A few months ago I got an email from a gentleman at Oh! Nuts asking if I’d like to sample some product, and maybe I could write a recipe about it. I was thinking of all kinds of treats to make- ice creams, tarts, etc. But when the package came, I was too busy to do anything with it so I made like a drag queen and tucked the nuts away. Then recently I checked out A16: Food + Wine from the library (yes I know, I’m behind the curve on this book that was much-hyped around Christmas 2008) and saw a recipe for halibut with a pistachio, parsley, and preserved lemon pesto (try saying that three times fast!). It sounded like a perfect summer dish and a great excuse to use some of those pistachios.
Incidentally, can I just dork out for a moment and say how exciting it was to get my first shipment of free swag?? I’ve been offered a couple other things here and there but nothing I would actually use. Free nuts was a major score, as A) I love nuts of all kinds, and B) nuts are freaking expensive! The company sent me pistachios, hazelnuts, and steamed, peeled chestnuts, which I think I’ll save for an autumnal dish. [Can I also say to all the bloggers who are always griping on Twitter about how many PR emails/offers they get, it's a little hard to have pity. Gee, you poor thing, your blog is well-known enough for you to get PR pitches and free stuff all the time. Boo hoo!]
I was really happy about how this recipe turned out, and although I made it with fish, I could easily imagine this pesto-like sauce as an accompaniment to roast chicken or on pasta for a vegan dish. As a side dish, I just drizzled some artichokes with olive oil and lemon and tossed a few olives in for good measure. I picked up a nice bottle of Auratus Alvarinho selected by Jeffrey at Holiday Market that was moderately priced and a great compliment to the food; A16 suggests a Sicilian Carricante if you can find that. As far as a “review” of the nuts, they were perfectly fine, fresh, etc. Of course I always advocate buying local first, but if you can’t find something you need, the Oh!Nuts website is a good alternative.
A note on fish: To find out whether a certain fish is on the endangered/ unsustainable list, check here. Re: substituting fish, Mark Bittman’s book Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking is an excellent resource; for each type of fish, he lists several other species which can be interchanged in recipes.
1 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
2 cups parsley leaves, loosely packed
1 Tbs capers (salt-packed if possible)
½ a preserved lemon, peel only
½ tsp dried chili flakes
½ cup olive oil
sea salt if needed
fresh lemon wedges and additional olive oil for serving
Note: This pesto is best served the day it is made.
Soak the capers and preserved lemon peel in cold water to remove some of the salt. Roughly chop the parsley. Put it in the bowl of a food processor (if you have a smaller-sized bowl, this works best) along with the pistachios, chili flakes and capers (drained and rinsed). Pulse while adding the olive oil in a thin stream, scraping down the sides once or twice, until the pistachios are well-chopped. Alternately, you can make the pesto in a mortar and pestle; you’ll want to chop the parsley more finely for this version. For fish or chicken, I prefer a looser pesto where the nuts are left slightly chunky, but for pasta you could process it a bit more if desired. Finely dice the preserved lemon peel and stir into the pesto; taste for salt (mine did not need any; the capers and preserved lemons were salty enough to season the mixture).
To serve with pasta, simply toss the pesto with 1 lb pasta that has been cooked in well-salted water. Drizzle over a bit more olive oil if desired, and serve with fresh lemon wedges.
Note: The A16 recipe calls for halibut, but at $19 a pound it was a bit out of reach for me so I substituted cod. The cod was thinner but I folded under the thinnest ends to ensure a more even cooking, and adjusted my cooking time downward.
Season the halibut fillets with sea salt at least one hour and up to four hours prior to cooking. Remove from refrigerator ½ hour before cooking to allow to come to room temperature (less time will be needed for thinner fish). Preheat oven to 400°. Drain off any liquid that has accumulated and place the fish in a glass baking dish. Divide the pesto evenly among the fillets, pressing down so it adheres. Place a small amount of water in the bottom of the dish, enough to come about a third of the way up the fish.
Cook for 10-15 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through; this will depend on type and thickness of fish, so keep a close eye on it. (Fish is done when it is just firm to the touch; it will continue to cook for another couple minutes after removed from the oven, so it’s best to err on the side of ever-so-slightly underdone.) Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Taste the braising liquid and drizzle some of this on top if desired. Serve immediately with fresh lemon wedges.
On the surface, Cod is a history book: the history of a particular food source, the evolution of its harvest, and the tangential events that resulted from cod being such a large driving economic force. But in a sense, the story of cod is really the larger story of humankind’s constant attempts to assert their dominion over nature. As such, while reading about cod’s particular story was new to me, the narrative was as old and familiar as a child’s fairytale, albeit with a much more grim conclusion.
Mark Kurlansky starts his fish tale with a vignette of some modern-day fishermen in Petty Harbor, Newfoundland, to give a feel for the current situation (dire, to say the least). He then goes in more or less chronological order from the 10th century, circling back to the fishermen of Petty Harbor towards the end of the book. In between, he discusses the Basques, the Vikings, the slave trade, the American Revolution and both world wars, and many other countries and cultural groups who had their hands in the cod nets.
The book was disappointingly dry for my taste- I had expected more, since it was so highly rated (even winning a James Beard award for best single-subject cookbook). Even though the book is short, it took me a while to get through it. I was most compelled by the last few chapters, which described the current state of the cod stocks and fishing economies. However, it was difficult to read without feeling powerless and frustrated at the lack of foresight and the utter disregard on the part of governments, politicians, and the fishermen themselves. It’s the same old story, whether it be old growth forests, natural gas, or any other consumption of a natural resource- politicians don’t want to make themselves unpopular by placing limits on access and thereby stifling local economies, and workers in these fields are reluctant to give up their livelihoods even when they can see the writing on the wall.
My favorite parts of the book by far were the interludes between chapters and the section at the end of the book describing salt cod recipes from years, decades, and even centuries past. To me, it was fascinating to read about preparations from hundreds of years ago and to try to envision what such dishes would taste like. I’m actually tempted to try to make one of the really old recipes to see how it turns out, but the differences in language are fairly pronounced. Although I can understand the words themselves, the directives for preparing the food seem completely opaque. Still, I get a kick out of reading them and trying to envision their result.
Although I had a little bit of a difficult time making it through this book, I’m glad I read it. It was definitely depressing in the sense that it ended on a pessimistic note, with world fish stocks in crisis, but I suppose that’s the fault of human history rather than the fault of the author. If you’re interested in knowing what species are currently the most overfished, here’s a list. The Greenpeace website also has a lot of good information about marine life and the problem of overfishing.
NB: Originally this post was supposed to be a “Book Club” post, but apparently I was the only one who read the book. However, if you’re interested in checking out the discussion questions I came up with, go here.