Posts tagged fish

Memories of Essaouira

During our honeymoon in Morocco, Jim and I spent a few days in the seaside town of Essaouira. We strolled the narrow stone streets overlooking the ocean and relaxed on the beach, breathing in the salt air with each step. One hot, sunny day at lunchtime, we walked down to the port and seated ourselves at one of the myriad fish stands right by the water. Seagulls swarmed overhead, swooping down every so often to investigate the fresh seafood that local fishermen unloaded from their boats.

At the time, Jim and I didn’t eat fish often. But there was no way we could avoid it in Essaouira, and neither did we want to. Maybe we were still giddy from our wedding or something, I’m not sure. Anyway, we ordered a big platter of straight-from-the-sea, grilled sardines for lunch. Using our hands, we picked our way past the charred, salty skin and spindly bones to the cleanest, freshest meat we had ever tasted. Four years later, we still talk about about that lunch and its effect on us.

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This past weekend we tried to recreate that meal—or at least the spirit of it—in a very different setting. We pulled our grill pan out from under the sink, heated it through, and grilled 2 pounds of barely seasoned sardines for dinner. A Brooklyn apartment might seem a shabby substitute for an exotic African port, but it didn’t hinder us at all. After cooking for just a couple of minutes on each side, the skin of the shimmery fish was transformed into a crackly coating, and our apartment was quickly infused with salty scents of the sea. (That’s my nice way of saying it smelled like fish.)

I don’t know why it took us four years to cook sardines at home, especially when there are so many benefits to eating them. Sardines are a highly sustainable fish source, which at least puts my mind at ease in terms of purchasing and eating them. And in addition to being a great source of omega-3s, they are low in all those scary contaminants I keep reading about. These small, oily fish surprisingly pack a big nutritional punch.

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But let’s not forget how good they taste. I served ours atop a bed of rice, with some fresh lemon wedges on the side. The crisp skin was a perfect foil to the fresh, flaky meat hidden within. Even though we were miles away from Morocco, Jim and I were transported there for just a moment, as we once again used our hands to pick past the tiny bones towards the light, clean flesh of the sardines. Fishy apartment aside, it was a great trip.

Recipe for Indoor Grilled Sardines (adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe in the Recipes for Health section of the New York Times)

  • 2 pounds of cleaned sardines
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • pepper
  • lemon wedges

Heat a grill pan over medium heat, until it is very hot. While the pan is heating, rinse the sardines, and dry them with paper towels. Toss with olive oil, and season them generously with salt and pepper.

When the grill is ready, place the sardines on it. Grill for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a platter using tongs and serve with lemon wedges. Serves 2. Enjoy!

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Lobsters from the Red Hook Lobster Pound

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Red Hook, Brooklyn, is known for its shipyards, rickety docks, and longshoremen. But lobster? I’ve heard good things about the lobster rolls at Fairway, but local residents Ralph Gorham and his wife Susan Povich are taking these coveted crustaceans to another level, with their newly-opened Red Hook Lobster Pound on Van Brunt Street. 

The concept behind the Lobster Pound is a bit unusual, even for the most rabid food enthusiast: Gorham drives up to southern Maine (to towns such as Kittery and Wells) on Thursdays, and trucks back iced cratefuls of live lobsters for the weekend. He purchases them directly from local fishermen, right out of the Maine seawater. By the time Gorham returns to Red Hook, the lobsters have only been out of the water for 5 to 6 hours. Upon arrival at the shop, they are immediately transferred to Gorham’s personally-crafted lobster tanks. He worked with a biologist to mimic Maine seawater through the addition of elements like salt and crushed coral, and maintains a water temperature of 38 degrees. 

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It’s obvious within minutes of meeting Gorham that the Lobster Pound is a labor of love. He describes the long drive to Maine as relaxing, and recounts how he used to go lobstering for fun while spending time at his wife’s home there. While he recently realized he could turn his hobby into a money-making endeavor, Gorham stresses that he does his best to bring down just enough lobsters to fill the weekly orders, so that waste of extra lobsters is prevented. This is why it’s best to place orders by Thursday for the upcoming weekend, before Gorham makes the trip to Maine and starts purchasing them. The shop opens for pick-ups on Friday, and closes when the lobsters are sold out.

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When Jim and I asked for advice on how we should cook the two 1-1/2 pound lobsters we had ordered, Gorham told us just to steam them in 4 inches of salted water for 6 to 8 minutes. Before we left, he packed up some Maine seaweed for us, and told us to use just a bit of it in place of sea salt.

