A Fine Kettle Of Fish
Gulf Coast seafood is good eating even when you’re watching the scales.
Gulf Coast seafood is one pleasure in life that won’t make you fat or get you arrested. Another good thing about it is that it’s in plentiful supply. The bad thing about it is that you can’t always buy really fresh seafood conveniently. Of course, you can always go fishing. If you’ve never stood waist deep in water and cast into the surf for your supper you don’t know what you’ve missed. Not even yoga can top the feeling of peace and relaxation that comes from concentrating all your attention on the thumb and forefinger of your right hand waiting for a strike. And to cook on the spot what you’ve caught, with no middlemen involved, well—fish from the market will never be the same for you.
Casting aside all that, you can purchase a marvelous variety of seafood if you’re fortunate enough to live in one of the cities in Texas with a fresh seafood market. Austin has a model known as Quality Seafoods. They handle everything from Alaska king crab to sheeps-head. In San Antonio, there’s Polunsky’s; in Fort Worth, Quillin’s at three locations; in Dallas, Gulf Fish Market (two locations) with fish from all over the world and a fresh lobster tank, also Seacoast Fish and Christie’s Seafood. Houston has Glatzmaier Seafood Market on Travis, and is in the process of getting a new market, The Fishery, to be located at 9521 Westheimer. Texas Parks and Wildlife seafood specialist Bill Swartz said of The Fishery, “Texas is finally getting a 20th-century seafood market.” They’ll fly in fresh mackerel and pike from the North, lobster from Maine, crab from Alaska. They’ll have wholesale and retail fish from the Gulf available the day after it’s caught.
But what if you don’t live within biking distance of a Quality or a Fishery? First, you’re better off if you try to deal with a market which restricts itself to fish. Chain grocers have buyers who bid on fresh fish, but quality control sometimes gets lost in the shuffle for bargains. Second, you’ll be happier with your results if you choose fresh fish instead of frozen. Fish that have been frozen and thawed are extremely delicate and have a tendency to fall apart.
If you can’t get to a seafood market and your corner grocer handles only frozen fish, lean on him to put in an ice chest for fresh fish. Today there is no excuse but consumer apathy for a lack of good, fresh seafood all over the state. Considering the normal 35-per cent retail markup, almost any grocer would put in an ice chest if his customers demanded it, though many seafood wholesalers say, “Cooks in Texas are ignorant about seafood, unless they live right on the water.”
How do you know which fish to choose from the ones on ice? Look him right in the eye. His eye should be clear and bulging. Cloudy or sunken eyes are telltale signs of inferior quality. Older fish grow bacteria and even get yellow around the mouth. Arghh. Don’t hesitate to ask the fishseller to let you have a whiff if there is still doubt in your mind. Old fish gets a raunchy smell which is unmistakable, like kitchen ammonia—a sure sign of putrefaction. There is rarely any charge at a fish market for cutting, so let the butcher do it. Select a whole fish that you can see is good and fresh, then have it butchered to suit your plans for preparation. Or take it home whole—there’s nothing juicier than a whole steamed fish, and you can use all the bones to make broth for chowder.
How shall you prepare it? The Texas consumer is used to accepting fried fish as the one and only way. That’s about as reasonable as chicken-frying sirloins. Fish have a delicate flavor which can be totally masked by batter and mazola. And that wretched stuff which comes frozen in corn meal is completely dried out. If you have available to you only frozen fish, at least get it frozen solid, by the pound.
Choose the fish variety according to your preparation plans. For broiling, for instance, choose a redfish or snapper. For baking, select flounder, snapper, or drum-sheepshead. One interesting note: black drum and its freshwater cousin sheepshead contain the highest quality protein, but have been popular only with blacks for one of those mysterious cultural reasons that create food fetishes. At the fish market the price of drum is considerably less than that of redfish; cut and cooked, it looks and tastes like redfish, and is sometimes sneaked under your nose in fine restaurants. Next time you’re in a seafood market, try a drum. Choose a size from eight to twenty inches. Or buy flounder: it’s an important year-round food fish which has firm, white, delicate flesh that adapts to a wide variety of preparation methods.
Texas produces one-third of all the oysters in this country and they’re usually available fresh, in pints, in grocery stores that sell no other fresh fish products. Oysters are of particular value in that they provide many of the so-called trace minerals which have been refined out of other foods. The belief that oysters are only good to eat during months having “R” is not true. They actually reach their peak during May and June. Before we had adequate refrigeration, oysters wouldn’t keep in summer, whose months don’t have “R,” hence the old saying. Oysters can be stored up to seven days if iced down in the refrigerator, but should never be frozen.
Crab meat is cooked before it is marketed and can be used without further ado. “Lump” is the white meat from the body and is most popular and most expensive. “Flake“ is small pieces of white meat taken from inside the body and around the edges. Claw meat is much darker meat and is often sold as claw fingers.
