Jon Rowley

Jon Rowley

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The Tomato Sandwich…a Celebration of Real Tomatoes and Late Summer.

In the Pacific Northwest, August and September is when the hefty 90 day heirloom tomatoes, like the brandywines, come ripe.

  

It’s time to talk of tomato sandwiches, that celebration of tomatoes and summer between two slices of bread.  The tomato sandwich I lust after all winter has a thick slice of tomato that goes across the slice of bread. I can’t think of  any food that expresses summer more than a tomato sandwich made with a homegrown or farmer’s market tomato, a real tomato. The supermarket tomato is grown to be shipped 3000 miles any time of the year and to have a three week shelf life. Taste gets left behind. A tomato sandwich celebrates the real tomato and its late summer season. We have waited.

I asked on Facebook how people make their tomato sandwich. The forty-five responses were passionate, opinionated. A good number had a “recipe” that had been in the family for multiple generations, most often simply two slices of white bread, mayo, sometimes butter, and salt and pepper.  Repondents fell into two bread camps…a high quality crusty slow-proofed artisanal bread and mass produced “enriched” white bread.

I fall into both camps.  I enjoy tomato sandwiches made with great crusty artisanal bread, lightly toasted or not. However a tomato sandwich made with great bread is as much about the bread as the tomato. Good bread, especially chewy good textured bread actually gets in the way of the tomato. The tomato shares the stage with the bread, not a bad thing, but if  I want to get down  with a great tomato, I go for the “stays-fresh-longer”, no-taste white bread.

The bread has no flavor… a good thing. When you bite into a white bread tomato sandwich the bread disappears on your palate, literally disappears, leaving the tomato texture and taste full on

RECIPE FOR A WHITE BREAD TOMATO SANDWICH:

Two slices of white bread.

Slather of butter (because…)

Best Foods mayo (Hellman’s on the East Coast, Dukes in the South)

Thick (1/2″) slice of tomato. Juiciness and needing a napkin is an essential part of the experience. The tomato slice should cover the slice of bread.

Sea salt and black pepper.

  

Make the sandwich.

Cut the sandwich in two for an appetizing view of the bite to come.

Enjoy! You’ll neet a napkin.

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Julia’s Birthday Peaches

I had the privilege of working with Julia Child on her “Dinner at Julia’s” PBS series in 1983 and had kept in touch right up until the end. She was intrigued with the esoteric information I had about fish and shellfish. Julia was as much a sponge for new knowledge and experience as I was. She hauled an ice chest with her salmon fishing in Northern Canada to test my theory of how fish tasted better if it was dressed, bled and went through rigor mortis in ice. She was amazed at the difference. To my chagrin and amusement, she called me the “The Fish Missionary”.

Knowing that Julia loved really good food more than anything, I would send her really good things I was working with from time to time in gratitude for her being Julia. A courtship of sorts. I would let her know such-and-such was coming if she would be interested. She always was. Once it was a handsome, high-brix cabbage from my garden. Julia was mad about oysters. After sending Julia her first fat-bellied slab of Copper River king salmon, I called to check on how it went, how she’d cooked it.

“With such a beautiful fish, there is only one thing to do,” she says. “Poach it in butter! It was just wonderful.” She characteristically wanted to know how I cooked the salmon. I think she came to prefer the pan-seared, slow-and-gentle skillet method I use.

Julia adored Frog Hollow peaches. Her August 15 birthday came at the peak of the season. Birthday peaches became a tradition.  She made sure there were enough to share with her family who gathered at a remote resort in Maine on her birthday. She was good about sending juicy reports afterwards. Julia liked to eat these peaches with a spoon.

In her last years Julia, unable to travel, resided in a pleasant assisted-living facility in Santa Barbara. In August 2004 I asked her if she would like her birthday peaches sent there. “I would like that very much,” she said in her sing-song voice.

The peaches arrived the day Julia died; she never got to taste them.

