06/11/14 • BRAISED FISH “STEW”
From the Feb. 9, 2014 New York Times Magazine
It’s been such a long time since my last appearance here that I don’t really know where to begin. Aside from the general rustiness—and associated writer’s block—that seems to have set in after an absence of so many months, there’s the challenge of condensing into a few readable paragraphs what has undoubtedly been one of the most momentous periods in Alfredo’s and my life. When I last logged on we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of our first child, so it will come as no surprise to learn that this emotion-packed period began with the birth of our daughter Carolina just after midnight on January 14th. Like our pregnancy, the delivery itself was smooth and drama free; our surrogate went into labor at about 8:30 pm on the night of the 13th—news that prompted a comedy of classic Daddy panic as we prepared to get out of the house and race to the hospital—and just four hours (and two big pushes later), Alfredo and I were gazing speechlessly into the beautiful face of the new center of our universe.
For me at least that speechlessness continues to this day—I still don’t have the words to fully answer when people ask what the delivery was like for me, or how it feels almost five months later to be a Dad. “Wonderful” and “amazing” are the easy answers to both questions, but it barely scratches the surface of an experience that is so layered and complex. For one thing there’s the miraculous quality of watching a new life emerge before your eyes, witnessing someone you have only imagined from grainy ultrasound images (a miracle all its’ own) suddenly appear before you—a head, then a shoulder, then a torso, until these various slime covered parts take on the unmistakable proportions of a tiny human, a tiny human that you helped to create. It’s an awe filled experience that’s hard to put into words without falling back on the various clichés we’ve all heard a thousand times before (and which I’m trying hard to avoid here). But my feelings around being a parent are no easier to sum up. Of course there’s the joy, and the delight, and the tidal wave of love that’s unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced, but there’s also anxiety, and fears (there are many), and the at times difficult realization that coming home from work and simply flopping down on the sofa is no longer an option, at least not if you hope to have any kind of relationship with your offspring.
I think we’re doing okay, though, figuring things out as we go along and asking lots of questions of the experienced nannies helping us through this process. Most importantly, Carolina seems to be healthy and happy. She’s very generous with her smiles (which take up the entirety of her face when something delights her, which is often) and she’s the perfect baby color—all pink and rosy. That’s actually a big deal for us and brings me to another reason why I’ve been away so long: Carolina’s health.
This presented itself as a major issue at about the eight-week mark, when our pediatrician became alarmed about Carolina’s jaundiced eyes and skin-tone. We’d noticed this too, of course, but being new parents and having been told in the first days of Carolina’s life that jaundice was normal for babies, we assumed the same was true here. I also knew that breast milk can cause the condition, and as our surrogate was pumping and shipping breast milk to us from the west coast, I figured that was probably the culprit here. Our pediatrician thought the same but just to be safe she decided to draw some blood (not a pleasant experience with an eight-week old baby) and run a few tests to confirm our theory. A few hours later she called with the lab results, which revealed that the condition was not caused by some outside factor like breast milk, but that it was the “direct” form of jaundice—in other words, there was a problem with Carolina’s liver.
How serious we didn’t yet know but our pediatrician wasn’t wasting time (itself cause for anxiety), so the next morning we raced to her office for more blood-work. This revealed still more alarming data, thus launching seven days of increasingly terrifying events: a sonogram, a liver biopsy, a multitude of scary phone calls, and finally a five-hour surgery. The problem—initially treated as a distant, worst-case scenario, then growing ever more likely until it became our terrifying, unavoidable reality—was something called biliary atresia, a rare, life-threatening condition that affects about 1 in 10,000 kids, most of them girls. In addition to jaundice we learned that white or putty colored poop is an indicator, both a result of the insufficiently formed biliary tree not allowing the body to eliminate bile. And adding to the stress was the fact that the one surgical option available to correct the problem—the Kasai Procedure—was only successful some of the time, that it worked most often when performed before the baby is 10 weeks old, that we wouldn’t know whether the liver was functioning as it should until three months after the surgery, and that even if successful Carolina would require constant monitoring throughout her life. So not only would we need to move quickly to beat the 10 week cutoff, we would need to prepare ourselves for living with our anxiety for the foreseeable future. Welcome to parenthood.
