Archive for the 'Culinary Arts' Category

A Dish of Fish

May 23, 2010

A Dish of Fish

by Tim Hazell

“Take a fine mullet and thrust it like a torch into the living flames.” – from The Deipnosophistai (Sophists at Dinner) by Athenaeus.

Seas have singular characteristics and their inhabitants play interactive roles. Fish evolved from primitive chordates during the Cambrian explosion, about five hundred forty million years ago. Striking adaptions to the nature of their environment are seen most clearly in organ specialization. Deep waters provide challenges, where adapting to intense pressures, cold and absence of light from the ocean’s surface result in dramatic designs and innovations. The scant illumination that reaches these depths, below a few hundred meters, is predominantly blue. Nevertheless, many fishes use this light to hunt by, navigating towards their targeted prey by following their movements as dark silhouettes cast against residual luminescence.

Fish possess the unique lateral line, an organ of sensations running body length from midway behind the gill slits to the tail. They use this nerve network to “taste” their prey and interpret its movements – or anticipate an attack, from distances of hundreds of meters. Herbivores such as parrot fish glean algae from reefs of coral in ecosystems such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, deriving sustenance from food ‘producers.’ Fens of algae and kelp, found at the base of the food chain, comprise the ocean’s photosynthesizers, dependent on carbon dioxide and light.

Fish are divided into groups according to their oil content and their uses in cookery are specific to classification. White fish are so called because their oil resides in the liver. All are sea dwellers, and Britain’s waters are renowned for their range and quality. English trawlers, fishing factories that gut, clean and deep freeze on board are active as far north as Greenland. Spectacular hauls are made off Newfoundland’s coasts. Flounder, turbot, cod and the coveted Dover sole lend themselves to poaching, baking or grilling whole or as steaks, cutlets and filets. The roe of many of these fish is prized for its delicate flavor.

Oily fish have their high levels of beneficial omega-3 fats distributed throughout the flesh. Some thrive in salt water while others are captured in freshwater lakes, rivers and streams. Signs of a really fresh catch include firm, even textured flesh, clear, full and shiny eyes, bright red gills and a clean smell. Herring are classic members of this group, more widely consumed when cooked fresh, pickled or smoked as kippers, than any other fish. Carp attain a great age, evoking the literature of Taoist sages. They are associated with good fortune and wisdom. These rotund, toothless inhabitants of sluggish rivers, lakes and ponds have small, weak mouths with appendages called barbules. Mirror or king carp, regarded as the finest variety for the table and come from Israel. Stuffed, baked or braised, all require a minimum of three hours of soaking to remove their muddy smell and taste.

Trout and salmon should have bright, silvery scales, red gills and close-textured flesh to be absolutely fresh. Common trout such as rainbow are domestically reared on fish farms and available year round. River and sea trout are superior, with light salmon flavor and pale pink flesh. Baked in foil, grilled or fried, they are legendary among gourmets and aficionados of the cookout. Trout require no cooking when smoked to an aromatic brown. Salmon are revered as messengers of the gods and symbols of prestige among indigenous tribes of North America. Salmon, widely held to be the king of fish, begin their lives in the sea, travel up rivers as adults to spawn and die. Canadian, Norwegian, Alaskan and Japanese salmon are available frozen, and vacuum packed if smoked. The Scotch variety has strips of tender fat between the muscle fibers and is considered the finest for the smokehouse. Small salmon weighing four to six pounds and a separate item for the kitchen are called grilse.

Creole and French influences converge in hearty fare common to many recipes, frequently heirlooms, from America’s old South. Homespun dishes such as fish and shellfish chowders cross rich and satisfying textures from soups and stews. Early centers for industrialization with the subsequent development of towns and cities, such as New England, providing alternatives with a more cosmopolitan flare. Fabulous catches teemed off the benign waters of the Pacific West Coast. Abalone and Pacific salmon were known and coveted since ancient times by native tribes such as the Haida and Tligit of British Columbia and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Black bass, clams and tuna, crab and lobster in quantity provided immigrants with a wild bounty from pristine waters. To close, I’d like to offer a simple recipe for salmon fillet wrapped in foil or parchment paper, if available. Options for this recipe include cod, flounder, red snapper and one of my favorites in Mexico, baby shark.

Salmon Fillet in Parchment Paper

1 1/4 pounds skinless salmon fillet cut into 4 equal pieces

2 hard cooked eggs, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions

1 tablespoon fresh dill or fragrant green herb such as parsley or coriander

a good pinch of ground white or black pepper

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon lime juice

Place each piece of fish in the middle of the sheet of paper or foil. Spoon the egg, scallion and herb mixture over the fillets. Fold sheets into tightly closed pouches, place on a baking pan and bake for 10 to 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven. Place on individual plates and serve steaming hot from the pouch. Excellent with new potatoes.