Articles in Fish
The southwest monsoons arrive in Kerala with all their fury by mid-June every year. For the following 2½ months, raging seas, heavy rainstorms and rumbling thunder reign. Monsoon is also the lifeline of the region where food production and harvesting are still deeply seasonal. It is the time of renewal of the life cycle of farming and monsoon fishing.
The strong winds and high waves during monsoon season make it impossible even for fishermen with motorized trawlers to go out into the deep sea. But for the artisanal fishermen in Kerala, the early days of monsoon are the much-awaited time for Chaakara, the mud bank formations that arise along the coast within a few days after the onset of southwest monsoons. Chaakara is a welcome geological occurrence that happens only along Kerala’s coast in India.
Chaakara, or mud bank formation
The violent winds and strong ocean currents created by the monsoon winds stir the bottom of the sea, and fine mud particles are churned up into a thick suspension. The southerly currents that run parallel to the coast at maximum speed drive the entire floating mud slowly towards the shore. A semicircular boundary develops around the suspended mud, which consistently absorbs the wave energy and substantially reduces turbulence. Kerala has an intricate network of interconnected rivers, canals, lakes and inlets including five large lakes linked by canals, fed by more than 40 rivers that extend virtually half the length of the state.
During monsoon rains, clay and silts rich in silica and organic matter are washed down from the mountains and are carried down the rivers to the lakes and then on to the sea. Muddy water attracts a wide variety of fish, shrimp and prawns in abundance, and they surge to the surface from the bottom of the sea where they normally live. The tranquil waters inside the mud bank turns into a bustling fishing harbor.
Kerala’s fisheries and aquaculture resources are rich and diverse, and Kerala accounts for 20% to 25% of the national marine fish production. Fish catches from the state include more than 300 species, such as sardine, mackerel, seer fish, pomfret and prawn.
Artisanal monsoon fishing
Chaakara is the seasonal windfall for artisanal fishermen. Heavy surf and turbulent waters are dangerous for small canoes and catamarans and fishing in the artisanal sector is generally at a standstill during the monsoon. Thousands of fishermen from the surrounding areas rush to the fishing village where Chaakara has surfaced. In this safe and hospitable environment they harvest shoals of fish from their traditional fishing canoes. During the short-lived chaakara season the shore is lined with fishing canoes and catamarans and fishermen landing, sorting and selling a wide variety of fish. A single throw of nets enables them to bring home a miraculous bumper harvest of mackerel, prawns, sardines and others. Seafood processors and exporters buy up the bumper crop and cash in on the abundance. The price of seafood drops to attractive levels.
The breeding season of the majority of the fish varieties coincides with the south-west monsoon season in Kerala, and it is essential that trawling is stopped during this period because it destroys fish eggs and young fish. The trawling ban is also necessary to ensure the safety of fishermen as the seas turn very rough during the monsoon.
Kerala has pioneered a fisheries management technique, an annual 45-day ban on trawling in the state’s waters during the monsoon season since 1988, for the long-term conservation of marine resources. This ban creates a major boon for artisanal fishermen because they get exclusive rights to fish in the vicinity of mud banks during this period.
The chemistry of chaakara
Chaakara is a unique phenomenon that happens along a stretch of nearly 270 kilometers (160 miles) along the Kerala coastline. At times these mud banks run several kilometers long, taking on the size of a lake. After a few weeks the fluid mud settles at the bottom, dissipating the mud bank. The mud bank formation is erratic and varies from year to year, in location, extent and duration.
One theory about the abundance of marine life close to the shore is that the muddy waters at the bottom of the sea contain less oxygen, so fishes and prawns that live at the bottom of the sea swim up to the surface to catch a breath. Veteran fishermen have a different take. They believe the rich nutrients from the mountains carried down by the rivers and backwaters attract fishes to the calm area formed in the sea.
Whatever the reason, it’s the perfect time to take advantage and make dishes served up by the monsoon’s bounty.
The following recipe is adapted from “The Essential Kerala Cookbook” by Vijayan Kannampilly
1 pound medium-sized prawns
¼ cup rice flour
Salt to taste
3 to 4 green chili peppers thinly sliced (less for milder taste)
1½ inch piece of fresh ginger grated
⅓ cup thinly chopped shallots
¼ cup curry leaves, thinly chopped
2 cups of oil, preferably coconut oil
1. Shell and remove heads of the prawns. Devein them and wash well. Place the prawns in a pan along with ½ cup of water and cook till tender. Remove from the stove, drain any remaining water and cool.
