Eggs go with almost anything

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I love Paula Wolfert. I don’t want to sound like a stalker, but I’ve been writing and rewriting a letter for over a year begging her to take me with her on her travels. (One day, I will send it.) I love the adventure of her life, that her recipes always seem to come with some story about going to a tiny village in the mountains and finding a Georgian peasant woman who instructs her on how to make bread using the village oven. But I love even more how homey all her food feels. It’s not so much that all her recipes are simple, though many are. It’s more that even the elaborate ones use simple techniques that women have used for centuries, rather than some new technology for foaming carrots. I can’t be overly nostalgic about this world of women spending all day, everyday cooking dinner, but it’s somehow reassuring to me to know some things don’t have to change. There’s so little about my life that my grandmother would recognize, but she would know why it’s so important to me to cook with care and love.

I’ve been cooking from my two Paula Wolfert cookbooks and her website all winter. This past Friday, I had to use up half a can of chickpeas, and a friend was coming over for a last-minute dinner, so I made “Chickpeas and Swiss Chard in the Style Tunisian Sahel (Morshan)”. I couldn’t believe how good this was. It’s so simple, I didn’t expect it to taste anything other than simple and clean, but it had this amazingly deep and earthy spiciness. I’m Korean, I know all about spicy, except when I eat dishes like this and I realize I don’t. I would love to write a book on how the New World pepper traveled the globe changing diets in unimaginable ways.

Saturdays and Sundays are my days to try out more elaborate recipes, and I was excited to try the “Tunisian Poached Fish with Olives, Preserved Lemons and Capers” in “Slow Mediterranean Cooking.” “Slow,” unsurprisingly, has a lot of recipes that involve many, many steps. I almost always end up with all four burners going, and I should find that annoying, but I don’t. The amount I need to concentrate, to understand a description of a technique or an ingredient I’ve never even seen, reminds me of when I was little and practiced Bach on the piano. It’s the deepest kind of relaxation, where the task at hand crowds out all other thoughts from my brain.

Here’s a shortish paraphrase:

Ingredients:
1.75 lbs fresh halibut steak
salt and pepper
1 t. ground cumin
1 small hot fresh pepper
4-6 baby onions, preferably red
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, grated
2 medium tomatoes, halved, seeded, and grated
1 head of garlic, cloves separated
1 T. tomato paste
1 t. le tabil or ground coriander seeds
1 cup brine-cured green olives, rinsed and drained
flour, for dusting
4 cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 preserved lemon peel, rinsed, drained and cut into thin julienne
1 T. chopped celery leaves

1. Rinse the fish, pat dry with paper towels. Season each piece with salt, pepper, and cumin and cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
2. Steam the hot pepper and baby onions until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Stem, seed, and coarsely chop the pepper. Peel the onions.
3. In a deep-sided medium skillet, heat 2 T. of the olive oil. Add grated red onion and cook over medium heat until softened. Add tomatoes and cook until excess moisture evaporates. Add garlic, tomato paste, tabil or ground coriander, olives, hot pepper, baby onions and 1 cup water. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. The sauce should be thin, light, and very hot.
4. Heat the remaining 1 T. oil in a large nonstick skillet. Dust the fish with flour and fry until skin is crusty. Pour hot sauce over the fish. Add the cherry tomatoes, capers, preserved lemon and simmer over low heat for 1 minute. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes. Garnish with chopped celery leaves.

I modified a fair amount. No baby red onions, so I used pearl onions. Tomatoes aren’t in season, so Pomi chopped tomatoes had to do. I hate celery, so no garnish. And the farmers’ market where I got my fish told me to use fluke for halibut, which made me happy since Atlantic halibut isn’t sustainable. But it all worked!

Of course, I had to figure out how to make this properly without having to end up eating it everyday for a week. Fish is always a particular challenge, since I don’t mind eating pork roast 3 days after it’s made, but fish definitely doesn’t keep. The original recipe is meant to feed 4 to 5. The fish guy at the market had fluke fillets and whole flukes. Fillets always seem so sissy to me, but what was I going to do with a whole 1.5 lb. fish for myself? I ended up hacking off about half a pound and then freezing the rest. But with the rest of the recipe, I left the quantities pretty much the same. I’ve found through painful, dried-up experience that you can’t really halve oil in the pan and liquids in general, unless you use a smaller pan than the recipe calls for, and I am of the school that one should have pans that are too big than too small.

The dish was a triumph. The fish was as tender as Paula promised, though the sauce not as thin as promised. Nevermind, it was delicious. I ate my big half-pound portion so quickly, I forgot to take a picture.

And with all the leftover sauce, I had two very good breakfasts. I was thinking about huevos rancheros and fried eggs cooked in salsa, how much I love a good fried egg, and how I often eat olives and tomatoes for breakfast, and it was the most natural thing to heat up the leftover sauce in a pan and fry an egg in the middle of it. Eggs really go with almost anything, especially when there’s bacon, too.

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