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Eric Akis: Take comfort in rich and warming cod au gratin

I was leafing through some of my older cookbooks the other day, including Fat-Back & Molasses: A Collection of Favourite Old Recipes from Newfoundland and Labrador.
This West Coast version of cod au gratin sees B.C. cod fillets baked as a saucy, cheese-rich casserole.

I was leafing through some of my older cookbooks the other day, including Fat-Back & Molasses: A Collection of Favourite Old Recipes from Newfoundland and Labrador.

It’s a humble-looking little book by Reverend Ivan Jesperson, first published in 1974.

Jesperson came to Newfoundland in 1968 as a clergyman for the United Church on Fogo Island. It was in that quiet, isolated, slow-paced place that he compiled recipes for the book, which has been reprinted several times and sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide.

As the title suggests, the book contains recipes for dishes that have long been popular in Newfoundland and Labrador, such as Jiggs dinner, flipper pie, fried cod tongues, fish and brewis, and molasses buns, to name just a few.

The recipe that caught my eye, though, was cod au gratin — the first thing that I ate when I visited Newfoundland a number of years ago.

My wife, son and I were visiting our friend, Anne, there. For the first part of the trip, we were staying in St. John’s at Anne’s friend Lenora’s place. I arrived the day after my wife and son. It was late in the evening and Lenora asked if I was hungry, offering the cod au gratin she had made.

It was absolutely delicious, with bits of very fresh local cod baked in a saucy casserole — the kind of comfort food that’s really enjoyable after a long day of travelling.

Thinking about that cod au gratin made me want to eat it again. I decided to create a West Coast version, rich with B.C. lingcod.

To make it, fillets of lingcod, sold at seafood stores and some supermarkets, were sliced and set in a buttered casserole. A white sauce flavoured with tangy old cheddar cheese was then spooned over the fish.

The sauce and the fish were topped with a bit more cheese and some panko, coarse breadcrumbs.

When it’s baked, then broiled a short while, you end up with a bubbling dish of goodness that’s perfect for a cool autumn night. I served the cod au gratin with steamed broccoli and boiled miniature potatoes, which also taste great with the sauce surrounding the fish.

The recipe serves two, but you could expand it for a larger group, using a larger baking dish.

West Coast Cod au Gratin for Two

This hearty version of a dish that has long been popular in Newfoundland and Labrador is rich with B.C. cod.

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: About 30 minutes
Makes: Two servings

1 Tbsp soft butter, plus some for the baking dish

1 Tbsp all-purpose flour

1 cup warm milk (see Note 1)

1/2 to 2/3 cup grated old cheddar cheese (divided)

• salt and white pepper, to taste

• pinch paprika

350 to 400 grams lingcod or grey cod (also called Pacific cod) fillets

1 1/2 Tbsp panko

• thinly sliced green onion, to taste

Melt the 1 Tbsp butter in a small pot set over medium heat. Mix in the flour and cook and stir one to two minutes, until well blended. Whisk and dribble in 1/4 cup of the milk. Cook until the mixture is quite thick, then slowly whisk in the remaining milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, so the sauce does not scorch on the bottom. Cook one minute to thicken, then remove the white sauce from the heat.

Gradually stir half the cheese into the white sauce, until it’s just melted and well combined. Season the sauce with salt, white pepper and paprika.

Cover the sauce and set it aside for now.

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Lightly butter the inside of a baking pan or small casserole (see Note 2). Pat the cod dry with paper towel. Cut fish, widthwise, into eight to 10 roughly equal pieces, removing any bones, if there are any.

Set the fish, in a single layer, in the baking dish. Pour the sauce in the pot over it. Sprinkle fish and sauce with remaining cheese, then the panko. Bake uncovered for 20 minutes, or until the fish is cooked and the sauce is bubbling. Turn oven to broil and cook two minutes more, or until top is light golden.

Let cod au gratin rest a few minutes, then sprinkle with green onion and serve.

Note 1: The milk can be warmed to just below a simmer in the microwave or in on the stove over medium-low heat.

Note 2: The oval dish I used to make the cod au gratin was seven inches wide and nine inches long. An eight-inch-square pan will also work for this recipe.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.