Articles in Fishing

Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock

“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.

The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.

The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide to oysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.

Where to find oysters

Whoever sells you oysters is required to keep the tags documenting their origins on hand. Ask to see it and snap a photo to capture the details. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Whoever sells you oysters is required to keep the tags documenting their origins on hand. Ask to see it and snap a photo to capture the details. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?

By proxy.

“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.

Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.

Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.

Gather the gear

Everything you need to tackle oysters: a dish towel, mignonettes, an oyster knife and a bottle or three of your favorite wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Everything you need to tackle oysters: a dish towel, mignonettes, an oyster knife and a bottle or three of your favorite wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.

Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.

Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.

A note on mignonettes

aret Foster, chef/owner of Portland’s Oyster Social, recommends eating the first oyster of the day unadorned, or with just a sip of wine to chase. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Portland’s Oyster Social, recommends eating the first oyster of the day unadorned, or with just a sip of wine to chase. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.

Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.

And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.

Find the right wine

Sommelier Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines and Jaret Foster of Oyster Social teach a seminar on pairing oysters and wine overlooking the Brooks vineyards in Amity, Oregon. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Sommelier Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines and Jaret Foster of Oyster Social teach a seminar on pairing oysters and wine overlooking the Brooks vineyards in Amity, Oregon. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.

“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.

Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.

The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noir from a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.

Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.

Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”

The art of the shuck

So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.

2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.

3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.

4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.

5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.

That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.

Classic Mignonette Sauce

–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods 

Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters

Ingredients

1 tablespoon course ground black pepper

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/2 cup sparkling wine

Salt to taste

Directions

Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.

Yuzukoshō Vinaigrette

— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social

Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters

Ingredients

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons yuzukoshō (Japanese fermented chili-citrus paste, available at Asian grocers)

2 tablespoons finely diced daikon radish

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a quart jar and just before serving shake well to emulsify; keeps well in the refrigerator for two weeks to a month.

Main photo: Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock   

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For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

At a time when sea stocks are widely under threat, savvy chefs are turning their attention to the gourmet potential offered by freshwater fish. And when the catch is from Lake Garda in this glorious region in the north of Italy, where the scent of Mediterranean citrus meets sweet Alpine meadows, it gives the food-loving traveler even more reason to visit a place whose classical beauty captivated German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe among many others.

Popular holiday destination

Hotel Lido Palace, Riva del Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Hotel Lido Palace, Riva del Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Garda has long been a popular holiday destination for both the families of Verona, many of whom have elegant holiday villas strung out along the shore, and for northern Europeans coming south to seek tranquility in the sun, crystal clear air, and bracing mountain and water pursuits.

It’s a heady, romantic destination with a Grand European Tour history although today’s visitors are less likely to be found sedately sketching castle ruins and more likely to be jogging, playing golf at world-class courses, paragliding, diving, sailing or simply having a zen moment on the shore of Italy’s largest lake.

The food has accents from the three Italian regions that border the lake — the Veneto, Lombardy and Trentino — but the defining ingredients remain lemons, olive oil, wine and fish from the lake.

Fishing on Lake Garda

Char, pike and trout on sale in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Char, pike and trout on sale in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

For centuries, fishing was one of the mainstays of Gardenese life. From a peak of 700 fishermen earning their living from the lake in the 19th century, there are now only about 120. Although fish stocks are plentiful, some diners still need to be persuaded to try an alternative to the variety of fish that arrive from the nearby Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Some small-scale fish farming also occurs: in the Trentino foothills of the Dolomites, the family-run Trota Oro farms trout, char and chub, which they also sell smoked and marinated.

Fish & Chef is an annual gastronomic festival of cookery shows and gourmet meals held in the early summer and designed to highlight the produce of the region. Michelin-starred hotels and restaurants participate in friendly competition and tickets to the gala dinners are quickly snapped up by enthusiastic locals and visitors alike.

It’s a recognition that increasingly, chefs from both Garda and the rest of Italy and Europe are exploring the exciting possibilities of cooking with environmentally friendly freshwater fish such as rainbow trout, pike, carp, perch, bleak, tench, char and freshwater sardines. If lucky, you may find some rare brown trout, although the fishing is subject to tight restrictions.

