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16 October 2005

a few words about fish

It hit me this morning: if you look at this blog as a record of what I eat, it must look as though I gorge myself on butter, cheese, and chocolate all the time. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, on some days, but it isn’t the best way to live. Someone wrote to me recently: “I wish I could have your life. Your recipes aren’t really low-fat. How do you do it without gaining weight?”

First of all, I’m no skinny malink. But I have come to love my body. (And you can read this from August if you haven’t already seen it. There’s no use in my repeating myself.) I could probably lose some more weight for my health, but it’s happening organically now. I don’t believe much anymore in counting calories or eating minuscule portions as a way of punishing myself. I know what good food tastes like, and I insist on it. In small doses. When you truly, truly taste your food, you don’t need much to feel satisfied. Special, packaged foods, non-fat, low-carb, filled with sugar substitutes? Oof. I’ll take a smaller portion of souffle or plum crumble, thank you. I follow the Julia Child school of cooking—what’s so wrong with a little butter?

I also need to move. Vigorous yoga classes three times a week. Long walks. Kayaking. Bike rides. Pilates. And even, sometimes, the dreaded gym. I just feel better when I’ve moved, stretched my body to its spacious places, and can come home comfortably tired. And it’s worth it for some great cheese once in a while.

But there’s another story behind that. I don’t write about every bite of food I eat on this blog. I know that there are a few manic people online who document every morself that goes in their mouths, but that’s not me. After all, good writing requires contemplation and editing. And I tend not to write about the simple meals I eat most of the days of the week. The homemade hummus on carrots. The salads filled with greens, fava beans, flaxseed, and a squeeze of lemon. Split pea soup for days. Why? Well, writing “Hey, I had a truly wonderful cup of non-fat Greek yogurt for breakfast yesterday,” fails to bring out the poetry in me. So I focus on the special foods, the ones I feed my friends. They leave happy and sated, and I have a kitchen bereft of fattening leftovers. With the memory of slow-cooked beef stew and gluten-free brownies in my mind, I don’t need to eat it again.

Still, some healthy foods deserve a little more attention. Like fish.

I eat fish at least three times a week. Halibut, salmon, sea scallops, cod, catfish, ahi tuna, and sea bass—they all entrance me. Even when I was a vegetarian for ten years, I never stopped eating fish. (And yes, technically that means I wasn’t a vegetarian, but a pescitarian. Okay.) There’s just something about the taste of a thick, tender halibut, sauteed in olive oil and lemon juice, with a little dill and garlic, that will always make me smile.

And of course, fish is just so good for you. Fish is brain food. Do you remember this from childhood? With so many health benefits, fish makes our bodies better. If, that is, you buy the right kind. With what we’ve been doing to the environment these past five decades, so much fish has been tainted with pollution and mercury that we could easily make ourselves sick instead of sated and super-brain-powered. (If you have any doubts, see this document to learn what fish you should eat and when.)

I stick to salmon, but I insist on wild-caught Alaskan salmon. That’s not only because it’s listed as one of the safest fish to eat, but also because it tastes so damned great. When I lived in New York, I also turned down my mouth when I saw salmon listed on the menu. After several tries, I had learned my lesson. The salmon served in all the top restaurants is Atlantic salmon, a pale, mealy-mouthed imitation of its west-coast cousins. Alaska salmon is deep pink, forceful, and magestic in taste. Besides, I spend the last part of every June in Alaska (dear little Sitka, to be precise), and whenever I’m eating wild Alaska salmon, I feel like I’m in that second home of mine. I just won’t eat other kind.

Arguably, I’m spoiled. Here in Seattle, the seafood is so fresh in places that it might as well still be wriggling on the line. Even the grocery stores have good fish. But I only buy mine in several places.

The University Seafood and Poultry Market. Run by the same family for the past sixty years, this local butchers/fishmongerers is legend in this city. One of my foodie friends, a wonderful woman named Marguerite who ran a French restaurant for years after a lifetime adventure in food, says she will only buy her duck fat here. Prepare to spend hours of your life here once you enter its doors. Their seafood is wonderfully fresh and competitive in price with the other best places in Seattle.

The little fish stall in the middle of Pike Place Market. I don’t know the name of this one. I’ve never known the name. It’s not the flashy fish show at the front of the Market, the one on every glossy documentary, where the men throw whole fish over the heads of gape-mouthed tourists. No, that one’s far too expensive. Mine is about halfway down the main way, near to Sosio’s Produce. Heck, I just know it as the place where Neil works. Neil was once one of my students on Vashon Island, back in the 90s. Now, a grown man, he stands behind the glass cases filled with fresh fish and piles of ice, and points to the ones that came in that days, the ones I should buy. (Here’s an important piece of advice for you: don’t go to the Market with a fish in mind. Ask for the best piece that day, then build a recipe around it.) After Neil has chosen a piece for me, gleaming and plump, he throws it on the scale, then leans down to say, “Don’t worry, Ms. James. Half price.” You see? There are benefits to grading all those reseach papers. (And please don’t tell his boss.)

