Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Getting Lent underway with a great dish

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
As Wednesday might have started off in bright form, but it was a deception, as almost inevitably the sun disappeared under a thick eiderdown of cloud.

So here we are, in Lent – the second of the year’s giving-up-things seasons, following hot on the heels of New Year’s resolutions and set to be followed, shortly after the Easter binge, with the getting-ready-for-the-beach giving-up-things season.

But be heartened – I do none of these.

Of course, in predictably British fashion, we’re only supposed to mark the time before Lent by using up flour and eggs and sugar with a bit of pancakery.

Other countries get complete blow-outs – or carnival, as it’s know. We toss stuff.

But carnival isn’t limited to those Latin types in Rio or New Orleans or even Venice.

It certainly used to exist rather more in northern Europe, as illustrated by the magnificent painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder that’s shown at the top of this post.

Look how it shows the pub on the left – versus the church on the right.

The Fight between Carnival and Lent was painted in 1559 and echoed a common festival of the time from the southern Netherlands. But doesn’t it say so much – this battle between religiosity and pleasure?

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday – shrove being the past form of shrive, which means ‘confess’. In other words, when you seek and gain absolution before the start of Lent.

Don’t worry, though: if you missed out this time, you can be all penitential on Good Friday. And honestly, don’t those Latin countries even manage to make more of a festival of that too!

Anyway, my confession is that yesterday didn’t actually see any pancakes made in Voluptuous Villa – by the time we’d had a main course we felt too full, so I’m saving pancakes for an indulgent lunch at the weekend.

As for tonight, since this is the start of Lent, I thought we could hardly do better than have a dish that combined both meat and fish.

So far at least, God hasn’t struck me dead in anger.

The dish in question was a Portuguese-style fish stew, as m’friend George, who introduced me to it, was wont to describe it. And now, here it is, with my added tweaks.

Two or three days before you’re going to make the dish, take some cod fillet and put it in a container with salt all over it.

Depending on how long the fish is in salt, you need to give it a minimum of 24 hours rinsing in cold water. Rinse off the salt and then replace with cold water. You can leave fish in salt for months, but it will then need at least three days rinsing.

Change the cold water at least twice a day.

Now, to the day of cooking.

Preparing aïoli.
Take some chorizo and thickly slice it.

Heat some ordinary olive oil in a large pan and cook the sausage gently for around 10 minutes, letting the paprika colour the oil and give off a heavenly aroma that will have you salivating almost before you’ve started.

That, incidentally, is but reason why cooking is so wonderful – and on weekdays, a tonic after your hours at work.

Remove the chorizo to a plate and add chopped onion (or shallot), celery and carrot to the infused oil. It doesn’t have to be particularly finely diced – this is a rustic dish – and let this bubble away until softened.

Add plenty of stock – you want to do more than cover – and then peeled, large dice of potato.

Bring to the boil, stick the lid on, turn down the heat and leave for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, peel a couple of cloves of garlic and either finely chop or mince them; blend with a pinch of salt and add to the yolk of an egg.

An electric hand whisk is brilliant here. Once it’s all blended together, slowly – really slowly – drizzle in some virgin olive oil and whisk some more.

Here, ladies and gentlemen, you’re making one version of aïoli – and it’s a joy. But remember, you want it good and think, not runny.

Ready to eat.
The most ‘pure’ version of this Catalan culinary icon doesn’t involve a yolk, but I think that the eggy version works better here.

Now, back to the stew. Add some sliced leek and give it another five minutes, before adding some tinned (rinsed) chick peas.

Pop the lid back on for another 10 minutes. Then make sure you bring it back to the boil and top with your rinsed cod, before lidding once more and leaving for another 10-15 minutes, depending on how firm your fish is.

Serve with the fish atop the vegetable broth, and a generous dollop of aioli on top of the fish.

It’s warming, sustaining, healthy – and, most important of all, very, very tasty.

And it’s a brilliant culinary response to the whole business of Lent.

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