Articles in Fish

Japanese-influenced ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Five years ago, I visited Peru and tasted ceviche, the national dish of raw fish cured in citrus juice, for the first time. I am a trained sushi chef and the author of a definitive book on Japanese sushi, but this meal was a revelation. The combination of lime juice and chile pepper with firm-tender cubes of a local white fish was strange, but utterly refreshing.

Ever since that meal in Peru, I have wondered again and again whether ceviche could be related to sashimi, the Japanese dish of sliced raw fish. (Sushi is raw fish combined with rice.) Both preparations are popular menu items today in high-end restaurants around the world, with creative interpretations that extend well beyond Japanese or Peruvian cuisine. Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa launched his restaurant career with a sushi bar in Peru, where he developed his signature style blending South American and Japanese takes on seafood.

Ceviche and sashimi were born in countries that share a similar geographical blessing. Warm and cold currents blend along the coasts of Japan and Peru, allowing high-quality plankton to flourish, and in turn, nourishing the fish to produce exceptionally tasty seafood.

At a time when not much ice was available and no refrigeration system existed, early residents of both countries devised these ways to enjoy good quality seafood longer and more safely. According to Claudio Meneses, a Peruvian with a great depth of knowledge on Peruvian gastronomy, ceviche originally was developed before the Spanish conquest, as a way to prevent rapid spoilage of fresh fish. In this original method, fresh or dried salted seafood was cured in tumbo (banana passionfruit) juice or chicha, a fermented beverage made from corn, along with aji chile and sometimes local aromatic herbs. The word “ceviche” is said to be derived from the Quechua word “siwich,” which means fresh fish.

Although people sometimes say that ceviche is “cooked” in the citrus juices, this curing technique does not kill the parasites that are common in even the healthiest of marine and freshwater fish. Therefore, like sashimi, ceviche must be made with absolutely fresh seafood of the highest quality.

Ceviche for lunch

“Peruvian cevicherías, that is, restaurants that specialize in ceviche, only open for lunch because fish used for ceviche traditionally had to be picked up from the fish market the same day it was going to be served,” Meneses said. “While this is not exactly true today, tradition has kept and so far I only know of one cevichería that opens for dinner.”

Japanese sashimi preparation can be traced to nama-su, which appeared around the 14th or 15th century. “Nama” means fresh or raw, and “su” means vinegar. Seafood for nama-su was pickled in vinegar with ginger or wasabi, or in ume plum-infused sake (rice wine) before serving. All of the pickling ingredients had anti-bacterial functions. The Japanese, like the Peruvians, cured fresh seafood to prevent spoilage and extend its life as a food source.

As time passed and world commerce increased, the transformation of sashimi and ceviche was peppered with foreign influences, political changes and technological advancement. The first change in ceviche preparation came when the Spanish brought bitter orange trees to Peru in the 15th century. Bitter orange quickly replaced the local fruit juice as a curing ingredient.

Kozue sashimi

Modern Japanese sashimi at Kozue restaurant at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Japan, commercial production of shoyu, Japanese soy sauce, began and shoyu became widely available by the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868). Shoyu, which is high in sodium, was perfect for curing and preserving fresh tuna and skipjack tuna. Both are naturally dark in color, so the soy sauce does not affect their appearance. Shoyu also changed the way to eat raw fish in Japan. The umami-rich, savor of the shoyu, which masks any fishy taste, improves the overall flavor of raw fish.  It therefore became an indispensable condiment to accompany sashimi. After World War II, more dramatic changes occurred in the Japanese sashimi kitchen. The refrigeration system introduced from America, efficient ice-making technology, development of high speed transportation networks and improved methods of fish catching and slaughtering allowed Japanese chefs to serve most seafood for raw consumption as sashimi at any place across the country, including areas far from the water.

From Japan to Peru

And then these developments in Japan began to influence ceviche in Peru, where the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an influx of Japanese immigrants. By the 1970s, Japanese chefs living and working in Lima introduced modern Japanese sashimi preparation to Peru and these techniques migrated to the Peruvian ceviche kitchen. The Japanese chefs introduced a new way to cut ceviche seafood, in thin slices rather than the traditional cubes. This type of ceviche, known as tiradito, takes less time to cure because the large surface area and the thinness of the slices allow the marinade to penetrate more quickly. This resulted in the development of more subtly and interestingly flavored ceviches.

So although they originated on different continents and evolved in different ways, sashimi and ceviche were created around the same time for similar reasons — to make the most of a bounty of delicious fresh seafood. And over the years, these historical cousins have become even closer relatives as the culinary world has globalized.

