12 February 2010

No more carping about fish

Despite growing up a steroid-abusing baseball player's home run distance from a Great Lake, we didn't eat any fresh fish as a kid that I can remember, and given the PCB levels in the Great Lakes in the 1970s, that may have been the best decision my parents ever made. What little fish we ate came frozen and pretty much unidentifiable as fish, as I remember it. Which suited me just fine-- fish sticks, like tater tots, were good application of technology to food. In fact, the only aquatic food I took any notice of as a kid was shrimp and scallops, and those only because they made me physically ill. There was really no need in my mind to explore any further.

I don't remember when I had my first non-frozen expertly prepared fish. Might have actually been the first time I had sushi, which was neither something I was especially eager about nor a revelation (it was in grad school in North Carolina in a mediocre Japanese chain). But I didn't get sick, and it was way more interesting than a fish stick. Come to think of it, the first real fish I ate might just have been something Karen's dad cooked at one of many Saturday night dinners. He's a good cook, and I recall eating a mean grouper there one evening.

Anyway, I don't cook much fish even now. Not because I don't care for it-- I love fish raw or cooked-- but because I've never really had a decent fishmonger. We're blessed in Philly with great butchers, produce vendors, cheesemongers, and specialty shops. But I've never found a place that sells genuinely fresh fish. And it's so easy to tell. Cloudy, dull, and even sunken eyes, grayish gills, mushy flesh. Old fish is simply an unpleasant eating experience. And apparently I'm not the only one in the world having trouble finding good fresh fish, because I've had more stale fish in restaurants (in Philly, in Paris, on the coast in Italy of all places, and just about every place I've visited except Japan) than I care to remember, even though I never order fish on Sun or Mon.

But all of that has changed, recently. After several unhappy fish purchases when we first came to Paris, I've found a reliable fishmonger. It's not a big place and the selection is limited and variable, but what they have is (almost) uniformly exquisite. Plump striped bass with bright, clear eyes, dorade, monk fish, sole, turbot, salmon pieces so fresh they work even for tartare-- really great stuff. Unfortunately, it's expensive enough that I can't buy as often as I like, but I'm finally getting a chance to learn to cook fish. It takes an attentive and light hand, but it's wonderful to have at home.

The last week has been a fishy one on av Henri Martin, and I'm hoping for more of them.

Skate, cooked on the cartilage, in a pseudo-Provençal fashion, with slow-roasted fennel and tomatoes and tapenade, and also wild rice with hazelnuts and green beans. The green beans weren't supposed to be there, but Funny Girl saw them in the market and insisted they be added on. They were yummy, but the plate wasn't big enough for it all.

"This pan is so no longer suitable for cakes when we get back home." My sauté pans don't fit in our tiny oven, so these 9" cake pans have become my roasting pans. Lamb, pintade, and now skate. Hey, if Maryland can have its crab cakes, why not?

Skate leftovers, this time off of the cartilage, with leek-and-pea (and skate cartilage broth) risotto. Skate has such a wonderful meaty texture and takes just about any sauce or accompaniment in stride. Peas aren't in season anywhere near Paris, but one of the produce places we passed coming home on our Sunday bike ride had them, and they weren't nearly as disappointing as I'd anticipated.

Parsley root ravioli in progress. I don't know that I've ever eaten, much less cooked, parsley root before, but my regular produce guys had it at the market this week, and I couldn't resist. It's definitely got a parsley flavor, but also a bit of a hoppy taste (pair it with a malt-flavored sauce, maybe?? Mmmm, beer food...). Mild and a touch bitter, it also seemed like a good match for a somewhat sweet fish...

... Like this one, a red mullet from my fishmonger today. They're beautiful fish, with yellow stripes down the sides, and their pigment appears to be fat-soluble, because the oil this one cooked in was a lovely red afterwards.

Parsnip gnocchi with squash sauce. Yeah, I know it's not fish, but it was part of our red mullet meal, along with a surprisingly excellent wine we'd bought back in November before Thanksgiving at the "boat" salon des vins. We must have bought that early in the day when we could still taste anything.

Red mullet with parsley root ravioli, sauteed spinach, lemon broth (made of a fish fumet made from the bones/head/tail/etc) and parsley salad. I love the beautifully colored red mullet with dark green. This was one of those rare times that what was in my head exactly came to be on the tongue. Too bad it's just luck when that happens.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, but a deep-fried, Great Lakes cod at a Friday-night Catholic fish fry is worth the PCBs!