Friday, August 3, 2007

Don't think of a turkey

You're not going to believe this, but Cape Cod is a lousy place to buy cod.

We watched Fourth of July fireworks over Provincetown harbor in a light, comfortable rain. By the next morning, the rain had grabbed a hold and made very clear it would be going nowhere for a day or two. It was all we talked about over pancakes. (But then, there are really only two topics of conversation on the Cape: the weather and the simply unresolvable bayside vs. oceanside debate.) My boyfriend, Marc, and I decided to spend the day checking in on his favorite record- and bookstores and coffee shops. And it seemed a perfect day to cook dinner for his parents.

This dinner was supposed to be something of a set piece in the five-day vacation. I love to cook and, of course, love to feed and please people with my cooking. Marc and I have been together since around New Year's. Before the trip to the Cape, I met his parents in their Westchester home just once and quite briefly. I consider myself a good conversationalist and fairly charming - but I know that the surest way to win friends and influence people is with my food. (I'm shameless; I take advantage of this. Seared sashimi-grade tuna and a watercress salad has won me at least two dreamy dishes.)

I wanted to make a statement. I figured that when cooking for The Boyfriend's Parents for the first time, it's best to show your cards. I had lugged the anthology with me on vacation (beach reading? well, why not? and indeed, at least one other blogger agrees), and knew I was going to take my recipe inspiration there. And when I came upon page 181, Sheila Hibben's recipe for "Cape Cod Turkey," there was no question that it was this 1932 comfort dish that I would recreate (in a salt-stained clapboard house, no less). My only concern was the amount of baking that would be involved - so I was secretly happy for a chilly day.

You've probably assumed as much but here it is: there's no cod in Cape Cod Turkey. (Like snakes from Ireland, I imagine turkeys were banished long ago, awkward, ugly, and no competition for the bounties of the sea.) Cape Cod Turkey is "1 medium-sized codfish" treated like a turkey: gutted, gussied, stuffed, and needled whole again.

We don't encounter stuffed fish very often these days - blame it on carb-bashers and the ease of the store-bought fillet - but I've had some experience in this area. On a Thanksgiving not long ago, my mom and I treated two glorious Pacific salmon, wild-caught and a very special purchase from our favorite fish-monger, to the traditional turkey treatment. (For the last seven years or so my family has exclusively deep-fried the holiday big-bird, so perhaps the desire to stuff the salmon stemmed from a hint of nostalgia.) These creatures were so beautiful - as thick around the middle as my dad's arm, with glinting skin like motor oil on the surface of a puddle - that only a stuffing of King Crab himself would do. When they came out of the oven, my mom and I each took one in our oven-mitted hands and paraded through the house for our guests.

Pacific salmon is the modern-day trophy wife: as smart and powerful as she is good-looking. It's a given that she deserves only the best (ie, fresh crab). Her cousin the cod is a homelier sort. Breadcrumbs, butter, boiled egg, and seasonings, moistened with chicken stock and the fat of salt pork, will do quite nicely. I tracked down these ancillary ingredients (all except the salt pork and stock) in the sort of post-hippie, over-priced natural food store that Mrs. Hibben could never have imagined would be dotting the small Cape towns she once knew. She'd probably be turning over in her grave at the mere thought of spending $4 on stale crumbs of bread. And she'd be plain bewildered to see me replace simple, cheap-as-chips chicken stock with a cup of dry white wine, but modern gal that I am, it's what I almost always have on hand (and in hand) when cooking.

A further note about my deviations: the wine-scented stuffing was tasty, but I wish I had included some salty animal fat in the dish. The salt pork is supposed to lay at the bottom of the pan, a moist mat for the fish. I hadn't yet had the Cooking Project idea and wasn't particularly concerned with authenticity or even the spirit of authenticity. In the future, I won't remove such ingredients from the recipes I take on - minor as they may seem - without replacing them with an evocative, perhaps updated stand-in. ('Cause really, where the hell do you get salt pork these days?)

