How do you feel about fish?
We’re big fish eaters around here, particularly in this season supposedly called summer. (64 degrees today. Well, at least there was some sun.) Halibut and salmon are back in season. The grill on our front porch has a full tank of propane. In this time of light until 10 pm, we feel like eating lighter than in those dreary months of sunset at 3 and another braised pork shoulder in the oven.
However, is anyone else out there confused about the kind of fish you should be eating? First we started hearing about mercury in fish. (I’m afraid to eat a can of tuna anymore.) And now, with clear urgency, we’re beginning to talk about the sustainability of seafood.
The oceans? They’re not in the best shape right now. Neither are the rivers and lakes.
“The world of seafood is much more complicated now than it was when I pulled my first Jersey sunfish out of the lake; shortsighted economic gain; a morass of bureaucracy; and a universe of misinformation complicate it. It’s clear that we have an insatiable appetite for far more than the oceans, rivers, and lakes can provide. Guilt and food are a terrible combination, certain to give you indigestion, or as my friend says, ‘Guilt makes for bad gravy.’ Denial or ignorance about the consequences of our food choices is far too widespread. Most insidious is the attitude that we might as well indulge in all types of fish while they are still around (because who knows when they might disappear).”
That’s the voice of our friend, Becky Selengut, from the introduction for her fabulous, must-buy cookbook, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast.
Becky is a talented personal chef, an illustrious wit, the former fish girl at The Herbfarm, mean Scrabble player, shocking Twitter persona, one-hell-of-a-writer, and a friend we never see often enough over here. I’m lucky enough to have met her back in 2006, just a few weeks before I met Danny. Our first time together we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant with two other soon-to-be friends, drove around Seattle laughing at lewd jokes, stopped at Sur la Table to buy some kitchen supplies, and parted company six hours from the time we met, determined to see more of each other. It kind of felt like a date without the sexual tension. I have not tired of Becky yet. She teaches me every time I see her. She’s focused, compassionate, irreverent, and a damned fine person.
She’s also one heck of a chef.
What she has done in this cookbook, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, is brilliant. Instead of sending you mopey messages about the fish you should NOT be eating, she celebrates the fish we can eat. (Hm, this approach sounds familiar.) Her focus is on fish from the Pacific Coast, which means those of us who live here in Pacifica, have the chance to cook every single dish in this book. However, more and more, it seems, there is good sustainable fish from the Pacific, available across the country in the freezer section. Plus, there are different sustainable fish in other parts of the country, fish we can’t get here.
(Take a look at these regional guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to find the best seafood in your area.)
What can we eat here? What fish does Becky celebrate in her book? Wild salmon, Alaskan halibut, black cod, rainbow trout, albacore tuna, arctic char. Little fish, like sardines, squid, and sustainable caviar. (There’s a phrase you may not have expected to hear.) And for shellfish? Clams, mussels, oysters, Dungeness crab, shrimp, and scallops. No one is going hungry eating sustainable fish.
Danny and I both love the way Becky’s book is laid out. For each kind of fish or shellfish, she has two basic recipes (help! I don’t know how to cook fish!), two intermediate recipes (I know my way around the kitchen but I still have a lot to learn) and one advanced recipe (Danny and other chefs). This means you can work your way through the book with all the easy recipes, feel comfortable enough to circle back and make all the intermediate recipes, and when you are feeling like a master, make the chef recipes.
This means you can eat tamarind and ginger clams, mussels with apple cider and thyme glaze, oyster and artichoke soup, chilled cucumber-coconut soup with dungeness crab, oregon pink shrimp salad with mint, scallop crudo, wild salmon chowder with fire-roasted tomatoes, halibut tacos with tequila-lime marinade and red cabbage slaw, sake-steamed black cod with ginger and sesame, and pan-fried char with crispy mustard crust.
Okay, I’m hungry. Surely you must be hungry too.
