When I was invited to cook up a post for our Cooking with the Collection series, the first thing that came to my mind was cod — both the painting by William Merritt Chase that hangs in the museum’s McDowell Galleries and the tasty, flaky fish that I often enjoy eating at home.
Turning to the painting first, I’m particularly glad to rope it in here because I’ve heard from a few fellow staff members that it’s not among their favorite works on view. To that I say, sure the painting is somewhat dark, and the central cod itself looks a bit glum on Chase’s table, but the impressive qualities of the work start with the artist’s abundant enthusiasm for his subject. He wrote: “I enjoy painting fishes; in the infinite variety of these creatures, the subtle and exquisitely colored tones of the flesh fresh from the water, the way their surfaces reflect the light, I take the greatest pleasure. In painting a good composition of fish, I am painting for myself.”
If the renowned painter and art teacher found so much good reason to paint fish like this one, I think we owe his work a closer look. We can find the delicate greens and pinks that Chase included in in his cod, making it surprisingly luminous and even colorfully iridescent. We can discover the painting’s rich reflections: not just the slight but clear hues of the cod reflected in the wood below it, but also the whirling blurs shining off of the vase behind it (including a distinct, upright, white shape with a protrusion extending out from it towards a darker shape to the left — maybe a fuzzy self-portrait of the artist applying paint to his canvas?). And we can note that the painting’s overall darkness, perhaps gloomy at first glance, provides a foundation from which Chase could launch these adventurous bits of brightness.
Now on to cooking, there’s only one sort of cod that can live up to the lush shadows of Chase’s painting: black cod, also known as sable cod. Sable is really just a fancy way to say black with a lesser-known word, but this fish’s scales are so dark that they deserve it. Now, before I discuss how this meal was cooked, I should give credit where it’s due and mention who did the cooking. While I’m the designated dishwasher and do plenty of other things around the house, I rely upon my wife Emily when it comes to food preparation — without her I’d almost certainly be eating mediocre pasta every night. Luckily she was willing to volunteer her cod-cooking skills for this occasion, provided that I kept her company and took the necessary pictures.
Here’s the simple recipe, including okra, one of many vegetables that can be grilled alongside the fish. Feel free to substitute any variety of cod that’s available, but I really do recommend the sable!
1. Brush with avocado oil. No need to brush any sides with scales — the scales come off easily once the fish has been grilled. Avocado is an optimal oil for grilling because it maintains its integrity at high heat. Other oils won’t necessarily taste bad when grilled, but this is a much healthier option.
2. Sprinkle with crushed alder smoked salt. Birch, applewood, mesquite, hickory, or other smoked salts would all be fine too. Each will add its own pleasant flavor.
3. Grill for roughly 3 to 5 minutes on each side at roughly 300 degrees. I’d be more declarative about these numbers, but at my house we tend not to worry about being particularly exact!
1. Roll in mixture of fresh lemon juice, avocado oil, and alder smoked salt. A ratio of about 60–40 avocado oil to lemon juice works well. Add a couple pinches of salt and then whisk until the salt dissolves and the mixture is smooth
2. Grill along with the fish, rolling every so often to cook evenly.
As I said at the outset, I’ve eaten this dish before. On this particular occasion it was just as silky-smooth in texture and buttery-rich in taste as I’d remembered. And it was especially enjoyable to have it in honor of William Merritt Chase and his keen appreciation of cod.