Articles in Fish
I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.
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In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.
If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.
1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups water
Zest of an organic lemon
Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of sea salt
3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.
2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.
But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.
Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”
Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 first-course servings
For the fish:
2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound
6 cups water
1½ cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 branch celery, coarsely chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
For the sauce:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.
4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.
For the sauce:
You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.
1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.
2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.
3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.
Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
My new favorite fish dish is modeled on a medieval chicken dish remotely descended from an ancient cheese spread. You heard me, cheese spread. You can think of the dish I am calling three-millennia fish as fish in a sort of thin Hollandaise made slightly florid with saffron and sweet spices.
The intermediate dish appears in a 14th-century Catalan manuscript called “Libre de Sent Soví,” where it is called pols soffrits ab alidem, “fried chickens with alidem.” The alidem part is what goes back to a cheese spread, because the Arabic word al-idam referred to a condiment you ate with bread.
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Some other languages have the same sort of word. In ancient Greek, for instance, opson meant a bread relish, which in Athens was usually fish. And that’s where modern Greek gets its word for fish, psari (originally opsarion). In the medieval Middle East, the typical idams were semi-liquid cheese-like things such as kamakh rijal.
Catalonia was one of the first parts of Spain to free itself from the Moors, but they had left a strong imprint on its cooking, which otherwise would have turned out to be just a dialect of Provencal cuisine. For instance, escabeche, the preparation of cooked vegetables or fish dressed in vinegar that has spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world, comes from Arabic via the Catalan form escabeig, which is pronounced, believe it or not, as escabetch.
Somehow, al-idam took a strange turn in Catalonia. In the “Libre de Sent Sovi,” it meant a sort of sauce or dressing for cooked meat. Some of its alidems were made with toasted bread, so maybe there was a link with tradition there, but as they say in Catalan, Que sap?
The more usual alidem in Sent Soví was a mixture of beaten egg yolks, mixed spices (which the Catalans confusing call salsa), a sour ingredient (vinegar or sour grape juice), and water or stock. This would be cooked to a creamy consistency. Maybe the consistency was the link to the ancient cheese spread.
Medieval recipes are finicky in places but maddeningly vague in others. Pols soffrits ab alidem is one of the vague ones. It only says, “One takes the chickens and boils them; and then takes lard of salt pork and fries them. And then they go for slices and alidem for dishes.” (The cooking technique of boiling before frying reflected the toughness medieval chickens.)
When you check back to the book’s instructions on making alidem, the only flavorings you find mentioned are ginger, pepper, saffron “and other good spices,” so you’re on your own. Cinnamon and nutmeg were what occurred to me when I first tried this recipe. I must say, it came out delicate and luscious.
Perhaps because of the saffron I immediately thought it would also be a good preparation for fish. And behold, as they’d say in the Middle Ages, it was. Here is my fish adaptation of the medieval chicken in the former cheese sauce. I used cod in this recipe and I think it would work best with that or other mild fish, such as halibut or even catfish. It wouldn’t work as well with strong-flavored or fatty
fish, such as salmon or swordfish.
12 to 15 threads saffron
¾ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon pepper
3 to 4 grindings fresh nutmeg
4 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice
4 egg yolks
¾ to 1 cup white wine, fish sauce or clam juice
2 to 3 tablespoons light olive oil for frying
2 pounds fish filets
1. Grind the saffron to a powder in a mortar, or in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Add the ginger, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix them up with the vinegar. Beat in the egg yolks and then add the wine or water and beat smooth.
2. Pour the oil in a large frying pan and heat over high heat until the oil is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Pat the fish pieces dry and add them to the pan without crowding it; cook in more than one batch if needed.
3. Cook over high heat, stirring often, until the fish flakes easily when prodded with a fork, 2-4 minutes depending on thickness. Set the fish aside and discard the cooking oil.
4. Pour the egg and spice mixture in the pan over medium heat and cook until the sauce thickens, stirring constantly to keep it from sticking to the pan. Pour the sauce on the fish and serve.
Three-millennia fish. Credit: Charles Perry
A truly great food and wine pairing can lead the way to nirvana. I can still remember my first time like a first kiss: It was fleeting, but held so much promise.