The photographs by Clare Barboza not only entice you to cook but put you in the Pacific Northwest, hanging out at the end of the dock, waiting for your fishing line to tug a bit. The cookbook also has wine pairings for every single dish from April Pogue, who is Becky’s talented partner.
Do you need more reasons to buy this book?
We’ll share this. We tested some of the recipes in this book and we were both blown away. Not only was each meal delicious, but also both of us learned something from each dish. We’ve cooked a few more after the book landed in our hands, thanks to the publishers, and we continue to learn. This book will ALWAYS be in our kitchen.
We think it should be in yours too.
Tell us about fish in your life. After all, as I recently heard chef Barton Seaver say, eating seafood is the only way most of us have a relationship with the oceans. Where do you live? What do you eat? Do you eat fish in season? Always frozen? What is your favorite way to eat seafood? We’d love to know.
HALIBUT COCONUT CURRY WITH CHARRED CHILES AND LIME, reprinted by permission of Becky Selengut from Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast
If you have glanced at this recipe and have already decided not to make it because the ingredients list looks too long? Stop. Go back again.
Danny and I believe in the goodness of simple recipes with few ingredients when the moment calls for that. However, if you are going to experience the spine-tingling layers of spices and heat in a good homemade green curry, you’re going to need more than 4 ingredients. If you read the instructions, you’ll find that most of those ingredients are thrown into a food processor and whirled up. Take the time. You don’t want to miss this recipe.
The most time-consuming part of this recipe might be going to the Asian foods store, to pick up galangal or fresh turmeric. (Becky has also offered substitutions in case you are not near an Asian foods store in your town.) Those of you who are gluten-free? Be sure to find a fish sauce without wheat. They are out there. You just have to look. And those of you who have to avoid the gums? Note that many coconut milks contain guar gum. Why? I think it’s because the companies skim off the thick “butter” that sits on top to sell it for other purposes and thickens the thinner milk with guar gum. Those aren’t the best coconut milks anyway.
As Becky writes of this dish: “…perhaps it starts with the color: bright green curry set off against the vivid red onion and charred chile garnish, with little bits of lime. Or perhaps it’s the texture: silky coconut milk meeting tender, yielding halibut contrasted with tiny, crunchy sesame seeds and the slight pull of jalapeno.” After reading that, and seeing that photograph above, if you don’t want to make this dish? I can’t help you. For the rest of you? Dig in.
For the halibut curry
2 jalapeno peppers, seeds and membranes removed from 1 (or both, if you want less heat)
2 stalks lemongrass, woody top half discarded, chopped
½ cup roughly chopped shallots
¼ cup cilantro stems
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh galangal (or ginger, if you can’t get galangal)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, ground in a spice grinder
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, ground in a spice grinder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon dried turmeric (or 1 teaspoon grated fresh turmeric)
5 Kaffir lime leaves (or zest of 2 limes)
chicken or vegetable stock or water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1 tablespoon fish sauce (Thai Kitchen fish sauce is gluten-free, as are others)
½ pound halibut fillet, skinned and cut into 1-inch cubes
sesame seeds, for garnish
For the topping
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
4 Fresno chiles, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons minced red onion
1/3 cup chopped cilantro leaves
2 limes, peeled and flesh cut into small dice
Add the jalapenos, lemongrass, shallots, cilantro, garlic, galangal, coriander, cumin, salt, turmeric, and 1 of the Kaffir lime leaves to the bowl of a food processor and blend, using up to ¼ cup of chicken stock to help the mixture process into a smooth puree. You’ll have to scrape down the sides of the food processor once or twice. Blend well for at least 3 minutes.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, add the vegetable oil. Add the curry you processed and fry it up for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk, fish sauce, and the remaining Kaffir lime leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the halibut and turn the heat off. Let the residual heat gently cook the fish. After 5 minutes, it will be ready to serve. Garnish with the sesame seeds.
To prepare the topping, heat the vegetable oil in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Fry the chiles and onion until they are caramelized, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro and lime. Season to taste with salt. Serve a spoonful of the topping on top of each person’s curry.