The Kitchen, the Pandemic & Mental Health

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Yesterday I made salt oven-baked fish for the first time.  My fishmonger, Susana Barcelo, is the owner of the Peixaria Estoril-Mar and suggested I try a beautiful Imperial fish. I was eyeing another fish, but I changed my mind when I saw the Imperial with its lovely orange/pink color and curvy shape.  Susana told me that it is a delicate, tasty white meat and that it would be ideal for baking with salt. Eloisa Dias, her assistant and expert fish-cleaner, prepared it for me. Susana gave me the recipe, and off I went.

Cooking through lockdown

This is my third lockdown. I have been living with many restrictions, and am being very attentive to the vulnerable situation we are all in. I stay home a lot. Cooking has become an ongoing experiment that keeps my curiosity and desire for challenges satisfied. I’m what many may call a beginner/easy meals type of cook. But now, with some practice, I take more risks. My kitchen is my experimentation lab.

Cooking is like traveling without leaving my house. When I read a recipe, I feel like I am walking into someone else’s kitchen. I visualize that steamy room full of pots and pans in my mind, with someone at a cutting board slicing away, and little cups with ingredients that will soon be thrown into a large pot. I see the stove, the countertop and always imagine a big window that allows bright sun rays into the room.

I, like many others, have been cooking much more since the pandemic. The simple reason is that I want to eat well. During my first lockdown in the Alentejo, I cooked many meat types because it was available within walking distance. I ate lots of pork, chicken and once in a while, I had cow meat.

Cooking became my therapy. I love the preparation. Actually, I love to see all the ingredients with different colors and textures in little containers on the kitchen table. I choose the veggies to accompany my dish. They will often look better together than taste good together because I end up picking something due to its color or texture.

The Peixaria Estoril-Mar

imperadorfish.jpg

I live near the coast now, and I was so happy when Susana opened up her fish store a block away from me, about a month after I arrived. I go there several times a week, and I buy whatever she suggests. There are quite a few fish that I had never eaten before. She gives me tips on how to best cook the fish and what spices to use. I bought a few of their spiced salts and use them on everything. I am lucky to have them near me because that means I don’t have to go to the supermarket much and I don’t eat frozen fish anymore—such a luxury.

The Imperial Adventure

saltedfish.jpg

I prepared the salt and egg-white mixture to wrap the fish and then realized that I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I found a YouTube video with gorgeous imagery. They showed how to wrap the fish with the salt mixture and more.

I photographed my process and did some short videos. After all, it was the first time that I ever did this, and I was so excited. This is a grown-up recipe! When I finished documenting it, I placed the fish inside the preheated oven and let it bake for 25 minutes.

The alarm went off, and I removed the fish and put it on the table to cut the salt off the fish. The YouTube video showed someone sliding a sharp knife over the salt and forming a square.  They peeled off the salt, and the fish’s skin came off with the salt leaving a perfect fish waiting to be removed from the salt cocoon. It was beautiful.

I placed my knife over the salt and forced it down a bit to start cutting, and nothing happened.  The salt was really hard.  I changed the knife’s angle and used more force. Nothing. I used the knife’s tip to dig into the salt, thinking that I could make a tiny hole and then start slicing, but I couldn’t make a dent.

baked salt fish.jpg

I began to pound the salt with the knife’s tip – salt splattered everywhere and still, sadly, not even a dent. By now, I was getting a good workout and feeling frustrated, so I went to my storage space and got a hammer. I pounded on the salt. More splatters all over the kitchen counter and the floor. I thought I should stop to clean it up, but an obsessive force came over me, and I continued to pound at the salt.

I put the fish inside the sink and turned on the water, hoping to soften up the salt, but that didn’t work out either. I turned the fish around and continued to pound away, and a little piece broke off. I could see the pink fish inside and felt triumphant. Sweaty and furious, but triumphant. I picked up the knife and continued to hack at the salt. Bits and pieces of the fish were flying around with the salt as well, but I did not give up. I don’t know how long it took me to get that fish out and when I did, it was in pieces and didn’t look anything like the YouTube video. It looked like it had been in a war. I didn’t photograph it.

I removed the excess salt from the mangled pieces of fish and served it with a beautiful fresh, green lettuce salad. Despite its appearance, the fish tasted delightful. It was tender, moist, and delicious. I squeezed fresh lemon juice over it, and that was it— a perfect lunch.

I love my culinary experiments, even when they involve missteps. They keep my mind busy, and I am totally ignorant of everything around me.  I forget that I am in a lockdown.

What makes you curious? What takes you to another mental plane and makes you smile?

Marguerite

Marguerite Beaty, Blogger, Photographer & Artist

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