Fish & Chef competition

Serving char lightly smoked over cedar wood at the Hotel Regina Adelaide in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Serving char lightly smoked over cedar wood at the Hotel Regina Adelaide in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

At this year’s festival, the sixth, Chef Marco Sacco of the two Michelin-star restaurant Piccolo Lago in Verbena created a stunning arrangement of sushi for the Fish & Chef gala dinner held at the lovely Hotel Regina Adelaide hotel in Garda. And at the Aqualux Hotel, Bardolino, pale, lean chub took a star turn served three ways with cucumber, watercress and crème fraiche at a dinner cooked by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star Restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany.

On a more quotidian level, nearly every trattoria and osteria serves a version of bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil.

Everyman’s version of bigoli con sarde

Bigoli con sarde -- rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Ironically — and sadly — the most iconic product of Lake Garda no longer exists. Garda lemons were once famous throughout Europe for their alleged medicinal properties, acidity, thin skin, intense perfume and flavor, but the variety was lost when the last trees failed to survive a particularly cold winter in the 1980s. Even before then the writing was on the wall for the most northerly growing citrus region in Europe, an improbable industry created by a determination that has been called “a dogged madness.”

Lemons were brought to Garda by monks in the 13th century. They grew well in the Mediterranean-style microclimate and in the 17th century the construction of vast lemon houses orlimonaia” made this the most northern commercial lemon-growing region in Europe. The towering, terraced structures of wooden beams, stone pillars and glass sheets were designed to protect the fruit from winter frosts. Disease, competition from the south, some exceptionally cold weather and the discovery of synthetic citric acid, however, would later destroy the industry.

Lemons of Garda

Lemons growing in the renovated Limonaia del Castel, Limone, Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Lemons growing in the renovated Limonaia del Castel, Limone, Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The original variety of Garda lemon is also virtually extinct, grown only by a few private citrus enthusiasts. Most of the lemons sold in the region come from Sicily and southern Italy or are a modern hybrid, but the tradition of using lemons in conserves and limoncello lives on.

Thanks to the mild microclimate, Lake Garda is also the most northerly region in Europe to produce olive oil. The extra virgin is characteristically delicate and fruity, and is protected by the Garda DOP mark. “Molche,” the residue from olives after they have been pressed, is traditionally used in bread and cakes.

Olive oil cake

Torta di Molche, or olive oil cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Torta di Molche, or olive oil cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

One of the stellar olive oil labels in Garda, indeed in Italy, is the boutique olive oil farm of Ca’ Rainene. The award-winning range includes Garda Orientale, extracted from a blend of indigenous olives — Casaliva, Lecino and Pendolino — grown and pressed on their own land. Medium fruity, with perfectly balanced bitter and pungent components, it has a delicate almond note typical of the Garda cultivars. The farm also produces Drizzar, made solely with olives of that name: Fruity and complex, it is superb with fish, game and vegetables.

The hills north of Verona are the land of Valpolicella, but closer to Garda the classic wine to look out for is Custoza, a full-bodied white wine usually drunk young but that is starting to be appreciated when a little older. Bardolino is a light red wine and Chiaretto, the rosé version. There are 80 types of soil in the region that make for extremely “fresh” wines, perfect as an aperitif or to drink with fish.

The last word should go to Goethe: ” … I wish I could get my friends beside me to enjoy together the scenery that appears before me … the beautiful Lake Garda. …”

I’ll raise a glass of Custoza to that while I work out the Italian for “Gone fishing.”

The shores of Lake Garda

Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Main photo: For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Trout is a versatile and sustainable seafood choice. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

As a seafood lover, writer and cook, I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me how to prepare delicate, flaky fish. This group includes the wildly popular tilapia, as well as flounder, sole and, my personal favorite, trout. Mild yet unusually complex in flavor and easy to cook, trout is the country’s oldest and most successful example of aquaculture. Rich in protein, vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids, it provides numerous delights with each bite.

A relative of salmon, trout ranges in color from silvery green to coppery brown and with orange-red, brown or black spots scattered over its skin. Influenced by diet and habitat, its delicate flesh runs from cream to red in color. In terms of size, it grows up to 50 pounds in the wild. Farm-raised trout weigh between 8 and 16 ounces.

Common trout species

Sarah J. Dippold holding a rainbow trout. Credit: Copyright Jim Dippold

Sarah J. Dippold holding a rainbow trout. Credit: Copyright Jim Dippold

Several species of trout exist. If you are or happen to know or are related to serious trout anglers, as I am, you may have access to brown and sea trout. Although the same species, brown trout reside in rivers while sea trout spend time in oceans. They both possess copper skin and pale pink flesh.

