Wow, spring has sprung here in the Pacific Northwest. We have things growing in the garden! Shallots and peas! And more and more springing to life under the row lights in the basement. It’s light till after 7pm. Things are getting good, folks. And…get this! We are 1/4 finished with our big Cook the Books Challenge for 2013! It’s been awesome so far!
March went by fast! For this month, we tackled Good Fish by Seattle chef and writer Becky Selengut. I didn’t make as many dishes as I planned. Well, I guess that’s kinda been a theme of Cook the Books so far. I get the book and dog ear many, many pages of dishes to try. Then the month quickly gets way from you. Am I right? I started off the month with good intentions. As soon as March came in like a lion, I was off buying clams and eating oysters. That part was awesome. I ate a lot of raw oysters in early March, and I loved every minute of it.
I learned about fish this month, and that’s saying something because I thought I already knew a lot about sustainable seafood. Double S and I are adventurous eaters and I’m an amateur lunatic in the kitchen. We’ve gone crabbing and clamming. We’ve smoked and cured salmon. But still, I gained new insights. I learned about some essential fish related tools to have in my kitchen. I learned about selecting fish and talking to my fishmonger. I had a lot of fun going to fishmongers this month, especially cuz, for us, it’s an excuse to go to Pike Place Market.
Most importantly, this month I learned about seasonality when it comes to seafood. I already had the sustainability part down pretty well. I’ve had a tattered copy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood watch list on hand for some years now, and we only buy wild seafood from the US. But that’s not enough. From Becky’s book, I learned about one more step to take: choosing fish that is in season. Just like it’d be gross to eat a tomato in February, you shouldn’t go looking for spot prawns in early March, like I tried to and eventually got the very much in season black cod instead.
Becky talks a lot about choosing fish, like produce, when it is in season. That was my major takeaway from the book. And I loved that an up and coming local chef was talking about sustainability when it comes to our lakes, rivers, and oceans, encouraging sustainable choices, and telling the home cook how to make sustainable fish the only fish they bring into their home and cook. Stories of overfishing and other unsustainable practices, such as what is happening now in Alaska with the Pebble mine debacle, have sickened me for years. Kudos to Becky for this focus!
So, as I’ve done for the other three books this month, let’s consider the fab five elements of a good cookbook: layout, aesthetics, ingredients/supplies relied upon, additional helpful information provided by the author, and the recipes themselves.
The layout of Good Fish was well done. There are three major sections of the book: shellfish, finfish, and little fish/eggs. Within each section, there are chapters devoted to the major players of that group. For example, in the shellfish section, there are chapters on clams, mussels, oysters, crab, shrimp, and scallops. I really liked the layout of this book, perfect for a tome devoted to one specific protein. Each chapter that focused on a particular kind of shellfish, finfish, or little fish was organized by Becky in order from easiest to hardest recipe. Very handy for busting out the book and a great fish dish on a weeknight!
You know I love me some indexes, and this one is good. Each recipe is referenced in the index by name, and the index also breaks down into fish, tool, ingredient, or technique.
Because this is a book devoted to fish, and sustainable fish at that, you can expect some information and some education, and you get it. Becky wisely starts the book with an introduction and a section on how to use the book. She tells us how she will tell us about the fish and the recipes. And it is good. For each fish she discuses, she tells you why it is a good choice, other names for it (remarkably handy for fish. You know how many different names black cod, for example, goes by? I do! You can too!), its proper season, buying tips, questions you may wanna ask your fishmonger, how to care for your fish between when you bring it home and when you eat it, how the fish is harvested, and good substitutes. I really liked how Becky made this so clear. When you’re trying to get people to do what’s right, you gotta hold their hand a little. Becky does it swimmingly. See what I did there?
Becky comes back with more before she gets to the recipes. Her introductory pages also include a pretty comprehensive glossary, a section on tools of the trade, and an essential section on sustainability basics. Think fresh is always better than frozen? I did, before I read her section on the topic. Think wild fish is always good and farmed fish is always bad? So did I! I still pretty much do, but I now know there is more to the topic. Thanks, Becky!
