I have never been much of a seafood eater. I do admit that as a child I loved breaded shrimp, that was the only seafood my mother bought. Well, you can expect much in the Fort Worth area in the fifties. If you wanted real shrimp you had to head for Galveston or somewhere on the gulf coast. Catfish wasn’t what one might have called a regular item on stock int the local A&P. About the only other fish staple were the infamous fish sticks, those frozen tasteless creations that so many children of America were raised to hate. Smother their little breaded bodies with mayonnaise and pickle relish, I’m sorry, tartar sauce, same difference. The fact is, one usually comes to like seafood when one becomes an adult. Until then it is usually a meat and potato diet until one day you decide to take a chance. And I don’t mean clam chowder.
I was in the service in the mid sixties and the Airman’s Club on Okinawa had fresh Alaskan king crap paired with steak on the menu, the surf and turf choice. So I gave it a try and found that like liked crab, or at least Alaskan king crab. Little by little I tried different menu item over time and found that items like crab, lobster, salmon, and clams could be very good. But like most red blooded American males, fish was last on my list a the restaurant and I wasn’t going to cook it at home. Yes, I admit, I really like that taste and texture of beef and pork, chicken, not so much. I am a red meat eater, first, last, and always. But now when I dine out I typically check out the seafood items. You see, I discovered cooking, discovered playing chef. I took to that like a duck to water. I read the Larousse Gastronomique as if it were a novel.
Now any fool can cook a steak. Well, I take that back, not any fool can. Some people feel they have to torture a piece of beef as if they were part of the Spanish Inquisition. My mother had the bad habit of cooking vegetables until they begged for mercy. Man, I’ll tell you, there is nothing worse than mushy peas the color of World War Two army vehicles. And so many people cook spinach to death, like they’ve always hated Popeye and rooted from Brutus. I mean. for what, Olive Oil, surely you jest. But the fact is, most people can’t cook. Yeah, I know, I went through all those phases. The macaroni with tuna fish and cream of mushroom soup, the meatloaf recipes that surround the loaf in mashed potatoes, and god knows what else. It’s really a learning process one goes through. We learn to accept eating crap from out parents until we find that there is more to food than heavy starch and excess sugar. So, if we are lucky and pay attention we learn what good food is, how it should enrich our lives.
So little by little we learn from tasting the fruits and vegetables in their raw states and then start experimenting with the various processes of cooking or preparation. Take peas, for example. Raw, they are hard and not that tasty. Cooked too long and they turn to mush and the color looks revolting. But give them a gentle steaming, not a boiling, and the heat raises the sugar in the pea. Steam them gently and not quite to their peak and peas are wonderful in flavor and texture. Now I like my spinach chopped and gently steamed. Add some excitement and pour a little apple cider vinegar over a serving on your plate and the spinach has a marvelous flavor. Add butter and pepper from a pepper grinder and the spinach assumes a different character. Add in some mushrooms or chopped olives and that same leafy green vegetable is different still. You’ve got to play with food and see what are its capabilities.
Now one thing I have found is that the soup stock in a jar, the reduced kind, is really too salty. When you make soup stock the one thing you do not add to the pot is salt. Why? because when you reduce the volume, concentrate the flavors, if you add salt it only makes the reduction taste saltier. But as I play with these chicken stocks, mushroom stocks, vegetable stocks and beef stocks one thin I have found it that by slicing a potato very thin and adding it to the reduction liquid I can reduce the salt content. I make glazes this way, adding in some tomato paste to give in that flavor it needs. This is not substitute for making your own stock and then the reduction and adding in the other flavor elements, but it works well enough at home. I love to play with food. I find that using a good mustard lie a good dijon mustard, not that stupid yellow crap or worse yet, honey mustard, my god, give me something to work with, some heavy cream or sour cream, and a little soup stock out of a jar with a bit or water or white wine and you have a really great mustard sauce for a lot of different dishes. That is the art of cooking. First you learn how stocks are made and then you learn how sauces are made, then you can do variations on a theme. That is what cooking is, variations on a theme. All those reality shows that feature people trying to be quality chefs and what not. It is all variations on a theme.
So back to fish. This is what I have learned. Number one, always buy fresh and never frozen fish. Freezing damages the texture, makes it mushy and even causes freezer burn. Second, don’t buy anything that has been farmed, with a few exceptions, and those exceptions are very few. Farmed salmon tastes like farmed salmon, not widl fresh caught. Man, got to tell you, wild fresh caught salmon is really great. You can pan saute it in butter over low to medium heat. Sprinkle on some seasonings and then pan saute, depending on thickness from five to eight minutes a side. The rule for fish is five minutes per side for every inch of thickness. It’s a judgement thing. Remember, if it is still a little raw inside, then microwave for 30 seconds, that’s all. The icelandic Char is farmed but there is a big difference in that they don’t feed the fish crap. They don’t have to add color, unlike farmed salmon, and the taste is very good, Now my preference is Alaskan arctic car. I took a vacation to Alaska in 1995, I was looking to relocate to another state and Alaska was on my list. You can’t believe the seafood you can get there, fresh and ready to knock your socks off. Arctic char is the best, closest thing to steak you will ever taste in a fish. Texas is not the best place to get fresh fish. Now I like Toronto or Montreal or even Quebec for fresh seafood. San Francisco is another great place for fresh seafood. And some of the best seafood diners I have had have been in Boulder Colorado. But you pay a price for great dinners. Here in Fort Worth Rock Fish is a very good and slightly pricey restaurant but the fish is great.
So when we find some good salmon or trout or arctic char, sweetheart gets my best efforts. And it is always different, never the same seafood dinner twice. I understand food, I understand preparation, I understand cooking. When I cook, I already have in my mind what I want to create and how I will do it. I seldom use recipes, just put it all together. For me, it’s easy and I seldom have failures, and even if there are failures they are still good. Cooking, like life, is a variation on a theme.