This realization encouraged me to try to make my own ceviche dish, which I want to share with you. I happened to find a very good quality weakfish (sometimes called sea trout, though it is not a member of the trout family) locally and sustainably harvested in the northeastern U.S. by Blue Moon Fish, an operation on Long Island, N.Y. You can use any very fresh white fish available in your area. I recommend that you purchase the whole fish, so that you can confirm the freshness of the fish by looking at its eyes, which should be naturally bulging and not collapsed, and stomach, which should not be distended. You can find detailed filleting techniques in my book, “The Sushi Experience.” If you cannot find fresh fish in your area, then professionally frozen fish sold as sushi fish can certainly be used.

Hiroko's Sashimi-Influenced Ceviche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds weakfish or other locally available, high-quality fresh fish
  • Sea salt
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped fine
  • 1 yellow or red fresh cayenne pepper or other fresh chile pepper, chopped fine
  • ½ red onion, sliced into fine thin rings, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons coriander leaves

Directions

  1. Scale, clean, bone and skin the fish. Rinse the chopping board frequently during this process to remove any scales and blood attached to the chopping board.
  2. Fillet the fish, removing both the belly bones and center bones. You will have two back fillets and two belly fillets.
  3. Slice each fillet as thinly as possible and place the fish slices without overlapping on a large, clean serving platter.
  4. Sprinkle little sea salt over the fish. Garnish it with the chopped garlic and chile. Squeeze the lime juice over the fish. Decorate the fish with the onion and coriander leaves.
  5. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

Perhaps no fish has a more fabled and forgotten place in American history than shad, a seasonal springtime fish that can be found up and down the East Coast where freshwater rivers meet the ocean.

An oily fish that lives in saltwater but spawns in fresh water, shad was a staple of the Lenape Native Americans’ diet as well as a fertilizer for their crops. George Washington supplemented his income with an ingenious netting method that captured spawning shad running through the Potomac River in front of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. In addition to selling the fish, he used them to supplement food for those enslaved on his plantation.

Shad gaining favor from East Coast to West

Through the years, Chef Walter Staib has had shad on and off the menu at Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, where he is the executive chef. He has served boneless shad and shad roe, which is pocketed in a lobe and considered a delicacy by aficionados.

“The problem is that people don’t really know about it — including new, younger chefs. It also has an unusual though delicious taste,” Staib said. “Twenty years ago, I did a lot with shad and had regular customers who started calling when the runs began, wanting to know what we’d have on the menu.”

The chef’s love of the fish prompted him to feature it on his PBS cooking series “A Taste of History.” He said the fish was a favorite throughout the 18th century, including among the founding fathers who gathered at the original City Tavern during the Continental Congress and afterward when the city served as America’s first capital.

Washington’s own relationship with shad was a lifelong one. Legend has it British troops netted the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia to divert the shad run from where Washington’s starving troops were encamped downstream at Valley Forge. The commander in chief’s own taste for shad was legendary, and his steward and cook often sought to procure the earliest fish for his breakfast table — at considerable cost.

In those days, shad was an abundant fish, making the fortunes of many an East Coast river town, notably among them Fishtown, Pa. When overfishing for food and fertilizer reduced stocks, the fish went out of fashion.

Today, the fish is making a comeback, although declining stocks are not all that prevents shad from regaining its place as the quintessential American fish.

“Shad fisheries are rebounding because of regulations that have moved gill nets offshore,” said Joe Lasprogata, vice president of new product development for Samuels & Son Seafood in Philadelphia. Gill nets, which had traditionally been strung across river mouths, prevented shad from spawning and made them easy prey for the striped bass that find them so tasty.

The larger issue, Lasprogata said, is that shad is strongly flavored because of its high oil content and has an unusual bone structure that makes filleting a challenge.

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Place the fillets with their thick (head) end facing you and perpendicular to the work surface. Using a sharp filleting knife, cut into the fillet along one side of the darker red center line starting about 4 inches (10 cm) back and cutting toward the head end. Credit: Steve Legato

Samuels & Son has specialty shad filleters, and its process was featured in the book “The Fishmonger’s Apprentice” by Aliza Green. (See slideshow above for directions on how to fillet shad.) Specialty shad filleters are also a feature of the many shad festivals that still take place during the small window of opportunity to enjoy the fish.

“There is an urban legend that shad can be roasted whole in low heat for a long period of time, and the bones will soften enough to simply eat, but I’ve never tried it,” Lasprogata said.

In Essex, Conn., John Mackuck is one of the few, if not only, remaining  shad smokers, using a closely guarded old recipe that starts with a salt, sugar and molasses brine then hot smoking with hickory, apple and cherry woods.

On the West Coast, with most harvested shad used for canning, some Pacific Coast chefs are putting shad on the menu.

“It does not have much of a following here in the Pacific Northwest due to the popularity of salmon,” said chef Thomas Dunklin of Three Degrees in Portland, Ore. “However, I welcome the opportunity to educate my guests about it.

