When my TV partner Frank Greco asked whether I wanted to go film a show in Iceland - in February - I thought he had gone crazy. Yes, my new show is about food, fun and interesting places. But for February I was thinking more like California or the tropics. What in the world could I do in a country with ice in its name in the middle of winter?
Truth is I actually love winter, so I did some reading and found out that Iceland is not so bad at that time of year. The climate in Reykjavik, the capital, is only moderately cold due to the Gulf Stream effect, so temperatures seldom dip below -10C. And the city has a great night life, a large number of restaurants, and in February is home to the Food & Fun Festival.
It's a prestigious event. Running for nine years, it has attracted many top chefs from around the world, including Allan Paulsen of Denmark, Jonas Lundgren of Sweden, who was the silver medal winner of the 2009 Bocuse D'or, and Michael Ginor from Hudson Valley farms (the largest foie gras producer in the world) and the chef at Lola NY.
The point of the festival is to promote local ingredients and all that is Icelandic. That offers a surprising variety, from some of the freshest North Atlantic fish and seafood to wonderful free-range lamb, all the poultry you can think of, and farm-raised char and salmon. With the necessities for great meals readily available, the creativity is up to the chefs.
They are each assigned a restaurant to cook in for a few days, leading up to a competition on the last day of the festival. Awards are given for best fish course, best meat course and a dessert. The meat course was the most predictable, with most of the participants choosing the fantastic lamb, although a few used puffin (yes, puffin - it tastes like wild duck).
It was a grand event, but upon returning to my hotel I realized that the missing component was Italian-inspired cooking. Since Iceland produces a lot of the cod and haddock sold in Italy, I thought it would be fitting to pay homage to this great nation by preparing a traditional Italian recipe, modernized enough to please today's palate.
So I give you haddock in a Livornese style. Normally for this dish one would use Baccalà (salt cod), but fresh haddock is better for those watching sodium content, and quicker to prepare. You may also substitute any other cold-water fish.
This is a recipe I make quite often; it is kind of deconstructed from the original, but still retains all the flavour and classic components. Serve with a light lettuce salad in a gentle red wine vinaigrette.
Fresh Haddock filet alla Livornese
4 tablespoon chick pea flour
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour and more for dredging
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Salt & pepper to taste
1 cup water
4 tablespoons olive oil
1½ cups sweet red onions, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
2 cups tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
3 cups vegetable oil
4 fresh haddock filets, 6 ounces each
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons capers (optional)
2 tablespoons basil leaves
Prepare the batter: Mix the flours and the baking powder, add salt and water. Try to achieve the consistency of a loose pancake batter. Set aside.
Preheat a skillet and add the olive oil and onions. Cook gently until the onions are translucent and sweet, add the tomato paste and cook for a few minutes. Add the oregano, and right after a stir, add the fresh tomatoes, season with salt and pepper to your taste and cook for 2 minutes. Remove and keep warm.
Preheat the vegetable oil in a high-sided frying pan and maintain the temperature at 320F.
Wash and dry the fish filets and dredge them with flour first, then the batter, shaking off excess. Gently lay them into the hot oil, without overcrowding. Turn the filets once, then remove to a stack of paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Serve before it cools too much: Place a scoop of sauce on the bottom of a plate and top with the filet of fish.
Briefly cook the garlic, capers and basil in oil, then spoon over and around the fish and sprinkle with parsley.
Or, if you like, garnish with a baby Arugula salad placed on top of the filet.