But matching food with wine can be a tricky business once you get much beyond “red with meat and white with fish.” So I jumped at the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen and at the table with Brian Streeter, culinary director of Cakebread Cellars and their famed American Harvest Workshops.
Cakebread Cellars is one of the most celebrated wineries in California’s Napa Valley. Started by a couple of weekend warriors who planted 22 acres in 1973, the winery has grown into a family dynasty producing elegant vintages from 510 acres. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Streeter joined the tightly knit group 13 years into its odyssey and has been pairing foods and wines almost every day for 27 years.
What are some core principles of food and wine pairing?
It’s all about intensity, acidity, tannins and alcohol. If you can get a handle on these core components, pairing any wine with food is much easier.
Intensity is all about the body or mouth feel of a wine. I might be stating the obvious, but lighter foods really do go best with lighter wines and richer, more complex foods go with richer, more complex wines. Color is the first great visual clue to a wine’s intensity, and knowing if the wine has spent any time barrel aging is a good signal too.
Acidity is the next thing to think about. To be a good food pairing wine, a wine needs to have a certain level of acidity. Wines low in acidity end up being flabby and don’t pair well. If I really want to highlight the bright acidity in a wine, I’ll marry it with a food component that has some natural sweetness to it. That’s why shellfish like shrimp, scallops or lobster goes so well with white wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The sweetness of the dish makes the acidity pop even more and seem brighter. But if you want to soften the acidity, adding lemon or white wine to the recipe makes the wine seem a little rounder.
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Lastly, consider the alcohol level. A low level of alcohol is a good indication that the wine’s grapes were picked earlier and acidity levels will be higher, so they will naturally go best with lighter food. If the wine is higher in alcohol, it will exhibit bigger, riper flavors. Often the winemaker will age it in new oak barrels, adding another element. These full-flavored wines cry out to be enjoyed with 2-inch thick prime porterhouse. But you want to be careful not to serve anything too spicy or too sweet with them as both tend to accentuate the alcohol in the wine and throw it out of balance.
Speaking of spicy, are there any tricks to pairing with those foods?
Often, spicy foods clash with wines that have seen time in barrel or have alcohol levels above 12.5%. I love Indian food because of its use of so many spices, but in order to make a successful wine pairing, sometimes recipes need to be dialed back or reinterpreted if you want to find a dish that really complements the wine. Once I’ve tasted the wine, then I decide whether I want to accentuate, or even soften, its style by how I season the dish with which I plan to pair it. Off-dry wines and wines with fruit-forward characteristics do best with really spicy food, unless the seasoning is so intense that it will overshadow any wine.
What other foods are risky to pair with wine?
Any ingredient that throws a wine out of balance or alters its natural finish is trouble. Red flags should go up with asparagus, artichokes, vinegar, eggs, soup and dishes that are designed to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Asparagus and artichokes are notorious for being bad partners with most wines. But asparagus just picked from our winery garden and cooked right away is one of the things I look forward to most at this time of year. I will rarely serve asparagus with red wine because it makes the wine taste like overcooked canned vegetables, but I think it’s fabulous with Cakebread’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Artichokes can easily throw a wine out of balance. Roasting them or grilling helps, but the wine might suffer a little for it. Save that really special bottle you’ve been holding onto for another occasion.
When it comes to salads, vinegar or acid is problematic because it can make a wine taste flat. Use sparingly and balance with other ingredients. Incorporating some protein — whether in the form of meat, cheese or nuts — softens the acidity and gives the wine more texture to interact with.
Eggs, particularly hard-boiled, can make a wine taste sulfurous. But if you like deviled eggs like I do, the acidity in Sauvignon Blanc is a good contrast to the richness of the egg.
Soup usually is a difficult course to pair wine with because it’s matching a liquid with a liquid. That said, soups that have some body to them are better than broths.
Sweetness in food accentuates acidity, alcohol and any tannin in a wine. We only make dry wines at Cakebread Cellars, so I’ll look elsewhere for off-dry wines to pair with these kinds of dishes.