2. Grind or mince the prawns in a food processor. Add rice flour, salt, green chilies, ginger, shallots and curry leaves, and mix well. Divide the mixture into small 1-inch round balls and shape into round cutlets.
3. Meanwhile heat the oil in a frying pan to 350 F. Deep-fry the cutlets till both sides are golden brown. Serve hot.
Top photo: Fishing in the South Indian chaakaras during monsoon season. Credit: Prasanth Gulfu
Pandan extract, derived from a Southeast Asian tree, has a wonderful flowery, nutty perfume. I’ve heard that cooks sometimes add it to ordinary rice so it can pass for an aromatic rice such as basmati. It goes spectacularly well with coconut. In fact, when I make coconut cake with untoasted coconut these days I always add a few drops of pandan.
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But its aroma also has a faint funky quality that I recently realized reminds me a little of shrimp. So why not pandan shrimp? It turned out even better than I expected, a glamorously perfumed crustacean.
My recipe was adapted from the pla goong in Nancie McDermott’s “Real Thai.” Basically, pandan extract replaces the fish sauce in that recipe, with some garlic added to make it clear that this is not actually a shrimp dessert, because the pandan has a very sweet aroma. If you’re one of those people whose secret shame is that you’ve never really learned to love fish sauce, consider this recipe.
Note: There are actually two aromatic members of the Pandanus family, the Malaysian pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius), with fragrant leaves, and the Indian kewra (P. fascicularis), the usable part of which is the flower stems. Kewra has a pungent floral aroma, but I don’t think it’s as good for this usage. What you want to look for in a Southeast Asian market is a little 2-ounce bottle with the words pandanor dau la dua (the Vietnamese name) on the label. These labels also usually show some pandan leaves. Just to drive the idea home, the liquid itself is usually colored green.
If you can’t get fresh lemongrass, you might be able to find tubes of lemongrass purée in a supermarket and add it to taste to the lime mixture, though you’ll be doing without the pleasant crisp texture of the lemongrass rings. If you can’t find that, you’ll just have to do without; adding a little lime zest will beef up the flavor.
Serves 2 as a light entrée or 4 as an appetizer
2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 medium lime)
½ teaspoon pandan extract
1 clove garlic, pressed or grated
1 teaspoon sugar
1 medium serrano chile
1 stalk fresh lemongrass
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ cup chicken broth, divided
1 big handful mixed salad greens, or butter lettuce
Leaves from 2 good-sized sprigs fresh mint
Salt to taste
1. Mix the lime juice, pandan, garlic, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and set aside.
2. Slice the chile on the diagonal to produce oval slices ⅛ inch thin or thinner. Remove the dried, tough outer leaves of the lemon grass and trim the tough roots. Cut off a length 3 inches (or a little more if wished) from the root end and slice it crosswise as thin as possible. Peel the shallot, trim the root and cut into very thin slices lengthwise. Put the chile, lemongrass and shallot in a small bowl and set aside.
3. Set the shrimp and ¼ cup chicken broth in a pan and cook until pink, 1-2 minutes. Turn once, just before the shrimp is done. (Alternatively steam the shrimp and use only ¼ cup chicken broth or water for the sauce.)
4. Put the salad greens in a mixing bowl and mix well with the sliced ingredients, using your fingers to separate the lemongrass slices into tiny rings. Mince ½ of the mint leaves and add to the greens.
5. Mix the shrimp with the lime juice mixture and ¼ cup chicken broth. Remove ½ of the shrimp with a slotted spoon, toss the greens with them and transfer to a serving plate. Top with the rest of the shrimp, the lime juice mixture and the remaining whole mint leaves. Add salt to taste.
Top photo: Pandan shrimp with Pandan extract bottle in the background. Credit: Charles Perry
In many Italian, Spanish and French dishes, anchovy filets supply a deeply nuanced umami that turns the ordinary into the passionately delicious. Italian puttanesca, Tuscan chicken liver paté and French tapenade are but a few examples that come to mind. Without anchovies they are good. With anchovies they are delicious. Combine skinless anchovy filets with caramelized chicken livers, toss with pasta and dust with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and surf dances with turf in the most beautiful way.
