Turning tradition on its head

Don't creep the kids out with a desiccated fish noggin: Make a stew instead.

October 2, 2008 15:51
4 minute read.
Turning tradition on its head

stew 88. (photo credit: )

The Day of Judgment: Each and every soul is about to enter the Supreme Court above to receive its sentence for the year, and here I am, trying to think of the best way to cook a fish for the occasion. I feel that one of the most miraculous feats that Judaism performs is the seamless combination of the mystical spiritual worlds of the Talmud and Kabbala with plain earthly things like holidays and their traditional foods - in this case, the head of a dead fish. Growing up with sadly few Jewish traditions, I must confess that I have no clear preformulated plan of action for the Rosh Hashana meal. In so many families, the menu is set in stone by years of tradition, which creates a real sense of continuity that I regret I don't have. Nevertheless, I feel my curse is also a blessing, as it enables me to approach the menu planning a little more creatively. I can cook up, very appropriately, a novelty dish that might inspire a fresh spark in an otherwise repetitive night. But what dazzling course could you possibly make with fish heads? Aside from the difficulty of trying to quell the boredom that ensues from eating the same thing year after year, the Rosh Hashana dinner is a tough cookie to crack logistically. Hosting the whole family requires running on all cylinders, assuming everything is going smoothly - and it can cause a meltdown if there are hitches. As a young cook training to be a chef, I had my good share of brink-of-meltdown situations in busy lunch services. In those literally sticky situations, I owed my heartfelt gratitude to a dish of fish stew. The sauce was made well in advance - actually much improved by a day in the fridge - leaving me to simply toss in a nice selection of pre-cut fish morsels and proceeding to simmer everything gently to quick tender perfection. I used to smile widely with relief when orders for that dish came in during the lunch rush, as I knew it was the easiest dish on the menu to make and it produced one of the most spectacular results. I feel that the food at the Rosh Hashana meal should evoke the same reaction, leaving more time and energy for more important things. With that in mind, I propose my take on fish stew, which can be made mostly in advance and will delight your festive table with color and an intensity of flavor rarely found at a Rosh Hashana table. ROASTED RED PEPPER ROUILLE, FISH AND SAFFRON STEW The first step is to make a dead-simple fish stock, the basis of which is fish bones and heads. The best way to get the bones is to buy the whole fish for the stew and then ask the fishmonger to fillet the fish and give you the head (minus the gills and eyes) and bones as well. Keep in mind that this recipe is very flexible and the main idea is to infuse the stock with the fish flavor, with the addition of some supporting tastes. Therefore, the ingredient list is more like a general suggestion than a strict recipe. THE STOCK Makes about 1.5 liters 4 1 kg. fish bones and heads 4 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil (to carry the flavors) 4 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped 4 2 garlic cloves, halved 4 2 bay leaves 4 1 dry chili 4 2 liters water 4 Juice of 1⁄2 a lemon 4 4 sprigs fresh coriander Wash the bones well. Place a good drizzle of olive oil in a medium stock pot and gently fry everything but the last three ingredients until the veggies are just soft, yet have not begun to brown. Add the water, lemon juice and herbs and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and then strain through a fine colander and refrigerate the stock until needed. By the way, this stock is also convenient when frozen in small portions. THE SAUCE 4 6 red peppers 4 3⁄4 cup bread crumbs, preferably the Japanese Panko type 4 Up to 1.5 liters fish stock (or, less favorable, water) 4 6 cloves garlic, peeled 4 5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 4 3 Tbsp. sweet paprika, preferably smoked 4 1⁄2 gr. saffron 4 800 gr. to 1 kg. assorted meaty fish fillets (such as salmon, sea bass or grouper) cut into 4-cm. squares 4 3-4 fish heads (optional - for the custom of eating a fish head) 4 8 sprigs fresh thyme, picked Set the oven to its highest setting or, preferably, the grill setting. Lightly coat each pepper with a little oil and place in the oven. When the top parts are lightly charred (5-7 minutes), carefully turn the peppers over to char on the other side. Once that is accomplished, quickly transfer them into a bowl and tightly cover with plastic wrap, allowing them to "sweat" and cool. This will cause the skin to slide right off once the peppers have cooled somewhat. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, pull out the entire stem section with all the seeds and peel off the skin. Chop roughly. Place the bread crumbs in a mixing bowl and gradually add a little of the fish stock while mixing very gently. The idea is to fully soak the crumbs without drowning them. Place the peppers, moist crumbs, garlic, oil and paprika in a food processor and process till very smooth. You can do all this up to two days before the meal, and then proceed with the next steps a few hours before serving. Place the pepper puree in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat and gradually add stock to bring it to the consistency of a stew or a very thick soup. Add saffron and bring to a simmer while stirring occasionally. Add the fish and simmer for at least 10 minutes or until ready to serve. Garnish the plate with the fresh thyme leaves.

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