Needless to say the impact of all this was the emotional equivalent of a nuclear blast: crushing devastation, coupled with a primal impulse to just keep on going. We held it together when we had to—when we were with the baby or were meeting with her doctors—but succumbed to our emotions anytime we were alone, or whenever a friend or family member made it okay to let go, which was often. I can’t recall a time I cried as much or as powerfully as I did through this experience, the kind of racking, heaving emotion I’ve only seen in movies. Still, we willed ourselves to stay optimistic; this was challenging (why is it that in situations like these the mind is compulsively drawn to the worst-case scenario?) but it was something that felt critically important if we were all to get through this. And it helped that we had so many of our friends and family supporting us—cooking for us, holding our hands, offering hugs and comfort. When you are so afraid that every part of your body runs cold, the comfort that comes from simply having loved ones around is enormous, and incredibly sustaining. I don’t know how we would have gotten through this chapter without it.
We also did a lot of (for us) uncharacteristic things like going to church and speaking with a rabbi. I’ve quietly practiced Nichiren Buddhism for the past few years but raised the pitch in the days leading to the surgery, organizing prayer sessions at my apartment and putting out the word to various SGI organizers that there was a two-month old girl in need of prayers. And Alf did the same through his friends and family in Miami, calling on the Catholic community there (the “God squad,” as he calls them) to lend their support. Ultimately we had people around the globe calling on a higher power, in any number of religions, to help Carolina pull through.
So that was comforting too, as was the fact that we had a dream-team of surgeons and specialists at Columbia Presbyterian overseeing things. Between that and the fact that we already knew Carolina to be a strong baby with a powerful spirit, we felt reasonably confident, at least in our most rational moments, that she would pull through the surgery and be just fine. And so far that is exactly what’s happened. The surgery itself, which took place two months to the day after her birth, went off without a hitch, and about seven hours after tearfully handing her over to the surgical team, we were reunited with a smiling (if very groggy) Carolina in the recovery room. And her recovery, which would typically have kept her in the hospital for up to five days, went so well that she was sent home after three. Since then we have watched her grow stronger, fatter, and pinker. And while for many weeks it seemed that the whites of her eyes would never loose their greenish tinge that too has faded over time, to the point where you have to look very hard to discern anything other than purest white. Of course, these were just the visual clues—to be certain that the surgery had worked we would have to test her bilirubin, something we did six weeks after the surgery, and which revealed that her numbers had indeed dropped significantly. We weren’t yet where we needed to be (we test again in a week, and I confess that I am nervous), but the decline was at least a clear indication that the surgery had been successful.
And so life, blessedly, has returned to normal… more or less. I still scan Carolina’s face for any signs of jaundice and always feel the grip of anxiety whenever I enter the pediatrician’s office, but the fact that she’s so content and appears so healthy gives us both a lot of confidence. Which means that I can return to some of the things I pushed aside over the past few months—like this blog! Not surprisingly there hasn’t been a huge amount of time or energy for cooking over the past few months, so in lieu of preparing a complete dinner I’ve gotten into the habit of picking up a prepared entrée somewhere (a roast chicken, meatballs, whatever) and whipping up some roast vegetables or a salad to go with it. Still, I haven’t completely abandoned the concept of cooking dinner. Last Saturday we had a small group of friends over and I grilled steaks (first on the gas grill, which conked out on me mid-way through, then in a cast-iron grill pan on the cook-top), which I served alongside roasted asparagus and these wonderful, rosemary-infused roasted cherry tomatoes.
I’ve also been playing with the attached recipe for braised fish, which ran in the New York Times Magazine in February. Back in those chilly days of mid-winter the recipe appealed to me for its hearty approach to preparing fish—one that’s closer in spirit to a pot roast than it is bouillabaisse. But what I’ve found is that it’s equally enticing in warm weather, since the dish is composed of a variety of vegetables (onions, carrots, potato, fennel) paired with a flaky white fish—monkfish tail, halibut, or swordfish—and enlivened with red wine, paprika, thyme, and an optional pinch of saffron (which I recommend). In other words, just the sort of light, boldly flavored meal that’s perfect for these late spring days.
