I Can See It in My Dreams
The Wednesday Chef on The FN Dish

Madhur Jaffrey's Baked Cod in Yogurt Sauce

I'm starting to feel discouraged. The forces of food politics, nutrition and food safety, and environmental responsibility are feeling insurmountable these days. First, I've spent far too much time lately parsing the various charts on fish, trying to find some overlap. The fish we eat can't have too much mercury, but it also has to be fished sustainably. The people worried about mercury have one chart, the people worried about overfishing and stock depletion have another chart, and I, the concerned consumer, am lost in the middle.

And then there's the debate about Bisphenol-A. We don't drink much out of plastic bottles, so we're okay on that front, but people, we probably go through 5 cans of tomatoes a week. (As for beans, this spurred me to place a long-awaited-and-dithered-about 4-pound order for dried beans with Rancho Gordo, which has me - dork that I am - quite excited.) A question that came to me in the night as I was wondering about how to circumvent the liners of tin cans was: if the leaching Bisphenol-A in those cans is potentially cancerous, but the lycopene in the canned tomatoes is so cancer-preventing, won't those two cancel each other out? Do I have a doctor/medical researcher in the audience? Anyone?

Because my alternative right now is to drive into the city to Buon Italia this weekend and buy 24 units of bottled tomatoes and store them in our closet, like paranoid schizophrenics. (Yes, I briefly contemplated buying 50 pounds of tomatoes this summer and processing/bottling them myself, but then decided that sort of lunacy can only go so far before it threatens to swallow me whole. I've got exactly 2 square feet of counter space, folks. So, no to that.)


Meanwhile, we're also trying to eat less meat and more vegetables. Our CSA hasn't started up yet and the Greenmarket is just barely green right now, with expensive baby lettuces the only springtime option at the moment. Our recent tax bill makes those kinds of purchases somewhat outside the realm of daily possibility, but the alternative - rotting, limp, and pallid produce at our local grocer - isn't much better. Then, of course, the moment I start to complain about this I want to punch myself squarely in the face, because food shortages are looming the world over, not to speak of general impoverishment and hunger, and am I really whingeing about the fact that we have abundant food that's not entirely up to my (picky, though I prefer to say exacting) standards at our disposal?

Sigh and double sigh.

I'm not quite sure how to tie this neatly into a quick report on a wonderful fish bake I made from Jill Santopietro's fantastic round-up of recipes with yogurt, except that it was while trying to figure out what to substitute for Madhur Jaffrey's haddock (according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it's to be avoided, though hook-and-line caught haddock is okay) that I really started getting frustrated. Cod is a good substitute for haddock in terms of taste and texture, and it's low in mercury, but if it's wild-caught and/or from the Atlantic, then it's a bad choice in terms of sustainability. I tried to engage the fish guy at Whole Foods who mostly just looked bored, and ended up taking my chances with the cod they had on display.

This is a lovely, simple recipe - you fry up a few onions and then layer plump, white fillets of fish on top of them in a baking dish before topping the fish with a thick, creamy coat of spiced yogurt that looks and feels as lush as cake frosting. A pass in the oven renders the fish incredibly moist and tender, while the yogurt topping subtly infuses the fish with exotic warmth. If you're afraid of cooking fish, this is the dish for you. If you're afraid of cooking Indian food, this is the dish for you. If you're afraid of spending more then 15 minutes on prep work for dinner, this is the dish for you. The original recipe has you pour off and reduce the watery liquid exuded from the fish after baking and then enrich that sauce with butter, but I skipped that step, simply pouring off the watery juices and serving the yogurt-topped fish with rice and some steamed broccoli.

Ben and my mother, visiting from Europe, couldn't stop telling me how good it was and I'd have to agree. It was a wholesome, hearty meal that at least temporarily assuaged my anxiety about feeding myself and the ones I love safely and well. Don't worry if you don't have Greek yogurt at your disposal - just use regular whole-milk yogurt that you first drain in a thin-meshed sieve for an hour or so. (Oh, and if you're wondering, the fish, despite being delicious, was also absolutely hideous to photograph. I tried, I really did, but posting the results of that particular photo shoot would have done more harm than good, I think.)

Cod Baked in a Yogurt Sauce
Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, cut into 1/8-inch slices
2 pounds thick fillets cod
2 cups Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
¼ teaspoon garam masala
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons unsalted cold butter, cubed (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. When hot, add the onions and cook over medium until translucent, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a baking dish just large enough to hold the fish in a single layer. Cut the fish fillets crosswise into 2-by-3-inch pieces and lay them over the onions.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, sugar, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, cumin, coriander, garam masala, cayenne and ginger. Whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Pour sauce over the fish, tucking some under each piece. Cover with foil and bake until the fish is just cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes.

3. Pour the liquid from the baking dish into a small saucepan; keep fish warm. (The sauce will look separated.) If you'd like to make an extra sauce, bring the sauce to a boil and reduce it by half. Remove from heat. Whisk in the butter, a few cubes at a time. Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour over the fish.