Articles in Fish
As a seafood lover, writer and cook, I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me how to prepare delicate, flaky fish. This group includes the wildly popular tilapia, as well as flounder, sole and, my personal favorite, trout. Mild yet unusually complex in flavor and easy to cook, trout is the country’s oldest and most successful example of aquaculture. Rich in protein, vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids, it provides numerous delights with each bite.
A relative of salmon, trout ranges in color from silvery green to coppery brown and with orange-red, brown or black spots scattered over its skin. Influenced by diet and habitat, its delicate flesh runs from cream to red in color. In terms of size, it grows up to 50 pounds in the wild. Farm-raised trout weigh between 8 and 16 ounces.
Common trout species
Several species of trout exist. If you are or happen to know or are related to serious trout anglers, as I am, you may have access to brown and sea trout. Although the same species, brown trout reside in rivers while sea trout spend time in oceans. They both possess copper skin and pale pink flesh.
More from Zester Daily:
Then there is steelhead. Sometimes confused with salmon, this species has reddish flesh and a flavor reminiscent of salmon. Highly versatile, it can stand in for salmon in recipes. Classified as a sport fish, wild steelhead cannot be sold in markets. What you see in your fishmonger’s case or on restaurant menus is a product of aquaculture.
The most recognizable species may be the beautiful, multicolored rainbow trout. Adorned with a hot pink or coral stripe running from head to tail on both sides and a smattering of black spots, this striking fish ranges in body color from yellow to blue-green. When caught in the wild, rainbow trout have a pronounced nutty taste. The farm-raised version is milder in flavor and has creamy white to pink flesh.
Another name that may sound familiar is brook or speckled trout. Considered by many to be the best-tasting trout, this fish isn’t actually a trout. Instead it’s a type of char.
Tips for buying trout
At markets, trout is sold whole and as fillets. When shopping for this fish, you should look for shiny skin, bright eyes, moist flesh and a fresh, clean smell. Whole trout should have a layer of transparent slime over it; the more slime, the better and fresher the fish will be.
Whole trout tends to have more flavor than boned fillets. The only downside is that you may have to take out the tiny pin bones. However, you can always ask the fishmonger to do this for you.
Rainbow trout may be marketed as golden trout. Occasionally it gets mislabeled as steelhead. Just remember that steelhead has a bolder coloring than rainbow trout.
How to cook trout
When cooking trout, my go-to methods are pan searing, grilling or smoking. In the case of pan searing, I heat a smidgen of olive oil in a nonstick frying pan. Once the oil is hot, I place the fillets skin-side down in the pan. As soon as their edges turn ivory in color and flake when probed with a fork, about 2 to 3 minutes, I gently turn over the fish and allow the fillets to cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. That’s all it takes to pan sear trout.
A fast-cooking fish, trout also does well when baked, broiled, poached or steamed. No matter which cooking method I choose, I leave the skin on the trout. It will hold the meat together as the fish cooks.
Flavor pairings for trout
Trout’s nutty taste marries with myriad foods. Apples, carrots, celery, oranges, scallions, shallots and tomatoes partner well, as do mint, tarragon and thyme. It is also enlivened by a splash of cider, lemon juice or wine or a sprinkling of crumbled bacon or sliced olives. Almonds, pecans, pine nuts and walnuts make delicious coatings for this fish. Even so, I often prepare trout in a simple manner: With a mere sprinkle of salt and pepper and drizzle of olive oil or lemon juice, the fish will shine.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates U.S. farm-raised rainbow trout as an “eco-best” seafood choice because it is raised in an environmentally sound manner. Low in mercury, it can be safely consumed at least four times per month.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 6 minutes
Total time: 11 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
4 (6-ounce) trout fillets
Handful of Cerignola olives, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (optional)
1. Heat the olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. As the oil is heating, season the trout fillets with salt and pepper.
2. Lay the trout skin-side down in the hot pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the borders begin to turn ivory in color and the fish flakes when probed with a fork. Gently turn over the fillets and allow the fish to cook on the other side for 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Place the fillets on plates. Cover the tops with equal amounts of chopped olives. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the olives, if desired. Serve hot.