Good Fish was another beautiful book. Damn, Meg and I really know how to pick ’em, don’t we? Gorgeous photographs accompany most recipes. And since each chapter is devoted to a specific fish, if you aren’t sure about that kind of fish, you can always look at a photo devoted to another recipe using the same good fish.
And bonus, the dishes I made resembled the photos in the book! I love it when that happens!
To make the recipes for Good Fish, you don’t really need to run out and buy a bunch of supplies. If you want to eat oysters, you need a shucking instrument. But even Becky says you can use a knife or a screwdriver. She’s right, you can!
Becky mentions other tools you might need, like a filleting knife, a scaler, and fish tweezers. i lusted after the lovely photo she took of the tools of the trade, but I didn’t need any of those due to what recipes I chose to make. If you have a good fishmonger, they can do this butchery for you as well, for a few more bucks. I wish I would have gotten around to trying to de-bone and fillet a fish. I’ll try to work that learning experience into another month, and I will keep this book at the ready to do those cool chef-y things like de-boning fish that I like to watch on Chopped. Ted knows what I’m talking about.
Regarding the availability of fish and its relevant substitutions, I’ll be curious to see how the other bloggers who are playing along this month handled it, especially the ones outside of the Northwest. I had no trouble finding the (in season) fish in Seattle, because, duh doy, Becky wrote this in Seattle. Bonus!
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION PROVIDED
As each month unfolds here at Cook the Books, I like to sit back at the end of the month and reflect on what each book taught me, beyond the recipes. In Good Fish, we get a sense of Becky and how she came to appreciate and advocate for sustainable fish. We learn of a childhood spent loving crappy shrimp cocktails and the buzzkill of learning just how often we eat these pink beauties out of season. As I said above, this was the major learning experience for me. I love buying local spot prawns at Pike Place Market every year. So I figured no big whoop when I headed there with them on my mind in early March. I spoke to my fishmonger, at Becky’s urging, and learned their season isn’t till summer. Not just tomatoes have seasons, folks.
Becky also provides relevant additional information in each chapter about each specific fish. Crab chapter? She teaches you how to sex crabs if you get the chance to go crabbing. Not that, you perv! This!
Oyster chapter? She tells you how to avoid buying and eating oysters during and after spawning. Scallops? She teaches you the delicate art of cooking a scallop to perfection.
Ok, so how good was my good fish? Pretty good! I liked most of the things I made. I made four dishes from Good Fish.
I started with the first recipe in the clam chapter, Steamers with Beer. These were a good introduction, as I have not cooked a lot of clams. However, the clams needed a bit more oomph. Perhaps they needed to soak more in the admittedly delicious sauce/pot liquor that the clams steam in? Following Becky’s recipe, the clams don’t get much time to soak up the brine once they open because they steam over the broth. Maybe Becky could have provided more info regarding how to steam these suckers if you don’t have a clam pot, which looks like this.
This problem is easily rectifiable by simply eating your clams in a bowl with the broth poured on top, or soaking it up with some good sourdough bread while you eat your clams. Like we did!
Next, I made Roasted Black Cod with Bok Choy and Soy Caramel Sauce. If this book is only remembered for one thing by me, it will be the taste of black cod. Buttery, flaky, delightful. And Becky’s Asian inspired take on it was delicious. However, again, the recipe lacked a bit of punch. We had to add quite a bit extra of the soy caramel sauce, and the amount of marinade Becky suggests for the veggies is paltry at best. The veggies were a delicious addition, but it was just scallions and bok choy, so a bit more body and acid and sesame oil was needed. Following Becky’s recipe exactly, the veggies ended up fairly dry and charred and unappealing in some places, and delicious in others. Becky mentions in her introduction that we don’t need to eat gigantic portions of fish. I agree, and the veggies were a welcome addition, but they needed a bit more finesse to become delicious. As you can see in this image, the veggies got dry and charred due to the miniscule amount of marinade. You roast the veggies first for a bit before you add the fish then roast again, which I think too adds to the dryness.
