Dispatches: Local Catch

In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Paul Greenberg has written this excellent article on the engandered Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean sea bass, to use the current moarketing moniker.  He also touches on the very serious situation of all the ocean predators that humans have become so fond of eating: tuna, cod, etc.  As a huge, geeky believer in the idea of being connected to your food by knowing where it comes from and the people who produce it, I thought I’d provide a couple of my recipes for local fish.

But first, where to find local fish?  For a few years, I have been cooking fish on Wednesdays procured from my local fisherman, Alex at Blue Moon fisheries, who (or rather, whose retinue of exceptionally cool female employees) sells his catch on that day at the Union Square Greenmarket (on Union Square West at 16th Street).  What is challenging and interesting about doing it is the lack of any of the familiar farmed fish: no salmon or bluefin tuna, and very rarely cod or swordfish.  Instead you have a seasonally changing selection of fish that are swimming in the waters of Long Island: striped bass, bluefish, albacore, dogfish, weakfish, blackfish, monkfish, sea robin, porgies, etc.  As well, there is a selection of Bluepoint oysters, littleneck and quahog clams, and mussels from Shinnecock Bay.  Buying oysters and bringing them home to shuck yourself and slurp down with a little Sancerre, beer, or Champagne is something I highly recommend to endear yourself to your loved ones.

Getting fish from Alex and company and learning what to do with it has taught me a ton about what actually swims in the waters surrounding New York, at what times of year, and at what depths.  It’s also brought me into contact with lots of interesting ideas and local colorations.  Dan Barber sears white fish in lard; it’s super.  When you start doing something regularly, ideas start to flow.  Fried oysters are quick and delicious.  Albacore tuna crusted in sesame and seared on one side, then doused in soy and mirin is amazing.  I make my own canned tuna by packing chunks of the albacore into mason jars with chili, garlic, parsley, and lemon rind, filling it with olive oil, and following the typical canning procedure.  A salade nicoise with the oil from those jars in its mustard vinegarette is pretty special.  Dogfish (a small shark) sandwiches with tomatoes, mayonnaisse, and Tabasco are a hard lunch to beat.  Fish Biriyani with dogfish.  Grilled bluefish.  And on and on.  Find a local fish supplier, read some Alan Davidson, and away you go.  Anyway, herewith, a couple favorites.


Jasper White (the godfather of chowder) might dislike this recipe, since it doesn’t contain salt pork, one of the orthodox elements in the litany of New England chowder ingredients.  Well, I developed this recipe while living with a pescetarian, so I didn’t use salt pork.  If you want to use it (and it is great), leave out the garlic and chili mixture and start by rendering the fat from about two tablespoons of finely diced salt pork and then removing them once they have given up their fat and golden-browned.  Drain these on a paper towel and sprinkle the crispy cracklings on the finished dish.  You’ll have an more traditional chowder that relies on the base note of pork fat (always a pretty good idea), though my version substitutes for that flavor pretty well, I believe. 

Three other points: you want potatoes that are starchy, not waxy, because the starch helps thicken the broth. Second, sourdough bread and seafood broth is a godlike combination, so make sure you find a good sourdough loaf.  Finally, my other innovation on the classic method is to remove the clams after cooking and replace them at the end, thus avoiding rubbery-clam syndrome.  If you only have very large clams, you can chop them up roughly prior to putting them back in the soup, though you then lose the sensual quality of perfectly tender, whole clams in your soup.

Serves 4-6

1/2 tsp minced garlic and red chilies in olive oil (if you don’t have it, make do with crushed chili flakes and minced garlic)
1/2 tsp peppercorns, lightly crushed in mortar
1 knob butter
2 tbl olive oil
1 large yellow onion, cut into large dice
two dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and rinsed
three large starchy potatoes (such as Idaho), peeled and cut into largish slices
1 lb flounder fillets (or other delicate white fish: fluke, halibut, sea bass, hake, cod, etc)
half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
half a loaf sourdough bread, sliced and toasted
cream (as much or as little as you like)

Warm the garlic/chili and the peppercorns with the butter and oil in a heavy soup-pot over medium-low heat.  Add the onions and sweat until translucent and flimsy but not browned.