I like the delicacy of it.  The roe is amazing served up seared. “

Shad roe and fillets can be sampled at various, mostly East Coast, festivals to which devotees flock. The shad festivals start earlier the further south you go and generally are held by community organizations.
You’ll find a shad bake virtually anywhere the ocean meets fresh water.

The Grifton Shad Festival in Grifton, N.C., has been around since 1970 and is generally held in early April.  Lambertville, N.J., has a renowned ShadFest and art show that takes place yearly in late April. The Shad Derby in Windsor, Conn., is usually held in mid-May and has crowned a Shad Derby Queen every year since 1966. In Essex, Conn., the Shad Bake has taken place since 1955, and organizers say they fillet and roast between 300 pounds and 350 pounds of shad yearly. This year’s Shad Bake will be June 7 in the Connecticut river town.

These festivals are a great way to sample shad prepared at the hands of loving experts, but if you hurry can still get your hands on shad fillets or the highly prized roe. Fillet of shad can be had for roughly $15 per pound. Try the recipes below, which feature simple, tasty ways to enjoy this all-American fish.

Shad Roe in Caper Butter

This recipe by Chef Walter Staib of Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern is a simple preparation for shad roe, considered a delicacy for centuries. The method is also demonstrated in this video.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

1 shad roe lobe

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons capers

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Lemon wedges, as desired, for garnish

Directions

1. Season the shad roe with salt and pepper.

2. Melt butter in a large fry pan over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, add roe and gently sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over with care once using a spatula.

3. Cover the pan and let the roe cook in the butter for about 6 or 7 minutes, or until browned on the outside but still tender and a little rare inside.

4. Add the capers, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice and mix.

5. To serve, place roe onto a plate and spoon melted butter sauce over the roe. Sprinkle with parsley, and garnish with lemon wedges.

Shad Scaloppini With Fiddlehead Ferns & Lemon

Because shad is a delicate fish, Chef Walter Staib says he likes to have his greens and all the ingredients for the shad itself ready and waiting. Instead of Fiddlehead ferns you could prepare baby spinach, ramps, or dandelion greens with this dish as well.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the fiddleheads:

1 tablespoon salt

8 cups water

1 pound fiddle head ferns, washed and trimmed of any brown spots

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the shad:

Pinch nutmeg, freshly ground

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 pound shad, cut into 8 medallions

½ cup flour

1 egg, beaten well

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small lemon, peeled and sliced thinly

1 small lime, peeled and sliced thinly

Directions 

For the fiddleheads:

1. Have a large bowl ready with 1 cup of ice and 3 cups of cold water.

2. Bring the salt and water to a boil in a large pot and add the fiddlehead ferns. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes then remove from the water with a slotted spoon.

3. Add the fiddlehead ferns to the bowl of ice water and allow to sit for 1 minute. Drain and set the ferns aside.

4. Heat a large fry pan over medium-high heat and add the grapeseed oil.

5. Add the fiddlehead ferns and stir well. Cook until they begin to get lightly brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and then spoon on to a platter.

For the shad:

1. Combine the nutmeg, salt and pepper, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce in a shallow, large dish. Marinate fish in the mixture for no more than 5 minutes. Leaving the fish in longer will result in the protein breaking down.

2. Remove fish and discard marinade. Dredge each medallion in flour. Shake excess flour off medallions. Dredge medallions in egg, coating well. Shake off any excess and set aside on a plate.

3. Heat a large fry pan with grapeseed oil and butter over medium-high heat and add the shad medallions. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, then flip and fry on the other side.

4. Remove shad medallions from the pan and layer onto the fiddlehead ferns.

5. Place the lime and lemon slices around the dish for garnish.

Main photo: Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

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Chef Gavin Stephenson tends to his bees. Credit: The Fairmont Olympic Hotel

Gavin Stephenson, the former chef of London’s Savoy hotel who has overseen kitchens at The Georgian and Shuckers restaurants at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle for more than a decade, began his beekeeping program three years ago on the rooftop of this historic hotel that stands as a regal homage to a more refined and cultured past.

The ornate columns of the gold-gilded Georgian Restaurant might seem an odd counterpoint to the chef’s rooftop beekeeping program, a pursuit more commonly associated with the do-it-yourself artisan food restaurants sprinkled throughout Seattle’s quirky neighborhoods such as Queen Anne, Fremont and Ballard. But Stephenson’s honey program reflects the Fairmont hotel chain’s dedication to sustainability and commitment to sourcing locally at notable restaurants around the world, including in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Vancouver, Canada; Beijing; Singapore; London; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and Cairo.