What do you think is the most versatile varietal?
I have two favorites, Rosé and Pinot Noir. When it’s hot outside, nothing tastes better than a refreshing glass of Rosé. It’s more complex than white wine, but not as big as red and can be served chilled. I enjoy lighter food during the summer like salads and a lot of fish, so rosé is what I reach for.
When it comes to reds, you can pretty much divide red wine drinkers into two groups: the Pinot camp and the Cabernet camp. Pinot typically shows brighter red fruit, a little higher acidity and softer tannins, so they can pair well with a greater variety of foods. Salmon is a well-known choice for Pinot; pork and poultry work more often than not. When I’m having a big, juicy steak or roast, then I start thinking about Cabernet or Merlot. Firmer tannins match up much better to dark red meats.
Which should be a beginning oenophile’s instinctive choice: Contrast or complement?
Trying to pick a contrasting wine, like a sweeter wine to offset spice, can be a bit tricky, so I’d suggest taking the safer route. Choose a wine that complements a dish and you’ll probably end up with a successful pairing.
Thai Stone Crab Tostadas
This stone crab appetizer was one of many dishes I helped prepare in a recent cooking class at Cakebread Cellars. The sweetness of the crabmeat and the tang of the dressing heightened the bright acidity of the Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc we drank with it.
For the fried wontons:
8 wonton wrappers, halved on the diagonal to make 16 triangles
Vegetable oil for frying
For the topping:
1 cup stone crab meat (from about 1 pound cooked crab claws) or Dungeness crab meat
1½ cups very finely sliced green cabbage
2 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
½ jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish
1. In a 4-quart saucepan, heat 3 inches of vegetable oil to 375 F. Fry the wonton wrappers a few at a time, turning them once with tongs, until they puff and turn golden, less than a minute. Drain on a rack or paper towels.
2. In a bowl, combine the crabmeat, cabbage, red onion and scallions.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar, ginger and chile.
4. Add the dressing to the slaw and toss well.
5. Put a spoonful of slaw on each wonton wrapper. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve immediately.
Top photo: Thai stone crab tostadas. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
“One of the most significant medical discoveries of the 21st century is that inflammation is the common thread connecting chronic diseases,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman, author of several books on health and wellness. The conditions he’s talking about include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even cancer, all driven by inflammatory foods in your diet. But the good news is there are lots of foods to decrease inflammation, too.
Cut your finger, and observe what happens: redness, swelling, thumping pain. That’s the process of inflammation — the immune system rushing in, sending growth signals to the skin and blood vessels to help repair damaged tissues. Now imagine you have a chronic wound that just won’t heal. ”It’s like wild fire out of control,” Dr. William Li told USA Today, describing the inflammatory process that drives the proliferation of cancerous cells.
When the immune system detects cancer, it produces inflammatory molecules to help put out the fire. But tumor cells are sneaky. They mask themselves to keep the immune system from prevailing and feed off the growth signals that inflammation creates. What’s more, cancer cells initiate inflammation on their own, secreting inflammatory chemicals that cause more proliferation and growth, and the cascade continues. The cancer cells increase exponentially, refusing to die like normal cells, producing masses called tumors that generate blood vessels on their own so they can nourish themselves, grow bigger and spread.
Fat cells, too, secrete inflammatory chemicals, underscoring the link between obesity and chronic disease.
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So what causes chronic inflammation?
Hyman blames the usual culprits, including lack of exercise, stress, overeating, refined carbs, processed foods, sugars and artificial sweeteners, imbalances in gut bacteria, insufficient fiber, dairy, gluten and bad fats.
Unlike proteins, which our body breaks down into amino acids, the fats we eat get incorporated directly into our cell membranes, said Jeanne Wallace, a Ph.D. in nutrition who has reviewed the thousands of studies on diet and cancer. In a multi-step process, those fats then signal our cells to secrete chemicals that are either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. The good fats — the ones that get converted into prostaglandin E3s and signal cells to reduce inflammation — include omega 3 fatty acids, she explained, found in abundance in wild, fatty fish, in animals raised on pastures and in a few plant foods, including flax, chia and walnuts to some degree.
