I’ve been craving a new cookbook for months. I’ve exhausted all the recipes on my shelf and I’m practically itching for a shiny new tome to start cooking my way through. But my cookbook shelf is full to capacity and my neurotic need to keep all my books in one place has so far trumped my craving to expand the collection. Plus, there are a few books of my dad’s that have been woefully neglected over the years. And so, I’m dusting them off and finding all the new-to-me recipes that I’ve been ignoring for too long.
And I’m so glad I did. Oh, the food I’ve discovered! I’ve been focusing on two books in particular. The first is from Hamersley’s Bistro, a South End classic until this past October, when it closed after more than a quarter century. I remember going to Hamersley’s with mom and dad as a kid, I’m sure we ordered the roast chicken because that’s what you get when you go to Hamersley’s. It’s incredibly simple, but so well done that every chicken you had before pales in comparison. Of course, dad bought the cookbook. He liked to do that, buy cookbooks from restaurants that he respected, not for their creativity, but for doing the basics really, really well.
I’ve always wanted to be attracted to that type of cuisine or cookbook or recipe, but like a magpie drawn to shiny objects, I’m a sucker for exciting spices, unusual flavor combinations, and really pretty pictures. But several years ago, after eating at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, I was so won over by the idea of simple food straight from the garden, that I bought her cookbook. It’s more like an instruction manual: how to pound a sauce, how to whisk an aioli, how to saute greens. It went on a shelf and I guiltily ignored it – the recipes just seemed too plain – until this past month. I’ve made piperade and spaghetti with kale and the simplest baked fish with compound butter. Oh, this butter. With lemon and shallots and parsley. I’ve slathered it on everything – dolloped it on steamed vegetables, smeared it on a seared steak, folded it into hot couscous. It tastes like summer, like a dinner my dad would cook in July, cooked simply, eaten slowly, and remembered fondly.
Baked Rockfish with Lemon & Parsley Butter from In the Green Kitchen by Alice Waters
10 to 12 sprigs Italian parsley
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
1 to 1½ pounds rockfish fillets (or other fish; 4 to 6 ounces per serving)
First make the lemon and parsley butter. Grate the zest of the lemon. Chop the leaves of the parsley. Peel and finely dice the shallot, put it in a bowl, and squeeze lemon juice over to just cover. Let the shallot macerate in the juice for 10 minutes, then add the butter, lemon zest, and parsley. Season with salt and a generous amount of black pepper, and mash the butter to mix everything together.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish or roasting pan, or line with parchment paper. Place the fillets in the baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and moisten lightly with olive oil. Bake the fish for 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets, until just cooked through but still moist. Serve with a spoonful of the parsley butter on top of each fillet.
Make the butter with another herb or combination of herbs (basil, chervil, chives, fennel, tarragon). If you like anchovies, add 3 or 4 chopped salt-packed anchovy fillets to the butter.
Season and oil the fillets and wrap in fig leaves, grape leaves, or fennel branches for added flavor and to keep them moist while baking.
Bake a whole fish at 375°F; it will take longer than fillets. If you like, make several diagonal cuts through the flesh to the bone for faster cooking. Season the fish and stuff the cavity of the fish with fresh herbs. If you have access to large branches of fennel or other herbs, wrap the whole fish in the branches and tie them closed before baking.