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I won’t bore you with the details of our lobster cooking escapade on Saturday night; let’s just say it involved a lot of fearful cringing, a pair of tongs, and a few minutes of remorse while the lobsters quickly steamed in a big white pot on our stovetop. But once we sat down to eat them with just a bit of melted butter on the side, it was a different story. Sadness turned to joy as we ate bite after bite of the freshest lobster I’ve ever had in New York. And that seaweed made all the difference, imparting just the right amount of sea-salt flavor to the clean, savory meat. I’m not sure I can make a habit of this—lobsters are always a bit of a splurge, and our two guys cost $30 all together (about $9.50 a pound)—but Gorham recently received permits to sell lobster rolls straight out of the shop, as well as at the Brooklyn Bridge Flea. Sorry Fairway, but I’m getting my lobster at the Pound.

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The Red Hook Lobster Pound, 284 Van Brunt Street between Visitation Place and Verona Street. T: 646-326-7650. It’s best to place your orders by phone or email (redhooklobster[at]gmail.com) by Thursday. Prices change weekly. Check the website for updates.

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A Stroll through the Mercato Centrale

Ciao, tutti! I’m finally back from my quick trip to Italy—Florence, to be exact. Although I was working most of the time, I did have a few free hours here and there. During one of these periods I decided to visit Florence’s Mercato Centrale. Located in a two-floor, nineteenth-century cast iron building near San Lorenzo, this amazing array of Italian food stalls is known as the best food market in the city. Over the course of a few hours I strolled around and around, up and down, trying to take it all in.

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As I walked through the halls of the ground floor, I immediately noticed the piles of fresh produce at several different stands. From cabbage to radicchio, artichokes to squash, seasonality was on full display. The cold temperature inside kept everything fresh, and I was also impressed by the clean, pristine hallways of the market.

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Although my eyes first turned to the vibrant fruits and vegetables, a more thorough investigation of the ground floor revealed an assortment of vendors selling fresh and prepared foods. Baskets of dried porcini mushrooms peeked from between rows of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and wine. Fresh bread rested behind glass display cases, away from eager hands. Every time I turned a corner I encountered something I wanted to eat.

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Panzerotti, ravioli, cappellacci—all of these fresh pastas stuffed with ingredients such as nuts, cheese, spinach, and mushrooms called to me, as did the gnocchi and gnudi, while I lingered by their display cases. Without my own kitchen in Florence all I could do was look and imagine how they would taste. I settled on three bags of dried, spaghetti-like pici instead, mentally planning a special pasta dinner back in Brooklyn.

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I’m usually not a fan of dried fruit, but I couldn’t shy away from the colorful array I encountered during my tour. Kiwi, mango, papaya, melon, and apricot varieties kept me satisfied during the rest of the week at work, whenever my stomach grumbled and I was hours away from a meal.

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Also on the ground floor were the butchers. Some butcher stands simply focused on conventional cuts of poultry, lamb, and beef. Others offered tripe and additional types of offal, and even more adventurous products such as pigs’ feet. Dressed in white coats and wielding huge knives, the butchers chopped and sliced at their wares for the bustling crowd. Every part of the animal was for sale; nothing went to waste. Chickens were left with their necks and feet intact, so there was no mistaking that the meat had come from an actual animal.

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Rounding out my tour of the first floor were the cheese and cured meat vendors. Huge chunks of parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto, and different types of salumi beckoned me from all corners, and I finally bought some salamina cinghiale (wild boar salami) for Jim. I quickly walked past the few fish mongers located together at one end of the building, trying to avoid the smell of fresh fish in the morning.

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A short climb up the iron staircase to the sprawling second floor revealed more produce and herbs. Towers of citrus, greens, and other vegetables mingled with sun-dried tomatoes, salted capers, and dried herbs such as basil, rosemary, and parsley. Since I couldn’t buy any of the fresh produce I just admired the first zucchini of the season and marveled at the varieties of squash, apples, and lettuce.

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After a few laps around the building I had worked up quite an appetite. I returned downstairs to the ground floor and joined the long line at a crowded stand called Nerbone, where I picked up a porchetta sandwich (4€).  It didn’t look like much—just a few slices of pork slapped into a roll—but oh my, was it wonderful. The soft, juicy meat nestled into a crispy roll quickly disappeared as I eagerly finished my sandwich. It was the perfect way to end my stroll of Florence’s Mercato Centrale. 

Mercato Centrale, open Monday through Saturday from 7 am to 2 pm, near San Lorenzo on Via dell’Ariento in Florence, Italy.

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Dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

 

If you’ve read other descriptions of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, you might already be familiar with the photograph above. “Oh no,” you probably just groaned. “Not another post raving about this place and its raw vegetables on sticks.” Well, brace yourself: Last week I finally ate at Stone Barns, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful and creative meals I’ve ever had. And those vegetables on sticks? Through their farm-to-table freshness and the artistry of their arrangement, they encompass all that was wonderful about the experience.

Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, and headed by chef Dan Barber (also of Blue Hill in Manhattan), Blue Hill at Stone Barns is more than just a restaurant. It’s a farm, an ideal, and an artistic adventure. Every effort is made to prepare and produce food culled from its own land, which is situated on a vast Rockefeller Estate. (While most ingredients used in the restaurant are produced on the farm, not all of them are. For example, Blue Hill does not farm its own fish.) Along with our friends Keith and Gabriella, Jim and I explored the farm on Saturday afternoon, intrigued by its greenhouses, herb gardens, and pastures of sheep and turkeys.

We returned later that night for dinner, and were immediately embraced by the soaring, wood-beamed ceilings and golden lighting of the main dining room, located in a sprawling stone dairy barn. As we perused the tasting menu, we realized that it was simply a list of the ingredients available to Chef Barber that evening. Beyond this list, our group had no idea what lay in store in store for us. We threw up our hands and surrendered to the experience, although we were encouraged to tell the wait staff a bit about our food personalities and preferences so that Chef Barber could personalize our tasting.

After a few nervous shrugs and glances between us, Jim declared that we were an adventurous group of eaters. On the evening of our visit, the ingredients ranged from concord grapes, bok choi, and chanterelle mushrooms to Berkshire pork, wahoo fish, and grass-fed veal, among many others. We decided to indulge in the seven-course farmers’ feast tasting ($125 each). In response to our waiter’s inquiry regarding ingredients we preferred or disliked, Jim described his love for arugula, asking to see what Chef Barber could do with his favorite green apart from serving it raw in a salad. I added that I didn’t feel like eating soft-boiled eggs, and Gabriella said she was willing to eat less meat. The adventure had begun.

Then the amuse-bouche started to arrive, as exciting in their presentation as their flavors. Those raw vegetables elegantly perched on steel spikes were crisp, fresh, and simply touched with lemon. Tiny beet burgers, skewers of eggplant coated with pancetta and sesame seeds, bread with fresh butter, lard, and soft, smooth ricotta, were placed on the table in unending parade of farm freshness. And I can’t forget the face bacon, served to us with other Stone Barns cured meats. 

No, you didn’t read that incorrectly, I wrote face bacon. Made from the farm’s own pigs’ jowls, these small, crunchy bits of meat enthralled us to no end. We raised our wine glasses when ingredients were described as being “from the farm,” creating our own amusing drinking game in the midst of the abundance. Arugula quickly made its first appearance with the appetizers, infused into a cup of salt served with our bread. I should note now that Chef Barber conquered Jim’s arugula challenge throughout our meal, mixing this peppery green into grain salads and serving it wilted on the side of our entrées.

After being successfully lured in by the appetizers, the main dishes began. One after another, each dish was a visual and edible surprise. Delicate pieces of barely seared bluefin and wahoo fish started our feast. A vegetable called celtuse, its wide, ribbon-like strands mimicking fresh pasta in a sauce of pine nut butter and yogurt, was a favorite of the night.

I didn’t know what to expect in response to my soft-boiled egg request, but I soon found out: For one entrée, while everyone else enjoyed a farm-fresh (raise your wine glass now) egg dish, I received my own small serving of eggplant parmigiana with zucchini flowers sprinkled across the top. Later in the evening, Gabriella also received a personalized dish as a substitute for one of the two meat  entrées of Berkshire pig and chicken. Now that’s what I call personal attention.

The desserts were delivered in a continuous stream, including baked plums with crispy emmer; a dessert composed from juicy concord grapes; and a curious fruit called the paw paw. Just when I thought I’d had enough, our waiter wheeled out a cart overflowing with herbs and a glass teapot. He called it a tisane, and brewed us a soothing pot of lemon verbena and sage tea on the spot. It was one of the most beautiful displays of greenery I had ever seen.

At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, art and food intersect to create an enthralling and unique experience. I know it may sound pretentious to describe a meal in these terms, but for me, it was true. Every detail, from the beautiful porcelain plates decorated with plant and animal life, to the rustic candle holders, dark wood accents, and overflowing plant arrangements in the dining room coordinated perfectly with our abundant and beautifully plated farmers’ feast. Combined with Stone Barns’s practice of cultivating as much food as possible on their own land, everything came together to offer an extremely personal and artistic meal. That’s how those vegetables on sticks represent the Blue Hill at Stone Barns experience: fresh, honest, and creative.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, 630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, New York 10591  T: 914-366-9600. A five-course tasting is also offered for $95, and on Sundays there is a four-course tasting lunch for $68. Make your reservations one to two months in advance.

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