The bad guys are certain omega 6 fatty acids from commercially-raised animals and trans fats from fried and processed foods, including oils that are hardened via the process of hydrogenation and turned into shortening, into some margarines and sometimes into commercial nut butters. These fats get converted into prostaglandin E2s and other chemicals that promote inflammation.
The bad guys, however, can also include plant sources high in omega 6 fatty acids– beans, grains, nuts, seeds and especially their oils, Wallace said.
The problem here is that fat conversion can go either way, she said. The fat may be converted into healthy or unhealthy prostaglandins, depending on your insulin levels and other factors in your body, and we have very little control over the process. Wallace, who counsels cancer patients on diet and supplements, recommends eating these whole plant foods in moderation and avoiding most plant oils, which contain an overabundance of omega 6s. Olive oil is her oil of choice because of the abundance of omega 9 fatty acids, neutral in their effects on inflammation, along with other compounds that impede it.
Through her extensive research, Wallace has identified these foods to fight inflammation.
Top foods to decrease inflammation:
10 Apples and apple cider. Wallace, however, advises her clients with blood sugar issues to avoid fruit juice because of the sugars and to eat apples along with a little protein or fat, which will slow down the sugars’ absorption.
9 Brightly colored berries. These are also on Wallace’s top 10 list of foods that regulate blood sugar.
8 Olive oil. Buy cold-pressed, extra virgin oil in dark bottles, Wallace advised. And when you cook with it, use a low temperature and don’t let it smoke.
7 Hot peppers. They’re high in capsaicin, a potent compound that generates heat and inhibits inflammation.
6 Onions. Have you ever known a vegetable so sweet yet so mighty? According to onion experts, the best ones are the red and yellow-skinned varieties grown in northern soils. Peel them gently, then cut them and then let them sit for a half hour to develop the full complement of healthy compounds.
5 Grass-fed, grass-finished (often called pastured) organic meat, dairy and eggs. Visit the Eat Wild website to find good local sources of these products. And when in doubt, ask farmers what they feed their animals to increase omega 3s. You don’t want “grain-fed,” which increases omega 6s.
4 Leafy green vegetables, especially spinach. Wash these vegetables well even if the package says they’ve been pre-washed because the threat of the E. coli contamination is real. Cook spinach to help you absorb its minerals.
3 Green tea. Look for fresh-smelling, green leaves, especially gyokuros and senchas
2 Wild, fatty, cold-water fish Choose fish that are small and eat low on the food chain, including anchovies, sardines, herring and wild salmon. Here’s a list of some good salmon choices, including canned salmon from BPA-free cans. Also, eat the fat, which contains the healthy omega 3s.
1 Culinary seasonings. Curry, ginger, garlic and parsley top the list of foods that fight inflammation. All herbs and spices are rich in antioxidants, Wallace said, which help protect fragile omega 3 oils from turning rancid when heated. Even more significant, they inhibit inflammation-promoting molecules (called nuclear factor kappa B) that cancer cells secrete. In fact, some scientists suggest that spice consumption might explain why cancer incidence is so much lower in India than in most Western countries, giving “the spice of life” its most significant spin yet.
Simple Spicy Salmon, With Ginger Juice and Garlic
My secret to moist, tasty salmon is a clay baking dish, which is available in most kitchen specialty stores. You have to soak it in cold water for half an hour before using it and then place it, along with the ingredients, in a cold oven. Trust me. I’ve cracked many a clay vessel.
4 cloves garlic, chopped, divided in half
3 heaping tablespoons grated ginger
4 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 large pieces of wild salmon
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1. Soak the pot in cold water for half an hour.
2. Prepare the sauce. Chop the garlic first. It needs to sit about 15 minutes before cooking to develop its host of cancer-fighting compounds. Grate the ginger, then squeeze the juice out of it into a mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice, salt, pepper and half the garlic and stir.
3. Place the fish in the clay pot and add the sauce. Sprinkle red pepper on top and then cover.
4. Place covered clay pot in a cold oven, then turn the oven to 350 F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until fish is flaky. Add the remainder of the garlic at the end.
