Articles in Fish

Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

“Fresh is best” is usually a good rule to live by. But if you know how to find quality preserved items, a few well-chosen canned foods in your pantry can save the day, especially during the busy holidays.

Healthy food is food that is minimally processed. All the foods’ transformation should happen when you turn it from the raw to the cooked and not at some factory.

When I am unable to pronounce the ingredients listed on the side of a food’s packaging I shiver. When I see the word “natural” on a food package I read “Sh&u8#%g” because it has the same meaning. However, I am not a fanatic or obsessive about food: I can eat crap too. I do so minimally. I don’t always seek out organic, or local, or seasonal, or any other of the environmentally correct buzzwords.

Now and then canned food is just plain convenient. And luckily there are some canned products that are not loaded with chemicals such as taste enhancers or preservatives of one kind or another. If you keep these in your pantry you will always have a delicious, convenient and quick preparation on hand. This is particularly handy during the holidays. On their label you should see only one ingredient list, namely the same one as on the front of the packaging, the food itself. Some might have some citric acid, but that’s OK.

There are four foods that I use in their canned form for a variety of reasons: the food is out of season, I forgot to buy the food, I’m too tired to cook, or it’s a last-minute idea. My five canned go-to foods are chickpeas, tuna, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and pimentos.

In this recipe you’ll use four of those. The idea here is that this is party-quality food, the kind of dish that you could serve to guests and they will comment on its deliciousness. After they do then you can spill the beans, so to speak, and tell them how simple it all is.

Four-Can Antipasto

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

4 canned organic artichoke hearts (foundations), drained and quartered

2 tablespoons sliced pimentos

2 1/2 ounces canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat.

2. When the garlic begins to sizzle add the chickpeas, artichokes and pimentos and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

3. Add the tuna, salt, pepper and cayenne, toss a few times and remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
Aromatic Fish Meze. Credit: Cordell Barron

It’s that time of year again. Wherever I turn, I see beautiful and seductive images of food. When I’m tempted — and fortunate enough — to eat too much, I needn’t worry, for there’s plenty of dietary advice waiting for me. Somehow, though, in these short, dark days of our winter, the recipe suggestions accompanying that advice never seem quite so tantalizing as those lovely dishes I’d been tempted by. So what can I do? I can turn for help to those wise thinkers of Greek antiquity.

Mezes are often described as small plates of food made for sharing, and they are. But it’s not the whole picture. The origins of mezes can be traced to travelers in the ancient world, who relied for sustenance on the goodwill of the people they met on their journeys. Refreshments offered were simple — from the garden or hillsides, store-cupboard or pot — and no one was turned away from the table.

As these ancient societies developed political and social systems, and became wealthier, intellectual and cultural life developed, too. Since the days of classical Greece (5th century BC to 3rd century AD), the Western tradition has had the words to describe and give shape to many of the sciences – zoology, archaeology, anthropology, biology — including the art and science of good eating and drinking, or gastronomy.

What’s in a word?

Today, the word gastronomy can sometimes have disagreeable associations — of gluttony, waste and ostentatious wealth. But in its original meaning, it described a way of eating and drinking that led to health and enjoyment, a balance of science and art. For the ancients, this meant not only feeding our five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch — but also the sense they considered most important of all, the spirit of connectedness with the food on the table and with each other. It was this feeling, they believed, that led to good digestion and thus to good health.

Those ancient thinkers had another word, too, whose meaning has changed over the centuries — diaita, or diet. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that diet means “a prescribed course of food” or to “restrict oneself to special food, especially to control weight.” But to the ancient Greeks, diaita meant “way of life.” And the meze table was right at the center of their way of life.

The meze table

Mezes, when enjoyed as a diaita, provide fulfillment in a whole, human, sense — they feed our senses as well as our stomachs. The meze table is a colorful place, full of enticing aromas and often surrounded by loud chatter. With bowls of olives, salates (dips), piles of small pies, stuffed leaves, crunchy nuts, bright vegetables, tangy cheeses and yogurt, meat tidbits or well-flavored fish, the six senses are well looked-after. Dishes are put together with thought and to complement each other: Little salt is needed when there are olives on the table; chewy currants add sweetness to stuffings; capers “lift” pulse dishes; crunchy, fresh cucumber and radishes lighten preserved foods; octopus, razor shells and sea urchins intrigue; herbs and olive oil aromatize and dazzle.