Main photo: Trout is a versatile and sustainable seafood choice. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto
When the usually benign words sea and food are put together, they suddenly become something that brings fear to the hearts of even the most experienced cooks. Seafood has the reputation of being hard to work with because it is easy to overcook.
Simple Seafood Stew
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large white onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, lightly chopped
1 (28-ounce) can of cut tomatoes with basil
16 ounces clam juice
1 cup white wine
3 pounds fish filets (I used yellowtail, black cod and Pacific red snapper), cut into 2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1. In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over a medium-high flame.
2. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened.
3. Add garlic, thyme and oregano and cook 1 minute while stirring.
4. Add tomatoes with their juice, clam juice and wine.
5. Gently stir in the pieces of fish.
6. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
7. Simmer the stew 15 minutes, or until fish is just cooked through.
8. Add salt, adjust seasoning as needed.
9. Serve immediately.
More from Zester Daily:
» Un Día de los Muertos to raise your spirits
Main photo: Just because it’s seafood, it doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. You can cook up this delicious seafood stew in half an hour. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cheryl D. Lee
I have a repertoire of quick, easy dinners that I make when there is no produce in the house. It does happen; after I return from a trip, in particular, but also there are times when I just haven’t gotten to the market. My favorite pantry dishes are the ones I picked up long ago from an Italian friend who was able to produce the most marvelous simple dinners every evening when he returned from his office, though he hadn’t stopped at the market. He’d whip up a delicious tuna and bean salad, or pasta e fagiole, or pasta with tuna and tomato sauce or penne a l’arabiata, because he always had three canned items in his small cupboard: tuna, beans and tomatoes.
More from Zester Daily:
From him I learned that I must always have these three foods on hand. They don’t have to be fancy and I’m not stuck on any particular type of bean. Right now I have supermarket brand chickpeas, white beans and pintos on my shelf. I have one can of tuna packed in water and another can of tuna packed in olive oil, and I’ve got 28- and 14.5-ounce cans of chopped tomatoes in juice, which is what I prefer (less work), but whole tomatoes will do.
Tuna and bean salad is a meal I make often when I’m on my own. If I have some produce on hand — green beans or cauliflower or some of those beautiful spring onions I’m beginning to see in the farmers markets — I’ll make variations on this simple theme, which requires little more than the tuna and the beans, vinegar, olive oil and whatever seasonings you like. Red onion is standard, parsley is always nice for color. But I never get too elaborate; it’s not a salade Niçoise, after all.
Simple Tuna and Bean Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
1 small or 1/2 medium red onion or spring onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
2 5 1/2-ounce cans tuna, packed in water or olive oil, drained
1 15-ounce can cannelini beans, white beans, chickpeas or borlotti beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small or medium garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Japanese cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and sliced, for garnish (optional)
1. Place the onion in a bowl and add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar and cold water to cover. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water, then dry on paper towels.
2. In a medium bowl or salad bowl, combine the tuna, beans, onions and parsley.
3. In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix together the remaining vinegar, salt to taste, freshly ground pepper, garlic and Dijon mustard. Whisk in the olive oil. Toss with the tuna and beans and serve, garnishing each plate with cucumber slices.
Advance preparation: This will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator.
Two-Bean and Tuna Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: Serves 6
3/4 pound green beans, trimmed
1 small red onion, cut in half and sliced in half-moons
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
2 5-ounce cans tuna (packed in water or olive oil), drained
1 15-ounce can white beans, cannellinis, chickpeas, or borlottis, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram or sage
Salt to taste
1 garlic clove, minced or puréed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. Bring a medium-size pot of water to a boil, add salt to taste and green beans. Cook for 4 minutes (5 minutes if the beans are thick), until just tender. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and drain. (Alternatively, steam the beans for 4 to 5 minutes.) Cut or break the beans in half if very long.
2. Meanwhile, place sliced onion, if using, in a bowl and cover with cold water. Add 1 teaspoon vinegar and soak 5 minutes. Drain, rinse and drain again on paper towels.
