Cod with Butter Beans
Serving a nice piece of white fish with some beans is a very northern Spanish thing to do. That’s why this recipe has always appealed to me - the food of northern Spain is fantastic. And this is a recipe of Rick Stein’s - it comes from one of my favourite cookbooks of all time, “Rick Stein’s Food Heroes”.
Now, it is widely known that the Spanish love their merluza - hake. But I didn’t know that aged 13 when merluza appeared on my Spanish vocab list. I didn’t even know what hake was then! I'd never heard of it, but my mother tells me that when she was being brought up hake was a common fish, as were haddock and halibut. All of these are to some extent a subject of concern in present days.
We don’t get hake on the market stall, it is fished widely further west, notably in Cornwall. And according to the article linked below somewhere around 80% of what is caught is exported to Europe, especially Spain (the article is 3 years old but I'd be surprised if there's been a significant change). You eat fantastic hake dishes in Cornwall and it is proudly available in fishmongers in the UK. But you see very little of it in supermarkets or fish and chip shops - silly, really. And meanwhile the health of cod stocks is ever in the news. Thankfully, the cod we find on the market stall are fished in a sustainable way, so it is with a clear conscience that I have replaced the hake in Rick Stein’s recipe with cod. I see no reason at all why a nice pollack fillet wouldn’t be anything but superb either.
Every now and then I really fancy a piece of white fish such as cod, pollack, hake or haddock and, because of my experience of Spanish cuisine, I'm often tempted to cook it simply and serve it with a sort of warm bean salad. That's really all that's going on here and hence why, as a recipe, it has resonated with me to such an extent. A thick fillet of fish is quite a delight to eat but it can be a touch tricky to cook well because of the challenge of achieving a not-undercooked centre without an overcooked exterior. Poaching is an excellent way forward because it's such a gentle and moist cooking technique.
I am happy to enter the debate about dried versus tinned beans. I believe each has its merits and each has its place. Where I think the call has to be made is with the question of which is the focal ingredient. You simply can't infuse aromatics into tinned beans before they fall apart, but neither can you get dried beans edible in less than a few hours. Whereas, in Alubias Blancas Con Almejas, I would certainly recommend the use of dried beans, here I think, for the sake of achievability, tinned beans are absolutely fine.
In its entirety this is a more stunning dish than any individual component in its make-up. The "Sauce Verte" that Mr Stein has advocated as the third part of the trio is nothing short of genius. It's essentially a "mayonnaise aux fines herbes" - but I've made my case about the lack of availability of chervil before (see Crab Omelette aux Fines Herbes). If you can get hold of it then I hope you give this sauce a go, but if not you can omit it from the recipe. As an alternative (though I haven't tried it), I am very confident a Spanish sauce that could be described as a garlic mayonnaise would be a slightly simpler, but equally successful garnish. I've put in the Notes a recipe for this "All-I-Oli" from a book I am proud to have in my possession, "El libro de la paella y de los arroces", which was given to me by a dear friend and superb home cook I know in Spain.
The key to making this a simple affair is prep. Make the court bouillon in advance, you can always top it up with a little bit of water. And make your sauce in advance. Whichever you choose, they won't keep indefinitely but the All-I-Oli will certainly be fine a day or so after it's made and the Sauce Verte will happily survive a few hours.
Cod with Butter Beans
Ingredients (serves 2)
2 x 175g cod fillets, skin-on
1 x 400g tin of butter beans, drained
1 tomato, deseeded and finely diced
½ mild chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (or quantity to taste)
2 tsp finely chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
1 litre court bouillon (see Note)
Prepare the court bouillon and your choice of sauce ahead of time. Allow the fish pieces to come to room temperature in readiness for cooking.
For the bean "salad", heat a little olive oil in a saucepan and gently warm the chilli, tomato, beans and some seasoning. Stir in the chopped parsley and keep warm aside.
Bring the court bouillon to the boil in a sauté pan or deep frying pan. You need a depth sufficient enough that the fish fillets will be just submerged. Put the fish fillets in the court bouillon and lower the heat to the point that the liquid is at a bare tremble. Cook for 5 minutes.
Carefully remove the fish from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Spoon some of the bean "salad" onto a plate and lay the fish over. Add your chosen sauce and drizzle the whole plate with a little extra virgin olive oil.
Court Bouillon: This is just a lightly aromatic, slightly acidulated liquor in which to poach fish, and there isn't any one single recipe for it. As a suggestion, put 1 litre of water in a saucepan with a bay leaf, a sliced shallot, a few black peppercorns, a slice of lemon and the juice of half a lemon, or equivalent quantity of white wine. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for about 20 minutes. The court bouillon is then ready in which to poach your fish.
Sauce Verte: For two portions, blanch 3-4g each of parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives with 6g watercress and 6g baby spinach. Refresh under cold running water and drain well on a tea towel. Put the blanched leaves in a blender with half an egg yolk, ½ tsp Dijon mustard, 1 tsp lemon juice and a pinch of crushed garlic. Blitz until fine then, with the motor running, drizzle about 80ml light olive oil into the sauce to create a mayonnaise-type consistency.
All-I-Oli: Put 2 or 3 garlic cloves and a pinch of salt in a mortar and crush with a pestle until creamy. Incorporate 1 egg yolk and then drizzle in a very thin stream of extra virgin olive oil, whisking continuously, until you have a consistency similar to mayonnaise. Check for salt and adjust to taste adding a little squeeze of lemon juice if you like.
"Rick Stein's Food Heroes", Rick Stein (2002), pp. 57: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Food-Heroes-Stein/dp/0563534745
"El libro de la paella y de los arroces", Lourdes March (1985), 6th Edition (2005), pp. 109: https://www.amazon.co.uk/El-libro-paella-los-arroces/dp/8491047549
"December, Seasonal Seafood of the Month - Hake", thecornishfishmonger.co.uk, accessed 10 February 2020: https://thecornishfishmonger.co.uk/whats-in-season/fish-in-december/
Crab Omelette "aux Fine Herbes": https://www.butestseafoodie.com/post/crab-omelette-aux-fines-herbes
Alubias Blancas Con Almejas: https://www.butestseafoodie.com/post/alubias-blancas-con-almejas-white-beans-with-clams