A meze table can be very simple — a few olives, fresh vegetables, cheese, something “left over” — or can comprise more complex dishes. It can be for one or two, or for many, and its few gastronomic principles make pleasurable work for the cook: Flavorings are used to supplement and enhance, not to overwhelm; fresh ingredients are seasonal, garnishes edible; and fine local foods are the most preferred. The meze table is a place where our modern understanding of the word diet is turned upside down. Instead of restricting ourselves to what we think we shouldn’t eat — full-fat, calorie-laden olive oil, cheese, nuts — we free ourselves to enjoy the beauty of good food, to wasting nothing and to experimenting with the wild (greens, game), fermented (homemade yogurt, pickles) and often-ignored foods we have nearby.

Meze basics

Preparing attractive mezes doesn’t mean hours in the kitchen working on fussy preparations and mastering complicated cooking techniques. Just find the best suppliers you can, choose food in prime condition, and have a few staples at hand — good-quality olive oil and wine vinegar, olives, almonds, honey, rigani (dried Greek oregano), capers, sea salt, preserved fish, spices, dried fruits.

Now, you’re ready to compose many quick and simple dishes to serve as part of a meze table, such as these small plates of preserved fish:

  • Drain canned sardines and sprinkle with coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper, a few drops of red wine vinegar, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Drain canned tuna, separate into chunks and cover with thinly sliced red onion; sprinkle with sumac, extra virgin olive oil and coarse sea salt.
  • Sprinkle sun-dried mackerel with red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and rigani, and serve with kalamata olives and slices of pickled or fresh cucumber.

White Fish With Vinegar and Herbs

Any fresh fish can be cooked this way — small sea bass fillets are a favorite, but the preparation suits more coarsely fleshed, and cheaper, whole white fish or fillets, too. A light dusting of flour keeps the fish from splitting and flaking during cooking and cuts down fish odors in the kitchen.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes fillets, 20 minutes whole fish

Total time: 15 to 25 minutes

Yield: 6 meze servings

Ingredients

1 pound fish fillets or 6 small white fish, heads discarded, gutted and scaled

1 teaspoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste

1/2 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper, or to taste

3 tablespoons garbanzo bean flour and 1 tablespoon plain flour or 4 tablespoons plain flour

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

3 tablespoons good-quality wine vinegar

2 tablespoons hot water

2 tablespoons rigani (dried Greek oregano) or fresh rosemary

3 bay leaves

For serving

Small sprigs of rigani or fresh rosemary

Small black olives such as Greek Elitses or Niçoise

Directions

1. Wipe both sides of the fillets with a damp cloth or rinse whole fish and pat dry. Dust with half the salt and pepper and 2 tablespoons of the flour, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.

2. Place a large heavy sauté pan over medium-low heat and add half the olive oil. Dust the fish again with half the remaining flour and shake off any excess. When the olive oil is hot but not smoking, gently fry the fish on both sides until pale golden, about 10 minutes for fillets, 15 to 20 minutes for whole fish. The fish is cooked if it flakes easily when you insert a thin knife blade into the thickest part of it; it should be an even white all the way through. Drain between layers of kitchen paper. Strain the frying oil through 2 layers of muslin to remove any residue and set aside.

3. Wipe the pan with kitchen paper and return to low heat. Sprinkle the remaining flour over the bottom of the pan and stir a minute or two with a wooden spoon, until deep golden brown. Stir in the reserved frying oil and the remaining olive oil. The flour and oil will not blend together, but the flour will flavor and color the oil. Add the vinegar, water, rigani, bay leaves and remaining salt and pepper. Stir to mix, and simmer for 2 minutes.

4. Return the fish to the sauté pan, cover and heat through. Transfer to a warm dish, pour over the pan juices and surround with the rigani sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature, with olives.

Note: To serve later, transfer the fish and sauce to a shallow glass or china dish, add olive oil, tightly cover the dish and refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 days. Turn the fish in the marinade once or twice. Bring to room temperature for serving.

Main photo: Aromatic fish meze. Credit: Cordell Barron

Read More
A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

As Americans there are certain holiday food traditions many of us share: turkey at Thanksgiving, gingerbread at Christmas. But in addition to these commonalities, regional specialties, from tamales in Texas to kalua turkeys in Hawaii, contribute local flavor to our celebrations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the holiday table wouldn’t be complete without Dungeness crabs.

This succulent bottom-feeder was first harvested commercially from the San Francisco/Bodega Bay waters in the mid-1800s, and Bay Area residents have been feasting on its sweet meat ever since.

The region’s commercial crab fishing season opens just before Thanksgiving and lasts only as long as the crabs do. Often, the supply runs out not long after the ringing in of the New Year. With such a short season, Northern Californians strive to eat as many Dungeness crabs as possible before they disappear — and what better time to do it than the holidays?