Then there is steelhead. Sometimes confused with salmon, this species has reddish flesh and a flavor reminiscent of salmon. Highly versatile, it can stand in for salmon in recipes. Classified as a sport fish, wild steelhead cannot be sold in markets. What you see in your fishmonger’s case or on restaurant menus is a product of aquaculture.

The most recognizable species may be the beautiful, multicolored rainbow trout. Adorned with a hot pink or coral stripe running from head to tail on both sides and a smattering of black spots, this striking fish ranges in body color from yellow to blue-green. When caught in the wild, rainbow trout have a pronounced nutty taste. The farm-raised version is milder in flavor and has creamy white to pink flesh.

Another name that may sound familiar is brook or speckled trout. Considered by many to be the best-tasting trout, this fish isn’t actually a trout. Instead it’s a type of char.

Tips for buying trout

Trout can be purchased from markets either as a whole fish or in fillets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Trout can be purchased from markets either as a whole fish or in fillets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

At markets, trout is sold whole and as fillets. When shopping for this fish, you should look for shiny skin, bright eyes, moist flesh and a fresh, clean smell. Whole trout should have a layer of transparent slime over it; the more slime, the better and fresher the fish will be.

Whole trout tends to have more flavor than boned fillets. The only downside is that you may have to take out the tiny pin bones. However, you can always ask the fishmonger to do this for you.

Rainbow trout may be marketed as golden trout. Occasionally it gets mislabeled as steelhead. Just remember that steelhead has a bolder coloring than rainbow trout.

How to cook trout

Pan searing is a simple choice for preparing trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Pan searing is a simple choice for preparing trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

When cooking trout, my go-to methods are pan searing, grilling or smoking. In the case of pan searing, I heat a smidgen of olive oil in a nonstick frying pan. Once the oil is hot, I place the fillets skin-side down in the pan. As soon as their edges turn ivory in color and flake when probed with a fork, about 2 to 3 minutes, I gently turn over the fish and allow the fillets to cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. That’s all it takes to pan sear trout.

A fast-cooking fish, trout also does well when baked, broiled, poached or steamed. No matter which cooking method I choose, I leave the skin on the trout. It will hold the meat together as the fish cooks.

Flavor pairings for trout

Trout has a nutty flavor that pairs well with many foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Trout has a nutty flavor that pairs well with many foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Trout’s nutty taste marries with myriad foods. Apples, carrots, celery, oranges, scallions, shallots and tomatoes partner well, as do mint, tarragon and thyme. It is also enlivened by a splash of cider, lemon juice or wine or a sprinkling of crumbled bacon or sliced olives. Almonds, pecans, pine nuts and walnuts make delicious coatings for this fish. Even so, I often prepare trout in a simple manner: With a mere sprinkle of salt and pepper and drizzle of olive oil or lemon juice, the fish will shine.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates U.S. farm-raised rainbow trout as an “eco-best” seafood choice because it is raised in an environmentally sound manner. Low in mercury, it can be safely consumed at least four times per month.

Cerignola-topped Trout

Cerignola-topped Trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Cerignola-topped Trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 6 minutes

Total time: 11 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt, to taste

Ground black pepper, to taste

4 (6-ounce) trout fillets

Handful of Cerignola olives, roughly chopped

Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (optional)

Directions

1. Heat the olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. As the oil is heating, season the trout fillets with salt and pepper.

2. Lay the trout skin-side down in the hot pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the borders begin to turn ivory in color and the fish flakes when probed with a fork. Gently turn over the fillets and allow the fish to cook on the other side for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Place the fillets on plates. Cover the tops with equal amounts of chopped olives. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the olives, if desired. Serve hot.

Main photo: Trout is a versatile and sustainable seafood choice. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

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Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Nestled in its elegant, fan-shaped shell, the lustrous and translucent scallop is one of the ocean’s greatest beauties. When removed from its protective housing and placed in a hot pan, grill or oven, it transforms into one of the culinary world’s most delectable foods.

Thanks to its plump and juicy yet firm flesh, mildly sweet flavor, ease of preparation and overall sustainability, this bivalve has become one of my go-to seafood choices.

When talking about scallops, I usually mean sea scallops. I most often see this type in refrigerated seafood cases and on restaurant menus. Larger than the other category of scallops, bay scallops, they range in size from 1 1/2 inches to 9 inches in diameter. They are farmed on coastlines around the world and harvested year-round, making them widely available and relatively affordable.

