I cooked the first fish I ever caught. I was in my 20s, on vacation in the Florida Keys. The weather was crazy cold: in the 30s. Lying around in the sun in Margaritaville wasn’t in the cards. With nothing better to do, I took a drive from Big Pine Key to Marathon. A sign caught my eye: “Party Boat, Grouper, $9.”
Why the hell not? I thought. Fishing would beat shopping for Hawaiian shirts and conch-shell jewelry, which appeared to be the most robust local industries. I plunked down nine bucks and, a few hours later, found myself hooked up to a 35-pound grouper. He wasn’t a big guy by grouper standards, but he was big enough for me to take the $54 pool. Not a bad haul for my maiden voyage.
Back at the motel on Big Pine Key, I followed the captain’s instructions: dredge the thick fillets in flour, then buttermilk and eggs, then a finishing coat of crushed cornflakes. The grouper fried up beautifully and went down deliciously, assisted by the coldest martini I could muster.
I was hooked. Fishing pretty much took over my life. Shortly thereafter, when I was excused from my job at National Lampoon, I began to write about the outdoors — mostly fishing plus a little hunting. I’d cooked ever since my teenage burger-flipping-and-pastrami-steaming days, so it felt natural to include some food in every fishing story I wrote. There was the largemouth I sautéed for a BBLT (bacon, bass, lettuce and ripe, midsummer tomatoes) in my uncle-in-law’s kitchen in Olney, Illinois. Or the brook trout that my daughter caught and Francis Mallmann, the master of wood-fire cooking, effortlessly served up in the remotest corner of Patagonia: flesh as pink as a plastic flamingo, sandwiched between a pair of potato pancakes. I’ve since made the same recipe with fluke, flounder and red snapper. Give it a shot. It always scores. The crispy fried potatoes (in olive oil) and fresh fish are a variation on classic fish and chips, and who doesn’t like that?
That first fish — evermore known as The Fifty Four Dollar Grouper — was the beginning of my ongoing education in the art of cooking my catch. Over the years, it has surprised me how many people are scared to deal with fish in the kitchen. “It sticks to the grill,” one says. “Too dry,” says another. And, of course, there’s the oft-expressed head scratcher, “Too fishy!”
In truth, fish cookery is a straightforward process, much different than cooking meat, which can be served rare, medium or well-done. Fish is either cooked or raw; the flesh turns from one to the other as if someone threw a switch. Once that happens, cooking any longer just dries it out. My simple first commandment: Don’t overcook.
My second commandment: Cook only freshly caught, never-frozen fish. These are lessons I’ve learned time and again. My job writing about fishing and food has allowed me to fish with many great chefs and talented home cooks.
As with so much else in life, less is more. I never had a better lesson in this principle than when the great Washington, D.C., chef Robert Wiedmaier invited me to a fish-cooking contest he was judging in Anchorage, Alaska. The local competitors tried to outdo each other with exotic ingredients and presentations that could have been lacquered and sold as abstract sculptures. To be fair, these kinds of mano-a-mano cook-offs, now the mainstay of food television, encourage weird food, but had my friends not needed to pick a winner, they might have declared it a dead heat for first … or last.
The next day’s food, cooked just for us, was different. We cruised out of Homer at the base of the Kenai Peninsula. In the space of a few hours we caught more than 400 pounds (not a typo) of salmon, halibut and steelhead, donated 390 pounds for the charter captain to sell and kept enough for dinner at a friend’s house. With Denali looming in the distance, we foraged for wild greens, mushrooms and strawberries. The filleted halibut went into the pan with clarified butter — good and hot — which made for a golden brown, restaurant-style crust. Alongside the halibut, Wiedmaier and his all-star team of chefs served barely cooked steelhead roe and a few of the mushrooms, all sautéed in (you guessed it) more butter. Had Wiedmaier and company been in the previous day’s contest, they would have won hands down. The moral of the story: Fresh and simple wins every time.
For professional chefs, fishing represents a much-needed respite from the clatter and chaos of a restaurant kitchen firing on all cylinders. And when the fishing day is done, the chef puts down the rod and picks up the pan. Sometimes the chef doesn’t need to cook at all, as I learned in Mexico’s Yucatan, about 20 miles north of Mérida, where I was on an assignment writing about Mexican food. On the menu that day was tikin xic (redfish coated in a paste of chilies and spices). We had all the fixings except for the fish, so I joined two local fishing chefs in their dinghy, outfitted with a couple of rods and some extra “tackle” (mono-wrapped beer cans, each with a lead weight and baited hook at the terminal end). While prospecting for redfish, we caught a few small snappers. When it came time for a lunch break, one of the guys cut up the fish, tossed the chunks into a bowl, squeezed a couple of limes, diced an onion, hit it with red pepper flakes and tossed in some herbs, finishing with a salvo of salt. The result? The freshest ceviche you could hope to eat.
Since then, I have often carried a CIY (ceviche-it-yourself) kit.
A decade or two later, I was fishing by Runway No. 6 off JFK International Airport in Queens, New York, with guide Brendan McCarthy. Funny thing about that little bay: Somehow the fish knew to stay close to the shore, so if you went in after them, shotgun-toting police would shoo you away. Despite the stripers’ armed escort, we did OK whenever the bass pushed the pods of bunker offshore. For the most part, I’m a catch-and-release striper fisherman, but we also picked up a 3-pound bluefish that we kept.
By that time, the tide had died, so we motored to an inlet at the end of the runway and chunked the fillets. I mixed them with lemon juice, salt and red pepper flakes. Ten minutes later, we sat back and dined as the Concorde roared overhead, close enough, it felt, to give us a haircut. The scene reminded me of the movie Wayne’s World, in which Mike Myers, as Wayne, and Dana Carvey, as Garth, park at the end of an airstrip and stretch out on the hood of their car in pursuit of cheap thrills and experience stoner nirvana as a jumbo jet screams overhead.