Top photo: Simple spicy salmon, with ginger juice and garlic. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
Eat more fish. That’s one of the prerequisites of the Mediterranean diet. We all know fish is good for us, yet Americans eat less than 16 pounds a year, man, woman and child. And for a lot of us, this sumptuous route to a healthy diet is simply unheard of. Astonishingly, there are people in this country who have never tasted fish.
Well, I was lucky. I grew up and learned to eat and cook in New England, on the coast of Maine where fish and seafood are considered a normal, customary part of each week’s menu. We weren’t Catholics, but we still ate fish on Fridays, possibly because there was a greater selection on that day. And of course we ate Maine lobster, scallops and crab. But the chef d’oeuvre of my mother’s kitchen was baked stuffed haddock, which I loved so much that later, when I went away to school, my mother always made it for that first welcome-home supper of vacation. She stuffed the whole fish with something like poultry stuffing — sagey, bread-crumby, oniony, thymey, peppery, and delicious — and then served it with a white sauce with sliced hard-boiled eggs in it. This doesn’t sound as enticing now as it was back then; tastes change with time, but I think if my mother were alive now and made that for me, I would tuck into it with just as much gusto as I did when I was 15.
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Explore beyond tuna and shrimp
I’ve always been perplexed at the indifference so many Americans, especially those away from the coasts, display toward seafood. Tuna is our favorite fish, but the greatest quantity we consume by far is canned. That’s a good thing, too, because canned tuna is mostly albacore and not the gravely endangered bluefin. Shrimp is our second favorite and that’s not good because, as delicious as some shrimp can be, most are raised on vast shrimp farms by environmentally destructive, highly questionable practices that yield a tasteless lump of rubbery resistant flesh, good as a foil for cocktail sauce and not much else. If you can get wild shrimp, fantastic! But most of us can’t.
Home cooks steer away from fish because it’s expensive and they don’t know how to prepare it, and then it stinks up the kitchen. Tasteless frozen pre-cooked shrimp and canned tuna require no preparation, which may be a large part of their appeal. Why bother with anything else?
Bother for these reasons: a) because any seafood made at home will be cheaper and probably tastier than in a restaurant; b) because it’s actually very easy to prepare; and c) because, the greatest selling point, it is unassailably good for you. Despite some popular beliefs that fish contains harmful amounts of mercury, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded in a meta-analysis back in 2006 (published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., or JAMA) the health risks from consuming fish are unsubstantiated and have been greatly exaggerated. A much greater risk, said Dr. Eric Rimm, co-author of the study, “is in store for those who avoid fish entirely.”
Even the ultra-conservative American Heart Assn. suggests two seafood meals a week, and the Mediterranean diet recommends “at least” two or three servings weekly for everyone, including children.
“I could never get my kid to eat fish.” I hear you, loud and clear.
Fish for small-fry
Try this: Make fish fingers or nuggets by cutting up some halibut (or salmon grouper, mahi-mahi or the like). Kids love anything fried and crunchy, that they can eat with their hands. Set up three bowls, one with flour in it, one with a well-beaten egg or two, and one with good unflavored bread crumbs seasoned with a pinch of salt and, if your kids will tolerate greenery, some very finely minced parsley. Have a skillet with a skiff of olive oil in the bottom (2 tablespoons or so, depending on the size of the pan) ready to go on the stove.
Now dip each fish finger into the flour, rolling it to coat thoroughly, and shake off the excess. Dip the flour-coated fish into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off. Put the egg-coated fish into the bowl with the breadcrumbs and roll it around, pressing on all sides so the breadcrumbs adhere. When all your fish fingers are done, set the skillet over medium heat and as soon as the oil is hot, add the fish fingers in a single layer—do it in two or more batches if you have to. Fry until crisp and brown on one side, then turn and fry on the other. By the time the bread-crumb coating is toasty brown, the inside will be cooked through. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges to squeeze on top.
