Mulled Wine-Poached Cod & Lemon Scented Asparagus On Creamy Nam Pla Spinach Polenta

This is a dish with a balance of delicate flavours and textures. The lightly-wilted creamy spinach with nam pla fish sauce adds texture to the polenta and a complementary flavour to the fish, a foaming butter drizzle on the asparagus balances the gentle hint of cinnamon, cardamom and clove from the mulled wine and the colours tie the whole plate together. Cod stains to a brownish-red colour, but if you substitute swordfish (which will need to cook for longer) you can achieve an attractive deep purple.

Ingredients (3 portions)

For the fish:
3 fillets of cod*, approximately 250g each
1/2 bottle of red wine**
1 large orange
1 cinnamon quill
1 star anise
3 cloves
2 black cardamoms
1 bay leaf

For the asparagus:
15 spears of asparagus
A few drops of lemon oil

For the polenta:
180g Italian polenta***
750ml veg or fish stock
20g butter
200g fresh baby spinach leaf
150ml double cream
1tsp nam pla (Thai fish sauce)

* Use cod from sustainable stocks.
** Or equivalent of boxed wine. Preferably use a full bodied wine from a Shiraz or Cabernet grape.
*** Valsugana is recommended.


Heat the red wine in a large, wide pan. Before you start, check that the pan is big enough to fit all of the pieces of fish, as otherwise you'll get in a bit of a pickle at the crucial moment.

Don't use the cheapest wine for this, but don't use good wine either. A boxed, full-bodied red wine is just fine.
Roughly cut the orange into eighths, squeeze to extract the juice and add the pieces and the juice to the hot wine.

Throw in your whole spices and mix in thoroughly. Leave on a low heat for 10 minutes to infuse the flavours together.
After roughly 10 minutes, remove the orange pieces so you have enough room for the fish, which will go in shortly.

In a steamer, add plenty of water and a good few drops of lemon oil.

Because the oil won't be coming into direct contact with the food, it won't impart nearly as much of its potent flavour as it would otherwise. So be considerably more generous than if you were adding lemon oil to a sauce.

Now remove the first inch from the base of the asparagus spears. You'll find this part woody and unpleasant to eat, so it can be discarded. Either cut or bend the spears and snap off the base.
Put the asparagus into the steamer. The spears will need about 4 minutes to cook al dente, which I prefer. A little longer in the steamer will give a softer result.

If you don't have a steamer, boiling water is fine. However, this method won't help to retain as much of the health-beneficial nutrient found naturally in the stems.

Place the cod into the mulled wine at the same time, its cooking time is the same as that of the asparagus.

Get your vegetable or fish stock boiling rapidly.

Have the polenta measured out and in a cup or container ready for use. The one I used for this meal is the same brand that we use at college, so I'm already familiar with the cooking instructions.
With the stock at a rolling boil, rain the polenta into the pan while whisking very quickly. At first it will seem as if there is too much stock, but keep whisking and suddenly the mixture will thicken up.

If you allow the polenta to cool it will begin to firm up and go hard, so you will need to work fast.

Leave the polenta on a low heat and melt the butter for the spinach in a large frying pan. Wilt the leaves and then add salt, pepper and the cream and fish sauce.
Immediately add the hot polenta and mix thoroughly.

Check for consistency and seasoning. If the mixture is too thick, add a little extra cream. If too thin, allow to cook out a little longer.

By the time the polenta is ready, the asparagus and cod should also be ready, give or take a minute.

Arrange the components however you like on the plate. I've gone for this simple style, but you can be more or less arty as you choose.

Despite the fact that the fish is cooked in mulled red wine, it is best accompanied by a white wine.

I won't give advice here, only to say that I chose a Pouille Fumé which has a stronger character than most French white wines.

There was also an in-joke here (see my posting on unpronounceable food and drink).