Add the clams and a bit of water (or wine), turn the heat to high and cover.
Open after five minutes and check that all the clams have opened (littlenecks can be a bit reticent, sometimes you have to turn them right side up).  With a slotted spoon, remove the open clams to a bowl.

Now add the potatoes to the pot and enough water to cover them.  Salt generously to avoid stirring too much later.  (Meanwhile take the clams out and discard the shells.)  Boil until potatoes are well cooked. Crush one or two of the cubes into the broth to thicken it a bit.

Add the flounder fillets and cook them in the broth just until they flake apart (2-3 minutes).  Turn the heat off, throw in the clams and any residual broth from their bowl, the parsley, and enough cream to thicken the broth.  Ladle into bowls, and top with sourdough croutons.


This recipe is a good example of how small changes in execution can result in completely different flavors.  Here this is achieved by browning the garlic and onion further, which makes for a more potent, deeper broth.  This is then balanced by the addition of crushed red chili flakes and saffron, and smoked fish.

To make it, follow the recipe for Clam Chowder, but substitute two cloves of minced garlic and half a teaspoon of red chili flakes.  Let the garlic brown to a nutty gold (but not actually burnt) before adding the onion, which you should also let become just golden.  Put in less salt.  In place of half the flounder, add half a pound of smoked fish (haddock would be ideal, but bluefish works too).  Lastly, soak some saffron in cream while making the soup, and finish with the saffron-inflected cream.


This is my version of Bouillabaisse, with some help from the fish stew of Liguria.  Following the French system of bestowing appellations, I do not call my stew bouillabaisse, because the particular fishes required to make a proper one are unavailable to me in New York (particularly the legendarily bony rascasse, without which no authentic bouillabaisse can be made – one of the best pieces of food writing I have ever read is the great A.J. Liebling’s article on the rascasse). Instead I have developed a retinue of seafood found here that together produce a stock of similar complexity.  What’s important is to have a bony bottom feeding fish similar to the rascasse – in my case use the cool and ugly sea robin, a “trash” fish I buy from Alex for $1.50 a pound.  I fillet the fishes myself, but you can also have the fishmonger do it and ask to keep the carcasses.  The leftover meat from the carcasses, once cooked, can be saved for fishcakes.

This is a good dish for a special occasion, when you have friends helping and drinking Bandol or Julienas with you in the kitchen.  I think a seafood stew and its delicious broth are celebratory in a way unlike another big roast of meat – certainly much more more exciting.  For me, a bouillabaisse or other fish stew is an epic poem of the region in which it’s made, a Virgilian georgic of people, fish and work.

Serves 8

2 yellow onions, coarsely chopped
a large bulb fennel, chopped, eight leafy fronds reserved
6-8 ribs celery, chopped
six cloves garlic, minced
10 peppercorns
3 bay leaves
one snapper, filleted, carcass conserved
one sea robin (from the gunard family – or the boniest seafish you can find), whole
one bass, filleted, carcass conserved
1 1/2 pound mussels
1 1/2 pound very small clams (vongole) or cockles
half a bottle Italian white wine (nothing fancy, Pinot Grigio or Orvieto will do)
8 langoustines, or 1 pound of the biggest, coolest shrimp you can afford
3 pounds medium-waxy potatoes, peeled and cubed, or new potatoes
2-3 pounds fillets of very fresh wild striped bass, wild halibut, wild cod or other large-flaked white fish
3 tbl olive oil
red chili flakes
2 cans whole tomatoes, preferably Italian such as San Marzano
1 tsp saffron, preferably the large Iranian available from Truffette
1 loaf best sourdough or country bread (pugliese, batard, etc)
2 cloves garlic, halved

In a large stockpot, add a third of the chopped onion, chopped celery, chopped fennel, and chopped garlic, and all the peppercorns, bay leaves, and fish carcasses.  No salt.  Cover with cold water.  Bring to the boil, break up the carcasses with a wooden spoon.  Simmer slowly for thirty minutes.