After decades of tasting, testing and writing about fish dishes, I’m convinced most of us need to rethink what’s really going on when we make a fish recipe. If all you did was bake, broil, poach or fry your catch, your palate would grow pretty bored. What distinguishes one recipe from another is what you put on the fish, or serve on the side, such as the sorely missed salsa that Manny and Isa’s used to serve alongside fine, fried mahi on Islamorada in the Florida Keys, before the place closed.
My dinner partner on the night I tried that salsa (which I slightly tweaked) was Jack Hemingway, Ernest’s oldest son. We had just come back from Cuba and a week of trolling for marlin with “Papa” Hemingway’s boat captain and fishing companion, Gregorio Fuentes. The inspiration for the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, Fuentes was 86 at the time and deputized me to smuggle five cigars and a flask of rum on board each day. The loot was strictly against doctor’s orders, but, according to Fuentes’ estimate, he’d already buried six doctors. (And he lived to 104, so he was far from done.) Neither Hemingway nor I cared much for marlin — too much waiting around for something to happen, which never did. So to pass the time, we trolled Deceivers with our fly rods and managed to land the occasional mahi while drinking a lot of “red beer” (lager and tomato juice with a squeeze of lemon).
Upon returning to the United States, we overnighted at the old Cheeca Lodge on Islamorada, hoping to find some action on the flats. Alas, our one and only day was rainy and windy, but we put in some hours, futilely casting for bones. The smart move, we agreed, was lunch, which is how we found ourselves at Manny and Isa’s, admiring the pictures on the wall of Ted Williams (a regular customer), Stu Apte and other angling immortals. They sported big grins, long-billed hats and shapeless, much-worn khakis while displaying their catch. Our order came with the two sauces that were M&I’s standard condiments: a green sauce and, my favorite, a spicy red sauce, which was absolutely killer. I chatted up Isa for her red sauce recipe, which she generously shared.
On my next Keys trip, nasty weather and cloudy water sent me to the more sheltered backcountry. Casting into a trail of fresh muds, I took a nice speckled trout. I drove it up to a friend’s house in Coral Gables, where I prepared my tribute to Manny and Isa from scratch: more like a sauce than salsa, with diced tomatoes, jalapeños, sautéed shallots, garlic, lemon juice, salt and olive oil. I repurposed some fresh mint that I’d bought for juleps and added a few sprigs to wake things up. In the years since, that dish has become one of my go-to accompaniments for any white-fleshed fish. In a pinch, if you combine any ingredients that are sweet, sour, salty and hot, you’ll do fine with whatever is on hand. Remember the herbs as a finishing touch.
If you fish and cook long enough, sooner or later you’ll find that different cooks independently arrive at the same recipe. For example, I was once in Cypermort Point on Vermillion Bay, Louisiana, with the celebrated gumbo sorcerer James Graham, a Montana transplant. (As a boy, he remembers, his posse would throw snowballs at their weird neighbor, who turned out to be Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.) Graham cooked up an impressive Cajun medley: a rabbit stuffed with a quail stuffed with a dove, all boneless. That dish is not something any home cook is going to attempt, but much more approachable was the “unblackening” recipe he’d learned from Creole master Paul Prudhomme. Instead of filling the house with the nasty smoke you get when you combine hellfire-hot cast iron with blackening spices, Graham coated the fish with the spice mix and sautéed it in an oiled pan. The fish came out perfectly seasoned and appetizingly red.
Many years later, I became friendly with a hardcore New York City fisherman, “Lefty” Torrez, who is a fish-catching machine from the pier at the base of Atlantic Avenue about two blocks from my house and directly across the East River from Wall Street. One day, he caught a pailful of blackfish (aka tautog), a delicious local fish that you seldom find in restaurants. He offered me a few.
“How do you make them, Lefty?” I asked.
“Like my grandmother did,” he said. “Fried in adobo.”
I searched out the Caribbean spice mix at the neighborhood bodega, sprinkled it on the fish and added some smoky paprika. On the plate, it looked and tasted just like the fillets Graham had made at his fish camp on the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t resist calling it reddened blackfish.
If I had to pick one dish that has become my most consistent crowd-pleaser — emphasis on the word crowd — it would be what I call “Big Fish Roasted In Salt.” I came across it in Mendoza, Argentina, 600 miles from the nearest ocean. I have since adapted it to a dramatic presentation of the one or two stripers I keep each year. Like much else in my cooking life, Mallmann inspired it.
The occasion in Argentina was the opening of the Bodega Catena Zapata winery. About 30 people had gathered in a hillside chestnut grove for lunch. Mallmann improvised one of his infiernillos(translation: little hell), which consisted of two wood fires. One fire was on the ground, sending heat through a piece of sheet metal propped up by four oil barrels (empty, of course). A huge salmon covered in wet salt lay on the metal. Four stacks of bricks — one in each corner — held up another piece of sheet metal, on which he had built another fire. All in all pretty dramatic, and because the fish was encased in salt, it couldn’t lose any of its juices. The result was a delicate, flaky, moist-cooked salmon.
I’ve since adapted this recipe for the home oven. At the peak of the autumn striper run, I often serve it at the Orvis shop in Manhattan. It always comes out perfectly, usually paired with cold white wine and spirited fishing conversation. The dish is just as dramatic as any deep-fried turkey, roast beef or glazed ham at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Step one, as with all of these recipes, is the same: go catch a fish.