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The Case for Bony-Ass Fish
Though it’s neither rememberable by my mother or me or provable by anyone, I’m dead certain that the first time I ate fish it was either canned tuna or gefilte (which, imagine my surprise 20 years later, turned out to be a fancy French thing called quenelles). I have no problem with either, but the first time I really remember enjoying fish, like intentionally eating it, asking for it, was in the 60s at one of two Third Avenue restaurants. Those were called Oscar’s (“Salt of the Sea”) and Harvey’s, and I wish they still existed. There I would order, invariably, fried scallops; why, I do not know—that’s what I liked.
Years went by. I discovered lobster tail (always sold frozen, at least in those days, and certainly imported), then lobster (one of the first things I cooked for myself), and, much later, that world of seafood which, to me, was much wider and more interesting than that of meat.
Fish-wise, things became increasingly complicated over the years, but for a while I lived in ignorant bliss. In the 80s, I haunted the old Italian and African-American seafood stores in New Haven and, thanks to those folks, learned the basics of fish in a natural way. I did a little work for National Marine Fisheries Service on what we then called underutilized species (note: as soon as you think a fish is “underutilized” it usually becomes “overfished”), I wrote a series of pieces about fish no one cooked (which, in those days, included fresh tuna) for the Washington Postand, around 1990, I sold my first cookbook, which was called Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking, and was published in 1994.
As I said, things became complicated; I’ve declined to rewrite Fish, not because I’m no longer interested in the subject (on the contrary) but because I think it’s too complicated and too changeable to say much useful in book form: Better to be able to comment on a year-by-year or even day-by-day basis. (Having said that, Paul Greenberg’s books are terrific. But he’s smarter than I am.) As I said, today’s underutilized is likely to be tomorrow’s overfished, and even current information tends to be conflicting and confusing; that’s yet another topic.
A couple of things that haven’t changed, both of which made my day yesterday (Saturday; I’m writing Sunday morning, pre-New York City marathon, which I’m not running but intend to watch). On Friday, I called “my” fishmonger who, these days, is a guy named Anthony who shows up at the Cold Spring Farmers Market every Saturday, regardless of weather. (Even when the market is inside, which it will be starting next week, he’s outside; some weeks he needs no ice.) I asked him, as I have a couple of times before, if he had any striped bass heads and racks (skeletons) that he could bring. Unlike the old days, almost no one cleans or fillets fish to order anymore, at least in the New York metro area, so you have to ask in advance. (I know some people do; I said “almost.”) It used to be that you could ask for a few pounds and have them minutes later, for free, no less.
When I showed up, he’d brought me two, a total of something like 12 pounds. (Those were big fish.) I spent a good two hours simmering them, picking off the meat (two pounds plus!) and straining the stock (nearly two gallons). Not a bad haul.
Equally, or perhaps even more exciting, were these glistening sardines, which have been unappreciated (“underutilized” is such an icky word) since I started writing about fish. (It’s been pointed out that this is already the third time I’ve written, at least a little, about sardines, so it may appear that we’re supported by the National Sardine Association, or NSA, but sadly, we’re not.)
All of these little, vegetarian fish (not just sardines but anchovies, herring, spelt, and so on) are food for bigger fish (and, ridiculously, for farmed fish, and pet food, and are even ground into fertilizer), and, given how meaty and tasty they are, they should be eaten more by us. The problem, I suspect, is bones: Americans, especially—how do I put this delicately? I guess I don’t—middle class white Americans—are notorious for not being able to deal with bones. If bones are a non-starter for you, I highly suggest getting over it and finding out what you’re missing.
I cooked these beauties by simply marinating them in the fridge with abundant olive oil, salt, and rosemary, then roasting them in a hot skillet for about 10 minutes. If it’s still grilling season where you live, try these.
I realize that not everyone has sardines (or even likes them), so let me leave you with a few simple, fast weeknight recipes that have nothing at all to do with fish: Manchurian Cauliflower, Saag Paneer, and Moroccan Chicken Thighs with Chickpeas. For good measure, scroll down below those and check out the No-Knead Bread that my friend Charlie’s (Spice House Charlie) 11-year-old daughter made this weekend; it’s both crazy impressive, and a testament to how great and doable that recipe is.
That’s enough from me. Go cook something delicious, VOTE, and I’ll see you back here on Friday, when I may or may not start talking turkey.
Correction: Last Friday, I referred to an organization called the HEAL Food Alliance, and noted that HEAL stands for “Health, Education, Agriculture, Labor.” The “E” actually stands for “Environment.” Which I knew, but … brain failure.
There are many ways to spin this recipe, which originally came to me courtesy of my friend Suvir Saran. According to Suvir, the original version is closely associated with the Chinatown in Calcutta, where it’s a common street food. The two-step process includes deep-frying, but the work goes quickly. And people go nuts for it.
Photo: Burcu Avsar & Zach DeSart
The chickpea flour “roux” thickens and flavors the yogurt sauce and keeps it from separating, but regular flour works too. If you can’t find paneer (an Indian food store is your best bet), substitute mozzarella or feta. Other vegetables you can use: beet greens, chard, kale.
A deceptively easy weeknight chicken dish (as long as you have cooked or canned chickpeas around) with much of the exotic spicing that makes North African cuisine so enjoyable. With the added chickpeas and vegetables, it’s also very nearly a one-pot meal; just serve it with rice or—more in keeping—couscous and you’re all set.
My friend Charlie (from Spice House) sent this note to me yesterday:
My 11-year-old, Anna, grew up watching her parents cook recipes from How to Cook Everything. We are on our second edition, since the first edition was worn into oblivion.
When Anna was bored last weekend I suggested she try making No-Knead Bread. That was a big success. This weekend, Anna asked if she could make the same recipe again with an herb variation. We reviewed our herb collection and I suggested Herbes de Provence, having no idea if it would work. Anna added 1 tablespoon of HDP with the other ingredients. This produced a wonderful smell as the bread baked. We tried the bread with butter about 10 minutes after it came out of the oven. Even the 9-year-old little sister approved, which is amazing.
Talk To Me, Goose!
Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.