During this thirty minutes, in another soup-pot, add the mussels and 1 cup wine, cover and cook over high heat until steam escapes from the top.  Check that all the mussels are open.  With a slotted spoon, move the mussels to a bowl. Remove half the mussels from their shells, discarding shells, and put the mussels on a large platter.  Strain the liquid in the pot into the stockpot.  Repeat the exact same process with the cockles or clams, adding to the platter.

Also during this thirty minutes, put the shrimp or langoustines into the stock pot in a sieve, so they don’t float away, and cook under just done or underdone, less than a minute. Reserve.  Also boil the potatoes in salted water until just done, drain, and add to the platter.  Finely chop the parsley and add to the platter.

Back to the stock.  After thirty minutes elapses, strain the stock into another pot through a sieve.  Remove all solids from the stock pot (after the fish carcasses cool, pick through them for meat, and use it for fish cakes, a mayonnaise-based fish salad, or just a sandwich with tabasco).  Now strain the stock back into the stockpot, put back over low heat and let it simmer, concentrating its flavor.  It should smell pretty great.

Now the actual stew begins.  In a heavy soup-pot, heat the olive oil over medium and add the rest of the onion and fennel, cooking until translucent. Add the garlic and a hefty amount of red chili flakes, and fry until garlic is just off-white and the harshness of its aroma has been attenuated.  Throw in the saffron and stir.  Now add the tomatoes (but not their juices), breaking them up with a spoon.  Cook this down over high heat until you have a medium a little looser than tomato sauce, about 30 minutes.  Now add enough of the concentrated fish stock to make the right volume for your numbers, and salt and pepper exactly right.  Poach the snapper and bass fillets in the stew and break them up a bit.

Thickly slice and properly toast the bread, then quickly rub one side with halved garlic.

Finally, slice the striped bass fillet into portions, one for each eater.  Now poach the cod pieces in the simmering stew broth.  As soon as they’re close to done, remove each to a warmed soup plate.  Now add the entire contents of the platter (mussels, cockles, potatoes, parsley) to the stew and heat as fast as you can.  When back to the boil, add langoustines or shrimp, count to fifteen, and ladle the stew over the cod, placing a langoustine on top, and add half a ladle of the stock to moisten if necessary.  Prettily place a fennel frond on top of each bowl (lying down, not jutting out!) and wedge a slice of garlic-rubbed toast halfway into the soup on the side of each plate.


This is a great use for albacore tuna, which is good raw but too lean to be very good cooked, and which appears in great quantities in the late summer and fall.  You can use it for the Salade Nicoise or for my tuna salad recipe below.  It’s way better than regular canned tuna and way cheaper than imported oil-packed Italian bluefin tuna.  Anyway, bluefin is wasted on anything other than sashimi.

Makes one Canning Jar

1/2-3/4 pound albacore tuna, no bones or skin, cut into 4-5 chunks
1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped
two or three red birds-eye chilies, split lengthwise
some sprigs of parsley
a small pinch of thyme
1tsp Maldon salt, or regular salt
6 peppercorns
good olive oil

Sit the tuna chunks in a canning jar (with the hinged top and red rubber seal) on top of the parsley fronds.  Add the rest of the ingredients around and on top of the tuna.  Now pour olive oil on top until it comes above the level of the tuna.  There should be a little room at the sides and top of the jar; you don’t want it packed too tightly.

