My wife, Jackie, adores pasta with clams. I love cooking that dish but dare not eat it because anything more than two or three clams (or oysters or mussels for that matter) has deleterious effects on my digestive system.
So when she has linguine alle vongole, I use some of the same ingredients to make something a little different for myself. The other day that “something a little different” was so nice, and used such a useful technique, that I thought it deserved a mention of its own.
My plan for Jackie’s clam pasta was to include some shallots, peppers (sweet and hot) and tomato along with the inevitable garlic and parsley. Having bought her clams, I stood contemplating the non-clam options at the farmers market fish stand. I spied a nice fillet of cod and remembered a wonderful first course of pasta that I had during a recent trip to London at our friend Angela Hartnett’s restaurant, Murano. Its main feature was flakes of that fish — perhaps a surprising thing in a bowl of Italianate noodles, but really delicious.
Angela’s cod had a nice, firm texture, and this was because it had been briefly salted before cooking, a sort of quick baccala that is easily emulated at home.
So, emulate I did. Well in advance, I trimmed the 6-ounce portion of fish and removed all remaining bones, then patted it dry and sprinkled it generously with kosher salt on all sides. I left it in the fridge, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, then rinsed, dried and refrigerated it until it was needed. (Some cooks limit the salting to 20, or even 10 minutes, and you may wish to try that; I find that the longer “cure” yields a more distinctive texture and a little more flavor.)
In the meantime, I sweated three big shallots, finely sliced, in olive oil, then added salt, a little fresh thyme, thin slivers of sweet red pepper and about a third of a jalapeno, previously tasted for heat level and also slivered. (Some hot pepper flakes would have been a good substitute.) A minute or two later, I added a small late-season tomato, peeled and thinly sliced, and cooked everything over low heat for another couple of minutes. I set the mixture aside to cool.
When it was dinner time and the pasta water had come to the boil, I reheated half of the vegetable mixture (the other half was for Jackie’s clam sauce), added a quarter cup white wine, set the fish on top, seasoned it with pepper and covered the pan. (At this point, I added linguine to the boiling salted water.) Five or six minutes later, the cod was cooked, and I used a spoon to ease it into flakes. As predicted, these were firm and flavorful; the salt had penetrated well into the flesh.
Half of the drained pasta became Jackie’s clam dish; I gently mixed the other half into the cod-vegetable mixture, seasoned it with more black pepper and whole leaves of Italian parsley, then drizzled it with aromatic high-class olive oil. As I said, Angela’s version was classier — simpler and made with fresh egg pasta. Mine was a little more in your face, with its intense shallot/pepper/chili underpinning. In fact, it was so flavorful that my appetite was quickly satisfied. I’d recommend using only 3 ounces of fish per main-course portion or even less as a first course. That’d be plenty, believe me.
Do try this next time you need a non-shellfish pasta option. And indeed do try salt-curing a piece of cod, however you plan to cook it. It takes no time, and it’s like discovering a new fish.