How to cook a whale
~ by John C. Picardi
When I was a kid I did a report for my sixth grade class on the fishermen of Boston. My parents took me to the piers to witness the fishing boats come into port and from that day forward I was hooked on all creatures caught from the sea. I tackled my fish report with all my heart, read it proudly to my class, and brought fish cakes in for my classmates. For extra credit, I drew a picture of my archenemy Scott Webster being eaten by a shark; it was the year of Jaws, and needless to say it didn‘t go over too well, although I thought it hilarious. At the end of my report, I gave my classmates a glowing smile, until Scott Webster shouted, “And fish is good brain food and you should eat a whale!” Of course I was angry, and humiliated, and I smeared mayonnaise in his locker–but that’s another story.
Recently, after reading an interesting article on the benefits of fish, I exclaimed, “Holy Mackerel that dope Scott was right, fish is good brain food!” And not only that, nutritionists say that eating fish twice a week is a great way to improve your health in numerous ways. Fish is packed with vitamins and minerals, is a terrific source of omega-3 fatty acids (which studies show lowers the chance of heart attack), makes babies smarter, harpoons dementia, helps to prevent strokes in the elderly, and it improves your sex drive hook, line, and sinker. In my next life I hope Braised Pork Belly will do all those wonderful things for my body, but in this life, eating badly will take its toll on your health. With that said, you don’t want to eat tons of fish coated in greasy fried batter or swimming in butter or a cream sauce. But heck, we all need to have fried fish a few times during the spring and summer; it’s only fair, so let yourself off the hook and indulge.
Okay. So let’s talk about ways to prepare fish, which for some people is a typical dilemma because our everyday diet mostly consists of pork, beef, and chicken. Most people in this area of New England cover fish with butter and cracker crumbs and bake it (try tossing a can of chopped clams on top next time—it’s really good!) but there is so much more you can do with fish. Remember, imagination and the Internet are your friends!
One of my favorite types of fish is Chilean Sea Bass, and years ago when I lived in New York there was a seafood restaurant around the corner from where I lived where the chef coated Chilean Sea Bass with crushed pecans. I know, it sounds a tad suspicious, but let me tell you it was phenomenal and easy to prepare. All you do is grind pecans into small pieces, coat the fish with butter, and dredge the fish in the pecans until coated on both sides, place on a sheet pan and bake. The pecans act like a protective shell and the fish inside is delightfully moist. You can eat this plain or top it with a cucumber salad; it’s simple and delicious. I would guess this recipe would work with other hearty white fishes too.
One of my fish specialties is the classic Provincial; the preparation can vary, but of course, I think my way is the best. First, put a good drizzle of olive oil into a sauté pan and to that add chopped fresh tomatoes (or use a can of chopped ones—I am a big advocate of canned tomatoes) and simmer. Next, add to this capers, black pitted olives, a small amount of white wine, garlic, salt, pepper, chopped parsley and a few basil leaves, (sometimes if I am feeling funky I add some chopped fennel) and an anchovy filet is optional. Bring this concoction to a nice simmer; in time the smell alone will perfume your house amazingly, and you might even be tempted to eat this by the spoonfuls minus the fish. But hold on! Lower the heat, and on top of this bubbling pan of Godly goodness, place your fish. I use either sole, haddock, or cod. Once, I used fresh tuna and it worked really well. Also, adding a few shrimp and scallops is a mighty nice touch too. Cover and steam the fish until done. Carefully lift the fish out of the pan into a shallow bowl and spoon the sauce on top of the fish. Sometimes the fish will break up, but worry not—fix it by covering it with parsley and serve it with a smile.
I am a huge fan of fish tacos, and I admit that when first confronted by the idea of fish in a taco I was apprehensive. But upon first bite I was totally blown away by the combination of the spicy fish and mouthwatering coleslaw.
Here’s how I do it: first, I use sole, or tilapia, but any white fish would work. Then I make the slaw—cut thinly (hair thin if possible, take your time, use a sharp knife) a cabbage head, and place in a large bowl. To this add chopped jalapeño, red onion, juice from two limes, a dash of vegetable oil, chopped cucumber and mango, and a dash of cumin. Toss this well and let it sit. Next, get your tortillas ready, this only means placing a package of them on the counter. Now, go ahead and heat a cast-iron pan over your grill outside because you’re going to blacken your fish, not smoke your family out of your home. Put oil in the pan and get it smoking. Next, coat your fish with a Cajun seasoning, or make your own by mixing the following together: 2 tablespoons of garlic powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper, dry basil leaves, dry oregano, paprika, onion and garlic powder, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a few pinches of sugar and mix thoroughly. The great thing about this rub is that you can omit or add seasonings to your liking. Coat your fish well with this mixture and place the fish in the hot skillet. When the fish starts to crisp around the corners, turn it with a spatula. The same goes for the other side too; make sure you get it good and crispy around the edges. (You could cook the fish inside your house, but have the fans going, open your windows, and have the fire department on call.)
Okay, so next, place your blackened fish in the middle of the tortilla, put a generous glob of the slaw on top, roll it up, tuck in the sides and delve in. They can be messy to eat, but so what? That’s the fun of it, and it’s even more fun if you have a pitcher of margaritas to go along with them.
Fish tacos make for a magnificent spring or summer party, and for an additional dish you could also grill shrimp that were marinated in chopped garlic, black pepper and lime juice (only a short time in the lime juice), have bowls full of interesting corn chips and different salsas and there you go—a festive event.
No fish article would be complete if grilled salmon wasn’t included. What I find best to put on salmon while grilling is something sweet or salty or a combination of both. A simple honey and freshly grated ginger glaze works well, and so does maple syrup whisked with sherry with a pinch of minced mint leaves. I love the mixture of soy sauce and sesame seed oil, but use the oil judiciously because it can smoke badly when hitting the flames. Another one I enjoy is minced shallots added to pineapple juice and this is exceptionally tasty when served with a salsa made with chopped pineapple, chopped raw red onion, red pepper, and cilantro.
Remember: when grilling fish, dry the fish off with a paper towel, clean the grill, and wipe it down with oil and get the grill good and hot. When you go to turn the fish and it feels as if it’s sticking, let it be; when it’s ready, it should pull away from the grill and come off fairly easy. The more you play with it, the more likely you will end up with pink slop and before you know it, you’re caught in a whale of a mess. Get it? Whale of a mess…Ha ha ha…
John C. Picardi is the author of the new adult fiction novel, Oliver Pepper’s Pickle and the Off-Broadway Plays The Sweeper and Seven Rabbits On A Pole and the Popular Food Blog, Mastering The Art Of Pigging Out – My Life In Food www.johncpicardimasterintheartofpiggingout.com.