Fresh, Fast, and Family-Friendly
I always start getting a hankering for spring towards the end of February. Funny, because we really haven’t had much of a winter this year (though there is presently snow on the ground…finally!). I think this is simply hardwired into my brain from growing up in the Pacific Northwest, where the snowdrops are currently peeking from the ground, and the birds are coming out in full-force from their winter slumbers.
However, as much as spring is my favorite season, and I wish it could be green and lush and spring-like all the time, I really don’t like rushing nature. To be honest, I was disturbed to see a couple of green shoots peeking out from the garden by my front door the other day. And as much as I anticipate spring, when it really comes down to it, I want to hold on to winter for at least the next few weeks.
In the meantime, I can celebrate its awaited arrival by bringing fresh, spring flavors onto my plate!
Fish is a great option for fresh, fast dinners, and cod is my favorite in terms of dependable quality and collective enjoyment, even for those who don’t like fish all that much. Meaty, mild-flavored, and easy to find fresh almost all year long, cod is a great, economical choice for families. It is also an easy fish to prepare, with no (or few) bones, and it is tough to overcook, despite its lean flesh.
I like giving mild and lean fish, like cod, a “crust,” to add dimension and an appealing contrast of texture and flavor. A crust also does double-duty by protecting the flesh from drying out too much in the oven. Here, I’ve used a tasty spinach sauté, with lots of garlic and onion and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, for both a burst of flavor and a veggie side dish incorporated right in. I find methods like this to be a great way to get kids to eat their veggies. Plus, using veggies and cheese, rather than a more typical breadcrumb topping, makes this meal grain-free, suiting those who might limit their grain consumption or follow a paleo lifestyle or ketogenic protocol. To cut back on dishes, I use the same pan for the sauce, while the fish is in the oven, that I use for sautéing the spinach.
The leek sauce is bright, and what really ties this dish together with its fresh, spring flavor and silky texture, providing additional fat and moisture to the lean fish. Young leeks are usually popping up on the scene right about now, and their tender shoots cook quickly, so the sauce comes together in about the same time as it takes to cook the fish itself. Between the cod filets, the spinach topping, and the veggie-rich sauce, you could call this meal complete, requiring nothing more on the plate, but for those who just need something to sop up all the tasty juices, a side of steamed rice or mashed potatoes would be simply divine.
Spinach-Crusted Cod with Lemon-Leek Sauce
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
24-32 oz. cod, cut into 4 filets
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. fresh baby spinach (or other leafy greens of choice)
Salt and pepper
1 pinch nutmeg
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
4 leeks, white and pale green parts only, stalks cut in half horizontally, then thinly sliced into half moons
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup white wine
1 lemon, juiced
¼ cup chicken stock
½ cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
- Slice leeks and submerge in a large bowl of cold water to clean. Swish leeks around periodically to let any grit sink to the bottom of the bowl.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place cod filets in a baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Set aside. Meanwhile, heat butter or olive oil in a large, shallow pan.
- Sauté onions and garlic until tender, about 5-10 minutes. Add spinach and cook until it wilts. Drain excess water from spinach and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, to taste. Stir in about half the parmesan cheese.
- Divide the spinach mixture to top each of the fish filets and sprinkle with additional parmesan cheese. Place in oven and set timer for 12 minutes.
- Check fish at timer; it should be firm and flaking apart, but may need another 5 minutes or so.
- Wipe the sauté pan clean. Heat additional butter in pan. Carefully pull leeks from soaking water. (Do not dump out leeks to drain, or all the soil that has sunk to the bottom will come along, too!) Cook gently in butter with a good pinch of salt, with the lid on, until tender, about 10 minutes.
- Add wine to pan and turn up heat to a boil. Boil until liquid reduces by half, about 1 minute. Add chicken stock and lemon juice, boil a further 1-2 minutes. Add cream and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
When fish is cooked, anywhere from about 12-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of your filets, pull from oven. Spoon sauce onto serving plates, then top each with a piece of fish. Drizzle any juices from fish pan over the top.
Image from Briana Goodall.