I heard the news shortly after she died from Stephanie Hersch, her longtime assistant. It was an emotional moment. Julia had encouraged me when I was having trouble finding my path.

In Santa Barbara, a birthday celebration with close friends went on as planned. Pastry chef Jim Dodge was inspired to use Julia’s birthday peaches in what Stephanie said was quite an amazing birthday cake. Julia would have loved that story.

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New Life for an old Cast Iron Oyster Fryer

Being a culinary history, oyster and cast iron cookware enthusiast, I couldn’t resist snagging a vintage cast iron “oyster fryer” on ebay.  Arriving with an impossible layer of ancient hardened grease and rust, it sat on the back porch for a few years. I’d look admiringly at it’s “bones”, imagining how it might clean up, imagining frying oysters in in.

  

But it never  happened, at least until I moved and needed to pack up or  dispose of things. The oyster fryer confronted me, goaded me. I could hear it saying, “Don’t you think it’s about time I had some meaningful attention?”

Guilty as charged. I resolved to get the job done. How in the hell does one remove a several decades worth of hardened frying grease and rust. I put queries out on Twitter and Facebook. Creatve and plausible solutions were offered, including burying the pan in hot coals. This sounded reasonable. To clean a badly scorched cast iron skillet, I merely leave it on the burner until the crud burns off . Then  reseason. Tried and true. I was about to scout out a place to build a fire and make a bed of  coals when I got a message from Brandon Petitt at Delancey, everyone’s favorite pizza joint, in Ballard.

“Bring the fryer over. We’ll leave it in the pizza oven overnight and it will be is good as new”, wrote Brandon.

I did and it is indeed as good as new.

When I went to fetch it, we both admired the hammered metal. You don’t see that kind of hand work anymore.

The hand-crafted wire fry basket came clean as well.

What kind of oil do you recommend for deep frying?

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“Boiled” Salmon

We are going to cut a whole salmon into chunks and cook them in a pot of sea-water salty water to make “boiled fish” as the Ballard Norwegians call it, keeping in mind the secret to good “boiled” fish is not to let the water boil. It’s a different way to work with a whole salmon.

Back in my commercial fishing days in Southeast Alaska, I “boiled” salmon and other fish  on the galley stove to have fish ready ahead of time for sandwiches, salads, scrambled eggs and such.

On  “harbor days” when it was too snotty to fish, a few boats might raft together in a protected bay for a gam. This post is for those who still ask for the “recipe” after so many years for the salmon cooked in a pot of seawater and served warm on the bone right out of the pot on the hatch.

I don’t have my boat any longer but I often do salmon as described below for potlucks and various gatherings.  One 8 lb or so salmon will yield approximately 16 skinless and boneless 4-5 oz portions.

Your local fish market should have a nice selection of whole salmon this time of year if you aren’t lucky enough to catch your own. The salmon pictured here is sockeye with it’s glorious red flesh.

If a salmon has all of it’s scales it hasn’t flopped around on deck or been otherwise mishandled. The presence of bright aspic-like slime tells you the fish is as fresh as can be.(A fish in rigor mortis manufactures this protective slime). The inside of belly should be clean, bright and free of blood. Starting with a five to ten pound headed and gutted king, coho, sockeye or chum salmon with the fins removed, cut the salmon crossways into “roasts”, three to four inches long.

Lacking sea water, add sea salt or kosher salt until the cooking water tastes “sea-water salty”.  Add two onion slices, one bay leaf, six peppercorns and two whole allspice to the water. Heat the water in a large pot until the surface trembles. Add the chunks of salmon. (The salmon pictured here is sockeye.)


Simmer for 20 minutes or until the backbone just pulls away from the flesh when nudged with a table knife or spatula.

Carefully remove from the water to cool.