Fish recipe with no fishy smell
Here’s another, only slightly more complicated treatment for those of you who worry about smelling the house up with fishy odors. For each serving, take a square sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the center, then set a piece of firm-textured fish (see the suggestions above) on it. Add a few disks of carrot and potato, blanched until just starting to tenderize, a slender ring of a smallish red onion, a few slices of zucchini, and perhaps a sliver of red pepper, green chili pepper or a couple of very small grape tomatoes. Fresh herbs are also nice with this—chives, thyme sprigs, or coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil. Sprinkle another teaspoon of oil over the top, add a genteel spritz of lemon juice, and then pull the corners of the foil up and twist them to seal, making a loose packet. Set the packets on a tray and transfer the tray to a preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is done and the carrot and potato slices are tender. Serve in the packets — no fuss, no muss, no cleanup, and no fishy smell in the kitchen.
The message from the Mediterranean? Fish is good for you, it’s simple and easy to prepare, and, as those Harvard researchers determined, the health risks are minimal compared to the benefits. Farmed fish or wild (and the greatest percentage of our seafood consumption these days comes from aquaculture), it’s all to the good.
Top photo: Seafood display. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Does anybody still make trout amandine? Once upon a time — back in the sole Veronique era of America’s discovery of French cuisine — restaurants often scattered trout with toasted almond slices, and voilà, truite amandine (or “almondine,” if it was a continental restaurant), I still see green beans amandine once a year at my family’s Thanksgiving, but between times, not so much.
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Still, toasted nuts have a marvelously appetizing aroma that goes very well with meat, and we ought to take advantage of it. They know this in the Middle East. The usual Lebanese stuffing for vegetables or meat pastries is onions, ground lamb and pine nuts, all fried quite brown. They usually stuff turkey with the same mixture.
I don’t think toasted almonds show their best with beef (though toasted walnuts might), but they definitely add something to lamb, chicken, fish and veal. There’s an excellent Spanish dish called ternera a la condesita, which is veal scallops sautéed with toasted almonds, blackened garlic cloves and dry sherry.
Infusing Lebanese traditions with French amandine
Some years ago I cooked a lot of Lebanese dishes for a woman who was a knowledgeable French cook. I often made her one of my favorites, djaj mahshi, which literally means “stuffed chicken,” though no stuffing is involved. Basically, you simmer a hen of respectable age with a cinnamon stick until tender, then use some of the cooking liquid to make pilaf. To serve, you fill bowls with rice, overturn them on the serving plates and top the rice mounds with shredded chicken, a handful of almonds and pine nuts fried in clarified butter and a gravy made with the remainder of the cooking liquid.
She seemed to enjoy what I made for her well enough, but I wasn’t sure my cooking really registered with her until one day I found her making a light, elegant chicken sauté. It was your basic French dish of chicken fried brown and cooked in white wine with which she had deglazed the pan. One difference was that she threw in a lot of garlic and lemon juice, which is very Lebanese. And at the end, she reduced the pan juices to a glaze, tenderly spooned it onto the chicken pieces and sprinkled the whole thing with almonds browned in butter.
Characteristically, she served it with cherry tomatoes and crusty French bread. So it was Franco-Lebanese fusion, in effect.
A new fusion
Recently I started thinking of combining toasted almonds with fish, but not at all in the old trout “almondine” way with white sauce. What I came up with was a more Mediterranean sort of dish that might be considered Provencal-Lebanese fusion, in effect.
Salmon Amandine with Saffron Aioli
⅔ cup slivered or sliced almonds
2 (½-pound) salmon filets
2 teaspoons lemon juice or vinegar
10-12 threads saffron
1 clove garlic, or less, to taste
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
1. Either toast the almonds in a baking sheet at 350 F until golden brown and fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes, or fry them in oil over medium heat, stirring constantly, and when browned pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle the almonds with salt to taste.
2. Place enough water in a large pan to cover the filets and acidulate it with lemon juice or vinegar. Bring the water to a bare boil and cook the filets until done, turning over carefully once or twice. To test for doneness, tease the filets with a fork to see whether the meat flakes all the way through.
3. Put the saffron in a mortar and grind it to a powder. (If you use powdered saffron, remember to buy it fresh, add as much as you like to the finished sauce). Put the garlic through a garlic press into the mortar and add the mayonnaise. Stir until it has an even color.
