Saturday, January 16, 2010

Paula Wolfert's Poached Swordfish in the Style of Izmir

Note: While it was once a safe and prized fish, Sword is now in danger of extinction from overfishing and tainted with pollution. So Wolfert says you can substitute Sea Bass.  I also got beautiful results with our local Monterey Opah.    

I’ve tweeted the glories of Paula Wolfert’s new Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, and now I'm postin' it. I'm a longtime Wolfert groupie. She's the first food writer I ever turned to for authority. Her Couscous and Other Good Food of Morocco (1973) got me to Tangier, briefly, in my early 20's to slurp Harira, crack Bisteeya, and sip crazy-sweet mint tea in the Medina.  She travels.  She lives places.  She cooks. Her books are revelations. Clay Pot Cooking sources recipes from all over the Mediterranean, and proves again that her cooking is always true and close to the bone, a guaranteed thing of authenticity and beauty. So when Wolfert says of a dish that it's “one of the best (she’s) ever eaten,” your ears should shoot straight up on your head. And said dish, Poached Swordfish in the Style of Izmir, is exquisite. Why?

The VesselWolfert's thesis is that cooking in clay pots (hand made preferably) simply produces better tasting food.  All Mediterranean food was once cooked in clay, she reminds us, so that its dishes particularly shine cooked this way. Unglazed pieces especially impart natural flavor; hold and transmit an accumulation of all the flavors ever cooked in the pot. I love this painterly notion of pentimento applied to cooking, the idea of uncovering delicious ghosts in food. Isn't that what we, in truth, hope for when exploring the food of other cultures/times?  To taste ghosts?  Anyway, I know this fish blossoms in the slow even heat of its mojo pot.      

The Tomato

The tomato grating in the recipe is a wicked technique. Forget the French and their 10-minute minimum concasser. This is instant, economical and brilliant. Cut the tomato in half and run it on a grater right down to the skin (which you toss or use for stock). I love how it fluffs the tomato, how that resulting fluff itself is so fresh, not partially cooked by blanching, love that all my favorite bits - the seeds and juice - are put to use. I mean, I suppose if you wanted to be fussy for a recipe you could squeeze them out before grating. But I almost never get this. It is tossing the gold. This is the very source of le “tomato water” you pay dearly for in fancy pants places...

(NB:  While I’d usually turn to a good preserved/canned tomato in winter, I happened to have a few heirlooms my grocer had slipped me [who knows? maybe he was trying to move his tomatoes along]. I also wanted to be true to Wolfert’s recipe. I wanted to taste what she meant by it. And boy did they come through.  So just imagine the dish with summer tomatoes.)

The Poaching Method
What I’ll call “sauce immersion poaching” is also the bomb. Rather than poaching in just water or broth - in which flavor is diluted and often discarded - you poach in the very brew you’re serving so that flavor is intensified and fused into the dish. Our fish is slow cooked in a pool of sharp vegetal richness. This Black Sea style of cooking is called bugulama, and you should memorize it. It renders succulent food.

It's probably starting to dawn on you, rightly, that is this is one outrageous dish, and not just because of the perky peppers, tomato, garlic, black pepper, vinegar, and herb - but because of the cooking vessel and technique. And, to me, this is at the heart of Wolfert's brilliance. Who, that you know, was using tagines before her? Layering grated onions and other raw lovely things into clay pots with curiosities like preserved lemon and head spinning spices for long tender cooking?  Who was digging into other cultures, joyously, through food, as her very life's work? 

Nobody. And nobody does it better still.  

(A warning about reading this book: you will become obsessed with clay pots.  Luckily Wolfert gives many sources for them.  Also, where to begin with the recipes?  In my first go-through I instantly marked Moroccan Chicken with Pumpkin, Sweet-and-Sour Plums, and Almonds;  Gratin of Pig's Foot with Vin Jaune and Comte Cheese; Kadide: Tunisian Spiced and Preserved Lamb; Crema Catalana as Prepared in the Nineteenth Century... It's a book to grapple with for years)  

See Wolfert in conversation with Patricia Unterman this Saturday, January 23 at SF's own, most wonderful, Omnivore Books.

Poached Swordfish in the Style of Izmir 
   (recipe printed courtesy/permission of Paula Wolfert)

Preferred Clay Pot:
A 9-inch cazuela
If using an electric or ceramic stovetop, be sure to use a heat diffuser with the clay pot.

1 pound juicy ripe tomatoes, halved
1 pound swordfish (substitute a firm white fish like Sea Bass or Opah),
   cut 1 inch thick
4 small garlic cloves, lightly bruised
1 Anaheim pepper, seeded, deribbed
   and finely chopped
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Pinch of Greek oregano

1  Use the large holes on a 4-sided grater to shred the tomatoes into the cazuela.  Discard the skins and stem.

2  Add the swordfish, garlic, Anaheim pepper, cream, butter, half the black pepper, the salt, and about 2/3 cup water, or enough to just cover the fish.  Cover the cazuela with a sheet of aluminum foil and set it over medium heat.  Slowly cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the swordfish is just opaque in the center but still juicy.

3.  Remove from heat, place the covered cazuela on a folded cloth napkin on the table, and let stand for a few minutes. Uncover, divide the fish into 4 serving pieces, and sprinkle with the remaining black pepper, vinegar, and oregano.  Serve in shallow soup bowls, making sure everyone gets some of the tasty sauce.

NOTE TO THE COOK:  Many people avoid swordfish these days, because of both pollution and overfishing.  If you prefer, you can substitute sea bass, in which case the fish will probably take about 5 minutes less to cook.  

(I tried this dish with local Opah from Monterey, a kind of cross between swordfish and bass, and I substituted my window marjoram for oregano. Marjoram is related to oregano but is sweeter and milder. The dish was gorgeous.)


Jenny said...

This makes me so hungry.

Clay Coyote Pottery and Gallery said...

We've done some dozen of Paula's recipes from Med. Clay Pot Cooking. Everyone's been a hit! A friend's 10 year old son now calls it the flavor explosion cookbook. Lucky lad is getting his tastes turned on early. Tom, from Clay Coyote Pottery

Margaret said...

I have always loved Paula Wolfert's style of cooking and her unique blend of flavors. I had the good fortune of meeting her years ago. She is incredibly fascinating to talk to about her many travels!
So nice to meet another Wolfert aficionado.
And I can't wait to visit San Francisco again and your charming restaurant. The menu looks awesome.

phyllis grant said...

i have wolfert's cookbook sitting next to my bed tempting me. i also went to a lovely wolfert dinner at camino a few months back. can't wait to dive in and explore some recipes. lovely post. makes me want to cook the swordfish tomorrow. and i love the grating of the tomato.

Anonymous said...


sarah @foodbridge said...

What a wonderful post about one of my favorite cookbook authors. I have several of her books but still waiting for the legendary claypots to arrive. What I love about the cookbooks is her enthusiasm, her dedication to researching and searching for the perfect recipe and the fact that they are part of a culture which she helps bring alive.

R. said...

BEAUTIFUL! I'm new to your blog and to opah and this was exactly what I'm looking for. Cannot wait to make this tonight (sans the clay pot sadly) but I will make do.