Although I can’t say Jackie and I were dying to return after our great trip to the United Kingdom and Vienna, we did enjoy getting right back into the routine of marketing and cooking.
Our neighborhood farmers market takes place on Wednesday, the very day after we flew home. Nearly a month had gone by since I’d visited, and it was a very different scene. There were fewer and less-wonderful tomatoes, and no peaches or corn, of course. But there were winter squashes (sadly, not as many as usual, in the wake of Hurricane Irene), lovely peppers and eggplants, apples, more varieties of potatoes, bigger cabbages. All the things you’d expect in fall.
It was the peppers that really caught my eye. They were so much redder than a month ago. And potatoes always merit attention. I bought other things too, but these were what got me thinking about dinner.
Our local-waters fish guy didn’t make this easy: He had a wider variety than usual, including mackerel, two kinds of tuna, swordfish, blowfish, various flatfish, mahi-mahi (we’re right near the northern limit of their range), squid, shark, clams, bass and hake. And that’s only what I recall! I actually had to stand down and leave the field to other customers while I tried to make some sense of my market basket.
The peppers and potatoes made me think of Spanish flavors, which, in turn, made me think of hake (which I somehow associate with Spain, under the name merluza). So it was a 9-ounce piece of hake that I bought, plenty for two people if the dish has enough flavor. Which it would, because my plan was to use the sofrito principle to concentrate the vegetables — long, slow cooking in olive oil to drive out water and intensify flavor and aroma.
Normally this is done over low heat in a skillet, but I was jet-lagged and didn’t trust myself to pay the constant attention this requires to avoid burning. So I used the oven, which worked so well that I may switch to it for future sofritos. While the oven was heating to 325 degrees, I warmed olive oil in an oval baking dish over low heat to start the cooking. To this I successively added a thinly sliced medium onion; a sliced clove of garlic; a smallish red bell pepper, a red “frying pepper” and a third of a small poblano (all previously charred and peeled and cut into strips; taste the poblano or any other potentially hot pepper before deciding how much to use); half a dozen big cherry tomatoes, blanched, skinned and quartered; parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. When the onions were just beginning to wilt, I moved the dish into the oven and left it there for nearly an hour, stirring just once or twice along the way.
A few minutes before this was all soft and concentrated, I peeled five smallish German Butterball potatoes, sliced them thin and oiled and seasoned the slices in a bowl. (I did not rinse them because I wanted the starch to stick them together in the final product.) These I arranged in an overlapping layer on top of the pepper “sofrito” and sprinkled them with thyme and more olive oil. As I did this, I raised the oven temperature to 375 and then returned the potato-covered dish to bake for another hour, until the potatoes were tender, golden and a little crisp.
When this came out of the oven, I cooked the fish as simply as could be — sprinkled with salt, pepper and thyme, and set into a warmed non-stick skillet with a slick of oil and a tablespoon of white wine. I covered the skillet, which allowed the hake to steam in its own considerable juices. (In our waters, hake can be a rather watery fish, making it hard to serve pan-fried or roasted.) Four or five minutes later, the fish was done, and I served it atop portions of the sofrito-potato mixture (which needs a name — can we call it pepper pie?) with pan juices from the skillet spooned over. Note that I used no lemon juice or other acid. Thanks in part to the tomatoes, the balance was fine without it.
The concentrated vegetables were so flavorful, the potatoes so satisfying and the pan-steamed fish so sweet and pleasant that a larger portion of protein would have been not merely superfluous but almost distressing. Next time, I’ll move the same “pepper pie” to another region, perhaps by replacing the olive oil with home-rendered lard or duck fat — I can almost taste it now, maybe with a simple chicken saute.