Their tiny relation, the bay scallop, grows to only a half-inch in diameter. Sweeter and more tender than sea scallops, the bay scallop is less common and, as a result, costs considerably more.

Whether classified as bay or sea, all scallops filter feed on plankton. To do this, they draw in particle-filled water, strain out the plankton for consumption and then push out the cleaned water. They share this tidy method of eating with clams, mussels and oysters, the other members of the bivalve family.

Scallops score high on sustainability

Scallops have a good sustainability rating. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Scallops have a good sustainability rating. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

The ability to filter impurities from water means scallops are considered eco-friendly creatures. Their lack of dependence on fish feed and predilection for eating from the bottom of the food chain further increases their good environmental standing. Good for the environment and likewise safe for consumption, they can be enjoyed by both children and adults at least four times a month.

Unquestionably, I appreciate the scallops’ solid sustainability rating. What I also like is how little effort is needed to prepare them. Unlike other bivalves, I never have to shuck a bunch of scallops.

Simple ways to boost scallops’ flavor

Scallops pair well with many flavors and foods, making them a versatile choice. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Scallops pair well with many flavors and foods, making them a versatile choice. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Because their shells never close completely, scallops spoil easily. To avoid the risk of spoilage, fishermen shuck the scallops right after harvesting them. Everything but the meaty abductor muscle — and, if you live outside the U.S., the orange-colored roe sack — is discarded.

U.S. consumers know the pearly abductor muscle as a scallop; in America this is what we cook and eat. Elsewhere people have the choice of buying and cooking scallops with or without the roe intact. Having tried it both ways, I have to vouch for the use of the rich, slightly salty roe. It adds complexity to and also balances out the scallop’s mildly sweet flavor.

Because I don’t have the option of including the roe, I sometimes toss in an extra ingredient or two to boost the scallops’ taste. Herbs such as basil, chervil, parsley, tarragon and thyme and seasonings such as cayenne, black and white pepper, salt, brandy, vinegar and dry white wine complement this shellfish. So, too, do avocados, bell peppers, carrots, chilies, corn, garlic, ginger, shallots, lemons, limes, mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes. This is a companionable and versatile seafood.

Tips for buying scallops

Consider odor, color and luster when buying scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Consider odor, color and luster when buying scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

When shopping for scallops, I consider odor, color and luster. The flesh should smell sweet rather than pungent or fishy. It should have a bright sheen and appear somewhere between pale pink and light beige in color. Unless soaked in a solution, which increases its weight and, therefore, cost, a scallop will not appear bright white.

Additionally, the meat should not look flabby but instead be firm and well formed. Floppiness or limpness is another sign the shellfish has been languishing in liquid. Because I don’t want to pay more for less and, more important, buy seafood that’s been bathing in preservatives, I ask my fishmonger for dry-packed or untreated scallops.

Lastly, I request either diver-caught sea scallops from Mexico or farmed sea scallops; as you might suspect from the name, diver-caught indicates a diver has hand collected the bivalves from the ocean floor. Both methods of harvesting have low environmental impact.

Because I’m one of those uptight buy-right-before-cooking cooks, I tend to prepare my scallops as soon as I return from the market. If I have to deviate from this practice, I immediately refrigerate the scallops. They will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator.

Cooking methods

Pan searing is one of several cooking techniques that bring out the flavor of scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Pan searing is one of several cooking techniques that bring out the flavor of scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

When cooking scallops, I have a plethora of techniques at my disposal. These include sautéing, pan searing, grilling, broiling and poaching. Along with serving them on their own, I’ve put them in gratins, seafood pies, stir-fries, ceviches, tartares and stews. Light and flavorful, they are a wonderful, all-purpose seafood.

This spring enliven your cooking with simple, tasty scallops. They’re good, and good for you!

Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction

This recipe is from “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013) by Kathy Hunt.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 scant tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 cup sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon light brown sugar, firmly packed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound large sea scallops

Sea salt to taste

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil on medium. Add the minced shallot and sauté until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

2. Pour the sherry vinegar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and stir in the brown sugar and shallots. Simmer until the liquid has thickened and reduced to 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup. When finished, the sauce will be syrupy in texture. Set aside. (Note: You may want to reheat this slightly before dressing the cooked scallops with it.)

3. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on high. Add the scallops, season with salt and pepper and reduce the heat to medium-high. Sear the scallops until brown on the bottom. Flip them over and fry the other side until browned. Depending on the size of your scallops, the cooking time will take between 6 to 8 minutes total.

4. Place the scallops on the dinner plates. Drizzle the shallot-sherry vinegar reduction over the scallops. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

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Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds. Recipe courtesy Norwegian Seafood Council. Credit: Copyright Norwegian Seafood Council

Every time I buy cod I am reminded of my stint as a young political television researcher. During the UK-Icelandic “Cod Wars,” I was charged with getting a suitable specimen to act as Exhibit A. I knew enough to realize it would not come in preprepared steaks, but I was not expecting the 6-foot-long marine monster freshly arrived from Fleetwood Docks.

After the program, no one wanted to go near the blooming thing, so I smothered it in newspaper, crammed it into the boot of my car and did what any sensible Jewish girl would do — took it home for mother. “Oh, just cut it up and bung it in a pan and fry it,” I said breezily. Thanks to her old-school upbringing, she did not flinch: she simply rolled up her sleeves and gutted, scaled, skinned, chopped and filleted while I made my excuses and left.

It’s cod, but not cod as we know it

I was reminded of the superlative taste of that fish when I sampled Skrei (pronounced skray). It sounds like a reggae dance or a fiendishly difficult quiz question, but to those in the know, Skrei is one of the best things to come out of Norway since the Vikings. Indeed, it’s cod, but not cod as we know it.

Skrei swims onto our plates directly from the icy-clear waters of Norway’s beautiful Lofoten Islands. It is a Scandinavian dream of a fish: sweet, bright white flesh with a supple texture scored by fat lines that melt away during cooking and allow the fish to break into tender, opalescent flakes. Rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, Skrei is healthy, wholesome and versatile. It also has an amazing life history.

Between January and April, millions of Skrei migrate thousands of miles from their home in the Barents Sea to the islands to reproduce. Only the very best — fully grown and immaculate — qualify for the brand’s seal of approval, a  special tag fastened to the dorsal fin.

Cod might have been off the sustainable menu in recent years due to overfishing in the northeast Atlantic and United Kingdom waters. But in northern Norway, Skrei ticks all the environmental boxes and is a reflection of the high-management standards of Norwegian fisheries, which banned discards years ago. Most Skrei are caught with longlines from small boats, and the Barents Sea now provides Norwegians with the largest growing cod stock in the world.

Skrei can be eaten both raw and cooked. Serve it lightly cured and thinly sliced with olive oil, lemon, dill and sea salt, or roast it with braised fennel and anchovy to bring out the delicate but full flavor. The most popular way in Norway to prepare Skrei is simply poached or baked with boiled potatoes and steamed carrots. Alternatively, Norwegians like to eat it with cod roe, tongue and liver, boiled potatoes, crispbread and aquavit.

‘Skrei is a great addition to my  menu’

Available at specialist outlets in Europe and the United States, Skrei is a chef magnet. Michel Roux Jr. features the fish while in season at his two-Michelin-star Le Gavroche restaurant in London and is a committed fan. “I think it is fantastic, a glistening, super-fresh cod with beautiful, translucent flakes. I think it is one of the finest products of the sea, and is both truly sustainable and has a unique legacy,” he said.

Ben Pollinger of Oceana Restaurant in New York City adds, “Skrei is a great addition to my menu. It’s sustainable, great quality and unique. I enjoy working with it (and) the customers enjoy it (too). … People are getting more adventurous with food, so this is a good way to (try) new things.”

Also in New York City, Marcus Jenmark at Aquavit shares that sentiment. “Skrei is an essential fish in the Nordic region and its cuisine. New Yorkers are always looking for seasonal and high-quality product, so it is fun … to combine those elements and serve something authentic, extremely seasonal and new to New York guests,” he adds.

UK fish specialist and chef Mitch Tonks of the Seahorse Restaurant in Devon also became a Skrei convert after a trip to Lofoten. “In my search for the finest ingredients for my restaurants, I have discovered this mighty cod, one that I know I can serve with an absolute guarantee of sustainability. I won’t be surprised if Norwegian Skrei is the next big thing.”

Cod willing, of course.