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Pasta is wonderful. Pasta is infinitely variable. Pasta can be complex or simple. For many cooks, the best pasta dish is one that allows the ingredients to shine through with a minimum of sauce. Toss penne with fresh English peas, a bit of oil and garlic, a dusting of cayenne and a fresh grating of Romano and all that is necessary to complete the meal is a crisp Fumè Blanc, a farm-fresh green salad and a dessert of fresh fruit with a nice selection of cheeses.
Chicken livers and anchovies are as different as can be. When cooked properly with a charred exterior and an interior still moist and pink, chicken livers are creamy and earthy with a hint of sweetness.
Anchovies on the other hand have a sharper impact on the palette — salty, raspy and tangy. Combined, they bring out the best in one another.
As with any simple recipe, this dish is only as good as the quality of the ingredients. Whenever possible, buy organic chicken livers to avoid the chemicals and antibiotics that can accumulate in birds that are raised in industrial coops. Skinless anchovies packed in olive oil are not overly salty. Because the fish are caught all over the world, experimenting with different brands will lead you to the one you like the best.
Spanish and Italian anchovies are especially good, whether packed in glass jars or in tins. The price can vary from an affordable $2 a tin to well over $15 for a glass jar of the same weight.
Pasta with Chicken Livers and Anchovies
Before using chicken livers, wash and pat dry. Using a sharp paring knife, cut away any fat, sinews or veins and discard. Separate the two lobes. Cut each lobe in half, making bite-sized pieces to facilitate even cooking of the livers.
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¾ to 1 pound pasta (penne, ziti, spaghetti or angel hair)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, washed, stemmed and skin removed, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only, washed
4 to 8 anchovy filets (the number depends on how much you enjoy anchovies)
1 pound chicken livers, washed, lobes separated, each lobe cut in half
¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only, washed
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
⅛ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 tablespoon olives, pitted, finely chopped (optional)
¼ cup cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered (optional)
1. In a 2-gallon pot, fill with water to within 3 inches of the top. Add kosher salt and bring to a boil. Put in pasta and stir well. Allow to boil 10 minutes, stirring every 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Taste and when al dente, place a small heat-proof cup in the sink next to a colander and drain the pasta, capturing 1 cup of pasta water in the process. Return the pasta to the warm pot and set aside.
3. In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil. Sauté onions, garlic and Italian parsley until lightly browned. Using a fork, add the anchovies, dragging them along the bottom so they break apart. Stir well with the aromatics.
4. Add the chicken livers to the pan, using a large spoon to move them around the pan so they lightly brown all over. Be careful not to overcook and dry out the livers.
5. At this point you have some options. You can season with cayenne for heat, add chopped olives for another layer of flavor, stir in quartered cherry tomatoes to contribute liquid and a bit of acid to the sauce and sweet butter for creaminess.
6. Or keep it simple and do one, some or none of the above. In any case, add ¼ cup of pasta water to the frying pan and stir well.
7. Just before serving, add cooked pasta to the frying pan over a medium flame and toss well until heated. Top with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and serve.
Top photo: Penne pasta with anchovies and chicken livers. Credit: David Latt
Looking ahead to hot days when meals must be light and flavorful, home cooks and restaurant chefs alike want light and flavorful dishes to put on the table. One dish perfect for the summer is tuna tartare, delicately seasoned and plated to satisfy any gourmand’s need for luxurious food, beautifully presented.
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Gabriel Kreuther, executive chef at The Modern, the fine dining restaurant at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is a master at preparing beautifully delicious comfort food. With a dining room view of MoMA’s sculpture garden, Chef Kreuther lets his food take its cue from the art. His plates are mini-sculptures, animated with color, contrasts and meticulous detailing.
Tartare, like sashimi, is only as good as its ingredients and those must be as fresh as possible. Quality seafood purveyors are a good source of the high quality yellowfin tuna and diver scallops required for the recipe.
Adding to the quality of the seafood is the visual design. For Kreuther, the extra effort it takes to make a visually striking plate gives added pleasure to a dish.
Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallops Seasoned with American Caviar
For the tartare:
12 ounces yellow fin tuna, sushi grade, medium dice (½-inch cubes)
12 ounces diver scallops (8 to 10 of the freshest, highest quality, firm), medium dice (½-inch cubes)
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces American Caviar
3 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
1 lemon, juiced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cucumber, not too thick, preferably seedless, unpeeled
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar (or reduction of regular balsamic vinegar made by reducing 8 tablespoons over a low flame), as needed
Baby greens or arugula for garnish
For the chive oil:
Chives, leftover parts from above chopped portion
4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
To prepare the chive oil:
1. Blend the chives and oil in a blender. Strain the mixture and reserve in a squeeze bottle.
To prepare the seafood:
1. Dice the tuna into ½-inch cubes. Place into a bowl, cover and reserve in the refrigerator.
2. Dice the scallops into similarly sized ½-inch cubes. Place into a separate bowl, cover and also refrigerate.
To prepare the bed of cucumber:
1. Wash the cucumber and pat it dry. Slice it very thinly using a Japanese mandoline slicer for better precision or if unavailable, use a very sharp knife.
2. Season the slices with salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil and arrange the slices on a chilled plate in 2 overlapping columns (6 slices each, arranged like shingles on a roof) down the center of the plate. Refrigerate until ready to plate the dish.
To prepare the tartare mixture:
1. Combine the tuna and scallops in one bowl and add the chopped chives, hazelnut oil, olive oil and caviar.
2. Season with salt and pepper and mix all the ingredients together gently. On the final stir, add some lemon juice to taste.
Note: Do not use too much lemon juice, as it will overpower the dish.
To plate the dish:
1. Place several spoonfuls of the tartare mixture along the length of the 2 columns of cucumber, down the center, leaving some of the outer edge of cucumbers to be visible.
2. Season the baby greens with some of the remaining lemon juice and olive oil.
3. Spike one end of the tartare with a few leaves of the seasoned greens.
4. Finally, using the aged balsamic vinegar (or reduced balsamic vinegar) and the chive oil in 2 separate squeeze bottles, make 2 straight lines, on either side of the columns of cucumber (parallel to and approximately ½ inch away from the cucumbers.)
Top photo: Tartare of yellowfin tuna and diver scallops seasoned with American caviar. Credit: Diana DeLucia
The non-descript bar was the perfect refuge for a rainy spring afternoon. Seated at a small Formica table that would have been at home in a 1950s kitchen, with small plates and a fat tumbler of Havana Gold 7-year-old rum in front of me, I discovered the new love of my culinary life: anchovies.
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In Bar Pozano, a narrow workingman’s hangout across the river from the Burgos Cathedral in northern Spain, half a dozen older men sat talking and ignoring a soccer game on mute on a flat-screen TV high on the wall near the front door. In the narrow refrigerated display case on the bar were the tapas of the day. Plates were displayed with Spanish omelets (tortillas de palatas), Iberian ham sandwiches (bocadillos) and skewered octopus bits seasoned with olive oil and pimentón. With all those delicious tapas inviting attention, it was the anchovies gathered around hard boiled eggs, pickles, pitted green olives, poached tuna and mussels that won my heart.
Anchovies are part of the ocean’s bounty. Found in great abundance all over the planet, the tiny fish, like goldilocks, prefer temperate waters that are not too hot, not too cold. Available in some areas fresh as filets with the silvery skin on one side, anchovies are usually sold as skinless filets in jars and flat tins.
I left my heart in Spain but brought home the anchovies
The thing about anchovies is that people either love them or hate them. With these delicate fish there is no middle ground. For those diners who enjoy them, anchovies have an umami flavor similar to that of shiitake mushrooms but with a deeply nuanced saltiness and feather-light raspiness on the tongue.
The Spanish get the best out of anchovies by applying them liberally on tapas and pinxtos, Basque open-faced sandwiches. Italians know that skinless anchovy filets will dissolve in heated butter or olive oil, creating an exquisite sauce that adds a depth of flavor to braising sauces and pastas.
Part of the beauty of anchovies is that they are easy to use. To have a delicious snack, just open a jar or tin, drag out a couple with a fork, lay the filets over a piece of grilled bread with slices of Manchego cheese, drizzle with olive oil, dust with pimentón and serve with ice cold beer or a light white wine.
For an entrée, only a little more work is required. Dissolve four or five anchovies in heated oil, toss with cooked pasta, sprinkle with finely chopped Italian parsley and freshly grated Parmesan cheese and the main course is finished in less than 10 minutes.
