Cod is a mild fish once enjoyed by explorers, adventurers. Kim Domick shares that story and some recipes in her latest food column.

Atlantic cod is often referred to as “the fish that changed the world.”

No other fish was as important to the settlement of the Eastern coast of North America, and no other has brought more wealth to the market as cod. The cod’s story is one of freedom.

As Europeans explored North America looking for passage to Asia, they discovered the abundance of large cod, and began fishing along the coast of what is now New England.

They set up temporary fishing camps, and many stayed on. Early settlers perfected the preserving technique of drying and salting the fish which fueled the trade and business of new colonies.

To be fair, though, preserving techniques were perfected long before North America was explored. Cod — gadus morhua — has been an important commodity since the Viking Period (800AD).

HISTORY OF COD

Norwegians traveled with dried cod and developed a dried cod market in Europe, which endured the Black Death (1347-1351) as well as wars and crisis and is still an important Norwegian trade.

Cod was being fished by the Portuguese as early as 1400, and the Basques played an important role in the cod trade as well.

It is said that Spanish explorers found the Canadian fishing banks long before Columbus’ discovery of America, and the Basques revere it because it fed travelers voyaging to the New World. It is still a global symbol in Spanish culture.

As far back as 1602, the American Northeast has been recognized as the great seat of cod fishery. This was also the year that the Cape of St. James was re-named “Cape Cod.”

Because this fish was a firm, clean-tasting meat, it was perfect for salt-based curing. It rehydrated well compared to other fish, and when properly salt-cured, could last for years. This was essential in the time before refrigeration.

John Adams once compared “cod in New England” to “tobacco in Virginia.” Historians say that the importance of cod as the first major economic export of the Americas is what opened the door to the revolution.

Many of the first Americans who were wealthy, independently of the British Crown, made their money in the cod industry.

They were originally caught on handlines until the more effective method of gill nets were used. By the 1640’s, the American cod industry was doing a booming business abroad.

This fish was so important to the development of Massachusetts, that the state’s House of Representatives hung a wood carving of a codfish, known as the “scared cod of Massachusetts” in its chambers.

In those days, the cod were enormous, often weighing 150-175 pounds. Today, it is rare to see one larger than 30 pounds. Although they are still fished commercially and recreationally, Atlantic cod stocks collapsed in the mid-1990’s, and are being closely watched.

Their numbers are now rising, and the main cod stocks are extremely well managed with fishermen proactively adhering to best practices.

Most Atlantic cod spawn between January and April, and females can release up to 5 million eggs. That’s a lot of fish and chips.

CULINARY COD

When it comes to the culinary side of cod we, of course, love fish and chips, as well as New England fish chowders.

It’s one of the most versatile fish around, and it boasts white dense flakes, and a mild and delicate meat.

For those who like fish that “doesn’t taste fishy,” this one’s for you. It’s often called the “chicken of the sea” — no offense to the tuna company.

It’s delicious pan fried, baked or battered, and is a great go-to for fish tacos. If you buy cod that has any “fishy” smell, then it is not fresh.

You will find frozen and just-thawed cod in most supermarkets, such as Danny’s Fine Foods, Kroger and Meijer.

Once you thaw your fish, try one of the easy recipes below. You’ll be in the awesome company of centuries of adventurers, explorers, statemen and people yearning to live free.

RECIPES

Basques Cod in Tomato Sauce

Ingredients

3 cups tomato or marinara sauce

2 cloves garlic, finely crushed

½ medium sweet onion, diced

1 tbsp. olive oil

½ tsp. saffron threads

2-6 oz. cod fillets

Salt and pepper

Directions

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pot, heat oil over medium heat.

Add garlic and onions, and cook until they are softened. Add the tomato sauce and saffron, and simmer on low for 15-20 minutes.

While sauce is cooking, pat the cod fillets dry with a paper towel. Salt and pepper both sides. Butter or spray two individual boat ramekins or one baking dish large enough to hold the sauce and fish.

Once sauce is hot, ladle it into your dish, and gently nestle the fish in.

Place into a 350-degree oven and bake for 8-10 minutes or until fish begins to flake. Serves two.

Panko-crusted Pan-fried cod

Ingredients

¼ cup flour

1 egg, lightly beaten

¾ cup panko crumbs

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

1 lb. cod fillets

Oil to cover skillet

Directions

Place the flour, egg and crumbs into three separate shallow pie plates.

Blot the fillets dry with paper towels, and season them with salt and pepper. Dip each filet in the flour, then the egg, and then press each into the panko crumbs, coating fish evenly.

Heat the oil in the pan over medium heat until it begins to sizzle.

Place the fillets in pan, and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side until they are evenly browned. Serve immediately. Serves four.

Beer battered cod

Ingredients

2 lbs. cod, cut into 5-inch pieces

2 tsp. kosher salt

½ tsp. pepper

1 cup flour

1 tbsp. garlic powder

2 tsp. paprika

1 large egg

12-oz. beer

Oil, vegetable or peanut

Directions

Pat the fish fillets dry with paper towels, and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients, and pour in the beer. Stir well. Heat a deep cast iron skillet, and add 1-2 inches of oil.

Dip each piece of fish into the batter and completely coat all sides. When the oil begins to sizzle, place a few pieces into pan, and fry 3-4 minutes until it they are golden brown.

You may have to add additional oil to the pan, and if so, let it get very hot before continuing, and don’t crowd the pan.

Place cooked fish on a wire rack, and continue to fry remaining fillets. Serve with lemons and tartar sauce (recipe below). Serves four to six.

Tartar sauce

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tsp. dill or sweet pickle relish

1 tsp. yellow mustard

1 tsp. lemon juice

2 tsp. finely minced capers

Mix together and serve