Pan-braised rock cod with clams, mussels, tomato and garlic

 "Incidental" catch of rock fish off the southwest Washington coast. The fisherman were trolling for salmon, and these beauties came into the net. The great advantage, these fish are only $3.99 a pound! 

"Incidental" catch of rock fish off the southwest Washington coast. The fisherman were trolling for salmon, and these beauties came into the net. The great advantage, these fish are only $3.99 a pound! 

My obsession with whole fish cookery dates back to early childhood, when I worked on my family's Yaquina Bay oyster farm, on the central Oregon coast. In the summer, six feet below the surface of the salty bay water, large trays of oysters hung on ropes, waiting to be hauled up and shaken, to release the winter mud. (The mud clinging to the bivalves slows their growth.) Sometimes after shaking the mud from hundreds of pounds of oysters, I'd sit on the dock, and occasionally I'd catch a small bay perch. My Aunt Carol never hesitated to cook my catch whole, for dinner, along with oysters, of course.

Over the years, I've found that dinner guests will share my level of enthusiasm for whole fish once it's been de-boned. The task will call on your knife and string skills, and will make eating a whole fish a bit easier. (Watch the video here.)

Or, if it sounds like a job you'd just as soon forgo, purchase thick filets of cod instead. The recipe works just as well and delivers a great family-style dish to pass and share. Otherwise, cook the whole fish, head on and bones intact, for a perfectly rustic and delicious meal.  (As with cooking other meats on the bone, fish cooked with the bones are extra moist and flavorful.  Just choose your dinner guests carefully!

The clams and mussels in the dish contribute shellfish water to the braising liquid when they are added.  If you choose to omit either or both, replace the liquid with  1/2 cup of clam juice or vegetable stock.

Serve the dish in the pan for presentation and a fun food sharing moment at the table.


Ingredients Serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil

One 2-pound (or larger) whole fish, or 4 filets rock cod or other firm white fish

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 bunch green onions, about 6, white parts thinly slivered and green set aside

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped, or 8 garlic scapes ( see photo of finished dish) 

1 pint cherry tomatoes

½ cup dry white wine

1 cup whole tomatoes in their own juice, canned or fresh, blanched and peeled

2 tablespoons whole tarragon leaves 

½ pound mussels. Scrubbed clean and beards removed 

½ pound clams

Juice of one lemon

½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper

Procedure.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat the oil over high heat in a large, wide pan. Generously season the fish with salt, and just before the oil begins to smoke, add it to the pan, skin side down. When the skin side is brown, turn the fish over and brown the other side. Remove the fish from the pan and discard any excess oil. For filets, brown on one side and remove from the pan before proceeding to the next step. 

Add the butter to the pan, followed by the silvered green onion whites, garlic and cherry tomatoes. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, without browning any of the vegetables.

Add the white wine, and tomatoes and their juices, to the pan and bring everything to a simmer. Taste the liquid and season with salt if needed. Add the fish back to the pan, distributing the vegetables around it, and place the pan in the oven. Bake the fish 10 minutes, and then add the clams and mussels and bake for another 10 minutes.(For filets, add the clams and mussels with the filets and bake 10 minutes, or until the clams and mussels start to open. Baste the shellfish with the pan juices as they open, to keep them moist.

If you're unsure whether the fish is cooked through, use an instant read thermometer to check the internal temperature; it should be 135 degrees F. 

Add the lemon juice, cayenne and black pepper to the pan, tasting to see if the sauce needs more salt, or a small piece of butter to thicken and enrich it.

Serve the fish in the pan, with rice and a salad.