Swiss Chard with Cod -- a long fish story

Some people eat to live. Some people live to eat. Today, without guilt or remorse, I say I’m part of the latter bunch. Last summer I orchestrated a symphony in my Dutch oven. Swiss Chard with Cod. I first tasted it as a gift from a friend while going through chemo two years ago. Kate had the base done; all I had to do was toss in the cod and Swiss chard then boil it for ten minutes. I was doubtful looking at the big pile of Swiss chard, but it is one of the most memorable meals I had while on chemo.

Last summer, I picked up Swiss chard at the CSA. Having misplaced the paper copy, I searched on-line for Kate’s recipe: one with onion, fennel, tomatoes, chicken broth and – the two stars – cod & Swiss chard.

The power and confidence I felt while concocting this delicious dish independently, it was a belly punch. A friend made this for the bald me. Now – decked out with a full set of curls and cancer-free – I’m making it for myself.

My Swiss chard from Tuesday’s CSA was a bit wilted when I get out my Dutch oven on Friday. Heck, what does that matter? It’s going to wilt in the pot anyway.

My big wooden chopping board surfaces and in short my kitchen starts feeling the warmth of the prep smells. An onion finely sliced. A fennel bulb finely sliced. A few Yukon gold potatoes thickly sliced. I think it needs garlic to complete the chopping board warm-up. The rawness of aroma wasn’t complete until the garlic was finely chopped.

Into the pot goes a glug of olive oil, enough to wet the onions and fennel, speckled with salt and pepper. Those vegetables, nearly identical in looks but unrelated in taste draw strings of memory. Until I met Bill I didn’t cook with onions. Until I sat around the table in an Italian woman’s kitchen for a 4-hour cooking class with Gail, I didn’t know what fennel was, nor had I ever eaten so much olive oil in one sitting. The garlic, another Bill-introduced ingredient, was hopping on the board, waiting to join the 10-minute sweat. It must wait: that over anxious chopped bulb would burn and ruin the whole pot. It gets 30 seconds after the onions and fennel finish their sweat – and just before the tomatoes enter in the second movement.

Two pints of drained whole tomatoes that Mom had canned. If you aren’t one of Mom’s sons or daughters, sorry. Make do with what you can. As for me… My fingernails are just long enough to curl under the seal and pop off the lids marked ’09. Instantly, my left arm rises like a spring pulling the Ball jar to my nose. I close my eyes and I inhale Mom’s summer kitchen in Iowa. The second inhale is her winter kitchen. The smell of her chili prep. There is no sloshing these tomatoes from jar to pan. I smell until the memory is complete. Until the strength of the aroma dissipates. Damn, two more jars closer to the end of my stash. Someday I MUST drive home to replenish my stock, or I could learn how to can my own. An ominous thought.

The tomatoes dance with the onions and fennel , uncovered, for ten minutes. A great harmony rises in the steam. Popping bubbles make me think of a web of people. Kate, Gail, Bill, the Italian cooking teacher, Mom.

Then the next layer: the potatoes over the base, a twist of pepper and pinch of salt, enough chicken brother to cover, then lid on for a 10-minute simmer. My stock is made from a bouillon granule base, another trick of Bill’s from 20 years ago.

And here, at the very top, those ingredients newest to my repertoire: fresh cod from the Atlantic & Swiss chard from my CSA. Local ocean meet local farm. The cod waits patiently covered with a squeeze of lemon juice. Finally, the buzz of a 10-minute timer. Cod nestles on top of potatoes and an enormous bunch of chopped chard fills the pot to the top. Lid on for ten more minutes.

“This dish has lots of protein with cod and Swiss chard.” Kate, there was so much more than a healthy dose of protein to give my chemo shocked body a boost.

Ten minutes later the layers come out in reverse order. A plop of chard on each plate; a flaky, moist piece of cod next to the chard; potatoes fished out of the sauce complete a trio on the plate.

The pan goes back to the burner with a lump of butter to add a little velvet. Boil it like hell for two minutes to take some of the liquid out and force the flavors into the ravished onions, fennel, and tomatoes. Burner off. Scooping a handful of chopped basil into the sauce then ladling it over the trio creates a crescendo to this dish too simply named “Swiss Chard and Cod.”

This is entertaining every sense, lulling, teasing. Seeing the ingredients. Feeling the burn of the onion in the eye. Feeling the veg give way from whole to slices under deft movement of a big knife. Smelling the oils released with each slice and Mom’s kitchen with each pop of a Ball lid. Hearing the sizzle in the pot with olive oil. Hearing the bubbles pop.

Taste. Yes, taste, but it’s… it’s the last and nearly the least fulfilling. The other senses. Wow.

Heaped in a pasta bowl & served with multi-grain bread and butter, this is “Swiss Chard with Cod.” I have many guests joining me for this dinner: Bill, Kate, Gail, Mom, the Italian cooking teacher, a Gloucester fisherman, a local farmer. Some I know more intensely than others, but all have a hand in creating this meal.

This is living to eat.

Midwest Girl Goes Fish Shopping

... from a summer journal entry ... I was doing a special grocery shop for Bill’s sister and her family who are visiting from England. She had asked me to pick up some frozen cod that was already in a butter sauce. It would be a quick, easy meal for my nephew.

I couldn’t find cod in the frozen section of the local super market. I approached the fish counter. “I’m looking for frozen cod. Where would I find that?”

The look and the pause from the fish counter man was more saying than the words “Why would you want that?” uttered with his Boston accent.

Hmm... Exactly why am I standing ten miles from the Atlantic wondering where to find frozen cod?

“Well, maybe I’ll just take a big fillet, cut it up, and freeze it myself.”

The look. The pause. Followed by, “Why would you want to do that?”

I give. I’m buying a packet of Knorr’s Hollandaise sauce and a big ole fillet. Tonight everyone is having fresh cod brought in from the Atlantic this morning.

... end of journal entry ...

(Then Midwest Girl went fishing! Check out A Reel Hairy Tale...)