4. To serve, scatter the filets with the nuts and spoon the saffron aioli on the side.
Salmon Amandine With Saffron Aioli. Credit: Charles Perry
Visiting the island of Maui in Hawaii was a last-minute lark. With no plan greater than mindlessly combing the beach, the only sensory experience I sought was that warm island wind my partner affectionately describes as “delicious.” But culinary curiosity won out, and within 24 hours I was combing local markets for all those indigenous ingredients you can’t get anywhere else. Luckily for me, a postage stamp-sized, extraordinary fish market was within walking distance. That’s where I was introduced to poke, the “hang loose” version of sushi.
Poke (pronounced PO-keh) is the Hawaiian way of dressing perfectly fresh, bite-sized chunks of ahi, or yellowfin, tuna with a few simple yet sometimes exotic ingredients. Longtime locals I spoke to recalled poke becoming popular in the 1970s and ’80s. While the dish may not have a long culinary history, islanders are quite addicted to the stuff.
Local flavors enhance freshness of poke
In its simplest form, poke begins with tuna tossed with slivers of sweet Maui onion and finely chopped green onion tops. The fun begins when the tuna salad is then made to order by selecting from a variety of ingredients, including chopped limu koha (fresh red seaweed), inamona (roasted, crushed kukui nut), Aloha Shoyu (local soy sauce), sesame oil and ground fresh red chili paste.
Every grocery store worth its Hawaiian red salt is judged first by the poke it keeps. After visiting a few different markets, it was clear that having the winning reputation for the best poke concoctions on the island was a big source of competition and pride. Poke masters don’t easily give up their secret combinations. At the best of them, long lines form at the poke counter for the quintessential local lunch favorite — poke piled high atop a scoop of steaming white rice.
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Some real digging was required to score the limu koha and inamona. Not typically stocked on grocery store shelves, it took a bit of cajoling with the poke master at Foodland Farms in Lahaina before I wrangled a little bit of these precious staples. You can substitute another authentically Hawaiian nut, the macadamia, for the inamona, but you’d be missing out on the deep, slightly salty, not as sweet finish. Finely chopped and roasted Brazil nuts might be a closer substitute, although not truly local.
Over a week of experimentation, I discovered it’s easy to overpower fresh ahi tuna, blanketing some of its natural sweetness with too much spice. I came to favor poke that celebrated the silky texture and subtle flavor of the catch of the day when seasoned with a light hand. But poke is very personal. Spicy poke is a top seller at many markets. Fresh jalapeno chilies and avocado are popular additions. Even kimchi made an appearance in a version I tasted.
To make this recipe in a true Hawaiian way, don’t worry too much about following it to the letter. Just “hang loose” if you can’t find that red seaweed or the kukui nut and invent your own personal poke favorite.
1 pound fresh ahi, or yellowfin, tuna, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 Maui onion, slivered
1 bunch green onion tops, chopped
½ cup limu kohu (red seaweed)
1 tablespoon inamona (roasted kukui nut), finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground fresh red chili paste
1 teaspoon ONO Hawaiian Seasoning*
⅓ cup soy sauce
¼ cup sesame oil
Gently combine all the ingredients together in a bowl, chill and marinate for at least 30 minutes or longer. As an appetizer, plate it up on its own or with thin savory crackers. For a light lunch, serve the poke accompanied by simple white rice.
* ONO Hawaiian Seasoning can be found in most island markets and online. To substitute, use coarse salt seasoned with cracked pepper, fresh minced ginger, fresh minced garlic, crushed dried chilies, cayenne and ground dried chilies.
Top photo: Some of the poke options at Foodland Farms in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
These days it’s unfashionable to disparage pork belly in any form, but when it comes to chowder recipes I am firmly anti-bacon. Clam, corn, salmon, no matter the variety, too many chowders are marred by flotsam of limp lardons in this creamy stew.
My stance stems from a New England upbringing in an opinionated food-loving family where we routinely taste test chowders while dining out and debate their merits. Is it too thick? Are there enough clams? Too much potato? We rarely agree 100% except on one point: Any chowder is ruined by the overbearing wood-smoked flavor from excessive bacon.