At the Fairmont in Seattle, honey is drizzled over hot scones and homemade butter during The Georgian’s afternoon tea, bottles of Rooftop Honey are gifted to special guests, tangy local cheese is mellowed by ribbons of honey and the Pacific Northwest staple of salmon is sweetened with a glistening lacquer of it. Stephenson has even partnered with local brewery Pike Place to concoct a honey-infused beer.

Bees and beekeeping starting to catch on

The chef’s love of beekeeping has even spilled over into his own backyard, where he now keeps several hives for personal use. He says his neighbors were at first wary of getting stung by the bees but have since warmed to the idea, many now asking Stephenson for advice about keeping bees themselves. It’s a noble pursuit for a chef with a distinguished career in the kitchen and, more recently, on the rooftop.

I recently sat down with Stephenson at the Fairmont to find out more about his bees and beekeeping.

Why did you decide to start the honey program at the Fairmont Olympic and why is it important to you?

I was introduced to Corky Luster from Ballard Bee Co., who taught urban beekeeping. Colony collapse disorder is detrimental to our ecosystem, so I wanted to make a difference and do the right thing. At first it was very time consuming, but now it’s a labor of love. Not only is beekeeping beneficial to our environment and society, it’s also awesome to incorporate the honey into my menus at The Georgian and Shuckers.

Have you faced any challenges in getting the program up and running?

Absolutely. I’ve lost several hives. Urban beekeeping is a challenge on an exposed roof in the city 12 stories high. Washington beehives are sensitive to moisture and to extreme temperature changes. We had a few spring days with inclement weather that the bees could not handle. It was devastating every time I lost a hive. Mother Nature is a powerful reality.

Have you learned anything about honey production that surprised you?

You can have eight hives in a row and each hive produces honey with entirely different flavors. I learned that I cannot control the flavor of the honey. My bees travel up to 6 miles per day, and they have countless opportunities to pollinate flowers all over Seattle. The pollen and nectar that the worker bees extract can vary between the blackberries near the waterfront to the rooftop gardens throughout Pike Place Market and downtown Seattle.

Is the community of Seattle supportive of your efforts?

Absolutely! Everyone wants to know how the process works and I have had so many visitors interested in setting up their own hives. There are only a couple of entities downtown practicing beekeeping, so I look forward for others to join in on the fun and to contribute to a healthy environment.

Can you share a recipe featuring honey? What is your favorite thing about this recipe and its origin and any special tips for its preparation?

My favorite recipe is the Smoked Salmon Skewers With Rooftop Honey [recipe follows]. I enjoy the smoked flavor paired with the sweet flavors of honey.

What advice do you have for home beekeepers or other chefs who would like to produce honey?

Get ready to get stung. Buy an EpiPen [an epinephrine injection used in the case of an allergic reaction]. Don’t be alarmed when the female worker bees throw the male drone bees off your 12-story roof in the fall. No pun intended.

Smoked Salmon Skewers With Rooftop Honey

Yield: 4 servings, 12 (6-inch) skewers

Courtesy of chef Gavin Stephenson and The Georgian Restaurant

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 pound King salmon belly
  • 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey or honey of choice
  • 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey Mustard
  • Necessary equipment:
  • 12 (6-inch) bamboo skewers
  • Wood chips smoker

Directions

  1. To make cure, mix together brown sugar, lemon zest and kosher salt.
  2. Cut salmon into finger-size pieces, about 3 inches by ¾ inches.
  3. Place salmon pieces onto bamboo skewers and place on tray, then sprinkle liberally with cure.
  4. Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes.
  5. Move to a clean pan.
  6. Set up smoker and smoke the salmon for 5 minutes.
  7. Bake salmon at 280 F to desired degree of doneness, about 8 minutes.
  8. Drizzle with warm Rooftop Honey or serve with Rooftop Honey Mustard.

Main photo: Chef Gavin Stephenson tends to his bees. Credit: The Fairmont Olympic Hotel

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Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber

It seems that Americans are not making much culinary use of honey these days and are more likely to value bees for their ability to pollinate crops than for the food they produce. Unlike those living in ancient cultures who cherished honey and considered it the food of the gods, Americans seem to think of it as just another supermarket product and not a very important one at that.

We currently sweeten our food with inexpensive granulated sugar and corn syrup, so the more costly honey is thought of as a specialty item that is most useful to people baking Greek pastries. Many supermarket shoppers are not even aware that not all honey tastes the same. But if you talk to beekeepers, you discover that the nectar that the bees gather from a particular plant will produce honey that varies in flavor from other plants so that, for instance, we get an aromatic honey from orange blossoms, whereas buckwheat produces a dark, deep-flavored product.

