Recipe 3: Merluza ala Sidra (Braised Hake in Sidra)

That merluza, or hake, is not expensive and is the most regularly eaten fish in Spain, does not diminish how highly it is prized. It is found in a variety of regional specialties and on menus everywhere fried as merluza a la romana, a recipe I will post soon. But as I frequently have an open bottle of sidra from the day’s sampling visits, I most frequently make this Asturian favorite.

Back in my New England days I could only get hake by pre-order from my fishmonger. Commercial fisheries snag it only as by-catch, so it is not actively brought to market except at Portuguese-American stores where finding it is hit-or-miss. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I have found that Chinese seafood markets regularly carry lingcod and black cod, which are suitably delicate and semi-transparent for the dish, where common North American cod is too heavy, dense and white to really marry its flavors with the braising liquid and balance its density with the tender potatoes. I suggest buying a cleaned, sizable longitudinal chunk of lingcod or a whole black cod and cross-cutting your own medallions bone and all.

This dish is sublime eaten immediately and leftovers should be avoided as they will be…meh. It is also a dish that rewards repetition and experienced adjustment of liquid quantities and timing as you pefect your rendition. There is no point to making this only one time, and the basic process is so easy you can enjoy it repeatedly for its simplicity, freshness and healthful vibe even before you have nailed it. But, if it doesn’t just blow you away, you still got some refining to do.

Ingredients (for two servings):

  • Hake, lingcod or black cod: 3 medium diameter medallions (bone-in steaks) per person. Average diameter from 3″ to 4″, and thickness from 1″ to 2″ in proportion to diameter (so their shape will be firm, not floppy).
  • 1 cup +/- Spanish sidra natural. Don’t even bother using another style or source. Seriously. This is not about your cider preferences or politics, but the quality of the dish.
  • 1 russet or 2 medium yellow or white potatoes, peeled and sliced into approx. 5/16″-thick discs.
  • one medium onion peeled and cut into full-round, approx. 1/8″ thick slices
  • 3/4 cup +/- stock (chicken, fish or vegetable)
  • olive oil (can be blended with vegetable oil)
  • 3 tbsp. chopped parsley
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 3 bay leaves
  • salt to taste
  • chunks of crusty bread for dunking

Preparation:

Brown the garlic in a roughly 10″ diameter x 3″ deep heavy pan in 1-1/2″ deep oil to a gentle frying temperature (med. to med.-high). Remove and reserve the garlic before it starts to smell burned. Add potato slices in flat layers and fry until tender but al dente, turning over occasionally to keep the bottoms from burning. Add the onions in a layer about five minutes before the potatoes will be done so that the onions are also tender but not burned. Drain oil and save potatoes and onion on a plate.

Return 2 tbsp. of the oil to the pan over med.-low heat, spread the potatoes and onions evenly over the bottom of the pan, toss in the browned garlic and the sidra to fill pan to 3/4″ above the potatoes.

Distribute the fish medallions evenly atop the potatoes, add stock to fill to the just below the top of the fish, the bay leaves and most of the parsley. Bring liquid to light simmer and cook for about 15 minutes, carefully flipping the medallions once. The cooking is finished when the medallions are white, a probe into the flakes shows that they are cooked through, and the liquid has tightened up with the starch from the potatoes and evaporation. It should be rich but soupy enough to invite dunking chunks of crusty bread.

Serving:

Serve potatoes, onions and sauce into shallow soup plates and place the medallions on top toward the center of the plate. Garnish wish a bit of the fresh parsley. Do provide a soup spoon to get all of the sauce if the bread runs out or you are gluten free.

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