Now place the jar (or jars) in a large pot and fill with water until the water comes just below the level of the jar’s mouth.  Take the jar out and bring the water to the boil; add the jar again (with tongs), lower heat to the barest simmer, cover and let simmer for 1 hour.  You’re done.  Let cool and refrigerate (just to be safe); it keeps indefinitely, though once you open the jar you should finish it within a few days.  And you will.


Obviously a classic.

Serves 4.

1/2 pound oil-packed tuna, flaked
2 pounds new potatoes
1 pound asparagus
4 eggs
2 very ripe beefsteak or plum tomatoes
Mixed lettuces, cos, romaine, etc
1 tbl mustard (I use Maille)
1 lemon
Maldon salt

Boil a pot of well-salted water, add the potatoes, cook until done.  Set aside.  Boil the eggs until softish, set aside, cool, peel and halve.  Blanch the asparagus, set aside.

Cut the tomatoes into quarters lengthwise and sprinkle with Maldon salt.

Make a vinegrette by beating into the mustard some olive oil and some oil from the tuna can and the juice of half a lemon until you have a loose dressing.  Pepper it.

Mix all ingredients gently with dressing to coat.  Either in a large bowl for the table or in individual dishes, arrange all ingredients and squeeze some lemon, grind some pepper and crunch some Maldon salt over them.  Bob’s your uncle.


This is the best tuna salad you can get, perfect for open-faced sandwiches on thick, toasted slices of good bread.  If you don’t have your own canned tuna, use water-packed white meat tuna and add a little more mayo.  I lunch on it and a bowl of dal when writing.

Serves 1 man, or 2 women (inside joke)

1/2 pound home-canned tuna
2-4 bird-eye chilies, finely sliced
thumb of ginger, finely diced
1 tbl parsley or cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbl mayonnaise
a squeeze lemon juice
a lot of black pepper

Combine everything in a bowl.  Break up the tuna some, but not too much.


SERVES 6-8 (depending on Allah’s mood – at times it has served 12)

6 curry leaves
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, finely diced
3-5 green birds-eye chilies, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp red pepper, 1 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp garam masala OR
4 tsp Shan fish biriyani spice mix OR
4 tsp hot madras curry powder

oil (canola or other vegetable)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
10 black peppercorns
handful fresh coriander, chopped
some saffron and a bit of milk
16 oz. plain yogurt
2 lbs of firm, white-fleshed fish fillets (I like tilapia or the shark known as dogfish)
2 teacups full of Basmati rice from Pakistan, or India

Soak the saffron threads in milk in a cup.  Fry 1/4 of the onion in oil until dark golden brown (not burnt), then spread on a paper-towel covered plate to dry and become crispy and sweet.  Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, add the rice, simmer for 5 minutes until half cooked through, then drain in a sieve and leave.

Heat 5tbls oil in a large pan and add the curry leaves, cumin seeds and peppercorns when hot, then in 30 seconds the other 3/4 of onion.  Fry till onion is getting dark at edges and light golden.  Add the garlic, ginger, and chilies and fry more for a couple minutes.    Add the ground spice mix, 1 1/2 tsp salt and the coriander and fry for a minute.  Start adding the yogurt starting a little at a time, stirring, and then larger amounts until incorporated and all is bubbling away.  Then reduce heat, add the fish fillets, cook a couple of minutes and turn over.  turn off heat.  You now have a half cooked fish curry, and separately some half-cooked rice.

In a sturdy pot or casserole, add some of the sauce from the curry to the bottom, then 1/3 the rice, then half the fish curry, then 1/3 the rice, then half the fish curry, then top with the last 1/3 rice.  On top, sprinkle most of the crispy onions and a bit of fresh minced ginger, then pour the saffron-milk on top in an X pattern.  Put the lid on and leave to cook at the lowest heat for 30-45 minutes, turning off 10 minutes before eating.  Serve with raita, a hot green chutney, and extra crispy onions on each serving.


Where I’m Coming From
Optimism of the Will
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick
The Other Sweet Science
Rain in November
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence