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Last weekend, Erin and I headed to Sag Harbor to cater a super chic quarter-century birthday bash. It was a match made in foodie heaven: I met the birthday girl’s mother at a Café Boulud wine dinner, she became a reader of my blog, and the rest, as they say, is history. To make the most out of a trip to the Hamptons, Erin and I invited our men along and turned the weekend into a mini beach vacation full of feasting, relaxing on the water, and of course, cooking up a storm! For Mr. Mix and me, it was a romantic return to the clamming shores where our romance first bloomed.
Our Dinner Belle menu featured a plethora of seaside treats, including: Blue Point oysters and Cherrystone clams, both native to Long Island and served with a whiskey pickleback mignonette, freshly grated wasabi root, pickled-pink ginger and yuzu salt. There were garlic creme polenta cakes, poached asparagus, a grilled peach carprese and a chocolate-peanut butter cupcake tower, but the pièce de résistance was the whole roasted side of Atlantic salmon, smothered in a homemade tarragon-dijon cream sauce, and served over a bed of chives with edible flower blossoms and lavender honey-mustard dressing. It’s a Dinner Belle staple and one that never fails to impress, but I’m often surprised at how excited our guests are when we serve simple fish dishes. “The best salmon I’ve ever tasted,” is an oft repeated refrain, as is, “I never make fish at home.” Over the years, I’ve discovered just how much fish is feared, how little it’s prepared, and how even the most daring of home cooks rely on restaurants for the preparation of this simplest of seafoods.
For this post, part of the America’s Test Kitchen “Dish It Your Way” Blogger Challenge, I want to dispel the myths surrounding fish and its preparation. It isn’t difficult to prepare–it doesn’t need heavy braising, attentive basting, lengthy marinating or any of the other processes involved with the pork, chicken and beef in our lives–in fact, it’s one of the easiest entrées par excellence. Can you imagine treating a trout as you would a pot roast? Fish is simpler, lighter and healthier of course, with lower saturated fats, higher iron content, and in the case of some sea creatures, higher Omega-3 fatty acids. I’m always so happy when a client chooses fish; all I need is a high quality catch, some salt, butter and lemon, and a perfect dish is but a few steps away.
I was delighted by Mark Bittman’s recent piece in The Times, “Broiled, Sautéed, Roasted, Poached”, a dozen ways to cook “white fillet” (any type of firm-fleshed white fish, including cod, haddock, and grouper). His recipes range from cilantro and lime dressed tacos to Asian-inspired poached filets with ginger and soy, and best of all, are flexible enough to take anyone through a year of seafood meals with little duplication. Guides like these are great for those that find cooking fish intimidating, as they not only provide a delicious assortment of recipes, but they demonstrate that there are there many ways to skin a cat–er, fish.
Technical details aside, there are difficulties surrounding the cooking of fish that should not be discounted (and which Bittman notes himself). Namely, sustainability–unless you’ve been ignoring the headlines, you know that our oceans are being depleted of fish species at a record pace. Much of the recent focus has been on Bluefin tuna, a species that may well be extinct by the time our children reach the sushi counter. Why the trouble now? A storm of problems, including overfishing, destructive fishing practices, pollution, habitat eradication, and ocean warming among others, have conspired to deplete fish populations throughout our oceans. It’s a situation no chef or foodie should take lying down…even on a beach towel on the shores of Montauk, where we could be found last weekend.
So how do we make smart decisions to protect ourselves and our seas from fishy fishing practices? Just as we can select our meats by making a series of choices about their substance (grass-fed, hormone-free) as well as their environment (ethically produced, independently-owned small farms), we can pick our fish by a series of similar sustainability requirements. Is it healthy for us? Is it safe for the environment? Is it safe for the future? Case in point: farm-raised doesn’t always mean sustainable. Many farms feed wild fish to their farmed fish, which depletes wild populations. Their waste products can also pollute and spread disease, outside of the farm itself and into estuaries and the ocean. Farmed salmon, a much cheaper alternative to the wild salmon I purchase, also contains much lower levels of Omega 3′s due to their feed. However, farmed tilapia and catfish, two naturally-vegetarian species, are sustainably raised in the US.
With fish, size does matter. Small oily fish, such as the sardines and anchovies beloved in Europe but generally scorned stateside, might be the healthiest, most sustainable critters on the market; overall, oily fish like salmon, trout and mackerel, soak up more of what their environment offers, nutrients and contaminants both, so it’s important that you know from whence your oily fish comes. Sourcing whitefish is no less sacred, but by swimming way down on the seafloor, whitefish absorb a lower level of both the vitamin-rich good stuff and the toxic bad stuff to stay away from. Pregnant women have known for years that tuna is to be avoided because of mercury, but all of us should be aware that the larger the fish, the higher the chance of heavy metal contamination. If you have concerns about the fish you’re buying, the Blue Ocean Institute offers a fish-friendly database you can access on-the-go with a downloadable FishPhone iPhone app, or you can simply text them with questions about which fish to choose and they’ll respond directly. There you have it–a simple solution to a complex problem! With a little information and a lot of tarragon and mustard, a delicious, dramatically presented, no-fuss fish meal is within your reach.
Roast Side of Salmon (serves a party)
• 1 cup Tarragon Mustard (or you can blend Dijon with fresh tarragon to make your own)
• 1 bunch Tarragon (chopped)
• 1 bunch Chives (chopped)
• 2 TB Brown Sugar
• 2 Lemons (juice & zest)
• 3.5 lb wild, skin-on side of Salmon
• Edible Flower garnish (or more chives and herbs as tray garnish)
• 1 bottle Lavender Honey
• 1 bottle Brown Norwegian Mustard
• Salt and Pepper
*1 cup Garlic Aioli
Mix first six ingredients into a mustard marinade, along with a TB or two of the spicy brown mustard. Place your fish skin-side down on a piece of parchment paper and transfer that parchment to a large cookie sheet; if you don’t have a sheet to fit the length of your side of salmon, you can always cut it in half and use two cookie sheets for roasting. Use half the marinade to cover your fish, season with salt and pepper and pop it into the middle of an oven at 450 degrees for 15 minutes…this will make for a perfectly moist medium-rare fish.
While cooking, decorate your serving platter with a bed of herbs to lay the fish atop and mix your honey-mustard. With a fork, simply blend your lavender honey with the spicy mustard to taste with a hefty pinch or two of sea salt. I prefer my honey-mustard on the spicy side, so use 2 parts mustard to 1 part honey, but anything goes, so mix to your specificity.
Remove the fish from the oven and allow to cool for just 5 minutes before transferring it to your serving platter…don’t give the fish time to stick to the paper, but wait a few minutes so it’s not piping hot while you transfer. Use the parchment paper as a tool to transfer the fish from tray to platter. Cover with the remaining marinade and garnish with edible flowers. Serve alongside homemade lavender honey-mustard and serving tongs so guests can Eat it Up!
*Food Processor Garlic Aioli (makes 1 cup)
• 3 Garlic Cloves (peeled)
• 1 pinch Salt
• 3 large Egg Yolks
• 1 cup Canola or Grapeseed Oil
Add the garlic cloves to your processor and blend until pureed. Add the egg yolks and salt and blend again. While your machine is running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream through the small hole in the “food pusher” insert you push down into the lid of your processor; this really help to disperse the oil in a slow, steady stream, but you can also do it by hand, carefully. Blend until an emulsion forms (about 5 minutes), then turn off your machine and taste to adjust seasoning if necessary.