If there is one food that enabled world history to develop as it did, it may be the codfish.
In fact, food researcher Mark Kurlansky wrote a book about it – Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1998).
By the time Leif Ericson discovered North America in the 11th century, the plentiful cod had become indispensable to Northern Europe.
Nordic fishermen discovered that if cod were dried in the cold ocean air, it made for a long-lasting – and easily renewable – food source that could carry them from Scandinavia to Iceland to inhospitable, rocky Greenland and the harsh coast of eastern Canada – and back again.
Later, salted dried cod enabled the Basques to voyage long distances and bring back whale meat to satisfy European appetites during the Middle Ages.
Dried and salted cod spent centuries as a popular protein staple all around the world because of its keeping properties and abundance. Yet, because it was common and cheap, it was thought of as an inferior fish.
Ironically, the abundance of cod fostered a dependence upon it. Overfishing to supply that dependence has resulted in a shortage.
The population of cod in the western North Atlantic is a fraction of what it was before the mid-20th century. According to the entry for Atlantic cod in the Encyclopedia of Life, cod was once on the top of the food chain in the area, and preyed heavily on smaller fish and crabs. After the cod population was reduced heavily by fishing, the population of these smaller carnivores exploded and now they devour so many cod eggs and hatchlings that cod may never naturally reassert itself, even in the absence of overfishing.
Regulations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have imposed strict limits on the take of Atlantic cod, but even stricter limits may be forthcoming.
As a result, cod relatives whiting, hake and haddock have gained more importance, while fresh cod has become much rarer than before and, accordingly, more highly prized and more expensive.
When you do find fresh North Atlantic cod, it is very much a treat.
The environmentally conscious may prefer to forgo fresh cod in favor of one of its more plentiful relatives, such as haddock or whiting, although these are more likely to be found frozen.
All are dense, mild-flavored, lean fish with flaky white flesh. They are best cooked simply, baked with butter and lemon or a light breadcrumb coating. Consider such fish for a light Lenten meal. It is important not to overcook cod or similar fish. Because of their leanness and delicacy, they easily dry out, flake apart or become rubbery.
Broiled Cod with Lemon and Parsley
1 pound fresh cod or other flaky white ocean fish
2 tablespoons butter (or olive oil)
1 lemon, zested
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the cod on a sprayed baking sheet. If you like, surround with blanched asparagus or another vegetable to accompany.
In a small bowl, mix the butter, lemon zest and parsley. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper to taste and coat with half the mixture.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and flaky. Timing will depend on the thickness of the filet.
Remove from the oven and spread with the remaining butter mixture. Cut the lemon into wedges and serve with the fish. Crusty bread to mop up the melted butter on the baking dish is wonderful. Makes 2 servings.
Baked Cod with Sherry Vinaigrette
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons anchovy paste or 2 anchovy fillets, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup pitted Mediterranean black olives, preferably kalamata, finely chopped
1 tablespoon drained bottled capers, finely chopped
1 small shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
6 skinless cod fillets, about 6 ounces each
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Combine the vinegar and anchovy paste in a small bowl and add salt and pepper, to taste. Whisk until well-blended. Whisk in the olive oil. Stir in the olives, capers, shallot, garlic and oregano.
Arrange the fillets skinned sides down in a baking dish large enough to hold the fish fillets in one flat layer. Season well with salt and pepper. Spoon a small amount of the vinegar-oil mixture over each fillet and drizzle the rest around the bottom of the dish.
Cover with foil, and bake until opaque throughout and firm to the touch, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to warm serving plates and spoon on any juices in the bottom of the baking dish. Serve warm. Makes 6 servings.
– Sara Moulton Cooks at Home (Broadway Books, 2002)
Hake with Wild Mushrooms
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, divided
Salt and pepper
4 (6-ounce) hake or Pacific cod fillets (1 1/2 - to 2-inches thick)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 pound mixed fresh mushrooms, trimmed and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (oyster, shiitake, button, portabella, cremini will all work)
1/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Stir together oil, 1/2 teaspoon zest, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl, then toss with fish.
Broil fish on rack of a broiler pan 3 to 4 inches from heat until just cooked through, 8 to 12 minutes.
While fish broils, heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat until foam subsides, then sauté garlic 30 seconds. Add mushrooms, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and sauté until the liquid that the mushrooms give off has evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes. Add broth, scraping up any brown bits, then add parsley, remaining 1/2 teaspoon zest and remaining 2 tablespoons butter, swirling skillet until butter is incorporated. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon mushrooms over hake. Makes 4 servings.
– Gourmet (October 2007)