The fish should still be warm but not too warm for the next step: lifting the backbone from the meat. After the backbone is pulled away, there will likely be a few clearly visible belly bones to remove as well. Just lift from the exposed end of the bone. Now we remove the skin as shown by grabbing the edge along the back and carefully pulling toward the belly. If the fish is too warm or too cool the skin will not  peel off so easily and chunks of fish may come off with the skin. For smaller portions,  gently bend and break in two along lateral line. Working with the skeletal  and muscular features of the fish, we now have skinless and boneless fillet-like portions without having done any filleting. Pretty nifty.

One way I like to serve “boiled salmon” like this is with “green sauce”, an uncooked puree of various greens fresh from the garden with olive oil, yogurt, lemon juice and sea salt to taste. Often I will add anchovies and capers. The flavor will depend on the mix of greens which varies depending  on what’s in the garden or farmer’s market on a particular week. Use a combination of any of the following: parsley, green onions, chives, watercress, dandelion greens, sorrel, spinach and such. (I tried but wasn’t keen on lamb’s quarter.)
Puree four to six cups of chopped greens in a food processor with one cup quality olive oil, 1/4-1/2 cup yogurt, the juice of 1/4 to 1/2 lemon, 2 tablespoons capers, a few anchovies and sea salt to taste. If you have a good percentage of sorrel in the mix, you might want to cut back on lemon juice. (Though I list ingredient quantities here, I usually put this together by eye and feel.) The sauce can be made a day ahead of time. Serve salmon and sauce at ambient temperature. Perfect for summer. Serve with a light, refreshing Pinot Gris.

 

Salmon this way is also good with pesto, relishes and salsa and, broken into pieces, is an excellent salad ingredient.

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Rainier Cherries

Nothing says summer as much as stone fruit. I’m an arch-locavore but my much-anticipated first taste of stone fruit isn’t local. No apologies. Al and Becky Courchesne at Frog Hollow Farms in Brentwood in the Sacramento Delta, growers of some of the best, if not the best fruit, in the country, have generously gotten in the habit of scheduling a box of their fruit, whatever is peaking, to arrive at my doorstep every Friday afternoon.

The first week it was 23 Brix Bing cherries.

The first thing I do with the cherries, or any Frog Hollow fruit, is, using a refractometer, measure the Brix which is a measurement of the percentage of sugar in the fruit. Photosynthesis, or the manufacture of glucose, is the plant’s job. High Brix indicates successful plants and good orchard management. High Brix also means superior varietal flavor. Glucose is the chemical building block for everything manufactured by the plant.

Then arrived 23-27 Brix amber-red Rainier cherries. While I have known 30 Brix Rainiers, 23 to 27 Brix is angel territory.

The marketing and PR work I did for Frog Hollow farms a decade back has developed into a sweet relationship. My blog fell asleep a few months ago. It is waking up, I promise. Rainier cherries are as good a place for the resurrection as any.

Curiously, the yellow-fleshed Rainier cherry is a cross between two red-fleshed varieties: the bing and the Van. It was developed  at WSU in 1952. Rainiers are a sweet, low acid fruit much favored by Asian palates. Large premium grade Rainiers bring top dollar in Japan. Cargo jets are loaded with the best of our Washinton cherries at airstrips almost at the edge of the orchards. The Japanese are sticklers for quality. They look for large, firm fruit with the rosy blush that indicates sweetness. With Rainiers, the darker the red, the sweeter the cherry, at least that is my experience.

The Rainier is fragile. Many orchards start picking at dawn to preserve firmness, an essential quality characteristic. A soft cherry was likely picked in the  heat. Firmness is easily maintained by picking early in the day and getting the fruit into refrigeration and keeping it there.

The sure-fire indicator of freshness is green stems.

That being said, cherries store very well if the sugar content is high. You can easily tell a cherry that has been in storage for awhile by the dessicated stems.            

The stored cherries will lose some moisture over time which concentrates sweetness. A brown-stemmed cherry eats well as long as it is still firm, but it won’t have the crisp, vibrant appearance or taste of a fresh cherry.