Wild Salmon Seafood Market. I have to admit that I’m partial to this place, and only partly because it’s six blocks down the street from me. The primary location is in Ballard, tucked into the back of a convenience store. No one would know it’s great fish, unless you asked. But it is, because that dinky little convenience store is about five minutes from Fisherman’s Terminal, where all the seafood comes into Seattle. My branch is located in the same space as my butcher’s, A & J meats, so I’m there almost every other day. In fact, the friendly manager, Michael, calls me now when a new shipment of my favorite fish comes in. And every time I go in, he teaches me something, about which farmed fish to buy, and why some salmons have pinker flesh than others. I love having a neighborhood connection with the people who provide me with food. It’s so much better than the flourescent anonymity of grocery stores.

Michael is the one who sold me the luscious piece of ahi tuna in the picture at the top of this post. I wanted to make a recipe from the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook, and there it lay waiting for me. Sometimes, nothing makes me happier than fresh, seared tuna. All I have to do is turn up the heat, throw in some olive oil, sear the fish for one minute on each side, then eat it up, immediately. Luxury on my plate. This time, I encrusted the fish with crushed coriander and fennel seeds, sprinkled it with sea salt, then seared it. I recommend it. In fact, the recipe was just okay (truly strange for Chez Panisse, which normally makes food sing in simple melodies), a little over-busy in its tastes. But the tuna was more than worth it. I’d make that again, and soon.

cod with pistachio meal

And when Molly and I decided to make a meal based on butternut squash and pistachios, I immediately envisioned covering fish in ground pistachios. I’ve been exploring more alternatives to flour than gluten-free substitutes. Ground nuts appeal to me, not only because of the taste, but also because the fats in nuts are healthy for the heart as well. I love the meaty nut taste, the natural saltiness, and the green glimmer of pistachios. When Molly was here, I simply pulsed pistachios in the food processor, then pressed cod into the crumbly pile. Placed in a hot skillet, with a little bit of olive oil, this fish made us both happy.

But a few days later, when I wasn’t addled from my cut thumb, I made this again, this time with catfish. Michael advised me to a farmed catfish, which they pick carefully from their suppliers. With a rich taste like pistachios, a rich fish makes the difference. This one didn’t have the putrid strength of smell some people associate with catfish. Instead, it just resonated with a dense taste and held together under the scrutiny of the skillet and spatula. A little egg before the rolling helped enormously. I gobbled it up long before it could be forgotten. And I smiled at finding yet another way I could eat my fish.

So if you’re wondering what I’m eating most evenings, think fish. Not all of life is cheese and chocolate. Just the best parts.


2 fillets of catfish, about 1/3 pound each, skin removed
1/2 cup of pistachios, ground into a meal in the food processor
1/3 cup of gluten-free flour
1 egg (egg white if you have eaten enough eggs for the week)

°Ground the pistachios in a food processor. Pulse them, quickly, and then check. You still want them rough and crumbly, not a fine meal.
°Mix the crumbled pistachios with the gluten-free flour. Sprinkle in some sea salt and pepper. Toss it all with your hands.
°Dip the fish fillets in a slightly beaten egg. Coat lightly, then coat them in the pistachio, gluten-free flour mix.
°Lay them down immediately in a skillet on high heat, with olive oil (or grapeseed, if you prefer). Sautee for three minutes on each side, turning carefully.
°Eat immediately. You’ll smile.


At 11:12 PM, Blogger Travis said...

encrusting things with pistachios is fun. The great thing is they work for both savory and sweet foods. I made a great gingerbread cake with cream cheese frosting from over at, and I sprinkled ground pistachios on the whole thing. It was beautiful and tasted awesome.

I'll definately have to try pistachios with fish next time. sounds great.

At 7:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Shauna!! This little fishing child agrees - wild caught Alaska salmon is definitely superior to Atlantic. Alaskan salmon are fished by fleets of self-run boats who haul them right up. We clean them within 20 minutes of catching, and they go immediately down in the 30 degree F fishold. Any colder, they'd be literally frozen. Fisherman give the fish utmost care, and deliver fish to the plant on ice, no more than five days old. And since this is what I spend my summers doing, I know! Thank you!

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Ilva said...

Shauna-thanks a lot for posting this recipe, I'll try it out on some nice mediterranean fish on our next fish day! And I do agree with you-better a little of something GOOD than a lot of mediocre low calorie stuff! That doesn't mean that only fat things are tasting good because there are many things that are naturally lean and very tasty but I think it's the balance between eating, moving and your personal metabolism that counts. (Do I make any sense? sounds like gibberish to me...)

At 4:40 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Hi Shauna,
I think you're my food-sister. You have the same philosophies as I do about so many things...from the eating habits of children, to coffee, to fish, to high-quality eating in less quantity over stuffing yourself silly...hmmm...I'm going to have to plan that trip north! Fish is by far one of my favorite foods, especially seared tuna, encrusted in almost anything. Thanks for some new ideas for all of that fish I have stored in my freezer!

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Shauna said...


That gingerbread cake sounds fabulous. I'd like some of that, please.

Berett, my dear--

Thank you for ringing in on Alaskan salmon. I was thinking of you and your family when I wrote this, because I want everyone to honor the work you all do with their dollars. (And some day, I want to go out on that salmon boat with you!)


It made sense to me. Perfectly.


When are you coming? I'll feed you fish and coffee. Wait, that sounds weird together.... Oh, just plan a trip, and we'll make something up!


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