Ingredients for stuffing accounted for, we turned our attention to the real booty: the cod herself. In my mind's eye, I saw her waiting for me atop a bed of shaved ice. I would recognize her by the knowing, complicit look in her fishy eye.

I wanted head on, tail on, with a clean slice down the belly from preopercle to caudal peduncle. Maybe a few less fins - the ventral, pectoral, and anal could all go - but the key was that my fish should proudly represent itself, the Gadus morhua. I wanted a fish, not a fillet!

Marc and I first went to a wharf-side fish seller's shack in Truro. And then another in Wellfleet. And then Mac's at the Wellfleet Marketplace, a well-known fish-monger popular with the vacationing therapist types. And not one had a whole cod! Many large fillets, opaque flesh dull under fluorescent light. But the closest thing I could get to a whole codfish was a whole flounder - the flat fish covered in raw-red scales that looked woeful and sickly next to the codfish of my imagination. I thought I knew what the problem was. I wanted to explain, "Look, I'm a tourist, yes. But I'm trying to recreate a little bit of the Cape's past and I NEED A FRIGGIN' CODFISH!"

Well, we settled for a two-pound fillet, a foot long and each butterflied side an inch or more at its thickest. Marc picked up a dozen oysters (he shucks, you know). On the ride home, I dampened down my disappointment over the fillet. I couldn't stitch it up as Mrs. Hibben would have wanted and these helpful folks illustrate nicely. But truthfully, I probably would have skipped that step anyway. I planned to present it with the stuffing cresting out of the belly, browned and bubbling.

Instead, the fillet, scales up, lounged gracefully atop the mound of stuffing. A fine presentation all the same. After our raw, intensely decadent appetizer, we had a beet salad, and then I brought the fish to the table. The reactions were just what I wanted. Two to three servings apiece, but we soldiered through and ate the whole thing (everyone knows that fish don't keep). I may have mentioned I like to make meals a production, beginning to end. We finished with homemade strawberry shortcake and freshly whipped cream.

There were some missing elements: basting with the fat of salt pork, coarsely rolled breadcrumbs from the stale heel at the bottom of the basket, a head, a tail. But I felt a connection to the past.

Oh who am I kidding? It was a tasty meal. And a week or two later the memory of it, coupled with further perusal of the recipes in American Food Writing, inspired this blog. Next up? Peach leather. Stick around.


jules said...

so, what other kinds of leathers are feasible? does it have to be something sort of mushy- strawberry, rasberry, anyotherberry, or is something like pumpkin leather possible? not sure who would eat such a thing, in less you want to roll up into a box so you can fondly think of halloween on a lovely may afternoon...

Anonymous said...

Hi Nora,
Fun. Thanks for the vivid accounts. Although, not from the American cookbook, I am certain that many an Italian American partakes in how I spent the better part of yesterday evening. I detached the basil leaves from stems of six bushy bunches bought Saturday morning at the Alemany farmers market. The Hmong farmer who sold them to me threw in the sixth as a gift. He found me the youngest, no flowers--they make the taste bitter. No spray is used on their Fresno farm's crops, but they do use commercial fertilizer. There were a few little dead crawlies in the rinse water to prove it. Fresno is located within 100 miles of my homestead in SF, so that is the trade off. I tossed the on my lime tree outside on the deck to keep the most sustainable approach flowing. The reason for all the basil dissection is that I make large batches of Pesto to get me through the long, cold, lonely winters in SF, ha-ha. The joy of the bright emerald green that holds it color even when frozen if you leave the Parmesan out as rain pelts outside and you sit around the table with friends is a thrill.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally that was from your pal Alma.

Nora Leah said...

Oh, Anonymous Alma! How long it has taken, but I have finally noticed this note. Know what? You are one of my first foodie inspirations -- you gave me Alice Waters' children's cookbook when I lived in SF ... an inspirational foodie city if ever there was one (ate my first sushi there; dad went to farmers' market and brought back raw olives for brining; I could go on.)
I would love to come visit this briny, cool SF winter and eat some of that pesto with you!

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