Cherries firm up concentrating sugars and flavors when chilled. I heard Sally Schneider recommend on the Splendid Table putting cherries in ice water for five minutes before serving. A wrinkle on that theme learned from sushi master and good friend, Shiro Kashiba of Shiro’s Sushi in Seattle, is simply presenting cherries topped with ice cubes in an attractive serving bowl and giving them a few minutes to chill thoughly in the melting ice.

 

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The Art of Eating an Oyster

The holiday season is a good time to consider the Oyster. Here follows my opinionated viewpoint on how best to enjoy them. I have entitled it The Art of Eating an Oyster. I wrote the first version 25 years ago. It has served me well. Those who have influenced and/or participated in my unabashed passion for the Oyster are recognized below.

Totten Inlet Virginica

The Art of Eating an Oyster

The Oyster, perhaps more than any other food, is a feast for the senses. First of all, a feast for the eyes. Served icy cold on a platter of shaved ice with the oysters glistening in their juices, they need no garnish to attract the eye or imagination.

Engage the oyster.

Forgo the fork. Engage the oyster. Your fingers have tastebuds. If you have been through many oyster seasons, your salivary glands perk up in anticipation when you pick up the cold, damp, wet, rough shell.  You can already taste the oyster.

Tia KeenanAs you lift the oyster to your mouth…

Tia Keenan…pause momentarily to breathe in the fresh clean smell of the sea.

Icy gust of wind off the bay.Tilt your head back, close your eyes, slurp in the oyster and its juices. If iced down before serving and is minutes or less off the shucking knife, the oyster is cold and vibrant as an icy gust of wind off the bay on a winter’s low tide.

Tia KeenanExperience the sensation that M.F.K. Fisher, the doyenne of oyster poets, referred to adoringly as the oyster’s “strange cold succulence” and what novelist Tom Robbins likens to “French-kissing a mermaid.”

Tia KeenanCarefully chewing the oyster, your palate is inundated with a variety of distinct tastes that come in succession. If the oyster is well-fed, plump, and firm, the first taste is sweetness from the glycogen, which the warmth of your mouth is already breaking down into component sugars. The sweet taste dissipates quickly, then depending on the  growing waters, comes a unique line up of flavors…a succession of brine, various mineral, algal and other mollusk flavors on the tip, sides and finally on the back of your tongue and the soft palate in the back of your mouth.

The most intriguing, the most difficult to describe and the most important taste when it comes to combining a wine or ale, is the aftertaste or finish—those flavors that linger after the oyster is chewed and  swallowed. The aftertaste of an oyster is part sensation—an enlivening of the tongue, cheeks and roof of the mouth. The truly great oyster is characterized by its distinctive aftertaste.

Wash down the oyster and invigorate the palate with a brisk, dry, clean-finishing white wine or a malty porter or stout. A bite of crusty light rye bread, like the French pain de seigle, to neutralize the taste-buds and then on to the next oyster. And the next. And the next. Raise an oyster to toast a great oyster moment.

Xavier Caille, ParisWhether eaten with a new friend, before a business venture, a romance, a meal, a marriage, a new year…think of oysters as a beginning, a prelude to a wonderful experience about to happen.

Hiristo Zisovski, Tia Keenan

###

I raise an oyster in gratitude to the following individuals and places for their influence on my relationship with the Oyster and my life: Paris, Earnest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, M.F.K. Fisher, Eleanor Clark (The Oysters of Locmariaquer), Sandy Ingber (NY), Julia Child, Steve La Haie (Chicago), Sheila Lukins, William Rice (Chicago), Tom Meyer (Wash. DC), Bill Taylor (Taylor Shellfish Farms, Shelton, WA), Ruth Reichl (NY), R.W. (Johnny) and Betsey Apple, Narsai David (SF), Leslie Kelley (SEA), Betty Fussell (NY), Tom Sietsema (Wash DC) Rowan Jacobsen (Vermont) Nancy Leson (Sea), Rodney Clark (Toronto), Melina Hammer (Brooklyn), Jim Gossen (Houston), Jerry DiVecchio (SF), Xavier Caille (Paris), Robb Walsh (Houston), Beth Kraklauer (NY), Jonathon Gold (LA), Russ Parsons (LA), Zanne Stewart (NY), Jane Lear (NY). Poppy Tooker (New Orleans), Melanie Young (NY)

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The Beautiful Taste: Fishing with Chefs in Boston. Fish Handling, Part 2

The flavor, texture and “mouthfeel” of a fish depends on how it is handled on deck the first three hours out of the water. Rarely is there an opportunity to demonstrate how it all works.