Unlike the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey, Dungeness crabs are not associated with a particular winter holiday. Some people have them for Christmas, others for New Year’s Eve, or even Black Friday.

For Joy Sterling, whose family owns Iron Horse Vineyards in western Sonoma County, Thanksgiving is the best time for crabs. “Our tradition is to start with cold, cracked Dungeness crab fresh from Bodega Bay, just 13 miles from us as the crow flies,” she said. It’s served buffet style, as a pre-turkey appetizer, along with the winery’s unoaked Chardonnay. “We like a traditional Louis dressing, which is a Northern California invention, sliced Meyer lemons, bright Rangpur limes and regular limes.”

At the Stony Point location of Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, people begin lining up at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to buy Dungeness crabs for their holiday feasts. Before the day is over, the store will easily sell 1,000 pounds of crab. “It takes at least an hour to get through the line,” crab-lover Kelly Keagy of Santa Rosa said, “but people are nice and in a good mood.”

Keagy’s family has been eating crabs on Christmas Eve for the last 10 years, accompanied by warm sourdough bread and salad. “When the kids were little, crab wouldn’t have been high on their list of favorite foods,” she said. “Now that everybody is older, crab and Champagne are the highlights of our Christmas Eve.”

Supply and demand

Having a family tradition of eating Dungeness crabs at Thanksgiving can be a bit risky, due to supply fluctuations. Some would even call it foodhardy.

“Three things can affect availability at Thanksgiving,” said Scott Lenhart, founder of San Francisco Crabs, which supplies live Dungeness crabs to individuals, restaurants and retailers. “One is a bad crab season, or something like the oil spill a few years ago where they don’t catch any. Second, there can be strikes, when crab fishermen are negotiating for pricing. Then you can also have horrendous weather.”

International orders can also cut into the local crab supply. “China’s taken a huge amount of crab from us, and that’s one reason the prices are going up,” Lenhart said. “There’s a huge Asian market for Dungeness crab for special occasions, and for the rising middle class.”

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis.

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis

And because Northern California’s Dungeness crab season opens before those in Oregon and Alaska, out-of-state crabbers head south to get an early start. “They come to our waters and scour our crabs,” Lenhart said.

Even so, he always has Dungeness crabs on his Thanksgiving table. “I’ve been having Dungeness crab with turkey for a long time,” he said. The crabs are simply boiled with a little sea salt, and eaten without embellishment. “You don’t need garlic or butter. It’s good right out of the pot as soon as it’s cool enough to eat.”

Getting creative with crabs

At Nick’s Cove Restaurant, in the town of Marshall on Tomales Bay, executive chef Austin Perkins gives Dungeness crabs a gourmet twist. For the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, as an alternative to the traditional turkey entrée, he serves up wood-fired whole Dungeness crab with fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter.

“Dungeness is a little bit sweeter and a lot milder than most other types of crab,” Perkins said. “We use it in many different ways at the restaurant, from crab cakes to our Dungeness crab mac and cheese.”

For those boiling crabs at home, he offered this advice: “After cooking, you need to remove the top part of the crab’s shell and remove all the intestines. After that, look for grayish gills on the sides and scrape those away as well.” Then the crab is ready to crack and eat, or use in a recipe.

Although Lenhart of San Francisco Crabs prefers his Dungeness crabs unadorned, he said he also likes them deep fried, or simmered in cioppino, San Francisco’s signature fish stew. “There’s nothing wrong with ginger crab at a nice Chinese restaurant, either,” he said. “But for Thanksgiving, you don’t need any sauces. You just can’t beat it.”

Nick’s Cove Dungeness Crab Cakes

Cooking Time: About 6 minutes per batch (3 minutes per side)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound Dungeness crab meat, cooked and shelled

2 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 cup panko bread crumbs, plus an additional 1/2 cup for coating

Oil for pan frying (preferably rice bran oil or vegetable oil)

For garnish:

Spicy Paprika Aioli (recipe below)

Arugula and shaved fennel

Directions

1. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and combine with hands until thoroughly mixed.

2. Weigh out 1 1/2 ounce portions and form them into cakes.

3. Roll cakes to coat in more panko, and brown them on the top and bottom surfaces in a hot sauté pan coated with oil (about 3 tablespoons, enough to cover the bottom of the pan).

4. Serve with Spicy Paprika Aioli, arugula and shaved fennel.

Spicy Paprika Aioli

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1/2 tablespoon salt

Directions

Whisk everything together to combine.