To have a thoroughly enjoyable evening with anchovies as the centerpiece, all that’s needed is a group of like-minded diners who regard the anchovy as one of nature’s best treats.
Anchovies With Hard-Boiled Eggs
Infinitely variable, the basics are the salty anchovy filets, which contrast with the dry and creamy hard-boiled eggs. In Spain, a condiment made with finely chopped, charred red and green peppers and onions is used as a topping on neutral tasting products like poached tuna filets or mussels. That topping goes beautifully with the hard-boiled eggs and anchovies.
I am indebted to Katie Goodman who described her method for hard-boiling eggs to facilitate easy shell removal.
4 farmers market fresh large eggs, washed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ red pepper, washed and seeded
¼ green pepper, washed and seeded
¼ medium yellow onion, washed and peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 anchovy filets packed in olive oil
4 mini-dill pickles, cut in half longwise
8 mussels, canned or freshly steamed, debearded and shelled
Pimentón (optional) or cayenne
8 long toothpicks or short bamboo skewers 3 or 4 inches in length
1. Cover the eggs in a pot of water. Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a vigorous boil and cook uncovered for three minutes.
Remove from the flame, cover and let sit for 15 minutes.
Pour off the hot water and soak the eggs in cold water. Allow to cool, then remove the shells. Dry and refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.
2. On a hot barbecue grill or on a stovetop gas burner with the flame turned on high, place the green and red peppers and the onion on the flame. Allow the outer skin to lightly char. Turn once with tongs and remove.
Once the peppers and onions are cool to the touch, use a sharp chef’s knife to finely chop the vegetables and place in a small, lidded container. Cover with the olive oil, seal and refrigerate until ready to use.
3. Assemble just before serving. First, carefully slice each hard-boiled egg from top to bottom using a very sharp paring knife. Slide the skewer through one anchovy, then through the side of one half of the hard boiled egg, then the pickle half and the mussel. Add one more anchovy on the other end if desired.
Top with an espresso-sized teaspoon of the marinated peppers and onions and a little olive oil. Season as desired with sea salt, black pepper and pimentón.
- Instead of the mussel, place a slab of canned tuna fish filet, preferably a good quality tuna from Spain.
- Instead of the mini-dill pickle, use a pitted green olive.
- Instead of the mini-dill pickle, use crisp and vinegary, pickled Basque guindilla peppers, available from Spain in jars.
- In addition to the marinated charred peppers and onion topping, dust the hard boiled egg with finely chopped fresh Italian parsley.
Top photo: A Spanish tapas made at home with anchovy, mussels, hard-boiled egg, marinated chopped peppers and onions and pickle on a skewer. Credit: David Latt
I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.
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In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.
If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.
1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups water
Zest of an organic lemon
Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of sea salt
3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.
2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.
But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.
Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”
Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 first-course servings
For the fish:
2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound
6 cups water
1½ cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 branch celery, coarsely chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
For the sauce:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.
4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.
For the sauce:
You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.
1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.
2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.
3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.
Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
My new favorite fish dish is modeled on a medieval chicken dish remotely descended from an ancient cheese spread. You heard me, cheese spread. You can think of the dish I am calling three-millennia fish as fish in a sort of thin Hollandaise made slightly florid with saffron and sweet spices.
The intermediate dish appears in a 14th-century Catalan manuscript called “Libre de Sent Soví,” where it is called pols soffrits ab alidem, “fried chickens with alidem.” The alidem part is what goes back to a cheese spread, because the Arabic word al-idam referred to a condiment you ate with bread.
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Some other languages have the same sort of word. In ancient Greek, for instance, opson meant a bread relish, which in Athens was usually fish. And that’s where modern Greek gets its word for fish, psari (originally opsarion). In the medieval Middle East, the typical idams were semi-liquid cheese-like things such as kamakh rijal.
Catalonia was one of the first parts of Spain to free itself from the Moors, but they had left a strong imprint on its cooking, which otherwise would have turned out to be just a dialect of Provencal cuisine. For instance, escabeche, the preparation of cooked vegetables or fish dressed in vinegar that has spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world, comes from Arabic via the Catalan form escabeig, which is pronounced, believe it or not, as escabetch.