I also made the Halibut Tacos with Tequila Lime Marinade and Red Cabbage Slaw. I used Pacific cod, which was a substitute ok’ed by Becky. I did this because Double S and I participated in a bulk buy of cod from a local fisherman, so we knew it was good, sustainable fish and we had it on hand. These tacos weren’t that successful. I think this was mainly because we already like the fish tacos that I make. First, as I’ve mentioned, this recipe call for flour tortillas, which i just think mask the taste of good Mexican food in stupid white flour. Second, the marinade didn’t really come out in the fish. Maybe this was because I used cod instead of halibut? I don’t know. I did like the taste of the tequilla marinade when I got it, and will try it again with other fish preparations, but again I will use more and marinate longer. Third, the slaw, although tasty, just didn’t pop for us like we like it to. I like a spicier, punchier slaw to accompany fish tacos because these whitefishes are so mild.
Finally, I made the Potato and Beet Latkes with Horseradish Sour Cream and Caviar. This was our favorite recipe from the book. The latkes were creative and really flavorful, using shredded beets, carrots, onions, and potatoes. The addition of the smoked fish, creamy yet spicy horseradish cream sauce, and briny almost crunchy caviar was a revelation and we loved it. Again, we punched it up a bit to suit our tastes. In Becky’s picture, these latkes are small, delicate finger foods. We didn’t make them like that. We made our latkes bigger, the amount of smoked salmon we used was bigger, and the dollop of sour cream we dolloped on was bigger, and this recipe turned out great. Make yours bigger too if these will be the focal point of your meal instead of a finger food. Highly recommended! And don’t be afraid of caviar. Do you like fish sauce? Do you like caesar dressing (made the way its supposed to be made, with anchovies)? Then you’ll like caviar. The few tiny eggs just make a salty, briny addition and a nice pop to the latke.
That’s all I made. Goddammit, I wanted to make more than that! The top of my to-do list that I didn’t get around to were Geoduck Crudo wih Shiso Oil, because I/ve never had geoduck and heard it is an amazing delicacy, and it was Double S’s college mascot, which is just awesome.
I didn’t make geoduck crudo because the recipe only calls for 1/2 lb of geoduck, and Taylor Shellfish Farms, the only place I found geoduck, only sold these little buggers in over 2 lb varieties and they are pricey. What was I gonna do ith a few extra pounds of geoduck? Seriously, if you know, let me know, cuz I still wanna eat one of these creep looking things.
I wanted to try some of Becky’s oyster dishes, but I kinda can’t do anything with oysters other than slurp them down raw with lemon. Dungeness crab I already eat and cook a lot with in the summer here, so no regrets there. BT dubs, I make a mean crabcake after I go crabbing. Recipe to follow this summer if I can remember! I wanted to make quite a bit of her shrimp recipes, cuz I love shrimp. But alas, seasonality. I wanted to try cooking scallops…no time and my dad is an expert scallop cook. Salmon, I already eat a lot of and know how to cook, but OMG her salmon recipes looked good. Bookmarked for summer, they are! I wanted to try my hand at trout, albacore tuna, and arctic char, as I’ve never cooked any of those. But, damn, time keeps on ticking, ticking…into the future. I also didn’t get to try cooking with sardines, which is something I was really looking forward to doing, since sardines are so sustainable and cheap and tasty. Soon, friends, soon. I hope some of you all out there in teevee land made some little fish! On that note, look out for Meg’s review and round-up of Good Fish tomorrow!
So that’s all she wrote for Good Fish for March. Will you be joining us as we explore the world of Jewish comfort food in April with The Mile End Cookbook? I hope so! Stay tuned for my introduction to this amazing cookbook on Friday.