Eat More Fish:
An Old Maine Story
Fishermen’s dock, Camden, Maine, where yachts and pleasure craft outnumber fishing boats by about 20 to one.
At a Maine fisherman’s forum a while back, I listened to a young, energetic chef talk about seafood. He advocated enthusiastically for our local fisheries, talking about the need to expand seafood production, using aquaculture as well as the many species we ignore that are out there in abundance in our waters—species like dogfish, which is ignored by both fishermen and cooks. His message boiled down to one basic maxim: Eat more fish.
Butterfish, straight out of Penobscot Bay.
Fine, I’m in complete agreement, but how do “we” go about that? In my family, we eat fish, at home or in a restaurant, a couple of times a week, which is far more than most American families consume. And when I go out to eat, I often order fish of some sort simply because many places have interesting and attractive ways to present it. That same day, after I left the meeting, I went to Nīna June, my daughter’s Rockport restaurant, and ordered halibut because it was the season for this super-local fish.
Seared halibut at Nina June, Rockport, Maine
The fillet was seared till the surfaces were bronzed and crispy and it was served on a bed of pureed Umbrian lentils, garnished with roasted tomatoes and a bouquet of mini greens and blossoming rosemary—a beautiful dish and a tasty one too.
So that’s me and my family. But if, as the young chef urged, we should all be eating more fish, how do we go about doing that?
In the end, he had no suggestions, or at least none that made sense to me. Fishermen could catch more fish--but they are already at the limit for most of the regulated seafoods. Here in Maine, we‘ve just seen the shrimp harvest banned for the eighth season in a row, and no one expects it will ever be restored. At least not in my lifetime. Cod is limited, halibut and scallops are restricted, even mackerel, once so abundant, is now coming under the stern gaze of the regulators.
the last, lonely fisherman in Camden hauling his catch up the dock
Fish farmers, aquaculturalists, could expand production, raising more salmon, shrimp, oysters, whatever, but they are up against public indifference to everything but oysters (and maybe mussels), even facing downright hostility. Much of the opposition to farmed fish, I’m told on good authority, is encouraged by promoters of wild fish—the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute being one of the foremost advocates for wild over farmed. Shellfish farming, oysters, mussels, and scallops especially, is strong along the Maine coast, and finfish farming has evolved in recent years to include not only Atlantic salmon but also Arctic char (not so far in Maine, though it’s a good prospect). Most recently, the future for amberjack (Seriola lalandi, aka yellowtail, hamachi, or kingfish) looks positive with a proposal for a land-based, recirculating aquaculture farm way Downeast in Jonesport. When done right, this kind of fish farming is one of the most environmentally responsible ways of producing protein—far more than most of our land-based industrial-ag systems for raising meat and getting it to market.
But there’s no point in pushing fishermen to harvest more, or in urging fish farmers to increase production, unless there’s a market for seafood. And currently, embarrassingly, there is not. Americans consume between 15 and 16 pounds of seafood annually per person—a full four pounds of that in the form of shrimp, most of which is farmed by environmentally contentious methods. Many Americans consume almost no seafood at all. Another interesting statistic: nearly 80% of the seafood consumed in this country is scoffed up in restaurants, primarily Red Lobster which, with its sister chain, Olive Garden, eats up millions of pounds of seafood annually from all over the world. That’s a lot of shrimp cocktail!
So I’m left with the problem: yes, we should eat more seafood. It’s good for us, and most of it, when it’s grown and/or harvested wisely, is also good for the environment. Now tell me please: When did you last eat a dish of fish and what was in it? Did you cook it yourself or did someone make it for you? I’ll be looking for what you have to say.
And meanwhile, here are a couple of recipes, one (the first) for fish-cooking newbies, the second, more complex and challenging but with an astonishingly delicious result.
Oven-Baked Fish Packages (one to a person)
You could use individual portions of salmon, swordfish, halibut, mahi-mahi, yellowfin tuna, dogfish, or other types of firm-textured fish, whether wild or farmed. Count on a portion size of around 5 ounces and plan to season accordingly. I give ingredient suggestions for a single portion.
One 4- to 5-ounce portion of fresh fish
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Set your oven on 425º.
Spread out a 12-inch sheet of aluminum foil, big enough to shape a package around your portion of fish. Smear some of the olive oil in the center of the sheet, then set the fish on the oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add whatever other seasonings you choose from the list below, then dribble on the remaining olive oil and the lemon juice. Pull up the edges of the foil sheet and seal the packet, keeping it loose around the fish but tightly sealed where the edges come together to prevent steam from escaping.