Somehow, al-idam took a strange turn in Catalonia. In the “Libre de Sent Sovi,” it meant a sort of sauce or dressing for cooked meat. Some of its alidems were made with toasted bread, so maybe there was a link with tradition there, but as they say in Catalan, Que sap?
The more usual alidem in Sent Soví was a mixture of beaten egg yolks, mixed spices (which the Catalans confusing call salsa), a sour ingredient (vinegar or sour grape juice), and water or stock. This would be cooked to a creamy consistency. Maybe the consistency was the link to the ancient cheese spread.
Medieval recipes are finicky in places but maddeningly vague in others. Pols soffrits ab alidem is one of the vague ones. It only says, “One takes the chickens and boils them; and then takes lard of salt pork and fries them. And then they go for slices and alidem for dishes.” (The cooking technique of boiling before frying reflected the toughness medieval chickens.)
When you check back to the book’s instructions on making alidem, the only flavorings you find mentioned are ginger, pepper, saffron “and other good spices,” so you’re on your own. Cinnamon and nutmeg were what occurred to me when I first tried this recipe. I must say, it came out delicate and luscious.
Perhaps because of the saffron I immediately thought it would also be a good preparation for fish. And behold, as they’d say in the Middle Ages, it was. Here is my fish adaptation of the medieval chicken in the former cheese sauce. I used cod in this recipe and I think it would work best with that or other mild fish, such as halibut or even catfish. It wouldn’t work as well with strong-flavored or fatty
fish, such as salmon or swordfish.
12 to 15 threads saffron
¾ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon pepper
3 to 4 grindings fresh nutmeg
4 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice
4 egg yolks
¾ to 1 cup white wine, fish sauce or clam juice
2 to 3 tablespoons light olive oil for frying
2 pounds fish filets
1. Grind the saffron to a powder in a mortar, or in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Add the ginger, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix them up with the vinegar. Beat in the egg yolks and then add the wine or water and beat smooth.
2. Pour the oil in a large frying pan and heat over high heat until the oil is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Pat the fish pieces dry and add them to the pan without crowding it; cook in more than one batch if needed.
3. Cook over high heat, stirring often, until the fish flakes easily when prodded with a fork, 2-4 minutes depending on thickness. Set the fish aside and discard the cooking oil.
4. Pour the egg and spice mixture in the pan over medium heat and cook until the sauce thickens, stirring constantly to keep it from sticking to the pan. Pour the sauce on the fish and serve.
Three-millennia fish. Credit: Charles Perry
A truly great food and wine pairing can lead the way to nirvana. I can still remember my first time like a first kiss: It was fleeting, but held so much promise.
But matching food with wine can be a tricky business once you get much beyond “red with meat and white with fish.” So I jumped at the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen and at the table with Brian Streeter, culinary director of Cakebread Cellars and their famed American Harvest Workshops.
Cakebread Cellars is one of the most celebrated wineries in California’s Napa Valley. Started by a couple of weekend warriors who planted 22 acres in 1973, the winery has grown into a family dynasty producing elegant vintages from 510 acres. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Streeter joined the tightly knit group 13 years into its odyssey and has been pairing foods and wines almost every day for 27 years.
What are some core principles of food and wine pairing?
It’s all about intensity, acidity, tannins and alcohol. If you can get a handle on these core components, pairing any wine with food is much easier.
Intensity is all about the body or mouth feel of a wine. I might be stating the obvious, but lighter foods really do go best with lighter wines and richer, more complex foods go with richer, more complex wines. Color is the first great visual clue to a wine’s intensity, and knowing if the wine has spent any time barrel aging is a good signal too.
Acidity is the next thing to think about. To be a good food pairing wine, a wine needs to have a certain level of acidity. Wines low in acidity end up being flabby and don’t pair well. If I really want to highlight the bright acidity in a wine, I’ll marry it with a food component that has some natural sweetness to it. That’s why shellfish like shrimp, scallops or lobster goes so well with white wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The sweetness of the dish makes the acidity pop even more and seem brighter. But if you want to soften the acidity, adding lemon or white wine to the recipe makes the wine seem a little rounder.
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Lastly, consider the alcohol level. A low level of alcohol is a good indication that the wine’s grapes were picked earlier and acidity levels will be higher, so they will naturally go best with lighter food. If the wine is higher in alcohol, it will exhibit bigger, riper flavors. Often the winemaker will age it in new oak barrels, adding another element. These full-flavored wines cry out to be enjoyed with 2-inch thick prime porterhouse. But you want to be careful not to serve anything too spicy or too sweet with them as both tend to accentuate the alcohol in the wine and throw it out of balance.
