On Fridays, we grow excited around here. Not because it’s almost the weekend. Our concept of weekends as a couple has always been off the norm, since Saturday nights were one of the busiest days for Danny at the restaurant. I sort of miss that Friday afternoon feeling, when the school week finished and everything was shining with possibility. Now, Friday’s just another day.
Except, on Friday mornings we wake up and say, “It’s fish day.”
We love living on this island. You’ve probably already gathered that. In fact, you’re probably already tired of hearing us talk about it. This place we live? It isn’t perfect. It’s small and rural, rife with small-town rumors, lacking any really good restaurants or the entertainment we take for granted in cities. For us, that’s a relief. We have found our home. That’s what we love, more than the island itself — the sense that we have found the place we can call our own (along with another 10,000 residents). Both of us spent years searching. It’s good to put our feet up and talk about what we will be doing ten years from now. Here.
And we both hope that when Little Bean is a teenager, and attending the same high school where I once taught American Studies, that we’ll still be able to drive down the main highway and buy fish out of coolers from the family that caught them.
The Quall family has this plywood shack set up on the main highway, just south of town. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, you can see the signs on the road and pull over for salmon.
Mike and Thomas, father and son, are fishermen. I have a feeling that Mike — the older guy, with the long suspenders and lumbering walk — has been doing this all his life. They sit together there, talking, listening to the radio, waiting for customers. Mike sits in that folding lawn chair, just in front of the dangling sign that reads “Seafood Sold Here.” When they run out of fish, he walks back to the house, through the yard littered with fishing net, and pulls out more halibut or scallops. Thomas taps his feet and greets each customer politely, when they tumble from their pickup trucks and fancy sedans. Everyone seems to know each other. After all, they’ve been doing this every summer weekend for years.
You might be thinking: “That sounds charming. It’s certainly local. But how good is the fish?”
The salmon — in this case, a King salmon from the Washington coast — is firm-fleshed, pink as a hard blush, and so flush with taste when grilled that it’s almost obscene. We bought scallops from the stand a few weeks ago. When Danny and I sat down to eat them, at the end of a long day that left us searing up dinner close to midnight, we nearly fell off our chairs. Those scallops were so fresh and sweet that they melted into something like scallop cotton candy in our mouths.
The only problem is that fish this fresh makes everything else taste sadly lacking. We’re ruined from it.
When I was growing up, fish only meant fish sticks, filet o’fish, fish and chips, and frozen shrimp for shrimp cocktail. Not knowing anything else, I enjoyed them. Danny grew up in Colorado, so he had even fewer options in that land-locked state. Neither one of us appreciated seafood until we moved to Seattle.
I could not have imagined a young man pulling a side of salmon from a cooler, then slicing off a pound with practiced hands and a sharp knife. Thomas cuts precisely, with his fingers lined up like a ballerina’s toes en pointe. (I’m sure he’s never thought of it that way or even considers that he has graceful fingers.)
Watching anyone doing what he (or she) knows well fascinates me. It could be anything: iron welding, log rolling, or weeding the lettuce bed. There’s an economy of movement, an absorbed focus, a dance that collapses everything around it into that moment. Watching Thomas cut fish feels like that to me.
Eating seafood these days raises questions of sustainability, immediately. Should we avoid certain fish because of high mercury levels? I’m afraid of white canned tuna, although I still love it. Is “organic” fish better than non-organic? We don’t really like organic fish, because the only way fish can be certified is if it’s farmed. Did you know that farmed salmon has naturally gray flesh, and is only sold pink because it’s fed chemicals with its feed to turn the color? However, some people insist that farmed seafood is more sustainable than trolling for the wild fish.
What the heck are we allowed to eat?
This week, Mark Bittman wrote a fascinating piece about this confusion of choices, in which he admits that he doesn’t want to update his fish book from 1994, because “…the cooking remains unchanged, but the buying has become a logistical and ethical nightmare.” He doesn’t have any definitive answers, but he asks good questions. In a companion piece, five seafood experts weigh in on what we should be eating. I’m not sure there was much clarity for me after reading what they all suggest, since people disagree.
We sure don’t have all the answers, or even most of them. I think that Nancy Leson framed this question much more clearly than I can in the piece she wrote for The Seattle Times this week.
However, the NY Times piece quotes Ray Hilborn, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. In it, Hilborn writes: “On the West Coast, Alaskan salmon have been well-managed for the last 50 years and are at record levels of abundance; Pacific halibut and sable fish have long records of successful management.”
That’s what we buy: wild Alaskan salmon, halibut, black cod (another name for sablefish) and any seafood in season that the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch suggests is a good choice. We only eat salmon in the spring and summer, when it’s in season. The rest of the time, we’ll eat it smoked, occasionally (that’s what you see in the photo above).
Thomas is heading up to Alaska on Sunday, to fish all summer long. He told us that on the days when the luck is running with them, they can sometimes catch up to 20,000 pounds of salmon in one day. That we get to buy this fish from the hands of the fishermen, out of coolers from the side of the road, makes us happy. We’re not just buying fish. We’re supporting a family who chose the same home we did.
How do you grapple with these questions of sustainability? What do those of you in the Midwest or other landlocked places do? Is seafood just not as much a part of your life? We’d really like to know.
As much as we love grilling salmon and halibut, sometimes we need a new taste. Last week, Danny made a ceviche we ate so quickly we couldn’t take photographs. So the next week, we ate it again. We’ll probably be eating it all summer.
Ceviche is the all-purpose word for any fresh fish marinated in citrus juices. There are a thousand variations. I’m fond of the Ecuadorian ceviche recipe in my book, because my friend Meri invented it. You could make up your own ceviche, based on the flavors in season. Amy Sherman has an interesting kona kampachi ceviche made with corn that could be amazing for the summer. Elise offers the skeleton of a recipe, with room for you to flesh it out. And if it were still kumquat season, I’d be making Bea’s scallop and kumquat ceviche right now, instead of writing this to you.
So play around. Make this for the clean flavors, the little bite of jalapeno at the end, the cool softness of the avocado. Please use only the freshest halibut you can find, however. With this few ingredients in a dish, every one of them counts.
1 pound halibut, cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup lime juice
juice and zest 1 lemon
1 small jalapeno, seeded and sliced
1 yellow pepper (red or orange are fine too), seeded and julienned
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons cilantro, fine diced
1 avocado, sliced thin, for garnish
Cover the halibut pieces with the lime and lemon juices, the zest, jalapeno, and pepper. Make sure the juices cover the halibut. Let the ceviche sit in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, and then stir everything up, to ensure all the pieces are coated with the juices. Refrigerate for at least 1 to 2 more hours.
Do not let sit for more than 24 hours, or the acids will break down the texture of the fish.
When you are ready to eat the ceviche, season it with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish it with the cilantro and avocado.