Main photo: A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

Read More
Griddled tuna, chiles and tomatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

When we dine alone we have an unfortunate habit of not treating ourselves with any respect. We sometimes scarf down our food over the sink, or we make a boring sandwich, or we eat too fast, or perhaps have leftovers. I was confronted with this when facing a single piece of leftover tuna in my fridge.

I always thought writing a book about what a food professional eats when they dine alone would be a cool idea. My friend and fellow Zester Daily writer Deborah Madison and her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, whose watercolors illustrate “What We Eat When We Eat Alone,” wrote that book so I’m left with this article.

I thought one evening when dining alone that I wanted something a little more elegant than the usual alone fare. One important limitation to dining alone is that one doesn’t want to put much effort into it and that means, theoretically, very little to clean. Eating an elegant dinner alone is an exercise in having your cake and eating, too.

It can be done and this particular “menu” was devised by the strange coincidence of my pot-grown shishito chile plant having only two chiles on it for harvesting, a red one and a green one, and my smaller tomato plant having two tomatoes, and having an abundance of red de arbol chiles from another plant. The tuna was a raw piece that didn’t get used in a recipe test. Presto! Elegant dinner for one.

Another limitation to dining alone is one of motivation. What’s the point if you’re alone? That’s a fair question, and the answer is that it makes you feel good as long as it’s easy. This particular dinner was just that, plus it tasted great, took less than 10 minutes to cook, looked photo-worthy, was plated elegantly and simply, and made me feel like I didn’t even do any work to eat so finely. By any measure, that’s success for cooking for yourself and dining alone. I had three things to clean afterward, the skillet, the plate and the cutlery, all of which took two minutes.

I’m not providing a recipe because that defeats the purpose of simple. This preparation doesn’t need a recipe because there is no preparation, only cooking. The amount all depends on how hungry you are. The evening I made this the amounts described above were enough, but increase the amounts if you’re hungry.

Preheat a cast iron skillet or griddle over high heat for 10 minutes. Rub a piece of tuna (or swordfish), the shishito chiles and the tomatoes with olive oil. Salt everything.

Place the tuna (a 5-ounce piece is ideal), shishito chiles, de arbol chiles and halved tomatoes on the skillet and cook 4½ minutes. Turn everything with a spatula and cook the fish another 4½ minutes, removing any food that is charred beyond what you want. Arrange everything attractively on a plate, drizzle with olive oil, and place a basil leaf on top. That’s dinner!

Main photo: Griddled tuna, chiles and tomatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
Kippers demand to be eaten with hot toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea.

Tonight’s the night. It’s kippers for tea. I eat them about once a year, usually in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness when I am consumed by a deep craving for the gently smoked herrings that were one of the mainstays of the British Empire. I thoroughly enjoy their succulent, salty sweetness, but I usually have to lie down afterward, while the kitchen is impregnated with their particularly pungent, unmistakable aroma.

Kippers demand to be eaten with mountains of toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea — never coffee, which fails to provide the right touch of astringency to offset the oily richness. They also need silent concentration to avoid stuck bones; indeed, your only companion should be a copy of “The Times” (as long as you don’t choke over the letters page).

With its mineral flashes of pewter, gold and amber, and bronzed flesh, the kipper is a magnificent beast but not for those who faint at the sight of a fish bone. Yes, you can buy fillets but that is like listening to a Spotify compilation of Mozart “hits” instead of watching “Figaro” at the Met.

Kipper dyes were introduced during World War I to compensate for reduced smoking times brought about by cost-cutting measures. Scottish smokehouses invented the commercial coal tar dye Brown FK (for kippers). The habit stuck and many kippers are still treated with colorants, which give them a brassy Hawaiian tan or radioactive glow.

Where the best kippers are produced

The best undyed artisanal kippers, glossy and plump, are produced in Scotland (Loch Fyne, Mallaig or Stornoway, in particular); the Isle of Man (their famous Manx kippers are small and delicate); Craster in Northumberland; and Whitby in Yorkshire (split through the back rather than the belly).

Alas, in Britain, the humble herring no longer commands the everyday popularity it once had, as captured in the words of an old Scottish folk song, “Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring is the fish for me.” Pardon the pun, but the tide is starting to turn and they are expecting large numbers for the annual Herring Festival that takes place in Clovelly, Devon, in mid-November.

