One of the mildest and most delicious of flaky, white-fleshed fish has been popular, especially in the North Atlantic connecting Old World and New, for something over 1,200 years. I say connecting rather than separating because, going back to the Vikings, that is what cod has done.
According to some historians, those first Vikings who crossed the ocean and began poking around the shores of the Americas were not looking for new territory – they never did the first thing toward claiming any – and weren’t even dreaming of gold and other land-based riches. We know that one of their main motivations was to follow the schools of cod that moved between deep waters in the Atlantic’s center and the coasts of today’s Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
If you are thinking, first and foremost, the Vikings had no refrigeration, you’d be on the right track. For most of its first thousand years of international trade, cod’s only familiar form was salted and dried. The Vikings and their kin in Norway began the process of distributing these hard-dry planks of salted fish (known as some version of bacalao or bacala) all across Southern Europe, from Portugal and Spain to Sicily and beyond.
To this day, with fresh cod available almost anywhere and everywhere, many members of those traditional cultures prefer the dried version reconstituted in water. It is a taste and a texture they’re used to, thanks to their ancestors. This is true even among Europe’s cultural and colonial offshoots, like the Caribbean. Akee and saltfish, for instance, might well be considered the national dish of Jamaica. It’s definitely the dish homesick Jamaicans crave when living far from the tropics for gainful employ.
Centuries after the Vikings had given up their globetrotting role, the Basques of northern Spain and southwest France played a part in spreading cod’s fame. They supposedly discovered the fishing banks off the coast of Canada even before Columbus “discovered” America. It was these banks that had a lot to do with entire fishing industries growing up and thriving for generations in places like Gloucester, Mass. For a long time, the state’s House of Representatives hung a wooden carving on its walls known as the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts.
Sadly, since human history is often sad, cod served as part of slavery’s Triangle Trade, the symbiotic, multi-national relationship whose profitability helped keep the practice alive. For at least a couple centuries, the highest quality of cod from the Eastern Seaboard was carried on ships to Africa and traded outright for men, women and children in bondage. These slaves, and rejected pieces of salted cod, were then carried to the West Indies, where the fish was used to feed them cheaply.
On these islands, the trade was for rum, molasses, sugar (the first a product of the second, which was a byproduct of the third), tobacco and salt, which were at that point ready for shipment to the colonists in Boston. The Triangle Trade faltered about the time “abolition fever” started to grip America, coming to a halt as Britain freed slaves in the West Indies in the 1840s.
For much of the past century, cod in the North Atlantic has been subjected to overfishing and eventually, happily, intelligent government controls. With the right touches from humankind and Mother Nature, we or our children may live to see the return of cod as king. And like the old wags used to observe, we might just be able to walk across the Atlantic stepping from cod to cod.
PAN-SEARED COD WITH SHIITAKE
This recipe is inspired by a version served at a French-themed restaurant called La Cote d’Or in the Washington, D.C., area. The simple, clear flavors are a reminder of how fresh fish tastes when it’s not messed up by too many sauces or seasonings.
2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 red bell pepper, cubed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper
6 (6-ounce) fresh cod fillets
1 cup white wine
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons Fischer & Wieser’s Sweet & Savory Onion Glaze
In a large pan or skillet, sauté the mushrooms and bell pepper in about half the olive oil and butter until the pepper becomes slightly softened and bright red. Transfer to a bowl and heat the remaining olive oil and butter in the pan. When that mixture is very hot, in batches if necessary, cook the cod fillets until browned on the outside but still moist on the inside. Reduce the heat to low and add the wine, lemon juice and onion glaze. Return the vegetables and serve the fish with vegetables and sauce on top. Serves 6.
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