When I learned Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, and I would both be on the program at the Chefs Collaborative Summit in Boston, I proposed we organize a charter fishing field trip out of Boston prior. It would be an opportunity to show chefs the handling-for-best-flavor steps as fish came aboard. An ardent fisherman since childhood,

BLue Moon IIPaul was right on it making arrangements with Neponset Sport Fishing Charters for the 38-foot Blue Moon II, licensed for 6, which meant four open spots in addition to Paul and I.  Leigh Belanger, the Chefs Collaborative Program Director, recruited Board members Peter Hoffman, owner of Savoy and Back 40 restaurants in Manhattan, Amy Bodiker, an organic farming consultant from Cleveland, Robin Schempp, owner of Right Stuff in Vermont and Bruce Sherman, chef-owner of North Pond restaurant in Chicago. A great group.

I worked out with skipper Jim Maloney how we wanted to use the opportunity to demonstrate the handling steps from hook to plate to produce the best flavor. We would stun, bleed, dress, rinse and ice pre-rigor. A few days later, the fish would be prepared for the Chefs Collaborative post-conference National Board dinner by Michael Leviton at four-star Lumiere…a good opportunity to see and taste the results.

Looking West at Logan Airport

Looking West at Logan Airport

In the 1970s,  the pollution here was so bad, a fishing charter in the Boston Harbor would have been unthinkable. After the Clean Water Act of 1972, Boston was forced to curtail effluents and clean up its waters. Today Boston Harbor is  a poster child of marine water quality restoration projects, our fishing trip  a tangible outcome.

On fishing day, it was still dark when we found the Blue Moon II at the Neponset dock at 5:30 a.m. Skipper Jim Maloney and deckhand daughter, Lauren, were loading bags of ice. The sun was just peeking over the islands to the east as we eased out of the harbor.

It was a short 15 minute run to reach the pier that extends past the end of the Logan Airport runway. The pier supports the lights that guide incoming planes to the runway. An unlikely fishing spot? Maloney explained the pier provides habitat for various small fish that bluefish and striped bass feed on. Only one boat preceded us but before long there were dozens.

Skipper Jim Maloney cutting bait. The bait table

Our fishing method and bait would “depend on what they’re taking.” On this day it was to be “bunker chunks,” frozen menhaden cut into pieces. Skipper Maloney hands us each a pole with a chunk of menhaden on a hook. The boat is anchored.

Greenberg fishingWhile we are waiting for fish to take the bait held off the bottom with a balloon bobber, Greenberg tells how menhaden, an important mid-Atlantic forage fish, have been decimated with a single company, Omega Protein of Reedsville, Virginia, catching the vast majority of the fish.

“Menhaden are useless to humans in their pure form,” he says, “but Omega Protein grinds them up in the millions for use as pig, chicken and salmon feed and more recently as Omega-3 dietary supplements.” Greenberg recommended, Bruce Franklin’s book The Most Important Fish in the Sea. “According to Franklin menhaden populations were once so vast that the lead end of a school would arrive in Cape Cod while the tail end was still in Maine.”

Getting “skunked,” not catching a single fish, crossed our collective mind as the early morning sun greeted more boats appearing along the pier and reflected off the wide body jets lifting off overhead. Skunk days are rationalized with something like, “It’s just nice to be out on the water and get some fresh sea air. Catching fish isn’t that big of deal.” At least we lucked out for weather; it was flat calm.