3. Drain tuna and place in a salad bowl. Break up with a fork. Add canned beans, green beans, onion and herbs. Toss together.
4. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together remaining vinegar, salt, garlic and mustard. Whisk in olive oil. Toss with tuna and bean mixture, and serve.
Advance preparation: This will keep for a day in the refrigerator; however, you should keep the green beans separate and toss with the other ingredients just before serving so they retain their bright green color.
Main photo: Two-Bean and Tuna Salad. Credit: Copyright Martha Rose Shulman
Every time I buy cod I am reminded of my stint as a young political television researcher. During the UK-Icelandic “Cod Wars,” I was charged with getting a suitable specimen to act as Exhibit A. I knew enough to realize it would not come in preprepared steaks, but I was not expecting the 6-foot-long marine monster freshly arrived from Fleetwood Docks.
More from Zester Daily:
After the program, no one wanted to go near the blooming thing, so I smothered it in newspaper, crammed it into the boot of my car and did what any sensible Jewish girl would do — took it home for mother. “Oh, just cut it up and bung it in a pan and fry it,” I said breezily. Thanks to her old-school upbringing, she did not flinch: she simply rolled up her sleeves and gutted, scaled, skinned, chopped and filleted while I made my excuses and left.
It’s cod, but not cod as we know it
I was reminded of the superlative taste of that fish when I sampled Skrei (pronounced skray). It sounds like a reggae dance or a fiendishly difficult quiz question, but to those in the know, Skrei is one of the best things to come out of Norway since the Vikings. Indeed, it’s cod, but not cod as we know it.
Skrei swims onto our plates directly from the icy-clear waters of Norway’s beautiful Lofoten Islands. It is a Scandinavian dream of a fish: sweet, bright white flesh with a supple texture scored by fat lines that melt away during cooking and allow the fish to break into tender, opalescent flakes. Rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, Skrei is healthy, wholesome and versatile. It also has an amazing life history.
Between January and April, millions of Skrei migrate thousands of miles from their home in the Barents Sea to the islands to reproduce. Only the very best — fully grown and immaculate — qualify for the brand’s seal of approval, a special tag fastened to the dorsal fin.
Cod might have been off the sustainable menu in recent years due to overfishing in the northeast Atlantic and United Kingdom waters. But in northern Norway, Skrei ticks all the environmental boxes and is a reflection of the high-management standards of Norwegian fisheries, which banned discards years ago. Most Skrei are caught with longlines from small boats, and the Barents Sea now provides Norwegians with the largest growing cod stock in the world.
Skrei can be eaten both raw and cooked. Serve it lightly cured and thinly sliced with olive oil, lemon, dill and sea salt, or roast it with braised fennel and anchovy to bring out the delicate but full flavor. The most popular way in Norway to prepare Skrei is simply poached or baked with boiled potatoes and steamed carrots. Alternatively, Norwegians like to eat it with cod roe, tongue and liver, boiled potatoes, crispbread and aquavit.
‘Skrei is a great addition to my menu’
Available at specialist outlets in Europe and the United States, Skrei is a chef magnet. Michel Roux Jr. features the fish while in season at his two-Michelin-star Le Gavroche restaurant in London and is a committed fan. “I think it is fantastic, a glistening, super-fresh cod with beautiful, translucent flakes. I think it is one of the finest products of the sea, and is both truly sustainable and has a unique legacy,” he said.
Ben Pollinger of Oceana Restaurant in New York City adds, “Skrei is a great addition to my menu. It’s sustainable, great quality and unique. I enjoy working with it (and) the customers enjoy it (too). … People are getting more adventurous with food, so this is a good way to (try) new things.”
Also in New York City, Marcus Jenmark at Aquavit shares that sentiment. “Skrei is an essential fish in the Nordic region and its cuisine. New Yorkers are always looking for seasonal and high-quality product, so it is fun … to combine those elements and serve something authentic, extremely seasonal and new to New York guests,” he adds.
UK fish specialist and chef Mitch Tonks of the Seahorse Restaurant in Devon also became a Skrei convert after a trip to Lofoten. “In my search for the finest ingredients for my restaurants, I have discovered this mighty cod, one that I know I can serve with an absolute guarantee of sustainability. I won’t be surprised if Norwegian Skrei is the next big thing.”
