With sparkle in her pretty blue eyes, Barbara Dombrowski told me she believes this about kitchens and gardens: “The person who grows it doesn’t have to cook it; it’s a lot of work to grow it!”
Dombrowski is the owner of Goose Cove Gardens, an organic nursery on Gee Avenue in Gloucester; she spends a lot of time growing things, from the first spring pansies to herbs, lettuces, all kinds of vegetables, annuals, perennials, berry bushes, hanging, creeping, trailing, you name it. Most plants at Goose Cove Gardens begin life as seeds in the Gee Avenue greenhouses when we’re still brushing snow off our cars.
Tomato Release Day, the day in May when Goose Cove declares their 37 varieties of tomatoes vigorous enough to let go, is more important to a lot of people than most of the Hallmark-card endorsed holidays. The tomato line starts forming around 8 in the morning. The rope defining the tomato section drops at 9. The crowds roar. And why not? To many, the healthy, organic tomato plants in May mean the best tomato sandwiches in August, fettucini tossed in roasted Sungolds in September, pickled green tomatoes beside a slice of ham in January. It’s an investment in the year’s good times.
Getting back to cooking, Barbara claims she’s not the cook in the family; her husband Hilary, who’s also a commercial fisherman, cooks, indeed because Barbara is the one growing things. I was comforted to learn that even Barbara, with probably the healthiest patch of Genovese basil I’ve ever seen, is somedays too wiped out to walk back out to the yard to retrieve that bunch of herbs that would make the fish perfect. Don’t we all have that feeling about our gardens sometimes in August?
Back to cooking. Barbara did promise me one dish, which is her recipe alone, born in August when the tomatoes overwhelm the kitchen counter. Prepared with Hilary’s cod, this dish can be reproduced in all sorts of ways; it’s really a genius method of cooking in parchment. Barbara butters a baking dish well, and covers the bottom with chopped tomatoes; they are the stars. She also adds a bit of celery and mushroom, but tomatoes rule here. She tops the vegetables with cod filets, and covers all with a sheet of buttered parchment paper. The whole steams beneath the paper; the vegetables create a summery sauce for the fish.
I recently played around with this. I roasted small cubes of eggplant in olive oil in the bottom of the same baking dish. Then I added a quick saute of onions, garlic, peppers, summer squash and tomatoes to the eggplant. I seasoned the vegetables with Middle Eastern spices — cardamon, cayenne, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper — and lay two bluefish fillets down on the vegetables, skin-side up. I covered all with parchment and baked it at 400 degrees for a half hour. The result was beautifully tender fish subtly infused with the vegetables; the vegetables made a Turkish-style ratatouille, never becoming mushy, holding their individual character.
The point here is that this recipe goes far and wide. It accommodates the simplest, purest ingredients, and it’s a wonderful scaffolding for more complex flavors. The principal is basic: A buttered baking dish. A bed of vegetables. Protein on top. Buttered parchment over all to seal in the moisture. If you’re tired of gardening, come back to the kitchen and play with this recipe.
For the record, Goose Cove Gardens also sells a limited but excellent bit of produce: their own tomatoes, lettuces, and a beautiful salad mix of arugula, purple mustard, golden mustard, and red and green kales.
Barbara’s Baked Cod with Vegetables
Butter, olive oil, or non-stick spray for pan
3 large tomatoes
1 large portobello mushroom
1 cup chopped celery
2 pieces of cod, filleted
Note: You may substitute for your favorite vegetables.
1. Cut a piece of wax paper to the size of your baking tray.
2. Grease both baking tray and wax paper with butter, olive oil, or non-stick spray.
3. Prepare your choice of vegetables by cutting them into small pieces, and place them on the bottom of your baking tray.
Lay codfish over the vegetables, season with salt and pepper, and cover loosely with greased wax paper.
Preheat oven to 375, and allow the dish to cook for 45 minutes.
Recipe courtesy of Barbara Dombrowski, Goose Cove Gardens, Gloucester, MA, 2012.