This information was brought home when I had an emergency caused by a wasp nest in my backyard. Expecting houseguests and planning an al fresco lunch, I noticed a menacing stream of yellow jackets zooming in and out of a hole near where I had planned to set up a picnic table. I located someone who advertised himself as a bee and wasp expert, and he promised to come right over. Soon, a yellow truck in the shape of a bumblebee pulled into my driveway and out came a man wearing a straw hat and coveralls, and sporting a straggly beard that reached almost to his waist. He looked like a 19th-century farmer hailing from the wilds of Maine or Vermont.

Adventures in beekeeping

The man eliminated the wasps in a hurry and then joined us on the porch, regaling us with story after story about his adventures as a beekeeper and about the wonders of honey. Before leaving, instead of a business card, he gave me a jar of honey produced from his own hives with a label that had his contact information.That honey was a revelation to me, smooth yet tingling with complex flavors, convincing me that I was eating a new food. Since that time, whenever I am at a farmers market, I head right for the honey people who often provide delicious tastes.

The early Romans prized honey for its flavor and its ability to preserve foods. There are many recipes attributed to Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius. He used honey in sauces served with meat or fish, and often balanced them with vinegar to create a sweet and sour effect. One of those recipes is for mushrooms cooked in honey, olive oil and fish sauce that wind up with a honey glaze, a dish I mean to try. Instead of coating meat in a thick layer of salt in order to preserve it, Apicius suggested coating it with honey, a practice he also used to preserve fruit.

The Romans also added honey to dry white wine to produce mulsum, a drink that was served with appetizers, and they drank mead, an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey that was consumed all over the ancient world. I once went to a banquet featuring a historic Roman meal and had a wonderful time tasting dish after dish of well-seasoned delicious foods and interesting drinks.

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

Because honey is such an ancient food, it has a long history not only of recipes but of beliefs in its power to cure disease, and it was seen as a talisman, a protector against misfortune. One superstition advised that strings dipped in honey at sunrise and tied around fruit trees would ensure that an excellent crop would be produced.

Bees too have had their legends. For instance, it was thought that if a bee enters your house, it is a sign that a visitor will appear, and if you kill the bee the visitor will be unpleasant. Even today claims are made about the health benefits of honey, suggesting it can ward off cancer, alleviate allergies and soothe minor burns.

Colony Collapse Disorder

These days, attention is being paid to the mystery of the disappearing bees. Commercial beekeepers whose livelihood depends on their transporting beehives from one part of the country to another in order to pollinate crops are experiencing a threat. Bees are mysteriously disappearing from their hives, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists around the world are trying to work out the causes, speculations that lay the blame at pathogens, fungus, pesticides, and the wear and tear of being hauled around on pollination jobs, or all of these things.

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health points the finger at a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies, particularly during cold winters.

This threat makes me appreciate honey all the more, and I am always on the lookout for dishes that include it — not just sweets such as baklava, but savory dishes that use just a little for flavoring. I found such a dish recently while browsing through a used bookstore, and came across “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas that has a recipe for fresh tuna with a touch of honey. I love this dish and cook it regularly with swordfish, which I prefer, and it has become a family favorite.

Atun Frito Con Miel (Honey-Coated Fried Tuna)

This is adapted from Penelope Casas’ “One Pot Spanish.”

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh tuna or swordfish steaks

Salt

2 eggs

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Honey, enough to lightly coat both sides of the fish

All-purpose flour for dusting

Olive oil for frying

Directions

1. Cut fish steaks into four pieces and sprinkle both sides with salt.

2. Beat together the eggs with the cumin in a shallow dish.

3. Spread both sides of the fish steaks with a thin layer of honey.

4. Dust the steaks with flour, then coat both sides with the egg mixture.

5. Heat about ⅛ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Place steaks into the pan and cook over medium-high heat, turning once and cooking each side for 4 to 5 minutes until the coating is golden and the fish is cooked to taste.

Main photo: Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

Most fish are so delicate we add only minimal flavoring, probably nothing more than a squeeze of lemon these days. The ancient Greeks and Romans, in no position to use lemon juice because the lemon hadn’t arrived, tended to use vinegar. Sometimes, they even added cheese.

It’s a slick idea. Give it a try.

We know this because a Greek foodie named Archestratus sampled fish all around the eastern Mediterranean, and around 330 B.C. he wrote a poem about his findings. It has not survived complete, and we aren’t even sure about its title — it has been referred to as “Gastronomia” and “The Life of Luxury,” among other names. Most of the surviving fragments appear in a book called “The Deipnosophists,” which was written some five centuries later, ample testimony to its fame.

Here is one fragment: “Whenever Orion is setting in the heavens and the mother of the wine-bearing grape clusters is casting away her long hair, then it is the time to have a baked sargue sprinkled with cheese — a large one, and piping hot, and cut with sharp vinegar.”

