Man has been catching cod for more than a millennia. The pursuit of this mild white fish led the Vikings, and then the Basques to North America centuries before Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage. But like all good fishermen, these early seafarers kept their best fishing spots a secret.
In his best-selling book Cod, Mark Kurlansky details an old folktale about a man who caught a three-foot-long cod that spoke Euskera, the enigmatic language of the Basques. The story, he says, shows not just the Basque’s attachment to their language, whose roots are still unknown, but also to that of the codfish, which is found nowhere near Spain. Yet the Basques were prolific cod fishermen, and their salt cod found a market across Europe. Because of this, I can’t help but feel some kinship with my Basque ancestors every time I haul a cod from the depths.
Boston Light, with the city skyline in the background
Summer unofficially kicked off last weekend, and I found myself a few miles off Grave’s Light on Monday, once again fishing for cod. It was a near-perfect afternoon, a bit hazy, but with hardly a lick of wind, so the day actually felt like summer. I sat on the back of the boat facing east, bouncing my rod in an up and down motion that I imagine makes my jig look like a tasty minnow to the cod several fathoms down. Before long, I felt the tug of something on the other end of my line.
As fish go, cod are one of the less interesting ones to catch, as they put up almost no fight. Bottom feeders, they lunge at silver lures and then sit on the hook like a sack of potatoes that has to be hauled up to the surface, a distance that can range from 100 to 400 feet, depending on the water temperature.
That dead weight always makes me think I have a bigger fish on the end of my line than I actually do. Still, I squealed when this one came into sight; my first fish of the year and a keeper at that.
When it comes to eating, cod can get interesting. The flesh is mild and flaky, taking on the flavors of whatever you dress it with- a squeeze of citrus, a dusting of curry or just a handful of crumbled Ritz crackers. Two years ago, I participated in the Cape Ann Fresh Catch’s Community Supported Fishery (CSF). Much like a CSA, I received a portion of a Gloucester fisherman’s catch every week. And in that inaugural year, I got cod almost every week. I made cod tacos, cod cakes, cod salad, cod ceviche, broiled cod and fried cod. “I’m starting to feel like Forrest Gump,” I wrote at the time.
The following year, I decided to forego the CSF and instead catch the fish myself. To me, there’s something sacred in the act of following something from living breathing organism to a nourishing meal. If more people did this, I think there’d be far less food waste and far more appreciation for the habitat where these creatures live. Still, there’s an element of self-indulgence to it as well. If fresh fish wasn’t so tasty, and a day out on the ocean weren’t so pleasurable, I wouldn’t bother venturing after it at all.
I enjoyed my cod with a few dear friends later in the week. Poached in brown butter and sage, it set the tone for a night of merriment, and the promise of the summer to come.
Cod cooking tips:
I find it’s best to keep it simple when it comes to cooking fresh cod, which is an entirely different fish from the frozen stuff you’ll find at the grocery store. As the whole point is to enjoy the freshness of the fish, so there’s no sense in overdoing it with tons of spice or elaborate sauces. A touch of miso, a squeeze of lemon, or a smear of herb butter is really all that’s needed. Fresh cod will fall apart when cooked, but there are a few ways to counter this.
The first is to cook it fast, over high heat. Because olive oil doesn’t tolerate high heat very well (it has a low smoking point) I almost always cook my cod in butter.
The second is to touch the fish as little as possible while it’s cooking. When I fillet the fish I leave the skin on, and when I cook it, I lay the fillet skin down in the pan. Rather than flipping them, I cover the pan and let the steam do the work. I also baste the fish while it cooks, to permeate it with flavor. The flesh will slide easily from skin once the fish is cooked.