But we wouldn’t be skunked this day. The ice was broken when the tip of Peter Hoffman’s pole made sharp lunges. Excitement on deck! With Peter reeling in, the fish made a swoosh here, and a dash there and a plunge until  Lauren finally scooped a large bluefish into the net and slung it aboard. The “skunk was off the deck,” as we say.

I couldn’t find a club of any sort to stun the fish with (charter boat fish are normally put into the fish box and left to flop) so I grabbed the long handled deck brush and gave the fish a sharp conk on back of head just above the eyes. The heart still pumps but the fish is immobilized…no flopping on deck, no bruising, no scale loss, no lactic acid build-up. Stunning is the first step on deck to getting a fish in top shape to the plate. Deckhand Lauren promptly nicknamed the deck brush, the “club brush.”

Although local, plentiful and sustainable, bluefish don’t appear on many menus in New England. Sportsfishermen have trouble giving them away. Often brown-hued and strong flavored, it is all in the handling. Our goal is to transform the sleek, oil-rich bluefish into an entirely different fish on the plate.

Bleeding Amy's striper Bleeding Amy's Striped Bass

The next step is bleeding, severing the artery between the heart and the gill. We bleed the fish so it dies a relaxed death; removing the blood gives fish cleaner flavor.

Paul Greenberg had the next action. The bend in his pole and the grin on his face told of a strong. good-sized fish. He thought it to be a good striper by the heft, but alas another bluefish. They were good-sized here.

With the change of tide,  the current was now carrying some of the small forage fish away from the pier, maybe striped bass would give chase. Bruce Sherman had one on, but, after some good pulls, it shook the hook. A beaming Robin Schempp landed the first striper. As fish were landed, I kept up with the stunning and bleeding.

In 1984, the US Congress responded to a precipitous decline in wild Atlantic striped bass populations, overfishing and pollution of critical spawning habitat both contributing, with the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act. The re-emergence of wild Atlantic striped bass abundance after 25 years has been quite a fisheries management and pollution reduction success story.

“I am 35 years-old and when I was a child up until 15 years ago I never saw striped bass in Boston Harbor,” says Naponset Charters manager Jennifer Maloney. “They made a huge comeback after the cleanup.”

Amy's first fishing trip. Amy Bodiker's first fish, a day to remember

Amy Bodiker,  fishing for the first time in her life, hooked into a whopper striper. Her arms and shoulders tired from reeling in the powerful fish but the fish made her happy. At 38-inches long, it would be the biggest fish of the day and a lifetime memory for Amy. When Lauren had it in the net and on deck, I conked Amy’s fish and opened it’s artery with a West Coast troller’s salmon cleaning knife I had brought along.

West Coast Salmon Troller's cleaning knifeWhen bleeding has ceased, the blood on deck is flushed through the scuppers and over the side with a deck hose or deck bucket. Fish are gutted or dressed as soon as they finish bleeding. Jon cleaning the fishI had a special trough for cleaning fish on my salmon boat in Alaska. On the Blue Moon II, I used Skipper Malone’s bait cutting platform.

After gutting and rinsing, the next step is to get the fish into ice right away. The sooner a fish is iced before the it goes into rigor mortis, the better. If a fish goes through rigor mortis without icing, it goes in quickly, doesn’t stay in very long and comes out quickly. Though very fresh, such a fish can end up with soft unappealing texture from both biochemical damage and the ripping and tearing of tissue at a microscopic level. When iced pre-rigor, the fish goes into rigor slowly, stays in a long time and comes out slowly. The result is resilient, supple flesh that retains all of its goodness.

The white matter often seen on the outside of cooked fish is albumin, a protein released from tissue damage be it from cooking at too high a temperature or for too long, from age or from less than ideal rigor mortis conditions. You won’t see albumin on the outside of a fresh, well handled and mindfully cooked piece of fish. The juices, proteins and goodness are held in inside by flesh with cellular integrity.

