Tinkering with the tomato tapenade

January 28, 1998|By Rob Kasper

THERE ARE SEVERAL ways to describe a dish that doesn't quite measure up to your expectations.

One is to call it "a work in progress." Another is to say it needs "fine-tuning" or that "some tinkering is required."

All these euphemisms were trotted out the other night as my wife and I analyzed the dish of roasted cod topped with a sun-dried tomato tapenade that we had cooked for dinner. It was pretty good. But we were expecting it to be better. The fish was fine, but the tapenade tasted slightly off. Too peppery, a bit acidic.

I was emotionally invested in the success of this dish. Earlier in the day I had traveled to the Cross Street Market to fetch the ingredients.

I got the goods in four stops. First I bought fresh cod fillets at Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood stand. Next I walked through the market to the newly expanded digs of the Cross Street Cheese Co. There I got black olives, the green peppercorns, the sun-dried tomatoes and the anchovies. Then I walked outside the market to the Lanasa produce shop on Cross Street to get fresh basil, and while I was in the vicinity I ambled into Sisson's for a growler of its delicious Stonecutter stout, my reward for going grocery shopping.

Back home I looked at the photo of this dish in "Delia Smith's Winter Collection" (Random House, 1997, $35). The one other dish my wife and I had tried from this cookbook, a cauliflower and broccoli number, had been a big hit. I was counting on the book's roasted fish dish to keep the good supper times rolling.

My appetite was all stirred up. My mouth was watering. The silverware was twitching in my hands. Then the dish arrived at the table and I dug in. Instead of celebration, there was deflation.

The dish wasn't great, but with a little tinkering it might be. So as we ate, my wife and I did some detective work on our supper. We took a second look at what we did, and how we did it.

The main question was, had we followed directions. This seems pretty basic, but like many harried cooks, my wife and I tend to take shortcuts, to omit ingredients we don't have on hand, to skip a step in the procedure because we don't have time. Sometimes you can get away with these shortcuts, sometimes you can't.

In this case, I thought we had been exceptionally obedient. Not only had we fetched all the ingredients the recipe called for, we had also used them in the correct sequence. There had been no "oops."

My wife, a stickler for details, pointed out that there was one spot where we had strayed from the script. We had slipped up on the sun-dried tomatoes. The recipe called for using tomatoes that not only basked in the sunshine but also swam in jars of olive oil. The tomatoes we had used had been out in the sun, but had not taken a follow-up dip in olive oil. Our tomatoes were like people who go to a swimming pool for a tan, but never get in the water. They had beautiful skin, but no moisture.

Using the dry tomatoes also meant that we then had to substitute plain olive oil for the tomato-flavored oil that the recipe called for. It was a slight change, but perhaps a significant one. The tomato-flavored oil might have toned down the harsh flavor notes of the tapenade.

Our investigation also revealed that we have to get tough on the peppercorns. We found some whole peppercorns in the tapenade. Their presence sent quite a surprise to the taste buds, and it was a signal that they had not spent enough time getting batted around in the food processor.

We agreed that from now on, those peppercorns are going to be in for a longer, harder ride in the food processor. And from now on, they will be traveling with tomatoes that swim.

Roasted Fish Topped With Tomato Tapenade

Serves 6

TAPENADE:

1 1/2 cups pitted black olives in brine, drained and rinsed, or 6 ounces loose

1 bunch basil leaves

1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained, but reserve the oil

1 heaping teaspoon green peppercorns in brine, rinsed and drained

2 large cloves garlic

2-ounce tin of anchovies, including the oil

2/3 cup capers, drained and pressed between double layers of paper towels

3 tablespoons oil from tomatoes

freshly ground black pepper

FISH:

6 pieces of cod or haddock, weighing 6-7 ounces each, skin removed

salt and freshly ground black pepper

olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Set aside six olives and six medium basil leaves. Place all remaining tapenade ingredients in food processor and blend together to a coarse paste. It is important not to overprocess; the ingredients should retain some of their identity.

When you are ready to cook the fish, wipe the fillets with paper towels, season with salt and pepper, then fold them by tucking thin end into center and thick end on top of that so you have a neat, slightly rounded shape. Place the fish on an oiled baking sheet, then divide the tapenade mixture equally among them, using it as a topping. Press it on quite firmly with your hands, then lightly roughen the surface with a fork. Dip the reserved basil leaves in olive oil and place one on top of each piece of fish, following that with an olive. Now place the baking sheet on the high rack in the oven, bake the fish for 20-25 minutes, and serve immediately.

From "Delia Smith's Winter Collection" (Random House, 1997, $35).

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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