Once, herring, or “silver darlings” as they are also known, swam in shoals as large as armies. By 1913, more than 6,000 Scottish girls migrated south to England’s east coast each season, following the catch in a kind of fishy transhumance. The fishwives slept in tumbledown shacks known as kip houses — from which the British slang term, “having a kip” derives.

herring

herring
Picture 1 of 4

Kippers on the bone are usually sold in pairs (for example, two herrings each split and "butterflied" flat, the flesh side of one placed on top of the other). Credit: Clarissa Hyman

As the century progressed, a price was paid for overfishing. Changing tastes also caused a decline, perhaps because of the herring’s association with poverty. Good management has since increased stocks, and herring is back on bistro tables, especially now that the health benefits of oily fish are widely recognized.

How a herring becomes a kipper

To turn the herring into a kipper, it is gutted, split along the backbone, opened out and lightly salted, and hung on wooden pegs or “tenterhooks” while it is cold-smoked over oak or beech wood. Surprisingly, the kipper in its present form dates back only to the early 19th century, when a Northumbrian curer launched his “kippered” herring on the London market, borrowing the term from a technique used with salmon. The best kippers are a skillful blend of smoke and salt, with gentle but lingering flavors and buttery moist textures.

In its state-owned heyday, first-class travelers on British Rail used to be able to enjoy their legendary breakfast kipper, served on starched tablecloths by smartly uniformed stewards as the train chugged through a green and pleasant land. The Brighton Belle rail line was particularly renowned for its grilled kippers, which were much loved by the actor Lord Laurence Olivier who campaigned in 1972 to save them when British Rail tried to drop them from the menu. Olivier would have them for high tea when rehearsing in London and traveling home to Brighton — accompanied  by a bottle of Champagne.

Oh, you long-lost railway kipper, resplendent amidst the rattling china and silverware … I must stop before I come over all poetical … but somehow I fear no verse will ever be written about the vegetarian sausage or bacon baguette.

Cooking your kipper

Broil: Dot with butter, place in a foil-lined pan under a medium-high broiler and cook for a few minutes, flesh side up (you are really just re-heating the kippers rather than “cooking”). Serve with freshly ground black pepper and lemon wedges.

Jugging: Remove the heads (if you prefer), fold the fish sides together. Place into a large jug. Fill with boiling water and cover so the kippers are immersed except for the tails. Leave for five minutes then pull out by the tails. Serve with a lump of butter on each. Perhaps the least odiferous of the techniques.

Steaming: This variation originated at a Blackpool seaside boarding house landlady, quoted by Sheila Hutchins in “Grannie’s Kitchen” (1979). Stand a colander over a pan of boiling water and spread a piece of foil in it. Place the kippers onto the foil and cover with the pan lid. Steam for 5 minutes.

Baking: Wrap the whole fish in a foil parcel, and bake in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes. Serve in the parcel.

Uncooked: There was a fashion in the 1960s and ’70s for uncooked kippers. They were boned, sliced thinly and marinaded in oil and lemon juice. Jane Grigson, in “Good Things” (1971), suggested thinly sliced raw fillets should be “arranged in strips around the edge of some well-buttered rye bread with an egg yolk in the middle as sauce” and served with vodka or schnapps.

Kipper Pate

Kippers on the bone are usually sold in pairs (for example, two herrings each split and “butterflied” flat, the flesh side of one placed on top of the other).

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer

Ingredients, per person:

1½ cups cooked kipper flesh (This recipe also works well with other smoked fish.)

¼ stick of unsalted butter, softened

8 ounces cream cheese

juice of 1 lemon

Cayenne pepper or paprika (to taste)

2 tablespoons fresh-chopped parsley

Directions

1. Blend or mash the kipper with the butter, cream cheese, lemon juice, cayenne and parsley.

2. Press into a ramekin or one larger pot, cover with plastic wrap and chill for a few hours.

3. Serve with crackers or buttered toast and a lemon wedge.

Main photo: Kippers demand to be eaten with hot toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Read More
Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

When I was growing up in Maine, mussels were poor folks’ food, an archetypical trash fish. Searching old New England cookbooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of mussels, though clams, crabs, even whelks are conspicuous.

I always remember my mother’s admonition when she spied the Baptist minister’s wife gleaning mussels from a rocky ledge near the beach where we spent sunny summer days. “There,” said my mother, always alert to social distinctions, “you see how poor the Baptists are — the minister has to eat mussels!”

I was well into my 20s and a long way from Maine before I dared tackle the suspect bivalves. And I was won over immediately. Compared to the chewy chowder clams I was used to, the plump, briny taste and soft texture of mussels were revelatory.

The tide turns on mussels

If mussels were poor folks’ food in Maine, in New York, where I gravitated as soon as I could get away from New England, one of the classiest items in town was Billi Bi soup, a delectable concoction of mussels simmered in loads of wine and cream, their briny broth thickened to velvet and rich with egg yolks. It was the toast of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel back in the day, though nowadays it seems to have disappeared from the menu at that venerable institution.