Skrei Glazed in a Whiskey Teriyaki

Created by Michel Roux Jr. of Le Gavroche and Simon Hulstone of The Elephant for the Norwegian Seafood Council

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours

Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

3 teaspoons honey

3 teaspoons superfine sugar

2 1/2 cups mirin

1 cup whiskey (peaty or smoky is best)

1 or 2 chilies finely chopped, to taste

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped

4 cups soy sauce, Kikkoman preferred

1 thick fillet of cod, with the skin on

Directions

1. To make the teriyaki sauce, begin by putting the honey and sugar in a large pan and cook until caramelized, then add the mirin and whiskey, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes

2. Take off the heat and add the chilies, ginger and soy sauce. Once completely cooled, strain

3. Trim and pin bone the Skrei fillet, then marinate in the teriyaki for one hour

4. Drain the fillet and place in a tray with some of the marinade. Put under a broiler; baste often with the marinade. The fish should take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook through and be glazed.

Note: Serve with a very fine “spaghetti” of white turnip that has been lightly cooked and dressed with some of the marinade and some sesame oil, and grilled vegetables, such as mushrooms and zucchini, basted with the teriyaki.

Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds

The buttery soft flesh of Norwegian Skrei lends itself perfectly to this comforting simple supper. Recipe courtesy of the Norwegian Seafood Council.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup Puy lentils

2 large leeks, washed and green ends removed

1 stick unsalted butter

1 packet of kale

Salt and pepper

Juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon, plus 1 extra lemon for garnish

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 Skrei fillets, with the skin on

Salt and pepper, to taste

Handful of pumpkin seeds, plain or lightly roasted if you prefer

Directions

1. Cook the lentils according to the instructions on the packet until they are al dente. If you prefer, cook them in chicken or vegetable stock this will add more flavor to the lentils, but it’s not essential.

2. Place the butter in a medium sauté pan and warm until completely melted.

3. Slice the leeks into 2-inch discs, then add them to the butter and cook slowly until very soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep warm on a very low temperature while preparing the rest of the dish. Remove a couple of spoonfuls of the leek and butter mixture; set aside as garnish.

4. Wash the kale, removing the long thick spine in the middle of the leaves, and finely chop. Add the kale to the leek and butter mixture, gently toss over low heat until the kale is coated in the mixture. Make sure not to fry the kale or it will go crispy.

5. Drain the Puy lentils and add them to the kale mixture, toss a few times and taste. Add the lemon juice; season to your liking with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm while you cook the fish.

6. Drizzle a spoonful of vegetable oil in a large sauté pan; heat until the oil sizzles. Pat the fish skin dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper; place the fish fillets skin side down in the hot oil. Sauté the fillets for about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness, until the flesh of the Skrei is nearly opaque throughout.

7. Season the top of the fish. Using a spatula or fish slice carefully turn the fish and finish cooking for about a minute. Squeeze a little lemon juice on the fish.

8. To serve, place equal amounts of the lentil, kale, and leek and butter mixture on each plate; place a fillet on top of the lentils. Top with a small spoonful of the leek and butter mixture that was set aside earlier; sprinkle with pumpkin seeds before serving.

Main photo: Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds. Recipe courtesy Norwegian Seafood Council. Credit: Copyright Norwegian Seafood Council

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Seafood on display for customers. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Whether you have vowed to eat more healthfully or are just contemplating the addition of seafood to your diet this year, eventually you may find yourself staring into a refrigerated seafood case, wondering which fish is not only safe and eco-friendly but also a pleasure to eat.

No need to wonder. I have a list of wholesome winners for you. The lineup includes a hearty fish that satisfies meat lovers; one for those preferring mild, “non-fishy” fish; and a versatile, no-fuss shellfish.

The perfect seafood for meat lovers

First on the menu is Atlantic mackerel. In the same family as tuna, the torpedo-shaped mackerel possesses firm, oily flesh and a rich, beefy taste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no fish offers more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than mackerel.

Healthful, flavorful and flexible, this fish can be braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed or seared as well as pickled, salted or smoked. Its bold flavor marries with acidic ingredients such as citrus, tomatoes and vinegar and balances out more mellow foods such as lentils, potatoes and mushrooms.

When shopping for Atlantic mackerel, I look for fish sourced from Canada. Caught using purse seines rather than fishing trawlers, it possesses the highest sustainability rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Other mackerel varieties, such as Spanish and King, have elevated mercury levels, making them a less favorable choice.

