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The Neglected Luxury

November 03, 1994|FAYE LEVY

In America, smoked fish is strangely overlooked, its use limited in many homes to occasional brunches of lox with bagels and cream cheese?

But whatever the meal, nothing is simpler to serve, since smoked fish is ready to eat. On its own, it is one of the most elegant of first courses. Smoked salmon, for example, is a luxurious starter served at the finest of restaurants.

Beyond that, smoked fish is also valuable as a flavoring. In green salads it makes a tasty, light substitute for bacon, contributing a similar smoky flavor. Strips of smoked fish are terrific with neutral-tasting, quick-cooking foods such as pasta and eggs. One of my favorite dishes at deli-type restaurants is lox and eggs. At home, I often make a quick-cooking dish of herbed noodles with smoked cod and roasted peppers.

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Rice, too, benefits from the addition of smoked fish. A delicious rice salad I enjoyed in France featured smoked haddock, tomatoes, peppers, capers and parsley vinaigrette.

In the Far East, I discovered a way to match fish with rice for breakfast. A bowl of congee (the Chinese rice porridge otherwise known as juk ) was accompanied by small plates of savory items, including cured fish. It might seem like a curious combination, but it makes as much sense as lox with bagels, since a small amount of the fish flavors the bland, starchy food.

African cooks have long recognized that smoked fish adds good flavor to other foods. They often cook it with greens, as in Zairian spinach with smoked whitefish.

Smoked fish keeps well and is convenient to have on hand for a quick meal. Some types, such as smoked cod, haddock and herring, are reasonably priced. Even with expensive smoked salmon you can prepare economical dishes by combining the salmon with rice, pasta, eggs or vegetables; a little goes a long way.

You can buy smoked fish at fish markets, delis and at the fish and deli departments of supermarkets. Most do not need cooking. The exceptions are smoked haddock, sometimes labeled finnan haddie (which requires brief poaching in milk) and kippered herring (which is often broiled).

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Interest in smoked fish seems to be growing, at least in my neighborhood. At my local market there are new kinds of smoked salmon in such enticing flavors as dill smoked salmon, pepper smoked salmon and even Cajun smoked salmon.

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You can prepare this colorful, easy dish with a creamy sauce or as a leaner version with vegetable oil. It is good with packaged barbecued cod, which turns the sauce bright orange, or with lox or smoked salmon. This is an adaptation from the cookbook I co-authored with Fernand Chambrette, "La Cuisine du Poisson" (Flammarion: Paris).

HERBED NOODLES WITH SMOKED COD AND ROASTED PEPPER

2 roasted green pepper halves from jar or 1 fresh green pepper, roasted

6 ounces smoked or barbecued cod, bones and skin removed

1/2 cup whipping cream or 2 tablespoons oil

1/2 pound dried herb-flavored noodles or fettuccine

2 tablespoons chopped green onions

4 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon, or 1/4 cup 1/8-inch-wide strips of basil leaves

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Cut roasted green pepper halves into 1/4-inch strips. Cut cod into 1/2x1/2x1/4-inch dice.

Bring cream to bare simmer in small saucepan. Add cod and heat through on low heat. If using oil, heat gently with cod over low heat.

Cook pasta, uncovered, in large pan of boiling, salted water over high heat until tender but firm to bite, about 5 minutes. Drain well. Transfer to heated bowl. Add cod mixture and toss. Add pepper strips, green onions, tarragon and salt and pepper to taste. Adjust seasonings to taste before serving. Makes 4 first-course or 2 to 3 main-course servings.

Note : If using fresh green pepper, roast directly on burner or in broiler, turning often with tongs, until skin blackens. Place in plastic food bag and close bag. Let stand 10 minutes. Use knife to peel pepper. Halve pepper and discard seeds and ribs. Drain any liquid from inside pepper.

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For this dish, Zairians generally use the type of smoked fish that requires cooking, such as smoked haddock or finnan haddie. Ready-to-eat smoked fish makes this dish quicker and easier to prepare. I like to use smoked whitefish.

This recipe was given to me by Mrs. Monzili, the wife of a colonel in the Zairian army. She serves the spinach accompanied by rice, plantains or boiled or steamed potatoes.

ZAIRIAN SPINACH WITH SMOKED FISH IN TOMATO SAUCE

2 (10-ounce) packages fresh spinach leaves

1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained

3 to 4 tablespoons oil

2 large onions, sliced

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste

1/2 pound smoked whitefish, skinned and boned

Hot cooked rice

Rinse and stem spinach. Coarsely chop spinach and set aside.

Puree tomatoes in food processor or blender.

Heat oil in large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add onions and saute over medium heat until golden, 10 minutes. Add pureed tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste and red pepper flakes. Bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat and cook until thickened, 10 minutes. Add chopped spinach and cook over medium-low heat until tender, about 7 minutes.

Flake whitefish in about 1/2-inch pieces. Add to spinach mixture. Heat 1 to 2 minutes over low heat and serve. Makes 3 to 4 main-course servings with rice.

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