New York’s mussel love may have had to do with the impact of immigrant populations on local cuisine. Greek, Italian and French cooks all have a natural appreciation for the mollusk. Still, Julia Child was advised, when working on the manuscript of what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that many Americans considered mussels to be downright poisonous.

Fearlessly, however, she included several recipes. And whether it was owing to Child’s influence or the growth of American travel abroad and investigation of more sophisticated cuisines, we were soon a nation convinced, and mussels today are as common as … well, they still don’t make the list of America’s 10 favorite fish, but there’s hardly a seafood restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have mussels on the menu year round.

Perhaps it’s because of the availability of aquacultured mussels. Even though mussels have been farmed for centuries, production in North America started to climb only in the 1990s and really took off after the turn of the century. Today’s minister’s wife is less apt to scavenge and more likely to dine on acquacultured mussels produced by the process of rope culture, which simply means long ropes that hang in orderly rows in clean, salty water, whether close in or offshore. The mussels, which start as seed hanging in mesh bags, eventually attach themselves to the ropes before growing to market size. This is a boon for cooks, because it means the tiresome practice of rinsing and purging the critters over and over and over again to get rid of sand is no longer necessary.

Cooks today have only to rinse mussels in a colander under running water then pull away and discard the beard — that whiskery, weedy stuff between the shells that attaches the mussel to its bed and comes off with a stout tug.

There are actually two types of mussels, the most common being Atlantic blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. This is the one most likely to be found in good fish markets, usually sold by the pound or by the quart in mesh bags. They’re grown widely along the Northeast coast, but especially in Maine and off Prince Edward Island. Bang’s Island mussels from Casco Bay, Maine, are a current favorite with many New England chefs (available from Harbor Fish Market in Portland). But the other kind, the Mediterranean black mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), is also available, farmed in the cold waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. I recently had a shipment from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, where Mediterranean mussels are currently on offer for $4.95 a pound — but be advised that overnight shipping, which is necessary, can add a lot to that cost. It makes sense to plan a big mussel feed and order a lot.

The black mussels were delicious — succulent, plump, tasty, every bit as exciting as those long-ago ones I sampled in New York and probably even better than what the Baptist minister’s wife was foraging on the ledge above the beach.

Mussels, as mentioned earlier, need only a quick rinse and de-bearding before they’re ready to cook. They should be cooked while still alive. Discard any with cracked shells, or that don’t close up their shells when lightly tapped against the side of the sink — a sign they’ve gone to mussel heaven.

I turned the Mediterranean mussels into what I like to think is a classic southern Italian pasta, even though I actually made up the dish on the spur of the moment to take advantage of their sparkling freshness.

Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: Makes enough for 4 main-course servings, 6 servings as a primo or first course

Ingredients

Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

5 pounds mussels (about 4 quarts)

3 stalks celery, diced to make about ½ cup

1 large shallot, diced to make about ½ cup

½ medium fennel bulb, diced to make about ½ cup

2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced, to make ¼ cup, plus a few extra parsley leaves for a garnish

1½ cups dry white wine

1 pound waxy potatoes (fingerlings, yellow Finns or similar), diced small

Big pinch of saffron

Pinch of ground dried red chili such as piment d’Espelette or Aleppo pepper

½ pound cavatelli pasta

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Rinse the mussels under running water, pulling off beards. Set aside.

2. Combine celery, shallot, fennel, and garlic in a pan large enough to hold all the mussels. Stir in ¼ cup of olive oil and set over medium low heat. Cook gently while stirring until the vegetables are soft, then stir in minced parsley.

3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Tip in the cleaned mussels and cook, stirring occasionally to bring up the ones on the bottom, until all the mussels have opened. As they open, extract them and set aside in a deep plate or bowl. If after about 15 minutes there are still a few mussels that stubbornly refuse to open, discard them. Turn off the heat under the pan but keep it in a warm place.

4. In a separate skillet, combine the diced potatoes with the remaining oil and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring and tossing, until the potatoes start to brown along their edges. Toss the lightly browned potatoes into the mussel broth, adding the saffron and chili, and return the mussel pan to low heat to finish cooking the potatoes, just simmering them in the broth.

5. While the potatoes are finishing, shuck the mussels, discarding the shells. Add the shucked mussels to the potatoes, along with the saffron and chili.

6. Bring salted water to a boil in a pan and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is almost al dente, then strain it and stir it into the mussel-potato combination. By this time the potatoes should be soft.