A ‘gateway’ fish

I think of farmed, American channel catfish as the gateway to seafood consumption. Its subtly sweet, low-fat and pliable meat puts it on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from mackerel. It also makes catfish an excellent choice for reluctant or picky fish eaters.

With a flattened head and eight long, whisker-like barbells dotting the region around its nose and mouth, this creature bears a strong resemblance to its namesake. Typically, though, I don’t see whole catfish, with whiskers intact, in markets. Instead, what I find are skinless catfish fillets. Iridescently white to off-white in color, they often get lumped into the broad category of “white fish.”

Virtually an all-purpose fish, catfish can be baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed, steamed and deep-, pan- or stir-fried. It goes well with countless ingredients, including avocados, bacon, chilies, olives, tomatoes, tomatillos and wine.

Farmed channel catfish from the U.S. is among the most sustainable seafood available today. Be sure to purchase U.S.-farmed rather than imported Asian catfish, which also goes by the names “swai” or “basa.” Although equally low in mercury, imported catfish is not as eco-friendly.

A shellfish to get you started

Maybe you prefer the colorful looks, flavor and texture of shellfish but also desire seafood low in cholesterol and mercury; high in protein, vitamins and minerals; and with moderate levels of omega-3 fatty acids. I have the bivalve for you: mussels.

Inside a mussel’s hard, oblong, green or blue-black shell rests creamy, sweet, juicy meat that tastes like lobster but lacks the high cholesterol or price tag of that crustacean. Rich in protein, vitamins B-12 and C, iron and omega-3s, this shellfish packs a powerful nutritional punch.

Yet another adaptable seafood, mussels may be baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, stewed or smoked. They partner with bold, tart, spicy or mild ingredients such as beer, garlic, mustard, lemon, tomatoes, wine, chilies, curry powder, paprika, pasta, rice and zucchini. They also pair with other seafood, including clams, shrimp, squid, John Dory, snapper and monkfish. If you’ve ever tried the Provencal seafood stew bouillabaisse or Californian cioppino, then you know how nicely mussels combine with these fish and shellfish.

Although dozens of mussel species exist, I usually find farmed blue or common mussels at markets. Grown in abundance and available year-round, farmed mussels garner the coveted “best choice” label from Seafood Watch.

More good seafood choices

Along with this nourishing trio, I would suggest adding littleneck clams, farmed rainbow trout and char to your must-try seafood list. They all possess high nutritional and sustainability ratings. Couple these rankings with ease of preparation and agreeable taste, and you’ve got three more champs to add to your dinner menus.

Fans of bolder foods should also check out Pacific sardines and trap-caught sablefish. Both receive rave environmental, nutritional and cooking reviews, and both provide ample flavor and need little, if any, seasonings to shine.

No matter which type of seafood you favor, aim to make 2015 your year of healthful, sustainable and succulent fish and shellfish.

Smoked Mackerel Jackets

Smoked Mackerel Jackets. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Smoked Mackerel Jackets. Credit: Kathy Hunt

From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 stuffed baked potatoes

Ingredients

4 large russet potatoes

1/3 cup skim milk, warmed

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

1 bunch scallions, sliced

1 pound smoked mackerel fillets, flaked

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Using a fork, poke holes in the potatoes. Microwave them on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and softened.

3. Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving behind a small rim of potato in each skin.

4. Place the potato flesh in a large bowl and, using a fork or spoon, mash together lightly. Add the milk, butter, salt and pepper and mash again until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the cheese, scallions and flaked mackerel and stir to combine.

5. Spoon equal amounts of the potato-mackerel mixture back into the skins. Place the filled skins on a baking sheet and bake until warm and golden brown on top, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Seafood on display for customers. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.

“Fishermen in their 70s and 80s tell stories depicting Istanbul like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s as if we’ve moved to a totally different place since then,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, which has organized an annual holiday to draw attention to the city’s rapidly depleting waterways and to try and reverse the tide.

Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish

Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)

Many of the city’s best chefs have signed on, including Didem Şenol, the acclaimed founder of Lokanta Maya and Gram restaurants.

“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”

Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.

fishermen-galata-bridge_zd

Fishermen on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”

Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.

“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”

Campaign nets converts to the cause

A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.

“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.

“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”

Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.

Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.

“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.

Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.

“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”

Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul.  Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.

Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.

As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.

At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.

And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.

Octopus salad with oil and lemon

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”

Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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