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How did we go so far astray from the original? Long ago, every good Yankee cook depended on salt pork, fat trimmings from hogs preserved, or cured, in salt. This multi-purpose cooking fat flavored thrifty dishes with hints of meat. Bacon took its place. The trouble is that bacon goes one step further, cold smoking the salt-cured pork belly over wood chips to produce a distinctive, versatile and notably addictive foodstuff. These days, conventional wisdom says everything’s better with bacon, right down to dessert. I’m not immune to its allure, but enough is enough: Put more bacon anywhere but in my chowder.
What about the bacon?
Clearly, the chowder I’m speaking of is New England clam chowder, the most popular of the three varieties — the other two being tomatoey Manhattan and brothy Rhode Island. The version that migrated all the way from Cape Cod to Cape Kiwanda in Oregon lost something in translation. Or rather, the favorite Friday soup du jour gained too much of a good thing. Think about your last bowl of chowder: What taste stood out from all the ingredients in the bowl?
I thought so.
What’s the solution? Old-fashioned as it seems, salt pork is still sold and you could hunt down a cube to use for your next pot of chowder. But it’s not really worth it when bacon’s easier to find than a decent bar of soap. Instead, try cutting four strips of bacon one-half-inch wide and cook them in a wide 4-quart or larger pot over medium-low heat until all the fat is rendered and you’re left with pools of golden fat and extra-crispy bacon bits. Use a slotted spoon to remove all the cooked bacon and set it aside to drain on paper towels.
Now, you have a smoky pork-infused essence to make your chowder base, and a side of tempting snacks. I try to reserve them for a spinach salad to serve with the finished chowder. However, even I’ll admit the bacon by-product is a wonderful, crunchy garnish for topping a steaming bowl of chowder.
The makings of great chowder recipes
Dedicated as I am to my East Coast roots, I’ll eat chowder in the middle of a sweltering July day. But for most people, the cold and rainy shoulder season seems the most fitting time to indulge in bottomless bowls of this warming, wintery white soup. Using an all-purpose base (see recipe), I make a satisfying chowder out of anything from canned clams to last summer’s frozen corn to a single leftover salmon filet. A quick and hearty midweek meal for my family, it’s also a surprising hit at potlucks.
Serve the chowder in wide bowls to allow plenty of surface area for oyster crackers. Because when it comes to those little ridged crackers, you can’t have too many. That’s something I believe all chowder lovers, native born or not, can agree on wholeheartedly.
All-Purpose New England-Style Chowder
There are two basic ways to obtain rendered bacon fat:
1. Cook bacon strips cut into narrow pieces in a wide pot or over medium-low heat until all of the fat melts and the lean meat begins to brown.
2. Reserve and cool the fat from frying or baking strips of bacon from a weekend breakfast and store in the refrigerator where it will keep, arguably, indefinitely.
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat, salt pork or butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
2 pounds Russet potatoes (about 3 large), peeled and diced ½ inch
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups clam juice or vegetable broth
2 cups heavy cream or half and half
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1½-2½ cups milk
1-3 cups (8-16 ounces) of drained canned clams, frozen corn, cooked and flaked salmon or other fish, or baby shrimp
1. Heat the bacon fat in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot, 4 quarts or larger, over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook until it turns translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the potatoes, salt and pepper and stir to coat the potatoes in fat. Add the clam juice, bring it to a simmer and cook uncovered until the potatoes are tender to the bite, about 12 minutes.
2. Scoop out 1½ cups of the potatoes and purée in a blender with the cream until very smooth. Stir the cream mixture back into the pot with the thyme. This makes a very thick soup base that you can prepare 1-2 days in advance and even freeze.
3. Add the milk to thin to the chowder to your desired consistency and rewarm the pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until it is steaming but does not fully simmer. Add the clams or the other ingredients of your choice to flavor the chowder, using as much as little as you like or have on hand. Stir until heated through and taste for salt and pepper before serving.
Top photo: All-purpose New England-style chowder. Credit: Lynne Curry