7. Add salt and plenty of black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, either as a soup or as a pasta, garnishing with the whole parsley leaves.

Main photo: Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Read More
Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”

In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”

Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.

In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.

First written mention of clams in chowder

There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”

The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.

A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”

Cape Cod chowder is the best

This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.

Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.

A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.

A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.

Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.

Raw milk first used in clam chowder

The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.

Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.

Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.

One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.

Cape Cod Clam Chowder

Prep Time: 3 hours

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

  • 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
  • 2 quarts water
  • 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
  • ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
  • 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
  • Salt, if necessary
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Common or oyster crackers for garnish

Directions

  1. Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
  2. Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
  3. Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
  4. Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
  5. Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.

Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
The ackee fruit's nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from

We all know the cliché that opposites attract and, in what could be called a fruitful marriage of opposites, two vastly different ingredients from opposite sides of the world are perfectly paired in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and salt fish.

Ackee and salt fish is not just the national dish  —  it’s the favorite breakfast of every Jamaican across the globe. What makes this dish original and surprising is how well two distinct ingredients combine to create a dish that’s complex and simple, subtle and bold and, ultimately, delicious. The delicate nutty taste and soft texture of the fruit ackee tempers the sharp, saltiness and firm dry texture of salt fish.

With the addition of our standard “Jamaican seasonings”  — Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, thyme, green peppers, onions and scallion, and served with a side of avocado, fried ripe plantain, steamed calalloo and “Johnny Cakes” or fried dumplings –  this extraordinary dish is a feast for the palate and a breakfast you won’t soon forget.

Although the pairing of ackee and salt fish makes for a beautiful union, some unions are not meant to be monogamous. As well as ackee and salt fish work together, we also love to cook them separately, pairing them with unexpected ingredients and flavors. For instance, ackee loves bacon, gets along very well with curry, has great synergy with Parmesan and has a seamless connection with coconut. Salt fish, while less gregarious, complements yam, parties well with lime and forms a perfect bond with cilantro and flour dumplings of any kind.

From West Africa to Jamaica on a slave ship

Ackee, for the uninitiated, is a savory fruit with a thick red skin that forms a sealed pod when unripe. Once ripened, the skin opens to reveal a beautiful petal-like shape containing three or four yellow pegs topped with a single black seed. Native to West Africa, the fruit originally came to Jamaica on a slave ship — it is believed that many slaves would carry the ackee seed as a talisman for good luck.

Unfortunately, ackee has a bit of a bad rap as the bad boy of Caribbean cuisine because it can potentially be poisonous if incorrectly prepared. For many years, like another famous Jamaican export, its importation to the United States was banned. Be assured, however, that it is perfectly safe to eat, although Jamaica seems to be one of the few countries in the world that dared to try to figure out how to do so — leaving us as the only island in the Caribbean where it’s part of the daily diet.

To render ackee safe for consumption, the skin must be open before picking. The pegs, once removed from the pod, are then prepared by removing the seed and a red ‘thread’ embedded in the flesh of the peg. (This is the poisonous part.) The fruit is then boiled in salted water.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook. Credit: Courtesy of SKaan Media / 2 Sisters and a Meal

Outside of Jamaica, ackee is readily available in cans and can be found at online groceries and mainstream supermarkets throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Freshly cooked ackee is creamy and buttery with a mild nutty taste that’s neutral enough to absorb the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. When raw it has a waxy texture but canned ackee, which is already cooked, has a more mushy consistency. In any of its forms, ackee is a great ingredient to have fun with in the kitchen as it can be prepared in many interesting and unexpected ways. For instance — ackee tacos?

Salt cod preparation takes time

Salt cod, known as salt fish in the islands, is cod that has been preserved by drying after salting. It is a staple in the cuisine of almost all Caribbean islands and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Salt cod was a part of the Triangular Trade that developed between Europe, Africa and the Americas, tying its history to that of sugar, slavery and rum in the islands.

High-quality North American cod was always sold in Europe. But traders also sold a lower-end product of poorly cured salt fish called “West India cure” to plantation owners in the Caribbean. The West Indian planters had no desire to dedicate any land to the production of food for their slaves and instead relied on imported salt cod as a cheap form of nourishment.

In exchange, European traders received sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, tobacco and salt, which they took back to North America and Europe. Trade in salt cod from Nova Scotia was so high that, in 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia opened in Halifax to facilitate the thriving trans-Atlantic trade. By 1889 the Bank of Nova Scotia had become the first bank to expand outside of the United States or United Kingdom when it opened a branch in Kingston, Jamaica, to support the lucrative trading of rum, sugar and fish.

