cup, and stir with a pretty spoon (this whole recipe is an exercise in gentle aesthetics, I feel). Then, keeping an eye on that water (you never want it to get close to boiling), turn on the flame to the lowest setting. Every so often, give the contents of the cups a stir. If they thicken too fast, you’ve got the heat up too high; turn it off. If they thicken too slowly, just leave the heat on…but watch the contents of the cups to make sure the egg doesn’t scramble. The idea here is to gradually meld the egg to the melted butter and thicken it like a sauce. You should be able to dip your finger in the water around the cups at all times, though it should be warm to hot all the time, too.
Then when the sauce thickens, add squeezes of fresh lemon, drops of tabasco/hot sauce, a bit of salt to each cup. Stir and taste. When it’s thick enough, you can just let it sit in the water until dinner time, heat turned off. Just pull out the cups, wipe the water off the bottoms, and put them on the plate for each diner to use whatever way she/he wills.
In this case, my custard cups went on a plate with baked potatoes. And chard leaves washed, shaken, and braised in a covered skillet with a teaspoon of olive oil, a sliced garlic clove, a crumbled red pepper, and some salt. After stirring them around, I just clamped the lid on them and let them simmer till done, then squeezed lemon all over and left it to be eaten as a warm salad.
For which, the main course was a perfectly smashing, simple, terrific cod cooked in foil with no oil. (I really felt that hollandaise was enough fat for the whole meal; the teaspoon of oil in the chard was kind of cheating.)
This was how.
When I stuck the potatoes in to bake, I stretched the cod out on a plate and shook some coarse salt on each side of it to firm and flavor it. Back into the fridge until about fifteen minutes before dinner.
Meanwhile, I made sure the oven was at 400 degrees (which since the potatoes were already in there baking was a cinch). Put a baking sheet in to heat up. Then I took two big pieces of aluminum foil, and then I made thin slices of half a lemon. Thin shreds of some green onions. Minced a garlic clove. Chopped a handful of parsley.
I spread half the lemon slices on the two pieces of foil. This was instead of oil, to keep the fish from sticking. Just lay the fillets on top of the slices.
Then the fish came out of the fridge. A quick rinse, though I didn’t bother to pat dry, seeing as how they were going to steam anyway. Cut into serving size pieces. Divided the pieces onto the two lemoned up pieces of foil. Scattered the other ingredients on top (the other thin slices of lemon, the green onions, the garlic, the parsley), half on one serving, half on the other. Folded the foil over to make neat little packets.
And put the packets into the oven, onto the baking sheet.
Set the timer for fifteen minutes.
Checked on my hollandaise sauce. It wasn’t thick enough yet…I’d been very conservative about the heat, since I was spending a lot of the time it was on the stove sitting belligerently by the fire. But a glass of wine later, and the prospect of a dinner I really wanted to eat, and my mood had mellowed. Now I was ready to fuss about the sauce. So I turned the heat on under it, gave it another stir, set the table, filled the water jug, cleaned a knife or two…all the while keeping a sharp eye on that sauce. When it was as thick as I wanted, I turned off the heat and gave the sauces another stir.
Then out came the packets of cod.
You can just put the foil packets on people’s plates, though I would recommend, if you follow that route, that you have a plate available to put the foil wrappers on, and that all you have sharing the plate with the fish is a lone wedge of lemon and some nice starchy thing to soak up the juice. (Rice? Mashed potatoes? Pureed garbanzos, anyone?) There’s going to be juice. And it’s delicious, too.
But with baked potatoes, I didn’t want any juice. So I carefully poured the juice off each packet into a bowl, to use as a soup base for lunch the next day (chopped onion wilted in butter, one diced carrot, sliced chard stems, cooked with the juice and some veggie broth, then pureed, nutmegged, salted, peppered, and a few tablespoons of cream added…chopped parsley on top, served with toast. Delicious.).
Just put the cod on the plates with their now melted robe of lemon slices/green onion/parsley/garlic. Nestle them up next to the custard cup with an individual serving of hollandaise sauce, and the chard salad. Distribute baked potatoes at will. And serve.
And be happy. Well. That’s the important part of the recipe, after all.