Well, it was a poem; these days even the most bizarro food writer wouldn’t dream of referring to grapevines losing their hair. As for sargue (or sargo), it’s a member of the bream family that is well regarded in the Mediterranean today, but Archestratus recommended his preferred treatment for bland fish, topping it with cheese as well as sprinkling it with vinegar (which I think works better here than lemon juice). I suggest using it on tilapia, a bland fish that is readily available.

Archestratus lived in a Greek colony in Sicily, and in another passage he associates the idea of sprinkling cheese on fish with the Syracusans, who would, of course, have used some kind of Sicilian cheese. What was that cheese like? We don’t know.

However, in the Middle Ages, the Arabs imported Sicilian cheese (jubn siqilli) and added it to vegetable dishes at the same time as spices, suggesting that it was grated, so you could use Sicilian ricotta salata or even Parmesan or Romano. This is the oldest recipe I ever make for fun, rather than research.

Fish a la Archestratus

Serves 2 

Ingredients

2 tilapia filets, about 10 ounces

1 tablespoon light olive oil

Salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons grated ricotta salata, Parmesan or other grating cheese

Vinegar to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Spread oil in a baking dish.

3. Set the fish in the dish and sprinkle with the salt and cheese. The cheese will melt after 10 minutes, fish will flake at 14 to 15.

4. Serve hot with a sprinkling of vinegar.

* * *

Here’s another simple fish recipe, this one from the 18th century. It appears in Louis Auguste de Bourbon’s “Le Cuisinier Gascon” (1740) as a variation on truite à la hussarde. Hussars were proverbially dashing, impetuous, overbearing, none-too-intelligent cavalrymen who wore flashy uniforms and claimed to be so badass they would be ashamed to not to die by the time they were 30. (A lot of people hoped the same fate for them.)

It’s such a simple dish it scarcely needs a recipe — it’s so simple that a hussar could probably cook it. You just poach the fish and serve it with a sort of 18th-century tartar sauce. If you prefer trout, go ahead and make it with that.

Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise

3 to 4 teaspoons capers along with ½ teaspoon caper brine

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste

For the fish:

10 ounces salmon filet

Water

1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon dry white wine

Directions

1. Put the mayonnaise into a sauce bowl. Stir in the capers and caper brine, then the mustard. Add the mustard bit by bit, because too much can make the sauce seem salty.

2. Put the filets in a pan. Add water nearly to cover, then the lemon juice.

3 Heat over medium heat, turning the fish after 5 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes.

4. Drain the fish and serve hot or cold with the hussar sauce.

Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

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Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Whenever I think about fresh fish I always picture that old MAD magazine column “Silly Answers to Stupid Questions.” The female customer asks at the fish store, “Is that fish fresh?” And the fishmonger answers, “No, it’s very well-mannered.” Seriously though, the question was fair because it does come down to the fishmonger knowing best.

Today’s fishmongers offer a variety of filleted fish, making our lives easier. But this convenience sometimes means customers get lower-quality fish than they did when they bought it unfilleted. Judging whether a fish is fresh is not such an easy thing. It’s not hard for the fishmongers because when they buy it they have access to the fresh-caught fish and knowledge of fish that the consumer does not have.

They often know the fishermen or fish brokers. They have the opportunity to smell and handle the whole fish. Good fishmongers know where the fish was caught and who caught it and they know which areas of the ocean and seas have the right kind of nutrients for particular fish. Not all fishmongers know this, but the good ones do.

Consumers are at a great disadvantage. They cannot even see the whole fish because it often arrives at the fish store from a central processing facility. The fillets are cut into perfect and identical pieces with little to distinguish them from one another.

A fish name doesn’t tell you everything

Furthermore, the fish often have names that have nothing to do with their species. When you buy black cod you’re not buying cod. When you buy Chilean sea bass you’re not buying sea bass. In the first case, black cod is sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), which tastes nothing like cod and is the only species in the Anoplopoma genus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved “sablefish” as the only acceptable market name and considered “black cod” a regional name not to be used for statement of identity purposes. In the second case, Chilean sea bass is an invented marketing name for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), a deep-dwelling Antarctic Ocean fish.

Only one sure way to test whether it’s fresh fish

The standard techniques for judging whether a fish is fresh — using your senses of sight, smell and touch — often won’t help the average consumer. Along with not having access to whole fish, customers also often find the fish store does not know where the fish was caught and when. When was the last time a supermarket fishmonger answered, “The fish was caught seven days ago off the Alaska coast?” I can answer that — never.

A consumer’s senses also are useless when the fish sometimes has been doused in sodium benzoate that can disguise a poor quality filleted fish.

There is only one way to determine the freshness of filleted fish, and that is through taste. Since this is not convenient when shopping, customers must trust the fishmonger the first time and then repeat their business if they like his or her fish. If the fish you buy at a particular store is consistently good, then that is your guide for fresh fish. Fresh fish should not taste “fishy,” and the store should not smell “fishy.” It should smell like the briny ocean.

