I loved it when my mom took my brothers and I to visit our grandmother. Each visit was approximately the same. We’d get buzzed in to her condo, walk past a koi pond overgrown with papyrus, and take the elevator to the third floor. She would come to the door to greet us, and we’d walk in to greet our grandfather who always sat in the same armchair near the TV, often with a newspaper. No matter the hour, grandma would ask us whether we’d eaten and offer to cook something. While the adults conversed over tea, my brothers and I would do what we always did — page through old photo albums, which included photographs of mom and her brothers and sisters in their childhood, and survey the precious figurines on my grandma’s vanity. Inevitably, grandma would open the freezer to produce popsicles or chocolate-covered ice cream bonbons for us. When it was finally time to leave, grandma would cup our hands in hers and remind us in Mandarin, “Your health is the most important.” (健康是最重要的)
As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the wide range of less obvious ways in which people show affection toward one another, particularly when words or embraces don’t come easily: extraordinary attention to logistical details of your life, providing for your everyday needs, asking about your work, getting drunk with you.
Frankly, I’ve never had trouble at showing affection. If I dig you, I’ll write you a note, bear hug you, fix you a cocktail, and use every pot and pan in the kitchen to serve you a delicious dinner. This dish is a good example of how transparent cooking can be as a conduit of affection. It begins with peeling small tomatoes by hand, proceeds to coaxing the fragrance of fennel into a clear broth, rendering chicken skin into golden brown cracklings, and gently poaching fish in olive oil. If someone makes you this dish, you are well loved.
OLIVE OIL POACHED COD with GRIBENES & TOMATOES
in FENNEL BROTH
for 4 servings:
2 tbsp. grapeseed oil
1 large shallot, peeled & diced
2 tbsp. fennel seeds
4 fennel bulbs with fronds
1/4 cup of cognac or white wine
6 cups of water
chicken skin from 6 thighs
2 dozen cherry tomatoes
3-4 cups of olive oil
2 lbs. (4 servings) fresh cod fillet
Bring a medium pot of water to a simmer and turn off flame. Add the tomatoes for 25 seconds then remove and run under cold water. Use a knife to pierce the skin and peel the tomatoes by hand. Set the tomatoes aside.
Portion the cod into 4 thick fillets. Season the cod fillets with salt and set aside.
Roughly dice 3 of the fennel bulbs with fronds. Slice the fourth fennel bulb into 4 “steaks” and roast them in the oven at 350 until soft and slightly browned, about 30 minutes. Reserve some of the fronds for garnish. Heat the grapeseed oil in a pot on medium flame. Add the shallots and fennel seeds and cook for 4-5 minutes until softened. Take care to avoid any burning. Add the 3 diced fennel bulbs with fronds. Saute this for 5-6 minutes until fragrant. Add the cognac to deglaze the pot. Then add the water and parsley, cover, and let simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile heat a nonstick frying pan on medium and place the chicken skin in the pan, fatty side down. Fry these on both sides until crisp and golden brown, about 10 minutes in all, then set aside to cool.
Finally, heat the olive oil in a small pot (preferably non-stick) on medium low. Pat the cod fillets dry. When the temperature has reached 180, add two of the fillets to the oil. The oil should not bubble aggressively; if it is, lower the temperature. The fillets should poach in the oil for about 10 minutes. If they are not fully submerged in oil, turn them over halfway through. Repeat with remaining fillets.
By now the fennel broth should be done. Pour the liquid through a strainer lined with cheesecloth and discard the solids. Season to taste with sea salt.
To serve, place one fennel “steak” in the center of each shallow soup bowl with one cod fillet on top of it. Place several tomatoes around the cod. Ladle the fennel broth into the bowl. Crumble the chicken skin (gribenes) on top of the cod fillet. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve immediately.