To prepare salt fish it must be soaked in fresh water for at least an hour; it is then boiled till the flesh of the fish flakes easily. If still too salty, it is boiled some more, drained, scraped of its skin, flaked with your hands and, only then, does the laborious task of picking out the bones begin. Although deboned and de-skinned cod is certainly available in many markets, in the Caribbean we still like to do it the old way — because it’s so much more fun.

In honor of this beloved Jamaican breakfast dish, we share two breakfast/brunch recipes, that celebrate each ingredient on its own. We encourage you to expand your breakfast horizons and give these a try — any time day or night.

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, 1 (8-inch) quiche

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

In this dish we combine a traditional quiche custard with pure Jamaican love by adding our national fruit (and popular breakfast item) ackee and crispy bacon. Throw in tons of flavor with the Scotch bonnet, scallion, tomato, garlic, thyme and Parmesan cheese, and you have a winning brunch. If you don’t have coconut milk on hand, use 1½ cups heavy cream instead of the cows and coconut milk mixture.

Ingredients

    For the quiche crust and custard:
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 pound all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling pinch of sea salt
  • Up to ¼ cup ice water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ½ cup canned coconut milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Sea salt
  • For the Ackee and bacon filling:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
  • ½ Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), seeded and minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (8-ounce) package bacon, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sliced scallion
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme, chopped
  • ¼ cup finely chopped tomato
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped bell pepper
  • 1 (18-ounce) can ackee
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. To make the quiche crust, combine the butter, flour and salt in a bowl with your hands until crumbly. Add just enough ice water to form a dough and knead until it comes together. Form into a ball, then, on a floured surface, roll the dough into a round about 14 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch quiche pan and press the dough gently into the bottom and sides. Weigh down the dough with raw rice on a piece of waxed paper and prebake for 20 minutes. Set on wire rack to cool until ready to fill.
  3. Meanwhile, to make the custard, in a medium bowl combine the milk, coconut milk, eggs, mustard and nutmeg and whisk together thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to bake.
  4. To make the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Toss in the onion, Scotch bonnet and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the bacon and sauté for about 5 minutes. Spoon off the excess fat and stir in the scallion, thyme, tomato and bell pepper; cook another 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Add the ackee,season with salt and pepper, and mix in the Parmesan. Let cool.
  5. To assemble the quiche, place the ackee and bacon filling in the pastry shell and smooth the top. Pour the custard over the filling, distributing it evenly with a fork. Return the quiches to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the custard has set. Cool slightly before serving.

Trini-Style Salt Fish and ‘Bake’

Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Trini-Style Salt Fish and "Bake."© 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

Trini-Style Salt Fish and “Bake.” Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” permission by Kyle Books

All our islands cook salt fish (salt cod) in one way another for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. As our childhood years were spent in Trinidad we favor this Trini version known as “buljol.” Salt fish is often served alongside some kind of fried dumpling, some fluffy and large others smaller and more dense. In Jamaica we serve salt fish with Johnny Cakes, small round fried dumplings. Other countries such as Trinidad and Guyana call them bake. Here we pair this traditional Trini saltfish with our version of a bake — a hybrid recipe inspired by the bakes served in Trinidad, Guyana and Belize. If you have any left over, these little breads can be great topped with cheddar cheese and Guava jam or even just butter and jam.

Ingredients

For Trini-style salt fish (Buljol):
2 cups salt fish, boiled, picked and cleaned
½ cup chopped tomato
¼ cup chopped onion
1 Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), minced without seeds

Olive oil

1/4 cup cilantro

Salt and black pepper

For our version of bake:
2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup water
¼ cup milk + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon
2 cups vegetable oil

Directions

1. Combine salt fish with tomato, onion and the Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet) in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a small pan. When very hot, pour it over the salt fish mixture. Add cilantro and season with salt and black pepper as required. Allow to rest at room temperature for about one hour.

2. Sieve together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Rub butter into flour until combined. Gradually add water and milk and mix well with hands until a dough or mass is formed. Knead for about five minutes until smooth.

3. Roll the dough into pieces the size of golf balls (should get about eight pieces of dough), and allow them to rest for about half an hour. Roll it out with a rolling pin or bottle to a 4-inch disk and slice a line in the middle so that it will cook more quickly. Fry in oil, turning over once. When it floats, it is ready.

4. Drain and serve with salt fish. These are also great paired with cheddar cheese and guava jam, or even just butter and jam.

Main photo: The ackee fruit’s nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” courtesy Kyle Books

Read More