Fish should be iced in a straight position; fish that go into rigor bent often result in damaged gaping flesh. If a fish is straightened while in rigor, it will pop out, resulting in damaged tissue.

It is counterintuitive but the best eating fish is not the freshest. Providing the fish has been handled as described above, the best texture, flavor and mouthfeel results from letting the fish take its time coming out of rigor. The chemistry of rigor mortis is extremely complex. While I don’t completely understand what is going on, the longer a fish is in rigor the better it eats. If properly handled and iced, a fish can remain in rigor for several days.  The flavor and mouthfeel of a fish that has gone through rigor in ice and has been otherwise well handled is noticeably superior. More “juiciness” in the words of  one fish scientist. This is fish that gives the term, mouthfeel, meaning. To me, mouthfeel is related to, but goes beyond, flavor and texture.

Perhaps one percent of  commercially caught fish will have been handled as described here. I’m not sure how many commercial fishermen are actually aware of how handling affects flavor. I wasn’t completely until I teamed fishermen and chefs up to identify cause and effect relationships. Fish of this quality can boost the diner’s perception of the restaurant and the chef’s skill’s considerably. Countless times, I’ve heard waiters report back to the kitchen, “They said that was the best fish they’ve ever eaten.”

The loose idea was for our catch to be prepared by Michael Leviton at Lumiere, for the Chef’s Collaborative Board dinner three days later. From the standpoint of rigor mortis, the timing was perfect if we could keep the fish straight and in ice. Our challenge was to get our two bluefish and two stripers, rather large fish, from the boat to the Lumiere kitchen. Fortunately the dock at Neponset had a cart that allowed us to keep the fish straight. We slipped the fish into garbage bags, three of us making the transfer so we could keep the fish from bending. We put ice around the fish and filled the bellies as well.

Our van was waiting at the head of the dock. Our van driver was more interested in our catch stories than getting errant fish juice on his carpet. No worries. Peter Hoffman gallantly placed his rain coat under the fish just in case. Once again it took three people to keep the bagged fish straight when lifting into the van.

Michael Leviton was at the the Red Sox game so we would have to figure out quickly where to store the fish until he could pick them up. Bambara, the restaurant at the Hotel Marlowe would have a cooler. We didn’t go unnoticed with our cargo of four heavy, bulging white garbage bags and our inordinate interest in their placement on the hotel luggage cart.

At this point, our fish were all very stiff, very much in rigor and we were careful to keep them that way when transferring our bundles from the luggage cart to flat sheet pans in the kitchen. So far, so good. Michael Leviton would fetch them after the ball game and take them to Lumiere.

I was on the plane to Seattle when the bluefish was filleted, but, according to Michael, the fish cutter was impressed with the clear limpid blue color of the flesh, clearly different from the bluefish they normally received. “Great project.”

The clarity of the striped bass filets was impressive,” said Leviton. “The fish ate wonderfully, both raw and cooked!”

Amy Bodiker reported on the fish courses at the Lumiere dinner.

“The fish was fantastic – and cooked with a lot of love! Robin’s striped bass was made into a tartar with a bit of an Asian application; the blues were served in a salad under a seared scallop; and my striper was roasted (and presented) whole. Served with roasted fennel and smoky tomato, green olive sauce. The flavor was spectacular!”

Left to right: Jon Rowley, Robin Schempp, Peter Hoffman, Peter Greenberg, Bruce Sherman, Amy Bodiker (kneeling)

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The Beautiful Taste: Fish handling, Part 1

When it comes to “beautiful tastes,” there is perhaps none more beautiful than the taste of fish when the season, harvest, handling and preparation all come together…when we are lucky to taste a fish as good as it can be.

How a fish is caught and handled during its first three hours out of the water determines its eating qualities, at least that is what I found after I started paying attention to the relationship of flavor to fish handling on my own salmon troller in SE Alaska, studying hook-and-line fishing methods in different parts of the U.S. and Europe and working with chefs and fishermen conjointly to correlate what happens on deck with what happens in the pan and on the palate. The concept is simple but it took something like 10 years for the light bulb to go off.