Where the quality fishmongers are

Top quality fish will taste good, unadorned with sauces, while lesser quality fish will taste insipid and generic and — in a telltale sign of non-freshness — fishy. Choose the freshest fish before choosing the recipe. I usually find top quality fishmongers in ethnic areas where fish cookery is important to that particular culture, such as Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Caribbean neighborhoods.

Lastly, don’t be a boob and ask, “Is this fish fresh?” What do you think they’ll answer?

Main photo: Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Spuma di tonno sott’olio. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Canned tuna is one of those great foods that is undervalued and underappreciated. You need to think of it as more than cat food for humans. Canned tuna is more than something you dump mayonnaise into for a sandwich. Canned tuna can be the basis for some impressive and noble dishes.

You will need to think beyond the standard dried out albacore tuna sold as some kind of bland chicken from the sea. What you really are looking for is tender tuna packed in olive oil. This is what the Italians call tonno sott’olio. Its uses are many, and the Italians will incorporate it into toast points, salads and tossed with pasta.

One delightful way of using canned tuna is for an antipasto from the region of Umbria called spuma di tonno sott’olio, which means “foam of tuna under oil.”

The Italian spuma, which means foam, is given to preparations that are beaten or whipped so the final result is not quite like the ethereal preparations found in the avant-garde cooking of 21st-century restaurant chefs called foams, but is meant to be light and flavorful. As Umbria is an inland region without a coastline, its seafood has traditionally been preserved either with salt or in oil or vinegar.

So now the bad news, or should I say the cautionary news? Good quality oil-packed tuna is going to be more expensive than the tuna you’re used to buying.

Consider this: You go to the market to buy fresh sashimi-grade tuna belly and it’s $25 a pound and tastes wonderful. Do you think your $3 a pound chunk light tuna canned in water is going to taste remotely similar? No, it’s not, and that’s why you need to think of this preparation as something special and look for some Italian tuna fillets packed in the best extra virgin olive oil. A 6-ounce jar will probably cost you $15.

You can preserve your own tuna too. Place the freshly bought tuna in a pan filled with water salted with sea salt and bring to a gentle boil. Turn the heat off and let the tuna sit in the hot water for 20 minutes. Then drain, pat dry with paper towels and pack the fish in glass jars and fill with the best olive oil. The tuna pieces can also be deep fried instead of poached. This is a special antipasto so treat it specially.

Spuma di Tonno sott’Olio

Serves 8 as an antipasto course

Ingredients

12 ounces canned tuna in extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons anchovy paste

½ pound mascarpone cheese

Olive oil

1 hard-boiled large egg, shelled and sliced

1 oil-preserved artichoke heart, sliced

Directions

1. Blend the tuna in a food processor with the anchovy paste and mascarpone until smooth. Place parchment paper in a 5-by-2-inch round terrine, and oil the parchment paper well with olive oil.

2. Spoon the mixture in and smooth the top flat. Cover with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for 2 hours. Unmold and garnish the top with sliced hard-boiled egg and artichokes and serve.

 Top photo: Spuma di tonno sott’olio. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Vegetable chirashi sushi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Some foods belong in a restaurant and some belong at home. To a Japanese person, sushi, for the most part, would be considered a restaurant food: You go to a sushi bar and the sushi chef makes it for you. The quintessential sushi is nigiri sushi – hand-formed rice made into a small, bite-size clump with sliced raw fish resting on top. With nigiri sushi, both the fish and the rice are fresh. When made by a skilled sushi chef, the flavor is divine. I don’t make that kind of sushi.

Still, when people find out that I teach Japanese cooking classes, one of the first questions they ask is if I teach sushi making. When I have to tell them that I don’t teach nigiri sushi, they seem rather disappointed. What I make is home-style sushi, which includes chirashi sushi, Inari sushi and maki sushi, but I leave nigiri sushi to the professional chefs. Most cooks in Japan will tell you the same thing. It takes years of laborious practice to learn how to properly select, clean and cut fish to make good sushi — just watch the documentary “Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi.”

Recently, I was browsing on Amazon and found dozens of sushi cookbooks, many of them featuring nigiri sushi. Can there be that many people attempting to make nigiri sushi at home? Or are they just salivating over the beautiful pictures of nigiri sushi?

On the contrary, if you go to bookstores in Japan, you will have a hard time finding a cookbook devoted to sushi for home cooks. You would mostly likely have to look in the professional section. And because sushi is a trade you learn through years of training under a sushi master, you won’t really find a manual for it at your corner bookstore.

