There was only one cookbook in our kitchen cupboard in my childhood home on Partridge Lane. A whiteplastic, spiralbound Junior Women’s Club collection, with typewriter written recipes and mimeographed pages, tattered and stained and dog-eared. My mother was not a good cook. Her most famous and fondly-remembered dishes including the monochromatic chicken in white sauce, which consisted of chicken parts boiled to death in a pressure cooker, combined with thin and oily “sauce” made from, I think, mostly chicken fat, and served over linguini. To my childish palette, this tasted like heaven. Typical dinners also included meatloaf, which I dipped in America’s favorite mayonnaise; arid, overwrought pork chops, which we dipped in Mott’s; the trashy/classic American Chop Suey (American Chop Sucky) and for special occasions, a dessert so eighties it evokes a Laura Ashley bedroom set upchucked on a platter: Stella D’oro crumpets stuffed with pineapple ambrosia. We ate a lot of Chinese takeout and pizza every Friday. On Saturday, my dad made steak. There were many things my mother did well, but dinner was not among her myriad gifts. She was a scathing letter-writer, a great enabler for shopping sprees at the mall, and knew how to make Christmas an absolute miracle of cheer and delights. But if I have any penchant for cooking, for following a recipe and taking pleasure in the process, it is not the result of Deb’s genetic offerings.
I have enjoyed collecting cookbooks, but never seem to have the ingredients or wherewithal to follow their specific instructions completely. I used to get anxiety just reading a recipe all the way to its conclusion and developed a bad habit in my early domestic days of combining every vegetable in the refrigerator with penne, and calling it dinner. I have stretched a little since then as a home cook and resolved to not just stroke the sultry bindings of my hardcover manuals, but see if I can tease out their culinary secrets as well. Last year Malcolm gave me New Classic Family Dinners by Mark Peel, which is full of sumptuous photos, smart writing, and simple yet elegant cuisine from the chef at Campanile in Los Angeles. But we were living in Mexico, where it is easier to find a fresh pig’s head than a bushel of sweet ocean mussels. So the book languished on the shelf until I packed it in my suitcase six months ago and hauled it back to the land of haddock and pancetta. Leafing through it in front of the fire, I found a cozy dish for another snowy day. The original calls for monkfish, but I did a little quick search and discovered that haddock is a fine substitution. While the snow began to accumulate, we drove down the hill to Free Range Fish and Lobster, for the main ingredients and a Standard Baking Company baguette. I also picked up a bunch of asparagus and two lemons, for those of you keeping score. I had to make a few other omissions and substitutions and will transcribe the recipe, with the necessary edits and amendments, which I am following for our supper this winter’s night.
Haddock Ragout with Mussels, Bacon, and Peas
adapted from New Classic Family Dinners by Mark Peel
- 1 1/2 pounds haddock, cut into (c)hunks
- 1/4 pounds thick cut bacon, cut into thin strips
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/4 cup minced shallots
- 1 huge garlic clove, also minced
- 2 thyme sprigs
- 1 1/2 pounds mussels
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons parlsey ( I had the curly kind)
- salt and pepper
Season the fish and set aside. Combine bacon, olive oil and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes. Then add wine, shallots, garlic, thyme (“come to us while there’s still time!”*) and bring to a boil. Add mussels, cover and cook until they open, at which point remove the pot from heat immediately, remove mussels pouring out their juices into the pan before they go. Here’s where chicken broth goes into the pan – bring it all back up to a simmer, now you add fish and peas. Cover this, turn down the heat and let it cook for about 7 minutes, or until the fish is firm and opaque. While this was happenening, I shelled the little bivalves and rinsed them under the tap. Adjust the seasoning, stir in mussels, butter and parsley, and serve in shallow soup bowls with crusty, buttered bread. The resulting dish appeared light but was shockingly filling, very aromatic. Good, perhaps even super tasty.
Like so much of my existence, I have vast doubts and uncertainties regarding this lovely dish. But I am hopeful. Though many questions remain, including, “what is a ragout anyway?” and, “do I even like monkfish?” we must press on. Drink life to the lees and above all, enjoy your snow days, fellow travelers.