Speaking of spicy, are there any tricks to pairing with those foods?
Often, spicy foods clash with wines that have seen time in barrel or have alcohol levels above 12.5%. I love Indian food because of its use of so many spices, but in order to make a successful wine pairing, sometimes recipes need to be dialed back or reinterpreted if you want to find a dish that really complements the wine. Once I’ve tasted the wine, then I decide whether I want to accentuate, or even soften, its style by how I season the dish with which I plan to pair it. Off-dry wines and wines with fruit-forward characteristics do best with really spicy food, unless the seasoning is so intense that it will overshadow any wine.
What other foods are risky to pair with wine?
Any ingredient that throws a wine out of balance or alters its natural finish is trouble. Red flags should go up with asparagus, artichokes, vinegar, eggs, soup and dishes that are designed to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Asparagus and artichokes are notorious for being bad partners with most wines. But asparagus just picked from our winery garden and cooked right away is one of the things I look forward to most at this time of year. I will rarely serve asparagus with red wine because it makes the wine taste like overcooked canned vegetables, but I think it’s fabulous with Cakebread’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Artichokes can easily throw a wine out of balance. Roasting them or grilling helps, but the wine might suffer a little for it. Save that really special bottle you’ve been holding onto for another occasion.
When it comes to salads, vinegar or acid is problematic because it can make a wine taste flat. Use sparingly and balance with other ingredients. Incorporating some protein — whether in the form of meat, cheese or nuts — softens the acidity and gives the wine more texture to interact with.
Eggs, particularly hard-boiled, can make a wine taste sulfurous. But if you like deviled eggs like I do, the acidity in Sauvignon Blanc is a good contrast to the richness of the egg.
Soup usually is a difficult course to pair wine with because it’s matching a liquid with a liquid. That said, soups that have some body to them are better than broths.
Sweetness in food accentuates acidity, alcohol and any tannin in a wine. We only make dry wines at Cakebread Cellars, so I’ll look elsewhere for off-dry wines to pair with these kinds of dishes.
What do you think is the most versatile varietal?
I have two favorites, Rosé and Pinot Noir. When it’s hot outside, nothing tastes better than a refreshing glass of Rosé. It’s more complex than white wine, but not as big as red and can be served chilled. I enjoy lighter food during the summer like salads and a lot of fish, so rosé is what I reach for.
When it comes to reds, you can pretty much divide red wine drinkers into two groups: the Pinot camp and the Cabernet camp. Pinot typically shows brighter red fruit, a little higher acidity and softer tannins, so they can pair well with a greater variety of foods. Salmon is a well-known choice for Pinot; pork and poultry work more often than not. When I’m having a big, juicy steak or roast, then I start thinking about Cabernet or Merlot. Firmer tannins match up much better to dark red meats.
Which should be a beginning oenophile’s instinctive choice: Contrast or complement?
Trying to pick a contrasting wine, like a sweeter wine to offset spice, can be a bit tricky, so I’d suggest taking the safer route. Choose a wine that complements a dish and you’ll probably end up with a successful pairing.
Thai Stone Crab Tostadas
This stone crab appetizer was one of many dishes I helped prepare in a recent cooking class at Cakebread Cellars. The sweetness of the crabmeat and the tang of the dressing heightened the bright acidity of the Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc we drank with it.
For the fried wontons:
8 wonton wrappers, halved on the diagonal to make 16 triangles
Vegetable oil for frying
For the topping:
1 cup stone crab meat (from about 1 pound cooked crab claws) or Dungeness crab meat
1½ cups very finely sliced green cabbage
2 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
½ jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish
1. In a 4-quart saucepan, heat 3 inches of vegetable oil to 375 F. Fry the wonton wrappers a few at a time, turning them once with tongs, until they puff and turn golden, less than a minute. Drain on a rack or paper towels.
2. In a bowl, combine the crabmeat, cabbage, red onion and scallions.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar, ginger and chile.
4. Add the dressing to the slaw and toss well.
5. Put a spoonful of slaw on each wonton wrapper. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve immediately.
Top photo: Thai stone crab tostadas. Credit: Caroline J. Beck