the grub street diet

Mark Kurlansky Does, in Fact, Cook a Lot of Cod

“No fat, pure protein from the hardscrabble North Atlantic.”

Kurlansky, and his fish. Illustration: Margalit Cutler
Kurlansky, and his fish. Illustration: Margalit Cutler

“There’s a difference between something being ‘common’ and something being ‘ordinary,’ and usually things become common because they aren’t ordinary, right?” says Mark Kurlansky. The author of books such as Salt and Cod, he was explaining why he decided to write a whole book about onions. “Basically, the short answer is because they were underrated,” he says. The Core of an Onion is both the title of the book, and something like a mantra for Kurlansky’s cooking: “Onions are this remarkable thing that we don’t give much credit to because,” he says, “they’re just always there.”

Wednesday, November 1
It’s morning. Pie time. That always feels good. I have a piece left of the small apple pie I bought at the 79th street farmers’ market last weekend. E.B. White once wrote that the definition of a New Englander was someone who eats pie for breakfast. I am a case in point. My father, who was from Boston, loved pie for breakfast and every year on his birthday he would celebrate with a morning slice of apple pie with cheddar cheese. I always have apple strudel for my birthday breakfast, proving one of my father’s favorite expressions: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The saltiness of cheese goes well with apple pie, and I often include it. But this morning, for variety, I have my apple pie with a Basque sheep cheese, Ossau-Iraty. Half the fun of Basque food is that you get to say weird words.

I make an espresso. This is not because I need a midweek lift. I drink espresso every morning, as strong as possible, not acidic but with a deep, round, powerful bitterness. It is a habit I picked up many years ago, living in Paris with not much money, where it was price controlled and about the cheapest thing you could get at a café. Today in America, if a hotel doesn’t offer espresso, this is a reason for me to find another hotel. I cannot enjoy an espresso unless the cup is in a saucer. I can’t explain this, but right now I am drinking from a yellow Italian glass cup with a green glass saucer and I am happy.

I eat pie or pastry for breakfast and there are only a few cultures that can lure me away from my usual, such as some of the mild breakfast soups in Asia. In New Orleans I am very happy with a hot beignet, which you can also buy on the street in Paris, but Paris for me has infinite breakfast choices. A beignet has to be hot out of the fryer. Cold doughnuts are inedible, as is all cold fried food, especially for breakfast. Jamaica has the world’s best breakfast of akee and salt fish, callaloo and bammy, and a Welsh breakfast is fine if you can find it — laverbread and cockles and the circular scones known as Welsh cakes. I could be happy with just Welsh cakes and espresso. Beware of English breakfast, though, which I think is simply an expression of the dreariness of the weather.

Tonight, I am making medallions of filet mignon with a dark, thick wine sauce. It is one of my daughter’s favorites. Sometimes I put a slice of foie gras on top, which technically makes the dish tournedos Rossini, but then you are slipping into the world of haute cuisine. I think Carême invented it and named it after the composer. We are going to skip the foie gras. Haute cuisine is too much about impressing the rich. So is a lot of cuisine. We’re going to keep it simple. No composers here except when there is someone at the hallway and Sabine, my large apricot-colored poodle, starts singing an aria by the door.

Thursday, November 2
This morning I have an Orwashers croissant with my espresso. Athletic Sabine tries to swipe the croissant. She’s fast. She doesn’t care about espresso. In France you get a choice between a regular croissant and a croissant beurre. Unless you are somehow deranged, you get the croissant beurre. But here in America, as teachers tell the grade-school children, “you take what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

I never know what to do about mid-day eating unless I am meeting someone. I eat a lot of fruit — sweet Muscat grapes today. I love fruit. A peach at the moment of full ripeness is the most perfect food, unless it is an Anjou pear. Neither is available this week. When I travel I sometimes don’t get enough fruit and develop a craving. When I was in the Tibetan highlands, where no fruit grows, I grew desperate.

And while I am confessing, I love lemonade along with my lunch. The trick is to have very little sugar in it, if any. One solution is to make it myself. But I have too much work today, and there is a little store in my neighborhood, at 87th and Columbus, that makes it fresh and asks you how much sugar to put in. A teaspoon does it for a tall glass.

For dinner, I make grilled duck breast with sliced apples. Both the duck and the apple were local, from the market. I roasted a whole medium-size onion with it.