Cod willing, of course.
Skrei Glazed in a Whiskey Teriyaki
Created by Michel Roux Jr. of Le Gavroche and Simon Hulstone of The Elephant for the Norwegian Seafood Council
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours
Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
3 teaspoons honey
3 teaspoons superfine sugar
2 1/2 cups mirin
1 cup whiskey (peaty or smoky is best)
1 or 2 chilies finely chopped, to taste
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 cups soy sauce, Kikkoman preferred
1 thick fillet of cod, with the skin on
1. To make the teriyaki sauce, begin by putting the honey and sugar in a large pan and cook until caramelized, then add the mirin and whiskey, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes
2. Take off the heat and add the chilies, ginger and soy sauce. Once completely cooled, strain
3. Trim and pin bone the Skrei fillet, then marinate in the teriyaki for one hour
4. Drain the fillet and place in a tray with some of the marinade. Put under a broiler; baste often with the marinade. The fish should take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook through and be glazed.
Note: Serve with a very fine “spaghetti” of white turnip that has been lightly cooked and dressed with some of the marinade and some sesame oil, and grilled vegetables, such as mushrooms and zucchini, basted with the teriyaki.
Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds
The buttery soft flesh of Norwegian Skrei lends itself perfectly to this comforting simple supper. Recipe courtesy of the Norwegian Seafood Council.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup Puy lentils
2 large leeks, washed and green ends removed
1 stick unsalted butter
1 packet of kale
Salt and pepper
Juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon, plus 1 extra lemon for garnish
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 Skrei fillets, with the skin on
Salt and pepper, to taste
Handful of pumpkin seeds, plain or lightly roasted if you prefer
1. Cook the lentils according to the instructions on the packet until they are al dente. If you prefer, cook them in chicken or vegetable stock this will add more flavor to the lentils, but it’s not essential.
2. Place the butter in a medium sauté pan and warm until completely melted.
3. Slice the leeks into 2-inch discs, then add them to the butter and cook slowly until very soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep warm on a very low temperature while preparing the rest of the dish. Remove a couple of spoonfuls of the leek and butter mixture; set aside as garnish.
4. Wash the kale, removing the long thick spine in the middle of the leaves, and finely chop. Add the kale to the leek and butter mixture, gently toss over low heat until the kale is coated in the mixture. Make sure not to fry the kale or it will go crispy.
5. Drain the Puy lentils and add them to the kale mixture, toss a few times and taste. Add the lemon juice; season to your liking with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm while you cook the fish.
6. Drizzle a spoonful of vegetable oil in a large sauté pan; heat until the oil sizzles. Pat the fish skin dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper; place the fish fillets skin side down in the hot oil. Sauté the fillets for about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness, until the flesh of the Skrei is nearly opaque throughout.
7. Season the top of the fish. Using a spatula or fish slice carefully turn the fish and finish cooking for about a minute. Squeeze a little lemon juice on the fish.
8. To serve, place equal amounts of the lentil, kale, and leek and butter mixture on each plate; place a fillet on top of the lentils. Top with a small spoonful of the leek and butter mixture that was set aside earlier; sprinkle with pumpkin seeds before serving.
Main photo: Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds. Recipe courtesy Norwegian Seafood Council. Credit: Copyright Norwegian Seafood Council
Corned beef and cabbage. Irish stew. Soda bread. These are the foods Americans associate with Irish cooking, especially on St Patrick’s Day. But while these dishes are certainly old favorites, they have little to do with modern Irish cooking.
More from Zester Daily:
According to Nuala Cullen, culinary historian and author of the new cookbook “The Best of Irish Country Cooking,” contemporary Irish cuisine is both a rediscovery of the country’s rich culinary heritage and a reflection of its international influences.
“Food was generally simple and used seasonal homegrown produce,” said the Dublin-based writer of her childhood in post-World War II Ireland. “Even in urban areas, many families grew potatoes and salad vegetables. Soups and homemade bread were common, and there was no such thing as preprepared food.”
