The people of many cultures around the globe consume foods at the end of the year, and especially on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, that, for them, augur good luck or prosperity in the days ahead. Such include long noodles, lentils, greens, black-eyed peas, pork, pomegranates and cornbread.
Fish makes the rounds all over Asia, especially steamed or cooked in a wok whole; in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe by and large in pickled form, but also in various ways in generous smorgasbords; and prepared in myriad manners along the Mediterranean.
Apparently, however, Hungarians don’t serve much fish around Jan. 1. There, it’s considered unlucky because “it will swim away with your fortune.”
In all these other places, though, fish are believed for various reasons to carry luck: Their scales resemble coins; they symbolize abundance because they always swim in schools; they move in one direction only, forward; and they signify fertility because fish females produce multiples of eggs at one time.
In China, the word for fish, “yu,” closely resembles the sounds for both the words for “wish” and “abundance” (or “surplus”).
To that end, a whole fish graces a Chinese New Year’s table — Lunar New Year this year is Jan. 25 — always served at the end of a meal to hammer home multiple meanings: an entire fish symbolizes family unity; a head-to-tail fish augurs well for both a good beginning as well as ending to the coming year; and, because the head and tail are often reserved for eating the next day, one year ends and another begins, both with surplus.
Today’s recipe is a particularly delicious preparation of the piscine that you may make any time of the year. I enjoyed it with gusto the day after Thanksgiving (and its superlative leftovers for a couple of days afterward) at my youngest brother’s home.
Paul’s husband, Meinhard, hails from the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Meinhard’s parents, Johannes and Lena Mortensen, also were visiting and, one night, Meinhard and his mother made a common Faroese fish dish called “fisk i fat” (fish baked in an oven-safe dish).
“When you have some fish and some potatoes,” says Meinhard, “you make this dish.” The description and the ingredients are simple, but as with many simply prepared foods put together with well-chosen and high-quality ingredients, the results rise well above in taste and savor than the sum of the parts.
It is important that the potatoes be sliced as thinly as possible. To that end, use a mandoline. (Inexpensive but entirely adequate ones are available in kitchenware shops and online for around $25.) The cooking time may seem excessive for fish, especially when we’re always given the “10 minutes per inch” rule, but, trust me, the results are rapturous this way.
And, finally, if possible, make much more than you’ll need for Dinner One. As with many leftovers, the flavors develop overnight into more from that which they came and truly give depth to the meaning of “abundance.”
Fisk i fat
Makes 8 servings
- 1 cup cleaned, thinly sliced leeks, white and light green parts only
- 1 medium white onion, small dice
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced see-through-thin
- 1 8-ounce package shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- 8 slices bacon, diced
- 6 or more white cod steaks, of even thickness, each about 1-inch thick, enough to cover the surface area of the baking dish used
With olive oil, cooking spray, butter, or shortening, coat the inside of a large, oven-safe, shallow, 4-quart (or larger) baking dish.
Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a layer of sliced potatoes, then a layer of onion and leeks, then a layer of the shredded cheese, repeating these layers until all the potatoes, leeks, onion, and cheese have been used up, ending with a final layer of cheese. Sprinkle small amounts of salt and black pepper as you make the layers.
Arrange the cod steaks on the top, then sprinkle the bacon bits evenly over the surface of the dish. Pour the cream over everything, being sure it nuzzles itself down through the several layers. Bake for 1 hour in a 375-degree oven until the bacon is just beginning to crisp.
Remove from the oven and place a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the baking dish and continue to bake for another 1 and 1/2 hours.