In the summer, I grill duck breast with peaches. In the spring there are white onions fresh out of the ground without a skin even grown on them yet. They are the best roasters, but you have to take what the seasons allow you. Duende, the nimble cat, reached over with her clawed paw and got a small piece of duck. She wasn’t going to fall for the apple.

Friday, November 3
I have my Friday-morning espresso with a sticky bun. What a tacky name for such a glorious thing (but maybe it describes it well). The best sticky bun I have ever seen appeared in the 2009 film The Proposal. Intruding parents bring a tray of them into the bedroom. They are large and magnificent. Everyone gets into a heated argument, and I sit there thinking, Isn’t anyone going to eat one of those? No one ever does. The film business is wasteful. I wonder if the crew got them.

Tonight I grill swordfish with a light touch of cayenne pepper. I serve it with a Peruvian condiment made from thinly sliced red onions and lime juice. The lime releases the red dye of the onions, and the entire thing becomes bright fuchsia. I keep it in a tub in the refrigerator. It adds great color to the dish and, between the lime and the onions, startling flavor.

This is nice with a white wine, a big one like a Chablis, though also good with a martini. I am the only martini drinker in the family. Stirred, never shaken, Mr. Bond. The vermouth is from a light spray from a little atomizer my father once gave me. I think he liked martinis even more than apple pie. When I am doing book events, a process I am starting up again next week, martinis are my reward. When I am signing books, I am thinking of my upcoming martini.

Saturday, November 4
An Orwasher’s blueberry scone and espresso is a good start for Saturday, the Shabbat scone, even though blueberries are no longer in season. They have those artificial ones all year long. In September, it is worth a long drive to Maine to get wild blueberries, one of the great fruit delights, but the season is over now. I’m eating some purple plums, one of the last of the fall fruits along with apples.

For dinner to welcome November, I make a pot au feu: short ribs, marrow bones, leeks, herbs, and carrots cooked in a broth, coarse salt on top. And I throw in an onion. Are you beginning to see that I throw an onion into almost everything? Sabine’s apricot nose is twitching at the fragrance. This is one meal for the whole family. My wife, Marian, loves the marrow, and Sabine loves the bones.

This is a very French dish that cries out for some wine, an informal red. We have a Côte du Rhone. Then you are so in the groove you might follow it with a piece of camembert and a tarte tatin for dessert. I like to make tarte tatin, but tonight I don’t. Saving pie for breakfast.

Sunday, November 5
This is the official end of daylight savings time, though no one really knows why. To me, it means waiting an extra hour before morning pie (the time is spent resetting all the clocks).

Sunday, of course, is the big breakfast. Before going to the local farmers’ market, there is my favorite television show (except possibly Antiques Roadshow) on TCM, called Noir Alley. Every Sunday, they show a film noir with commentary. I look forward to it all week. I watch it with an espresso and a pain aux raisins that I can slowly untwist and eat while watching the mystery unfold. This week, it is Abandoned, a 1949 film about a gang that steals and sells babies, starring Gale Storm, who did not become a star until later on TV shows, and Dennis O’Keef, a film-noir staple. Creepy Raymond Burr was lurking in the shadows, as he often was until TV turned him into a good guy. There was some wit to the Bill Bowers dialogue with lines such as “Don’t walk through any open drawbridges” — words to live by.

After the film — I don’t want to stereotype myself since I wrote a whole book about the subject — but on Sunday mornings I walk to the farmers’ market to buy some cod. It is a market for local produce and Warren brings in the catch from Montauk. He has read some of my books and sometimes loans me books he has found on marine subjects. He saves fish that I like for me. I always buy the cod. I get striper when it is in season, but that’s not available now.

I bought one of his shining beautiful slabs of swordfish ready for broiling. Scallops are for sautéing with garam masala. I buy some hard shell clams to steam in wine and herbs. I also get a small apple pie for breakfast at the market bakery and some handsome chops from the man who sells Berkshire pork.

This is the morning of the marathon, and you usually see the finished runners with metallic capes looking like they are wrapped in aluminum foil, to be served later. But this year they gave them orange capes so that they look like leftover Halloween treats.

Cod for dinner tonight. There is something pure about cod, so white, broiled in high heat so the edges brown while the big flakes still stay moist. No fat, pure protein from the hardscrabble North Atlantic. Nothing better.

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