Today the approach is much the same, but with a creative twist.
“The ‘new style’ of Irish cooking incorporates a lot of outside influences, such as Asian and Thai, as well as all sorts of ingredients from continental Europe,” Cullen said. “It is a merging of these ingredients with a pride in fresh, quality Irish products to produce something fresh and exciting.”
Visitors to Ireland these days are often surprised to discover that there’s more to eat than corned beef and potatoes. “Many tourists expect lots of ham, cabbage, potatoes and fried food,” Cullen said. Instead, they find wonderful Irish cheeses, butter, fresh seafood, meats and vegetables.
Forget the green beer
While no particular dish is traditional for St. Patrick’s Day, a roast dinner around the family table is the typical format.
“For many years pubs and bars were closed on the day, so celebrating was done in the home,” Cullen said. “Most families will have their favorite Sunday dinner. The appetizer can be a warming soup or smoked salmon. The entrée is often roast chicken, beef, turkey or salmon, usually served with roast or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.”
And no, Cullen confirmed, they do not wash it all down with green beer.
Although Cullen’s cookbook does include traditional favorites such as corned beef and Irish stew, most of its recipes showcase Ireland’s fresh seafood, meats and produce.
Baked salmon encrusted with herbs; crab soup with saffron; mussels with bacon and red wine; and ham wrapped in pastry are just some of the unexpected dishes featured in “The Best of Irish County Cooking.”
And if you still feel the need to consume something green on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s always Cullen’s brightly hued “spring green soup,” or cream-simmered peas with little gem lettuces.
Baked Salmon Encrusted With Herbs
For maximum effect and not too much effort, this baked salmon has it all. Ask your fishmonger to split your fish lengthwise into two long fillets. A 3-pound fish will be enough for six with side dishes. From “The Best of Irish County Cooking” (Interlink Publishing, March 2015)
Yield: 6 to 7 servings
1-inch cube of fresh ginger
6 canned anchovies, drained
8 tablespoons butter, divided
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
Grated zest of 1 lemon
3 to 5 pounds salmon, filleted
¾ cup bread crumbs made from day-old bread
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce
3 egg yolks
1 ¼ cups cream
5 to 6 sorrel leaves, ribs removed, leaves chopped
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro or parsley
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Mash the ginger to a paste with the anchovies, 5 tablespoons of the butter, the parsley, scallions, and grated zest of half the lemon. Butter a sheet of parchment paper that will fit the salmon and use it to line a large baking sheet. Lay one salmon fillet on the paper, skin-side down, and spread with half the herb butter. Lay the other fillet on top, skin-side up, reversing the wide end over the narrow end of the bottom fillet. Spread the remaining herb butter on top. Cover the salmon with the bread crumbs, patting them down lightly, season well, and dot with the remaining butter.
2. Bake for 12 minutes per 1 pound of fish for smaller fish, but a 6- to 7-pound fish will not require more than an hour.
3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Season the egg yolks with salt and pepper and beat them together. Bring the cream to a boil with the sorrel leaves and lemon zest and cook to reduce for a few moments. Cool slightly, then pour the cream mixture slowly into the yolks, stirring all the time. Return to the saucepan and over a low heat, cook, stirring continuously without allowing it to boil, until the sauce thickens slightly.
4. When the fish is cooked, use the parchment paper to lift the fish onto a heated serving dish and strain the buttery fish juices into the sauce. Add the cilantro or parsley and serve.
Note: If the sauce shows signs of becoming lumpy, scrape immediately into a blender and purée for a few seconds.
Main photo: Nuala Cullen’s herb-encrusted salmon is a show stopper for St. Patrick’s Day, or any other day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group Inc.
“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.
More on Zester Daily:
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.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
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
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
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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.
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
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
Small sprigs of rigani or fresh rosemary
Small black olives such as Greek Elitses or Niçoise
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
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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.”
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
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)
Spicy Paprika Aioli (recipe below)
Arugula and shaved fennel
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
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/2 tablespoon salt
Whisk everything together to combine.
Main photo: A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock