it was, to put it somewhat crudely, the armpit of the week, in the armpit of the winter. it was a wednesday night and one of us had broken out in spots. it was february and the snow could not decide to come or go. and the hoary shade of gray out the window was unrelenting.
so i turned to that source of so much solace (and heartache) over the years: the pages of the news. specifically, to the squat square pages the new york times had generously tucked into sunday’s paper. ONE pot|pan|skillet: 24 brilliant recipes for everyone who hates doing the dishes. while i am not among the doing-dishes haters, i am hot on the trail of hauling only one vessel from the depths of where i stash those things. i flipped pages till i came to this:
perhaps it was the orange and red mosaic that reached out and grabbed me. perhaps it was the whisper of my lovely doctor, nudging me to eat more fish, to interrupt the endless nights of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. perhaps it was that nip of spatula en route to plopping a mound of mouth-watering hake onto my dinner plate.
mostly, i think it was the february doldrums, the pitiful sight of the man i love covered in spots we thought were shingles (turns out, they were not), and the simple hope that i could cook myself out of the late-winter rut.
i set out with shopping list, promptly scooped up peppers red and orange and yellow. zipped past the vinegar shelf and got myself a jug of sherry-tinged such stuff. stopped by the olive bar and scooped up a quarter pound from the briny vat in which they swam. oh, and i waited in line for the fishmonger to pluck from his case a hefty chunk of midwest hake (aka plain old cod).
i’m not usually a follower of recipes, but this day — in need of being pulled deep into something other than the news squawking from the box, and the spots at home — i sunk right in. i played along. step 1 to 2, all the way to 5.
i chopped myself my own peppery mosaic, in shades matisse or van gogh would have applauded. i skimmed the itty-bitty leaves of thyme right off their stems. and then i chopped (chopping in the end of winter is highly therapeutic; i recommend).
at last, as the chilly afternoon turned to chilly twilight, i cranked the oven. there began the shifts of submission, as heat turned peppers into succulence, and then raw fish — and olives and olive oil and scattered bits of thyme — became magnificence, as if lifted from aegean seas, and the kouzina of someone’s expert greek grandma.
what wound up on dinner plates was nothing short of wait-who-made-this?! had he not been busy scooping up every last bit with knife and fork, the gent across the table might well have lurched to his feet, and pressed palms in rapid-fire rat-a-tat (aka applause). instead, we both took certain note of what a difference a bit of concentration in the kitchen, the mere act of following instruction, submitting to excursion in the land beyond routine, could do to an otherwise humdrum wednesday.
it’s those nearly invisible moments, the ones we lift out of the ordinary, make sacramental through the sheer gift of our attention and our intent to lift them up, to hoist them from the ho-hum, that in the end makes each day count. and turns out swell eats, besides.
should you care to play along, here’s a very fine place to begin:
Sheet-Pan Roasted Fish With Sweet Peppers By Melissa Clark
YIELD 3 to 4 servings (i made for two, cutting quantity of fish in half, but keeping all the peppers)
TIME 40 minutes
Quick to make and very pretty to behold, this easy weeknight dish has more verve than most. The roasted bell peppers turn sweet and golden, while olives add a salty note that goes nicely with the mild, flaky fish and a garlicky parsley dressing. If you can’t find hake, cod or flounder make fine substitutes, though you may have to adjust the roasting time. The thicker the fillets, the longer they will take to cook. (i cooked cod at 475-degrees for 8 minutes.)
1 small bunch lemon thyme or regular thyme
1 1⁄2 pounds hake fillets (for two, i used 3/4 pounds cod)
Fine sea salt and black pepper
3 large bell peppers, preferably 1 red, 1 orange and 1 yellow, thinly sliced
4 1⁄2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1⁄4 cup pitted, sliced black or green olives, or a combination
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, plus more to taste
1 garlic clove, grated
1 cup loosely packed Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Step 1 Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pull 1 tablespoon thyme leaves off the bunch and finely chop.
Step 2 Season fish all over with a large pinch or two of salt and pepper and rub with chopped thyme leaves. Let rest at room temperature while you prepare peppers.
Step 3 Spread peppers on a rimmed sheet pan, and toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the black pepper to taste. Top peppers with the remaining thyme sprigs. Roast, tossing occasionally, until peppers are softened and golden at the edges, 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 4 Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. Push peppers to the edges of the pan, clearing a space in the center. Lay fish out on that empty space and drizzle with oil. Scatter olives over the top of fish and peppers. Roast until fish turns opaque and is just cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes.
Step 5 Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette by combining vinegar, garlic and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, then whisk in parsley. Taste and add more salt or vinegar, or both, if needed. Serve fish and peppers drizzled with vinaigrette.
i intend to cook my way through at least a dozen of the double dozen choices the times has laid down before me. we’ll be almost at the cusp of the vernal equinox by the time i’m there, and that, i’m certain, will all but save me.
what’s your sure cure for late-winter doldrums? have you heard the shift (and acceleration) in birdsong? that’s hope on a limb, if you ask me…..startles me with joy each and every morning…..