Even before Covid-Cooking Time, I for years stocked the garage freezer with everything from extra baguettes to whole chickens to cookies to quarts of chili and chicken broth. Pork chops found on a great sale were purchased in quantity and leftovers suitable for quick lunches had a home. Nights when I was too tired to cook meant I tossed a couple of quarts of stew under the stream of a hot kitchen faucet for few minutes, popped them out into a 4-quart pot, covered them, and set them over low heat until they bubbled up dinner. A frozen half baguette heated beautifully in about 20 minutes in the oven at the same time.
I did, though, buy my fish fresh and cook it that day for the most part, but not absolutely always. Fresh being a somewhat stretchy term in the state of Colorado — or anywhere away from the coasts. “Previously frozen” was often part of the label and, if it wasn’t, it sometimes should have been. (This is true for chicken, too.) Some seafood, like shrimp, were bought frozen because the shrimp in the seafood case had obviously just come out of an icy bag from the frozen section anyway, so… But shopping less and in larger quantities starting around 1 March, had me snagging bags of salmon and cod fillets out the frozen bins a lot more often than before. At first they sat a while until one day I finally thought, “What the h __ __ __, let’s go for it.”
I began to think ahead and put two fillets in the fridge at night and, if I didn’t, I simply thawed them in a half-hour or so in a pan of cold water weighed down with a small cast iron saucepan full of water — or even a brick.
I like fish, because I grew up with it and learned how to clean a bluegill at age 8, but know everyone doesn’t feel the same way. Often, if I listen to my students, fish feels a little scary. Folks don’t know how to cook it or even buy it. I mean there are scales and fins and sometimes the heads are on. And there are bones. Ewwww. Maybe Mom made fish sticks, bought fish sandwiches out on Friday nights come spring, and snagged a pound or two of already-cooked shrimp for holidays. If you grew up somewhere in the center of the country and no one fished in the lake over in the next county or state on weekends, you might have been fish-out-of-luck. But today, when one of the few things we really have control over is our diet and increasing our health (a common theme, I know), we can cook up an easy fish dish faster than we can order pizza. Fish is the original fast food. Ok, I’ve said all that before. For the most part, unless you choose otherwise, someone else has scaled, gutted, headed, and filleted your fish so that it’s no more difficult to cook than a boneless chicken breast. Well, actually, it’s pretty hard to cook a boneless chicken breast well, but I digress. A nice fish fillet dinner can entail no more than sautéing the fish for a few minutes on each side in salted butter, scooping them up on top of a nice salad or a bowl of rice with parsley, and squeezing a lemon over it all. The biggest deal is not to over cook it and, well, yeah; that takes a bit of practice.
It should be just firm, opaque (milky white), and still juicy, though flaking, when it’s done. Better to under cook a tad as the ambient heat from cooking will often finish it off as it rests. FDA says fish should register145 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant thermometer for food safety.
TIP: Don’t walk away or even look at your phone while filleted fish is in the pan or on the grill.
How do I know when my fish is done?
Before our garden and deck pots waned away through an early snowfall, I had used both arugula and basil for a pesto that could have gone onto a lot of things — pasta, grilled vegetables, roasted chicken, gnocchi — but fish got in my mind and fish it was. Frozen cod fillets right out of my freezer, individually cryovaced were the quick choice. You do still have to get them out of that plastic and onto a covered plate in the fridge overnight or into a sealable freezer bag for thawing in water, but it’s done in two shakes of stick. This is a serious food safety issue, so don’t ignore those instructions on the package, though they might seem odd. I mean, why take something out of one plastic only to put it in another? You must, though, because of bacteria that can cause botulism. Read below:
If you’re lucky enough to live near the sea, or even if you don’t, you can buy any mild white fish to make my fast, yummy and filling dinner. The rule of thumb is to cook fish 10 minutes for every inch of thickness, turning halfway through the cooking time. That might help should you decide to grab thicker snapper or even catfish, both of which would work. Whatever you buy, try this:
cod with arugula-basil pesto
- ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup arugula leaves, sliced
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced, plus 4 extra sprigs for garnish at serving time
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup toasted chopped walnuts
- 1 cup a little over 3 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (can sub with pecorino Romano or other hard, grateable cheese)
- Good pinch EACH: kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- Pinch ground cayenne
- 4 6- ounce cod fillets—can sub other mild white fish such as tilapia, grouper, halibut, etc.
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ fresh lemon
- PREPARATION: Preheat oven to 150 degrees F and place 4 dinner plates on middle rack for warming.
- MAKE THE PESTO: Pour half of the oil, the arugula, basil, garlic, and walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with an s-blade. Pulse until well-blended and thick. Drizzle in the remainder of the oil, pulsing until totally blended. Sprinkle in a good pinch each of salt and pepper. Taste and re-season, adding a little more garlic, cheese, salt, pepper as needed. Set aside. (Better if made the same day, but can be made a day ahead, poured into a jar, covered with a layer of olive oil, sealed tightly, and stored in the fridge.)
- COOK THE COD: Pat the fish dry with paper or cloth towel. Sprinkle with salt and peppers on both sides, patting in spices. Heat a large, deep heavy skillet (I like a 12-inch non-stick sauté pan.) over medium-high heat for a minute or two. Pour in the oil, swirl to cover the bottom of the pan, and let heat another minute or so. Carefully add the seasoned fillets and cook on one side until golden brown. Turn and cook the other side until the fish is opaque and flaky—a total of 8-10 minutes.
- SERVING: Place cod on warm plates, squeeze a little lemon over them, and spoon the reserved pesto over each fillet. Garnish with a sprig of fresh basil.
If you liked this, you might like my:
MORE INFO THAN YOU WANTED:
LIFE GOES ON:
Be patient, take time to breathe, walk lots, listen to music you love, call friends and family, read books that comfort or teach you, pray for the health and peace of our world, and cook some fish!
As I write, I’m listening to James Taylor’s newest album, AMERICAN STANDARD in which one of America’s favorite singer-songwriters has finally gotten around to recording tunes like, “Blue Heaven,” “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” “Moon River,” and so on…but also one of my very favorite standards, “The Nearness of you,” by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington. If you need something happily comforting that you might also sing along to, buy James.
Thanks for reading and keeping me company in my kitchen. It means a lot to me!
No fireplace? You tube has you covered. Still smoky and warm here. I’ve never seen October so warm.