When finding something in my freezer for supper is akin to an archeological dig, I take the hint and begin the spring thaw.
I really try my best to stay on top of freezer rotation, bringing last year’s roast beef forward first, making sure no brussels sprouts are desiccating under the stack of pea soup tubs, and using up the bagged leftovers while they are still identifiable.
Sometimes, though, forgotten and often mysterious fish or fowl will unexpectedly surface and frugality drives me to find a way to use it. I won’t eat it just for the sake of it, though, so I’m willing to put some thought into delicious solutions.
Cod au Gratin
If I buy fresh cod, I’m probably poaching, baking or frying it with a minimum of fuss because the flavour and texture need little enhancement. When I find a neglected bag of fillet in the bottom of my freezer, however, some kitchen support is called for.
If you have ever made this dish using raw thawed fish then you know how it weeps while cooking in the white sauce, completely ruining the consistency. Poaching the fish first solves that problem. On the other hand, I recently got served cod au gratin in a medium-fancy restaurant and, while it was tasty, the sauce was thick and almost gluey. I prefer this lighter version that is both silky and flavourful. This makes plenty for 6.
3 lbs. thawed cod fillet
1 cup water
1 tsp. each salt and ground white or black pepper (divided)
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1 small onion, finely minced
1/2 tsp. dried savory
4 tbsp. flour
2 cups milk, heated almost to boiling on the stove or in the microwave
2 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
1-1/2 cups grated old cheddar cheese
Cover cod with water and add about half the salt and pepper. Cover and microwave on high until fish is just about cooked through — how long depends on your microwave, but watch carefully so as not to overcook it or it will be rubbery. Save some washing up by using the final baking dish for this step. Drain and reserve 1 cup of the poaching liquid. Break or cut fish into 2-inch chunks and set aside. Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed pot and fry onion and savory until onion is soft but not brown. Add flour and cook until bubbling hot. Whisk in milk, the cup of reserved poaching liquid, and remaining half of the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until smooth and thick. Stir in parsley and taste; add a little salt and pepper if needed.
Gently, so as not to break up the fish, stir the cod into the sauce. Pour into a greased baking dish and sprinkle cheese on top. Bake uncovered at 400 F just long enough to melt the cheese and maybe get a few brown bits around the edges — about 10 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges and maybe some roasted potatoes.
Rabbit and chickpea stew,
How strange that the warm, sweet southern flavours of Morocco perfectly complement a bunny from our northern fields. This recipe started out with lamb shanks, and if you are fortunate enough to find them locally, I can’t think of a better use for four than right here. This version is equally special, however, and will win over even those among you who say you can’t imagine eating rabbit. My mother mentioned that she had found one in her freezer recently and I thought maybe there was one buried in mine and, in the spirit of spring cleaning, it was time to dig it out. This stew serves 4 to 6, depending on the size of the rabbit.
1 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cleaned rabbit, but into about 6 pieces
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 large carrots, sliced fairly thickly
2 tsp. minced fresh gingerroot
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh green or red hot chilies, seeded and minced (seeds in for extra heat)
1 tbsp. each cumin seeds and coriander seeds
1 tsp. fennel seeds
2 tsp. smoked (or sweet) paprika
2 tsp. dried oregano
1 14-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and well drained
2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large pinch saffron threads
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
1/4 cup each dried apricots and figs, diced
1/4 cup currants
1/2 cup strong black coffee
1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro
1/2 cup blanched whole almonds
1 tbsp. butter
Rub salt and pepper all over rabbit pieces and brown in oil in a Dutch oven. Remove rabbit and set aside. Add onions and carrots. Fry until onions are soft and vegetables are starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add ginger, garlic and chilies and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. In a small, dry frying pan or pot, heat cumin, coriander and fennel seeds until they start to pop. Remove, cool and grind coarsely in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle. You can substitute half the quantity of pre-ground spices but the result won’t be quite as good. Add spices to vegetable mixture, along with smoked paprika. Fry until well combined and fragrant. Stir in oregano, chickpeas, tomatoes, saffron, cinnamon stick, apricots, figs, currants and coffee. Nestle rabbit pieces back into the mixture in the pot and bring up to a boil. Cover and bake at 275 F for 3 hours, or until meat is very tender. Remove rabbit and cover to keep warm. Stir cilantro into pot. Fry almonds in butter until golden. Serve rabbit on a bed of couscous or rice with sauce poured over all and almonds sprinkled on top. Ironically, if you eat all the rabbit and there’s sauce left, it keeps beautifully in the freezer. Just nestle a couple of boneless skinless chicken breasts in the thawed sauce and simmer together for half an hour, or until chicken is cooked through. Déjà vu all over again.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, N.L., A1E 4N1.