Here’s what it should look like:
Set it on a baking sheet with a raised edge, to keep any juices from spilling on the oven floor. Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 25 minutes for a one-inch thick piece of fish. Serve immediately, in its packet, so that the diner opens it up to an explosion of delicious aromas.
Some suggested seasonings:
Coarsely chopped cilantro, thin slivers of fresh green chili peppers, slivered scallions, lime juice instead of lemon;
Chopped ripe red tomatoes, basil, garlic, and black olives, a few drops of red wine vinegar instead of lemon;
Cod filet with a Mediterranean topping: tomatoes, scallions, black olives, basil, red wine vinegar
Za’atar spice mix, chopped scallions, Turkish dried red chili peppers, about a teaspoon of tahini sauce dribbled over the top.
Salmon with a Middle Eastern topping: za’atar, scallions, dried red chili flakes, tahini.
Or just use your imagination!
Cataplana, Maine version of a sumptuous Portuguese fish stew.
NB: This is not an authentic recipe and quite possibly it’s one of those dishes that varies in authenticity from household to household throughout Portugal. It began when my daughter the chef bought a copper cataplana, the odd Portuguese cooking vessel, a clam shell that’s made up of two domes, or rather a wok with a domed lid: You start the dish in the bottom half, sauteing the basic ingredients, then cover it with the seafood and the top half, sealing it shut, and cook quickly on top of the stove. It’s said in Portugal that the cataplana comes from North Africa; it seems to us closely related to Moroccan tagines, although tagines are almost invariably made of terracotta not metal. Whatever—you can imitate the effects of a cataplana with a fairly shallow cooking pot or a high-sided skillet, as long as you have a lid that will fit tightly on top. To make a tighter seal, first cover the pot with a sheet of aluminum foil before setting on the lid.
This will make 6 servings.
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
3 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 or 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
½ cup finely chopped red sweet peppers
½ cup coarsely chopped fresh fennel
½ pound chorizo, longaniza, or txistorro, sliced or crumbled
2 cups chopped peeled plum tomatoes (or use canned, drained)
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, sugar
¾ cup white wine
Pinch of crumbled saffron threads
Pinch of crumbled hot red pepper (chili) flakes
Couple branches of thyme
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Fish (mahi-mahi or monkfish, fillets) – around ¾ pound, boneless, cut in small serving-sized pieces
Mahogany clams – 1 dozen
Mussels – 18 to 20
Shrimps in shells (heads off) – 18 or so
2 medium potatoes, cooked, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
Combine the onions and garlic with the olive oil in the bottom half of the cataplana. Set over medium low heat and sauté very gently until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the anchovies and cook, crushing with a fork to blend everything together, Add the sweet pepper and fennel and cook till the vegetables start to soften. Now add in the sausage, raise the heat slightly and cook quickly, browning the sausage pieces. Add the tomatoes (if using canned whole tomatoes, break them up with the side of a spoon), give it all a stir, and close the cataplana cover (you do not need to seal it at this point). Lower the heat to low and cook for 5 minutes or so, until the tomatoes have softened and given up a lot of juice. Add salt, pepper and if you wish a pinch of sugar. Stir in ½ cup of wine, the bayleaves, saffron, red chili pepper, and thyme. Add 2 tablespoons of the parsley and stir it all together. Cook for five or ten minutes until you have a dense sauce,
This can all be done well ahead, even a day ahead, and the sauce kept refrigerated until ready to continue the recipe.
When you’re ready to proceed, return the sauce if necessary to the bottom half of the cataplana. Arrange the fish pieces on top of the sauce, then distribute the shrimps, clams and mussels on top. Tuck the chunks of potato in and around the seafood. Close the lid of the cataplana and this time shut the clamps to make a tight seal.
Set the cataplana over medium heat. Now listen carefully and as soon as you sense that the sauce has started to simmer, lower the heat and cook for about 10 minutes. This should be sufficient time for all the seafood to cook through. The biggest problem with this ingenious method is that you have no way of knowing that it’s done until you open the lid. If you do open it and discover that the seafood is not sufficiently cooked, you’ll have to seal it back up again and continue cooking for another minute or two. This is not easy because by now the cooking vessel is very hot and hard to manipulate.
This is traditionally served with good country-style bread, excellent for sopping up the juices, but if you wish, a bowl of rice will make a good base for the stew as well.