If you get the chance to go crabbing, take it. Rotten chicken necks make great bait. It takes a poor man’s fishing rig only—a string, a stick, and a dip net. To people who live on the Gulf, fresh-caught crab is as much a mainstay as beefsteak, and it’s virtually free.
Moving to Houston from the high plains, I was totally ignorant of seafood. I thought oysters were something cut from bull calves. But I soon learned through delicious experience that there’s no better feast than shrimp, green headless they call them at the market, boiled in the jackets in McCormick seafood spices and washed down by good, cold beer. Most shrimp are marketed either frozen or thawed. That’s an important distinction from fresh. It means the grocer got them frozen, then put them on ice to thaw. You can’t refreeze them, and they’ll have a flimsy shell and mushy meat. Like frozen finfish, shrimp should have no objectionable odor and no visible signs of deterioration, such as black spots or freezer burn. How you plan to use shrimp determines whether or not you really need those jumbos at $6.29 a pound.
Thawing fish properly (if you must freeze) can make the difference between a good dinner and a mushy mess.
Ideally, you should place the individual package under cold running water about 30 minutes before you plan to cook it. Thaw it just enough to pull the filets apart. Don’t thaw the day before by placing it in the refrigerator section, don’t thaw fish at room temperature or under warm water, and don’t refreeze.
The big bugaboo in preparing fish is overcooking. All that’s necessary is to soften the small amount of connective tissue present and to make the protein easier to digest. Cooking fish at too high a temperature or for too long a time toughens the meat, dries it out and destroys the subtle flavor. One of the greatest advantages of fish is that you can have a meal churned out in a hurry if you use this short cooking time to your advantage.
How can you tell when fish is cooked? Raw fish has a watery, translucent look. During the cooking process the watery juices become milky-colored, giving the flesh an opaque, whitish tint. When the flesh has this look, it is completely cooked.
How much you should buy: one-third pound per person when buying steaks or filets, one-half pound per person for dressed fish and two-thirds pound per person for whole fish.
How often should you eat fish? As often as you can. Fish and shellfish provide the highest quality protein which is easily digested. Heart specialists and obesity doctors both recommend frequent inclusions of seafood in the diet. A four-ounce serving of fish provides 100 calories and all the protein your body needs for one day. A four-ounce serving of beef provides 300 calories, and although it too provides the protein it lacks valuable trace minerals and the polyunsaturated fatty acids present in fish which help to control cholesterol.
If you’d like good, basic how-to recipes for fish, write Texas Parks & Wildlife, John H. Reagan State Office Building, Austin 78701, and they’ll send you a packet of recipes for all fish indigenous to the Texas Gulf.
If you lean toward intimate dinner parties for four, this ought to turn you on. Most of the work can be done ahead so that you aren’t slaving over a hot stove while everyone else is whooping it up in the living room. It provides a taste subtle enough to titillate the gourmet, and it can be downright cheap. How long since the meat for a dinner party cost $1.19?
(sounds better than oyster and eggplant)
Remnants Green Salad
Hot French Bread with Real Butter
Fresh Strawberries and Cheese
Good Hot Coffee
One word here about the before-dinner libations. This meal is really delicate and would be lost on the fellow who’s enjoyed four martinis. A couple of glasses of chilled Beaujolais Blanc before dinner will whet appetites instead of dulling them. If your timing coincides with your guests’ metabolism rates, the aroma from the kitchen combined with the glow of the wine should cause a stampede when you announce that dinner is served.
Here’s the shopping list:
1 pint raw, fresh oysters
½ lb. real butter
1 loaf of the best French bread you can buy, unsliced
1 loaf whole wheat bread (preferably with no preservatives)
½ lb. fresh mushrooms
1 large fresh eggplant
1 rib celery
1 vine-ripened tomato
1 head romaine lettuce
1 medium white onion
1 2-oz. jar pimientos
handful fresh parsley
smallest bottle of fresh olive oil you can find
2 bottles of white young Beaujolais, French. If you can’t find this, a dry white table wine, domestic if necessary.
1 pint fresh strawberries
¼ lb. pale, firm dessert cheese—like grape cheese, which is a Wisconsin (or French if you can afford it) white processed cheese with grape seeds coating.
If you elect to go whole hog and serve the crabmeat quiche in the living room with the wine and hang the expense, add these to your shopping list:
1 c. Swiss cheese
1 c. sour cream
½ lb. fresh crab, white lump
This hors d’oeuvre will put a dent in your pocketbook unless you’ve been crabbing, but tastes so good it’s worth it.