The only memory I have of making nigiri sushi is with my grandmother while growing up near the sea in Kamakura, Japan, where there were plenty of fishermen and fish to be had. Grandmother and I would get up at dawn to buy fresh fish fresh off the boat. We got to look at and pick the fish, and the price depended on the fishermen’s mood. The fish was still wiggling in the bag while we walked home.

My grandmother would clean the fish, fillet it and marinate it in a vinegar sauce for a few minutes. We then cooked some rice, which she seasoned with salt, sugar and vinegar to make sushi rice, and she would julienne some fresh ginger. When the fish was marinated and cooked like ceviche, she sliced it up, made little rice balls and put the fish on top. That was her version of nigiri sushi. The rice clumps were not even and artful like a sushi master’s, but it was tasty because the ingredients were good and they were made by my grandmother.

Coming back to the present, there is hardly any sushi-grade fish like that available here in Southern California where I live, so there is no point in pursuing that kind of sushi. Sushi chefs can go to wholesale sellers and buy sushi-grade fish, but home cooks rarely have that kind of access to high-quality fish.

Let’s not be completely pessimistic. I do have a few things to make sushi that are harvested in Southern California — sea urchin, Santa Barbara shrimp and squid. But I don’t make nigiri sushi with them. I just slice them up sashimi style and eat them with wasabi and soy. Easy.

Sushi for home cooks

So what is the sushi I make at home or most home cooks in Japan make at home? There are basically four varieties: chirashi sushi, maki sushi, Inari sushi and oshizushi.

Chirashi is a kind of a pilaf, made with sushi rice and a variety of toppings. You are already familiar with maki sushi if you have eaten a California roll or other sushi rice — it is a sushi roll that includes toasted nori seaweed rolled around vinegar-flavored rice and various fillings, including raw seafood and vegetables. California roll was invented by a sushi chef based in Los Angeles who, in the early days of sushi, didn’t have good access to sushi-grade fish like the fatty tuna. He discovered that avocado had a similar meaty and fatty flavor and texture, so he used that to make the rolls, and history was made.

Inari sushi, or footballs, as Japanese-Americans nicknamed them, is a deep-fried tofu pouch stuffed with seasoned sushi rice and vegetables. There is also oshizushi, which is a type of sushi that uses a small wooden box to press the sushi into little rectangles.

These types of sushi are easy to make for a home cook, and the ingredients can be varietal. These types of sushi also don’t require hand-molding each piece. I wouldn’t hesitate to make sushi with non-Japanese ingredients.

In spring, Japan celebrates Girl’s Day on March 3 with chirashi zushi, but this pilaf-like sushi can be eaten throughout the year. I make it quite often, using a vegetarian recipe. But you can also add shrimp, sea urchin or slices of fish toppings. If you happen on something very fresh — sushi-grade quality — slice it up and put it on, too.

Vegetable chirashi sushi

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the sushi:

16 ounces (450 grams) short-grain rice

1 piece kombu, about 2 inches long

3 tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced

10 shiso leaves, minced

3 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds

Amazu ginger for garnish (optional)

For the vinegar dressing:

5 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons salt

For the kanpyo (dried gourd) and dried shitake mushroom filling:

8 dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated with 2 cups water

½ ounce (15 grams) of dried kanpyo, hydrated

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

For the carrot filling:

1 carrot, julienned

½ teaspoon salt

For the tamago, or egg topping:

3 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved with 1 tablespoon water

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

For the garnish:

2 or 3 mitsuba leaves or watercress leaf

Directions

1. Cook the rice with the kombu seaweed as you would standard rice, according to package directions.

2. Meanwhile, mix the ingredients for the vinegar dressing in a bowl and combine.

3. To make the seasoned gourd and shitake mushrooms, combine the hydrated shitake mushrooms and kanpyo in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn heat to a simmer and season the vegetables with the salt, sugar and soy sauce until most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove the mushrooms and kanpyo, then mince them and set aside.

4. Bring water to a boil in a small pan, add salt and blanch the carrots. Drain. Set aside.

5. To make the tamago, beat the eggs, cornstarch solution, salt and sugar in a bowl.

6. In a non-stick frying pan, heat oil over medium high heat and add ⅓ of the beaten egg mixture to make a thin crepe. When one side is cooked, flip the crepe over and cook the other side. Repeat two more times.

7. Slice the crepes into 1½–inch (4-centimeter) matchsticks. Set aside in a bowl.

8. When the rice is cooked, discard the kombu and transfer the rice into a large bowl. Add the vinegar dressing  and toss lightly.

9. Add the minced ginger, shiso and roasted sesame seeds to the rice.

10. Add the minced shitake mushrooms, kanpyo and carrots to the rice and toss lightly.

11. Top with slices of egg and garnish with watercress or mitsuba leaves.

Top photo: Vegetable chirashi sushi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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