Hook-and-line gear (longline, troll, jig, rod and reel) offers the potential for the  highest quality fish because they come aboard and can be dealt with individually. Here are the steps I have found that produce the highest quality, best tasting and most beautiful fish.

  • As soon as the fish come aboard or even before, the fish is stunned by a sharp blow to the top of the head. The heart is still pumping but the fish won’t flop and bruise itself and we can prevent the lactic acid build-up associated with struggle. The stunning step also prevents scale loss. Scale coverage is essential to the manufacture of protective slime when rigor mortis sets in. Complete scale coverage makes for beautiful, shiny fish and is probably the best indicator of how well a fisherman has handled the fish.

  • Bleed as soon as possible while the fish is alive by severing an artery between the heart and the gill. This allows the fish to die a relaxed death and removing the blood results in cleaner flavor.

  • Dress. Remove the entrails and rinse as soon as possible.
  • Get fish into ice before it goes into rigor mortis (gets stiff). Fish should be straight when they go into rigor. Pre-rigor icing is the key step to supple, resilient high quality fish.

  • In a perfect world, the fish would be left in rigor iced until it started to come out. Gaping sometimes seen in very fresh fillets (see below) comes from handling and filleting in rigor, especially if the fish in rigor gets bent in the process.

For the best flavor, texture and “mouth-feel,” the time to eat a fish is just after it comes out of rigor when the aforementioned steps have been accomplished.

It is counter-intuitive, but fish can be too fresh. Depending on the species, cooking a fish in rigor can result in a weird texture, i.e. soft, grainy or, in the case of sturgeon, like shoe leather.

For more on fish handling see: The Beautiful Taste: Fishing with Chefs in Boston. Fish Handling, Part 2

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Cidering: Dave and Ruth’s Annual Cider Pressing Party

Friends Dave and Ruth have a 125 year-old family cider press that Dave lugged back from Vermont. I am lucky to be included in their annual ritual of gathering apples from abandoned trees and bringing friends together for pressing them into cider. Every fall, I look forward to this centuries-old American rural tradition that Dave and Ruth have kind of urbanized, setting up the press in a small parking lot behind some buildings near Shilshole.

The apples are washed in tubs full of water and then set on a high table. Kids, dogs, skaters and skateboarders maneuver in and out of the six or eight people taking turns cutting apples, …

…dumping cut apples into the hopper,

turning the crank to grind the apples…

and turning the screw on the press.

The apples came from an old tree on neglected city property.  They weren’t pretty, just pretty sweet. We quartered them, leaving the skins and seeds and keeping an eye out for coddling moth “worms” of which we found a good number. When the hopper is empty, it is filled again and the crank is passed to one with strong arms and shoulders. Cider making is a workout if you handle the crank. Strong shoulders are also needed for turning the press.

Bright, fresh, amber cider coming right out of the spout is a pretty sight. Even prettier is seeing happy kids, toddlers to teenagers, putting their cups under the spout for refill after refill. Childhood memories in the making.

There is ongoing flow of cider as long as there are apples to grind and press. Friends stop by all afternoon to socialize and have a cup of cider. If they pitch in, they leave with a gallon of cider.

After cleaning up, those who stayed feasted on bbq’ed coho salmon, corn and oyster chowder, salad and homemade glazed apple cake.

Everyone takes home a jug of cider. I  put mine on the back porch opening the lid a few turns. When it turns spritzy in a few days to a week, it can be kept in the fridge for a few weeks. A nice seasonal beverage and wonderful to steam mussels in. The Mediterranean mussels grown by Taylor Shellfish down on Totten Inlet are plump sweet and perky during the fall cider season.

Old-fashioned getting people together to keep a hands on tradition alive is refreshing in this age where so much time is spend sitting on our butts in front of a computer.


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