As a little girl, I enjoyed a varied diet of different fish and shellfish. There was squid, fried or grilled at the beach; spiny black sea urchin, cut open and spooned out in front of you; and grilled whole fish expertly filleted table-side by a waiter. I grew up eating head-on fish, peeling the outer ring off a softshell Maine clam, and savoring the smell of charcoal-grilled sardines.
I know that the most important factor in selecting what fish to cook or eat is freshness. If you can find truly fresh fish, the only thing it requires is the simplest possible preparation. If you have fresh fish, you have good fish.
When I first started cooking in the U.S., at first for myself, and, eventually, professionally, I was disheartened by how poor the caliber of fish was here. A journalist friend of mine took me up to Gloucester, Massachusetts, for a piece he was writing about the state of fresh fish in Boston. I was horrified by how old and long dead much of the catch coming off the boats was. Having recently returned from a trip to Spain where I had been stunned by how delicious and fresh the fish were everywhere I went, I swore I would take up fishing, as it seemed the only way to get good products at home. I knew there were plenty of great fish in our waters; it was just a matter of finding someone who was harvesting them with an eye for preserving the quality every step of the way from ocean to kitchen.
Today, twenty-five years later, there is an abundance of excellent fish available in the U.S. Visit any coastal farmers’ market, and you’re likely to find everything from day-boat cod and fresh gulf shrimp to bycatch and so-called trash fish. Monkfish’s status has changed; once considered a trash fish, it became a consumer darling, then an overfished rarity and, is now, supposedly, once again, a sustainable choice.
I have spent a lot of time shopping at the fish stands at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, selecting and trying various local delicacies — tender fluke “ribbons” peeled from the dorsal fin, monkfish liver (far, far better tasting than foie gras and ever so much better for you); conch; herring; delicate, tiny Peconic bay scallops; sparkling silver-skinned Spanish mackerel; and ugly, scary-looking sea robins whose difficult spines hide some truly sweet, meaty fillets and whose carcasses make a soup base as fine as that of any Mediterranean rascasse.
Recently, I started working with a Rhode Island–based fishmonger known as Gabe the Fish Babe, who is selling to quite a few New York City restaurants, and who specializes in sustainable and unusual species. She is as eager to promote strange and interesting fish and shellfish as I am to experiment with and taste them. She has sent me blood clams — strange, ridged clams that are iron-y and red from an excess of hemoglobin — and sardines that glistened with the iridescence worn by only the freshest of fish. She brings in wild oysters and razor clams, seaweed, and all sorts of edible catch that are rarely seen at retail fishmongers’ shops: things like sea trout, tilefish and Acadian redfish.
As a professional chef, always I have been interested in all aspects of sustainable eating. Although I relish the environmental benefits that go along with small-production farms and food companies, the biggest attraction for me has been the high quality of food produced using old-fashioned, “organic” methods. With overfishing and, subsequently, total ocean collapse looming larger every day, paying attention to underutilized fish and seafood seems ever more critical. At the same time, people have been so willing to embrace nose-to-tail eating and increase their gastronomic awareness that one would think getting the dining public (i.e., my customers) to eat and experience a wide range of local seafood would be easy.
But the problem is that I cannot get my customers to welcome these strange and unusual fish. Mine is not a seafood restaurant and I am not famous for cooking that foodstuff, so I understand that people are not dining with me specifically because they want to eat fish. But still, I wish they could be more adventurous and try something other than striped bass, salmon, and tuna. I swore off endangered bluefin tuna four years ago to the point where I even stopped using its beautiful bottarga. And I find salmon odd because it’s a global fish that, as good as it can be, doesn’t really speak to me of terroir. I bring in local hake so fat, meaty, and fresh it puts cod to shame, and then I watch it sit there, getting older, until I either have to turn it into something else, feed it to my staff, or throw it out in despair. I’ve bought whelks and cooked them exactly like classic escargot or tossed them in curly pasta with parsley and garlic. I constantly try to sell porgy, a plentiful, local sea bream in the same family as Mediterranean gilthead bream (or dorado), a fish that is raised in fetid fish farms in Greece and Israel, then flown to eager consumers all around the globe at great cost and environmental expense. Porgy is virtually the same fish, with one difference — it qualifies as “local” and “sustainable,” two favorite buzzwords among today’s savvy foodie set. And yet, even when I slyly try to sell it as Atlantic bream, I chuck more than I sell.
In a way, I suppose the dining public is no better informed than it was twenty-five years ago when I cluelessly cooked my boyfriend some fish that had been in my fridge too long. As I spat out the first ammoniated bite, then reached over to take his plate and throw the fish away, he looked puzzled and said, “But I thought that’s what fish was supposed to taste like. That’s why I don’t like it and don’t eat it.”
Like most Americans, he hadn’t been raised eating fresh fish; what he had been exposed to was so old or frozen and flavorless that any time he ate fish, it was an unpleasant experience. I was lucky. I grew up in the Mediterranean, where access to the fresh stuff is considered a God-given right and children are taught to love and appreciate the wide variety of flavors available from the ocean. As long as I have been a chef, I have made sharing my appreciation of fresh fish a priority.
So, for all the aforementioned reasons, I would like to encourage people everywhere to be as open to experimenting with unfamiliar fish as you are to feasting on obscure parts of a pig. In the same way that you have enthusiastically accepted cuts of meat that extend beyond the usual roster of steaks, chops, and fillets, please order that odd-looking or untried fish that you have never heard about before. If it’s on the menu, that’s probably because there is someone in the kitchen who cares passionately about fresh, local, sustainable seafood.