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 c. sour cream
½ tsp. Worcestershire
¾ tsp. salt
1 9″ baked pastry shell
1 c. coarsely shredded Swiss cheese
½ lb. fresh, white lump crab (can use 1 can if desperate)
1 white onion, sliced paper thin
3 T. butter
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine eggs, sour cream, Worcestershire, and salt. Sauté onion in butter. Stir in cheese, crabmeat, and egg mixture. Pour into baked pastry shell. Bake 55 to 60 minutes or until custard is set and a silver knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve hot. Can be eaten by hand.
If your pastry seems best suited to shoe soles or slingshots, try this recipe. I could never make a decent pie crust, no matter how broadly Betty Crocker smiled at me, until I found it.
3 c. sifted flour
1 ¼ c. shortening
1 tsp. salt
Makes two 9 or 10 inch shells
Work together until consistency of meal. Sounds just like your old recipe, right? Here comes the secret . . .
Beat together slightly: 1 egg, 5 ½ T. water and 1 tsp. vinegar.
Make a well in the flour mixture and add liquid mix. Work well, roll out with light strokes from the center to the size desired. Easy to handle and flaky. Good.
The rest of this dinner is so easy that once you get the marketing, cutting and chopping done it slides together so smoothly you’ll say aw shucks.
1 large eggplant
1 pint fresh, raw oysters
½ medium white onion, chopped
¼ lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 2-oz. jar pimientos
¼ lb. real butter
1 rib celery, chopped
2 slices whole wheat bread
handful fresh parsley
First: slice top off eggplant lengthwise (that means laying it on its side—not the stem). Scoop out pulp from large piece and set pulp aside for use later. Sprinkle inside of eggplant with salt, replace its hat and refrigerate in a pyrex baking dish until time to stuff.
Second: preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place two slices of whole wheat bread in oven to dry out while it is heating.
Third: melt one-fourth pound butter in heavy skillet over medium heat. Braise with the lid on the following chopped items until soft: cubed eggplant pulp, sliced fresh mushrooms, chopped celery, and onion. You know already to wash it all well in cold water to avoid grit in the food.
Fourth: add drained oysters, pimientos, dried-out bread which you have pulled into small pieces, and parsley to the above. Have you discovered how much easier it is to cut parsley with kitchen shears than with a knife? Stir.
Fifth: beat eggs until lemon-colored and add to the above. Turn fire to low and continue cooking for five minutes by the clock, stirring constantly. Remove from fire and salt to taste.
Sixth: stuff eggplant. At this point, you can put the whole business in the refrigerator, covered of course, and wait until an hour before serving time to take it out.
Seventh: pour one-quarter inch water into the bottom of the baking dish. Make a foil tent which will seal the eggplant in the dish but not mash on the top of it. Place in preheated 300* oven and bake 45 minutes. Don’t overcook this one. The eggplant will collapse. I learned this through bitter experience: I once served something that looked more like a prune than a shiny balloon.
During the last five minutes the eggplant is in the oven, stick the French bread in to heat. Forget about wrapping it in foil. The French baking oven emits steam over the loaves to make the crust harder than anything you’ll ever find at the Handy Andy, so five minutes in your hot oven uncovered might come close to simulating a real French loaf. (In a later issue, we’ll take up the art of making French bread.)
If you’re a frugal soul, this salad should appeal to you. If you just plain like to eat, it tastes good, too, and has some surprises from the usual here-it-comes-again green salad. I guess if you fix filet mignon with this you couldn’t honestly call it Remnants, but it will take up the slack in all that stuff you had to buy for the Eggplant Austere.
Remnants Green Salad
About an hour and a half before you plan to serve this meal, wash, pat dry, and tear up six romaine leaves. Not too small, please. Did you ever eat a salad that looked like it had come from a disposal? Add one medium vine-ripened tomato, chopped, one-half medium white onion, chopped, four ounces sliced raw mushrooms and the top of the eggplant, diced. There, you see you used up all those halves: the half pint of mushrooms, the half onion and even the hat off the eggplant.
Toss the salad in a wooden bowl you’ve rubbed with a garlic bud, then dress lightly with a dressing made from olive oil and vinegar. Refrigerate. Don’t salt and pepper until time to serve or it will wilt the romaine. The black shiny eggplant and sliced, raw mushrooms give this salad a great look and some textural difference you’ll like.
Uncork the wine, remove the salad from the fridge, the eggplant and bread from the oven, and dinner is served. If you serve hearty eaters you might want to fix two eggplants and double the makings, but for average appetites, one eggplant should serve four.
For dessert, give them freshly made coffee, strawberries with confectioner’s sugar for dipping, and a mild dessert cheese.
If you’ll notice, you just cooked a dinner using natural foods, with as few preservatives as possible. You didn’t make one trip to the health food store, nor is your pocketbook bent out of shape. Bon appétit.