It’s also wonderfully simple, which more than ever is a prerequisite for any cooking endeavor I undertake these days. To start, pour three tablespoons of olive oil into a Dutch oven placed over medium-high heat. Once hot, lay the fish (lightly salted and peppered) in the pot and let it sizzle in the oil undisturbed for a total of five or six minutes, until it’s nicely browned. Set this aside, browned side up, then add the vegetables and herbs to the pot—along with a little salt and pepper—and stir occasionally until the onion begins to soften, about five minutes or so. With the onions no longer crunchy it’s time to add a few tablespoons of tomato paste and a teaspoon of paprika, a combination that imbues the dish with a reddish hue and a faintly smoky flavor. After a few more minutes of stirring—long enough for the tomato paste to darken a little—pour a half-cup of red wine into the mixture and allow it to cook down to the point where it almost disappears (and its flavor has been absorbed by the accompanying vegetables).
To this fragrant base you then add two and a half cups of beef or chicken stock (I’ve tended to use chicken stock, for no other reason than it seemed a more natural match for the fish), bring to a boil, and allow the mixture to reduce by about a third—a process that should take roughly ten minutes. Once complete, lower the heat to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are almost tender, also about ten minutes. At which point it’s time to reintroduce the star ingredient—the fish—nestling it on top of the vegetables and making sure that the browned side rests just above the liquid. This should then be cooked undisturbed for another ten or fifteen minutes, until both the fish and the vegetables are tender.
Once everything is fully cooked, transfer the fish to a cutting board and slice it into thick chunks. Spoon the vegetables into shallow bowls, lay the sliced fish across the vegetables, and ladle the broth over everything, making sure to first adjust the seasoning. This last point is an important one as I have found on a few occasions—especially those where I did not use saffron—that the broth needed an additional kick. Still, even without that correction the broth and vegetables have a wonderful, mellow flavor—a hint of paprika, the tang of red wine, and the natural sweetness of all those vegetables (especially the fennel, which is a quiet scene-stealer here).
And then there’s the fish itself, essentially a sponge for all the goodness mentioned above. That said, I’ve found the delicate flavor of monkfish or halibut to be better suited to this preparation than swordfish—I liked its meaty, dense texture, but found the flavor to be overpowering in the company of the other ingredients. Also, for those interested in lowering their starch intake, try swapping out the potatoes for a similar quantity of Cauliflower (cut into 1-inch chunks). I won’t pretend that I wouldn’t always rather bite into a potato than a chunk of cauliflower, but the latter does an excellent job of providing the necessary heft here, while also soaking up all the wonderful flavors of the broth. As healthy concessions go, it’s a pretty painless one.
Either way, this recipe is a winner and one I hope you enjoy. For myself I’m very happy to be back on this space. I realized as I was writing this that one of the barriers keeping me from returning to the site was the knowledge that I couldn’t do it without sharing with you all what’s been going on. That was more than I could face, at least until we were breathing a little easier. I’m so thankful that we are now, and that I’ve finally slain the dragon that was this posting.
I’ll be back soon.
—3 tbs olive oil
—1½ to 2 lbs monkfish tail, halibut steak or fillet, or swordfish, as thick as possible and preferably in one piece
—Salt and pepper
—1 onion, chopped
—2 thyme sprigs
—1 pinch saffron (optional)
—3 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
—1 small fennel bulb, cut into chunks
—1 lb potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
—2 tbs tomato paste
—1 tsp smoked paprika (pimentón)
—1/2 cup red wine
—2½ cups beef or chicken stock (TRG note: I used chicken)
—Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
—Put the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When it is hot, sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper, and add it to the pot. Cook, undisturbed, until it is well browned, 5 or 6 minutes. (If you’re using halibut fillet and it has skin, brown the non-skin side.) Transfer it to a plate, browned side up.
—Add the onion, thyme, saffron, carrots, fennel, and potatoes; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes.
—Add the tomato paste and smoked paprika, and cook, stirring, until the tomato paste darkens a bit, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the wine, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot, and let it bubble away until it almost disappears.
—Add the stock, bring to a boil, and let it bubble vigorously until the liquid reduces by about a third, about 10 minutes. Adjust the heat so the mixture simmers; when the vegetables are nearly tender—about 10 minutes later—nestle the fish, browned side up, among the vegetables; keep the browned crust above the liquid. Cook, undisturbed, until the fish and vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
—Transfer the fish to a cutting board and divide the vegetables among shallow bowls. Slice the fish and put it on top of the vegetables. Taste the cooking liquid, adjust the seasoning, and ladle over all, garnishing with the chopped parsley before serving. (TRG note: As an alternate serving suggestion, slice the fish into large chunks then gently fold into the sauce and vegetables before ladling into bowls.)