Coming from a landlocked state, I have a deep distrust of cooking seafood. My memories of it from childhood mostly involve unrecognizable fillets from deep within the grocer’s freezer. As far as I could tell, there were two types of fish: white and salmon, which came from a can.
I have certainly not outgrown this feeling. There are just so many things that can go wrong with seafood, like death from a bad clam or parasites from swordfish. Even simply buying the seafood is wrought with anxiety. My environmentally conscious fishmonger keeps the list of overfished species right on the counter, right above the dead carcasses of the fish you are warned not to eat to keep the ecosystem from collapsing all together. You want monkfish? Jesus, why don’t you just get a baseball bat and club a baby seal to death while you’re at it.
Obviously I am not the only one with such issues, given that there is a cookbook called Fish Without a Doubt. Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore are here to hold your hand and walk you through the process of buying and preparing fish. Unlike the mixed messages of my fishmonger, however, they avoid using the fish you’re not supposed to eat in any of the recipes. There are detailed instructions on how to do everything from cleaning a fish to “dispatching” a lobster (get it to lie still on its back while you ram a knife through its head). All that was left was deciding which recipes were the least likely to cause nervous collapse.
I know my skill set and my clumsiness with knives, so anything that included shoving a knife into a shellfish while it is in the palm of my hand while I “run the knife from one side of the clam to the other, with the tip scraping along the top shell, to release the clam from the top” was out. My health insurance is not good enough for that. Even though it was tempting to see how heartless I could be by throwing live creatures into boiling water, I decided to take it slow with something that came pre-dead, with face already removed.
I tried the Halibut Poached in Milk, with Bok Choy and Coconut Green Curry Sauce, which the book describes as “comfort food with a kick.” Well, minus the kick. It was very gentle and comforting, but bordered on boring. After a bad day, I’d be just as quick to reach for this as for mashed potatoes, but for serving to my friends, it was worthy of a shrug. (With “responsibly caught” halibut — I ordered it as if I knew that it meant — costing about $23 a pound, a sane person might just as well choose the potatoes.)
The ease of it did make up for what it lacked in charisma, though. The curry sauce could be made ahead of time, and the poaching and the greens could be made within about 10 minutes. I remade the curry a few days later and poured it on just about everything: chicken, rice and greens, Cheerios (or I would have if I had any in my cupboard). But it wasn’t worth the high price of the fish to try it again.
One bright light in our overfished seas, though, is the mussel. Eating mussels and oysters is actually good for our oceans, I’m told, so one can cook them as much as you wish. Mussels, being nice little creatures that open up for you when you kill them, seem like the obvious choice for me. The Thai-Style Mussels were quick to make, and after they were gone I briefly considered sticking my head in the bowl and licking it clean.
Maybe one day, with the help of Moonen and Finamore, I will become comfortable enough with seafood and my fishmonger to take a pair of kitchen shears and cut off the faces of some soft-shell crabs (as instructed on page 42, the crab’s face tastefully away from the camera). But let’s just take one step at a time, shall we? • 29 July 2008
Adapted from Fish Without a Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore
4 fresh kaffir lime leaves
1 can coconut milk (14 oz)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 red chiles, minced
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup minced shallots
4 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
Jasmine or white rice
Bruise the lime leaves by squeezing and rubbing them between your fingers. Combine the coconut milk and lime leaves in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Turn off the heat, stir, and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, and chiles in a small bowl.
Heat a deep wide pot over high heat. When the pot’s good and hot, add the vegetable oil, shallots, and garlic, and cook for 30 seconds, stirring. Add the mussels and cover the pot immediately. Cook, shaking the pot often, until the mussels open, about 4 minutes, depending on the size of the mussels. Transfer the mussels to a big bowl with a large spider or slotted spoon and cover with a kitchen towel to keep them warm.
Reduce the juices in the pot by half, until they’re syrupy looking. Add the lime juice and chile mixture and bring to a boil. Cook for 30 seconds. Add the coconut milk and lime leaves and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute. Return the mussels to the pot and bring to a boil. Stir in the herbs.
Divide the mussels and sauce among four big soup bowls. Serve immediately, with rice on the side.