Fishing for Compliments
by: Sarah Leah Chase
photography by: Terry Pommett
Ever since I began writing cookbooks almost three decades ago, I have been fond of mingling phIlosophy with food.
The first chapter in my “Nantucket Open-House Cookbook” kicked off with the following quote from the ancient Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca: “When shall we live if not now?”
As heat-heightened, globally-warmed dog days collide with frenzied social revelry on Nantucket this August, as every August, it is once again Seneca who comes to mind. Now, however, I find myself tweaking Seneca’s original statement and saying privately to my culinary self – When shall we fish and eat fish, if not now?
The fact of the matter is that my favorite Nantucket summer dinner is a very simple one of grilled swordfish steaks (harpooned swordfish whenever possible) accompanied by a salad of thickly-sliced vine-ripened tomatoes with slivered basil and sea-salt-flecked corn on the cob from one of our island’s farms. About 10 years ago, I came to the realization that it was going to be a struggle to find a free evening in August to savor this meal at home because my social calendar had become so overrun with evening obligations. After a fundraiser and cocktail party too many, I returned home one night and decided to take to heart and put into practice the inscription on a prized little ceramic bowl I had purchased in the early 1990s at the Common Ground Fair in Maine. The dish was festooned with three little rose-hued fishes and its rim read: EAT FISH * LIVE LONGER * EAT MORE FISH.
I first fell in love with swordfish on Nantucket in the 1970s when I was a teenager spending summers with my aunt and uncle at their Union Street home. At least once a week, we would have a family dinner of thick swordfish steaks grilled in the back yard. The fish was simply spritzed with fresh lemon juice, slathered with a moistening armor of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, grilled over charcoal in a Weber cooker, and then finished off in the kitchen with melted butter, chopped parsley and more lemon.
The recipe appears in my “Nantucket Open-House Cookbook” as Swordfish Union Street and over the ensuing years I have taken to playing around with the mayonnaise technique and experimenting with various flavor profiles. My current winning variation relies on giving the mayonnaise the flavor of a Caesar-salad dressing and finishing off the grilled swordfish steaks with capers made crunchy via a quick sizzle in a hot skillet.
There was a period of time when I gave up eating bluefish on Nantucket because too much of a good thing became too much, period. Once my son came of fishing age and developed an expensive penchant for booking Nantucket fishing charters in which bluefish without fail was the catch of the day, my palate quickly rebooted from disdain to enthusiasm. The fact of the matter is that bluefish eaten within hours of being caught is really, really quite delicious.
Furthermore, if you love summer on Nantucket, you had better find a way to love bluefish, too. I was reminded of one delectable way last summer, when given this day and age of caller ID, I decided to answer a morning phone call from an unknown caller because I recognized the number as a Nantucket phone number. The person on the line identified himself as a recreational fisherman with a home in Cisco fringed by lavender plants. He went on to say that he had caught a bluefish yesterday afternoon and decided to make the Bluefish Antibes recipe in my “Nantucket Open-House Cookbook” for dinner and felt the urge to phone me because it was “the best bluefish” he had ever eaten. I had pretty much forgotten about the recipe but the call prompted me to revisit it. Because I created the recipe, I’ll be a bit more modest and say this is indeed an excellent way to cook freshly-caught bluefish in August if you are lucky enough to have lavender blooming in your herb garden and have in the past relished reading Peter Mayle’s books about the South of France.
Speaking of the South of France, Nantucket and recipes that taste equally seductive when served next to the Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, I must mention Provence-based Patricia Wells and her recipe for Six-Minute Fresh Cod Steamed on a Bed of Rosemary. The recipe was included in Wells’ “Vegetable Harvest” cookbook (William Morrow, 2007) and I would not have been inclined to make it had not Annye Camera mentioned it to me as a wonderful summer fish dinner one day when I was shopping at her natural-food market on Amelia Drive. If you care about looking svelte in a bathing suit at the beach and want your summer cooking to be as easy as your summer living, then this cod may become the preparation of your spa-food dreams. The cod literally takes only six minutes to cook and is infused with great flavor by being steamed over a bed of fresh rosemary. Wells’ recipe suggests finishing the fish with a drizzle of almond or pistachio oil, but since finding either oil on Nantucket might add unnecessary stress to an otherwise easy recipe, I finish my cod off with a basic Greek lemon and olive-oil dressing, known as Latholemono – a straightforward combination that enhances the flavor of everything from fish and shellfish to poultry and green vegetables.
Since I have yet to bite the bullet and install air conditioning in my kitchen, the thought of how much additional heat I dare to generate from the stove on any given summer day does factor into what I opt to cook indoors during the worst heat waves. My rule of thumb tends to be either to keep oven temperatures low or time on the stovetop hot but brief. In the first lobster salads and dramatic whole poached fish like salmon and striped bass. Because shrimp never fail to be a crowd-pleaser, I’ll often make a big bowl or crock of Southern-style Pickled Shrimp to have on hand. The shrimp benefit from being “pickled” for a few days in the refrigerator and can be plated as a refreshing luncheon salad or speared as an indulgent appetizer nibble.
Should you question serving shrimp in a place where lobster reigns supreme, it might be prudent to remember Forrest Gump. Forrest hit the nail on the head when he expounded, “Shrimp is full of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. There’s, um, shrimp kebabs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, pan fried, deep fried, stir fried. There’s pineapple shrimp and lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That’s, that’s about it.”
Except, of course, unless you take my advice and fish for a few compliments by making a colorful batch of Pickled Shrimp.
Sarah Leah Chase is a nationally-known cookbook author and weekly food columnist for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.
GRILLED SWORDFISH WITH SIZZLED CAPERS
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- 11⁄2 teaspoons anchovy paste
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 11⁄2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice 2 teaspoons finely-grated lemon zest
- 1⁄2 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
- 3 pounds fresh, center-cut swordfish, 1 to 11⁄2 inches thick, cut into 6 individual “steaks”
- Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste 21⁄2 tablespoons salt-packed capers or brined capers 21⁄2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Lemon wedges, for serving
- To make the Caesar Mayonnaise: Place the garlic, parsley, anchovy paste and mustard in a food processor and pulse the machine to combine the ingredients. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest and mayonnaise. Process until smooth.
- Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for grilling over medium-high heat.
- Place the swordfish steaks on a platter and season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper. Smear a thin coating of the Caesar Mayonnaise over the surfaces of the fish that are facing up and let stand for 10 minutes. Reserve the rest of the mayonnaise for coating the undersides of the fish once placed on the grill.
- If using salt-packed capers, place in a colander and rinse under cold running water for 1 to 2 minutes to remove the salt. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels. If using brined capers, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Set aside.
- When the grill is hot, place the swordfish steaks, mayonnaise-side down, on an oiled grate 4 to 5 inches above the heat. Smear a thin coating of the Caesar Mayonnaise on the uncoated sides of the fish (now facing up) and grill the steaks, turning once, until the fish is just cooked through in the center, 5 to 6 minutes per side. If desired, cross-hatch grill marks can be made by turning the steaks a quarterturn halfway through grilling each side.
- While the fish is grilling, prepare the sizzled capers. Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the capers to the sizzling oil and cook until they open up and begin to crisp around the edges, 30 to 60 seconds. Remove from heat and spoon a teaspoon or two of the sizzled capers on top of each grilled swordfish steak. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve at once.
- 3 pounds very fresh bluefish fillets
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
- 11⁄2 tablespoons chopped fresh lavender leaves
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, lightly crushed
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
Lots of lemon wedges, for serving
- Place the bluefish fillet, skin-side down, in a large, shallow Pyrex dish. Drizzle all over with the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
- In a small bowl, stir together the rosemary, lavender, fennel and cumin. Sprinkle the herb and spice mixture evenly over the fish and let stand for 30 minutes.
- Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for grilling over medium-high heat.
- When the grill is hot, place the fish fillets, skin-side down, on the oiled grilling grate. Grill until the skin is nicely crisped, about 5 minutes. With a large spatula, flip the fillets over and grill until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 5 minutes more. Cut the fillets into serving portions and garnish with 2 or 3 lemon wedges per portion.
SIX-MINUTE FRESH COD STEAMED ON A BED OF ROSEMARY
Patricia Wells calls for using skin-on cod fillets in this recipe, but I have also found the recipe will work equally well with skinless fillets or cod loins, which are more frequently sold skinned. Haddock, which is more often sold with the skin intact, may also be substituted.
GREEK LEMON OLIVE-OIL DRESSING:
- 1⁄3 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- 1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt, or a bit more to taste 1 clove garlic
- Freshly-ground black pepper to taste
- 1⁄2 cup top-quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 to 16 branches (at least 6 inches long) fresh rosemary, plus a bit extra for garnishing
- 2⁄3 cup water or dry white wine
- 4 fresh cod fillets, about 8 ounces each, skin-on or skinned Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Make the Greek lemon olive-oil dressing: Pour the lemon juice into a small mixing bowl. Sprinkle the sea salt over the garlic on a chopping board and mince together to make a paste. Whisk into the lemon juice and season with some freshly-ground black pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to make a light emulsion. Set aside at room temperature.
- Prepare the cod: Make a bed with the rosemary branches over the bottom of a 10-inch straight-sided skillet. Pour the water or wine into the skillet. Season the cod fillets with salt and pepper and arrange them on top of the rosemary branches. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, cover the skillet and gently steam the fish until just cooked through, about 6 minutes.
- Carefully transfer the cod fillets to warmed dinner plates and spoon a couple tablespoons of the Greek lemon oliveoil dressing over each fillet. Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped fresh rosemary. Serve at once.
SLOW-ROASTED SALMON WITH LEMON-CHIVE OIL
- 1⁄2 cup minced fresh chives
- 1⁄2 cup top-quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice 1⁄2 teaspoon fleur de sel
- 21⁄2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 4 top-quality skin-on salmon fillets (6 to 8 ounces each) Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper
- To make the lemon-chive oil, place all of the ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth and bright green. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 250°. Place 11⁄2 tablespoons of the butter in a baking dish large enough to hold the salmon fillets comfortably. Put the dish in the oven to melt the butter. Remove from the oven and tip the baking dish to coat the bottom evenly with the melted butter.
- Generously season the salmon fillets with the sea salt and pepper. Arrange the fillets on top of the melted butter in the baking dish. Cut the remaining tablespoon of butter into 4 equal pats and center a pat on top of each salmon fillet. Bake the salmon on the middle rack in the oven until evenly translucent inside and out, 17 to 20 minutes. The salmon should not flake like fish cooked at higher temperatures, but rather have a medium-rare, buttery texture throughout.
- Arrange the salmon fillets on 4 warmed dinner plates and drizzle each fillet with a couple of tablespoons of the Lemon-Chive Oil. Garnish with lemon wedges and/or chive blossoms if desired. Serve at once.
WHALE’S TALE PALE ALE MUSSELS
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 16 baguette slices, 1⁄2-inch thick and cut on the diagonal
- 2 ounces freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
- Sweet or smoked paprika for sprinkling
- 2 shallots, minced
- 2 celery stalks, thinly sliced (sometimes I substitute fennel)
- Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- 4 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded, if need be
- 3⁄4 cup Cisco Brewers Whale’s Tale Pale Ale, or other similar ale
- Large handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped 1⁄2 cup crème fraîche
- Preheat the oven to 350° and arrange a rack in the center of the oven. In a small bowl mash together the 4 tablespoons butter with the garlic. Arrange the baguette slices in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, spread the garlic butter over the top of the slices, then sprinkle each with some Parmesan, and dust with paprika. Bake until golden brown and crispy, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a large pot with a lid, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and celery, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add the mussels and beer to the pot, cover, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring the liquid to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes, then shake the pot back and forth and up and down a few times. This will move the mussels from the bottom of the pot to the top so they cook evenly.
- Continue cooking the mussels for 2 minutes more, then crack open the lid. If at least three-fourths of the mussels have opened, add the parsley and crème fraîche, replace the lid, and shake the pot a couple more times to combine. Check the broth and seasonings. Serve the mussels and broth in individual bowls or in one big bowl for sharing, with the garlic bread on the side. Discard any mussels that have not opened. Put a bowl on the table for the empty shells.
Pickles and relishes have long been prominent in the American cooking of the South. Pickled Shrimp stands at the pinnacle of these folksy yet wonderful condiment traditions. In fact, this recipe presents so prettily I often let it take center or solo stage as a pre-dinner hors d’oeuvre. Using peeled and deveined shrimp will take the arduous work out of shrimp preparation and the recipe benefits from marinating for two or three days before serving – a boon to the harried summer hostess. Serve the Pickled Shrimp in an earthenware crock or arrange dramatically on a platter and either let guests spear their own with toothpicks or offer small plates and forks.
- 3 tablespoons white-wine vinegar 1⁄2 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- 11⁄2 tablespoons Dijon mustard 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 11⁄2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1⁄2 cup olive oil
- 1 jar (4 ounces) diced pimiento
- 3⁄4 cup pitted kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
- 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 large lemon, thinly sliced and slices then halved
- 1 small bunch fresh dill, cilantro or parsley, minced
- 2 tablespoons Old Bay or other favorite shrimp-boil seasoning
- 4 pounds 16to 20-count shrimp, peeled and deveined
- To make the pickling marinade: In a large bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, garlic and salt. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Stir in the pimiento, olives, red onion, lemon and dill. Set aside while cooking the shrimp.
- Fill a large pot with water and add the seasoning. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp and cook until just cooked through the centers, 2 to 4 minutes. Drain the shrimp in a colander. Immediately, toss the hot shrimp in the pickling marinade. Let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
- Store the shrimp in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, stirring occasionally. Serve chilled.
Serves 10 to 12.