By Gabby Peyton
By the grace of cod, Canada’s east coast, in particular Newfoundland and Labrador, holds that Atlantic whitefish up on a pedestal. The codfish has had a long and storied life as the main ingredient on many people’s tables.
The fish of legends
Legend has it that when John Cabot sailed towards Newfoundland’s craggy coastlines in the 1490s, the sailors lowered baskets into the water and pulled them out overflowing with codfish. To say it was an abundant resource would have been an understatement, and from that moment, the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese were returning every year to fish off the Grand Banks and along the coastline of Canada’s most easterly province, and later the Maritime provinces and eastern Quebec. They would do so for hundreds of years.
But by the time the settlers had arrived with their baskets, the Indigenous peoples had already been eating cod for thousands of years. In Newfoundland, it was the Beothuk; in Labrador, it was the Inuit and First Nations and in Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaq.
The European settlers dried and salted the fish on flakes (a platform for drying cod) to ship it back to the continent and by the 1800s, they had switched up their boats to longliners and their homes to permanent settlements across the Atlantic provinces.
But all fountains run dry — the 1992 cod moratorium shifted the whole economy of Newfoundland and Labrador, wreaking havoc on the province’s main industry and livelihood both in the boats and in the kitchen. The stocks have still not recovered, nor has the economy, but the love of cod remains.
Cod is versatile
But today, cod is still king in the kitchen. Not only is it a versatile whitefish, but Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know how to make it taste darn good. Any dish with “fish” in the title is made with cod: Fish and chips, not to mention dishes like Fish and Brewis, a delicious mash-up of salted cod, hard bread and scruncheons (fried pork fat). Fried cod, baked cod, you-name-it cod. And then there is Cod au Gratin.
While some culinarians might scoff at the idea of fish with cheese, Newfoundlanders love a good scoff of Cod au Gratin indeed (a scoff is a meal, in NL vernacular of course), and have been doing so for generations. So, get flaked and enjoy this meal.
Cod Au Gratin with Crispy Breadcrumb Topping
- 1 1/2 lbs cod fillets (deboned and skinned)
- pinch salt
- 1 Tbsp canola oil
- 1 yellow onion peeled and diced
- 3 Tbsp butter plus 2 Tbsp for crispy breadcrumb topping
- 3 Tbsp flour
- 2 cups milk
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp lemon zest
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper plus more for topping
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese grated
- 2 cups cheddar cheese grated
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
- Cut cod into bite-sized chunks and place in a casserole dish and season with a little salt. (Note: If using frozen cod, make sure to thaw completely and pat dry with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.)
- In a saucepan, heat canola oil on medium heat, add the onion and cook until just softened around 5 minutes.
- Add the 3 Tbsp (45 mL) of butter to the onion and melt, add 3 Tbsp (45 mL) of flour to make the roux. Slowly add 2 cups (500 mL) of milk to thicken and make a sauce.
- Once thickened, add 1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt, lemon zest, 1/2 tsp (2 mL) pepper and 1/2 tsp (2 mL) oregano and stir to combine. Then add 1/2 cup (125 mL) of the grated parmesan and 1/2 cup (125 mL) of cheddar cheese. Mix.
- Pour sauce over the cod and make sure it’s fully coated.
- To make crispy breadcrumb topping: melt 2 Tbsp (30 mL) butter in the microwave in a medium bowl, stir in half the remaining cheeses (about 1 cup/250 mL).
- Use remaining 1 cup (250 mL) of cheeses to cover the cod and sauce. Top with breadcrumb mixture and sprinkle with more black pepper and 1/2 tsp (2 mL) of oregano.
- Bake for 40 minutes or until brown and bubbly.
- Let cool for at least 20 minutes to set before serving. Can be served on its own with lemon wedges or on top of potatoes or rice.
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