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Fish and Beans: an Old Secret Revisited

November 14, 1996|FAYE LEVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Levy is the author of the award-winning "Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook" (Warner Books, 1993) and of a seafood cookbook "La Cuisine du Poisson" (Flammarion, Paris)

Florence, Italy, is famous for its wonderful steaks, but one of my fondest food memories of that lovely city is of a simple fish dish. The fish was cooked with garbanzo beans and drizzled lightly with fine olive oil. There were subtle background hints of garlic and hot pepper.

I was surprised at how good this combination was. Fish and beans seemed an unusual alliance to me, but this association appears in other Mediterranean cuisines as well. Greeks pair garbanzo beans with tuna to make tasty salads. In Morocco, aromatic entrees of fish and garbanzo beans are flavored with cumin and cilantro.

When I lived in Paris in the 1970s and early '80s, nouvelle cuisine was at its height and creative cooking was a la mode. Substituting fish for meat in popular entrees was one way of devising new dishes. The head chef of our cooking school, Fernand Chambrette, prepared a wonderful fish cassoulet. He added sauteed monkfish to the aromatic, garlic- and herb-scented white bean dish instead of meat. Of course, the beans were cooked first and the fish was added near the end so it would not overcook.

This trend of matching noble seafood with humble beans remains popular today. Alain Senderens, one of France's most famous chefs, pairs fish with fava beans for a springtime entree. Noted Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi of Milan is fond of spiny lobster cooked with white beans and tomatoes.

Pairing fish with beans is wise from a nutritional point of view, because both foods are low in fat. It also makes economical sense. Inexpensive, satisfying beans help stretch a small portion of relatively costly seafood into a substantial entree. To prepare this type of dish in short order, use canned beans.

BRAISED COD WITH GARBANZO BEANS AND OLIVE OIL

2 (15- or 16-ounce) cans garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained

5 large cloves garlic, sliced

4 dried hot red peppers, such as chiles japones

5 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

1/4 cup water

2 pounds cod or scrod steaks or fillets (about 1 inch thick)

Freshly ground pepper

Cilantro or parsley sprigs

Lemon wedges, optional

For this savory entree, dried hot peppers and sliced garlic simmer with the garbanzo beans. The cooking juices then flavor the fish but do not make it excessively hot. It's a simple and delicious dish, especially when made with superior quality olive oil.

Combine garbanzo beans with garlic, dried peppers, 3 or 4 tablespoons oil, dash salt and water in medium pan. Push hot peppers to bottom of pan. Bring to simmer. Cover tightly and cook over medium-low heat 10 minutes.

Transfer half of bean mixture to 9-inch square baking dish. Set fish on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Top fish with remaining bean mixture. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Bake, covered, at 400 degrees until fish can just be flaked but is not falling apart, 20 to 30 minutes.

Discard hot peppers. Serve fish hot or lukewarm. Spoon few tablespoons cooking juices over fish and beans when serving. Garnish with cilantro and lemon wedges.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

586 calories; 936 mg sodium; 79 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 49 grams protein; 3.16 grams fiber.

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