Some days, Warren Barr’s bed shakes as the waves crash against the shore. The chef’s cottage is a 15-minute walk from the ocean in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where storms are serious business; when the Pacific gets angry, everyone knows it and indeed relishes it. At the Wickaninnish Inn, where Barr is executive chef, storm watching is almost as popular as surfing and whale watching. Barr, who grew up in B.C. but has worked everywhere from Montreal to PEI to Switzerland, loves the transition to autumn’s cooler temperatures and wilder weather. “You look out from our cedar dining room and it’s very open, very exposed. I think the next piece of land is Japan,” he says.
But life in Tofino is about more than the view. When he has time off, Barr happily forages for sea lettuce, wild peas and local chanterelles, which smell like apricots and blackberries. He also fishes, reeling in ling cod that sears beautifully and becomes a delicious reward – as in this version, served on panzanella, a bread-based salad – for friends and family who visit his place for dinner.
20 spot or other large prawns, in their shells
2/3 cup olive oil
1 bulb garlic, cloves separated, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tsp chili flakes
2 green onions, chopped
1 peeled lemon, white pith discarded but yellow zest reserved
1 bunch basil, leaves and stems separated
4 heirloom tomatoes in mixed colours and varieties, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
3 cups focaccia, toasted until dry and cut into large dice
1 1/2 lb ling cod or other flaky white fish, trimmed and separated into 4 portions
2 tbsp canola oil
Peel the prawns and store the meat in the refrigerator. Coarsely chop the shells and heat with olive oil in a small saucepan over medium. Cook, stirring frequently, until the shells are dark red and brittle. Stir in garlic, fennel seeds and chili flakes and continue cooking until the garlic softens. Stir in green onion, lemon zest and basil stems and turn off heat. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
Pour cooled oil through a strainer and discard solids before returning it to a clean saucepan. Warm to the temperature of very hot tap water and remove from heat. Season the prawns with salt and pepper and add to the oil. Allow the prawns to poach in the hot oil for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring gently; remove from heat.
Place chopped tomatoes in a large bowl and season with salt, pepper and vinegar. Add the foccacia and torn basil leaves, then the prawns and enough of their cooking oil to coat all the ingredients. Toss to combine the ingredients, then arrange them on a large platter.
Season the fish with salt and pepper while heating a skillet on high. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil and two pieces of cod. Sear 2 minutes per side or until golden brown and opaque at centre. Add remaining oil and repeat with the remaining portions. Lay the fish over the panzanella and sprinkle with squeezed lemon before serving.