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Now, here is a month I can get behind. It’s the right season for potatoes, after all. But what to make, in celebration of the potato, both humble and mighty that it is?
Potatoes are actually mightily nutritious. While somewhat lacking in vitamin C, it must be said that in the northern European isles, potatoes were the primary source of vities for several hundred years.
Plus, they’re tasty. Nothing warm the heart like a giant pile of mashed taties and gravy.
I thought of potato gnocchi but again, I have to look pretty in a dress this month and that’s just not conducive. I thought of a plain ol’ baked potato, maybe with some of my family’s “secret sauce” (sour cream), but then I yawned.
I decided, finally, on this recipe by Food Network star Anne Burrell: potato –crusted halibut. Sounds divine, non?
Well, the potato, despite slicing perfectly on my mandolin, was quite tricky and the fish-scale method did not work (i.e. did not fold over properly). I had to improvise, to ensure that the potato would actually cover the halibut and stay put.
What to put on top? I considered a lemon–mustard–caper sauce but decided instead on rémoulade. Despite the fancy name, it was not the sauce for the dish, alas. Too rich. Nonetheless, it’s a good sauce, so … here’s a lovely rémoulade recipe but that’s not what I made. Didn’t have all of the ingredients, quite frankly, and again we’re all about improvisation here. So in my rémoulade (likely all wrong), I stirred together:
- 2 T minced sweet onion
- 2 T chopped capers
- 2 T chopped fresh parsley
- 1 1/2 T tarragon mustard (saves buying a whole bunch of tarragon)
- 1 splash sherry vinegar (probably 2 tsp)
- about 3/4 C half-fat mayo
- a blurp or two of Tabasco sauce (likely 1/2 tsp)
It needs to sit a bit to let the flavours blend. It was lovely. Especially the sherry vinegar. But see below.
On the whole, the dish was tasty. I actually found the rémoulade quite overpowering; ended up scraping it off and was done with it. The fish was divine.
There are more than 6.8 billion people on the planet today. That’s nearly seven times more than there was just two centuries ago, and more than double the population in 1960. Yet, human kind has not suffered a catastrophic Malthusian crisis. Despite the obvious issues with distribution, we continue to produce more than enough food to sustain this astonishing growth. It is a fact made possible by the equally astonishing advancements in agricultural knowledge and technology. World population statistics may seem to have little to do with a food blog, but it is highly relevant to the food choices we make. Local and sustainable have become part of the culinary vernacular yet we still need to feed the planet efficiently and inexpensively. It is more important than ever to find a balance been quantity, quality and sustainability at this juncture in our history.
Today is National Catfish Day. You may ask what Catfish has to do with skyrocketing population and agricultural technology? Simply put, Catfish is one of those once-wild now-farmed foods. I think most of us think the southern United States when we think Catfish, al a Louis Armstrong singing Summer Time and blackened catfish sizzling in a big cast iron pan. Catfish farming started in the southern states in the 1960s to satisfy the demands of local markets. These days we can find catfish in markets across the continent. But the South is not the only catfish producer in the world.
Vietnam has become one the leading producers of Catfish. You’ll find it sold under the name Basa. It’s all catfish, right? Yes and no. US farmed Catfish is recommended by Seafood Watch as a “Best Choice.” The industry is tightly regulated and has been deemed sustainable. However, there are some concerns about Southeast Asian Basa over the use of open cage farming and the lack of government regulation. That said, Basa is still considered a “Good Alternative.” Unfortunately, I find the flavour and texture of the US product inferior and the price is generally higher. I am also somewhat skeptical of the sustainability ratings. How can I trust a system that includes wild sockeye on their “Best Choice” list after the worst spawning returns in history?
For this assignment both fresh Catfish and frozen Basa were available at my local fish market. I took home the fresh Catfish, hoping that my Basa bias would be proven unwarranted. Alas, the fresh Catfish was muddy in texture and flavour, and I had to skin it myself. I had the fishmonger fillet it for me and I recommend you do the same. Catfish is one of the more difficult fish to deal with. I kept the head and bones hoping to make stock with them, but decided that it would not produce a good stock either. I thought about doing a traditional Blackened Catfish but opted instead on an Asian inspired dish. I was thrilled with the sauce and the salad that accompanied it. I would use Basa, Red Snapper or maybe Halibut next time. I didn’t have a recipe and I didn’t measure anything, so all I can provide you is an ingredient list. I hope you can see my vision.
- fish fillets, any firm white fish
- all-purpose flour
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- equal amount of minced ginger
- sambal oelek (chili paste)
- mirin (for sweetness)
- rice vinegar
- dark soya sauce
- sesame oil
Dredge firm white fish fillets in seasoned flour
Pan fry fish until golden brown in vegetable oil.
Drain off excess oil leaving about a tablespoon in the pan. Sautee ginger and garlic for a minute or two. Add Sambal Oelek, rice vinegar, mirin, dark soya sauce and sesame oil. Stir until combined and thickened. Return fish to pan to coat thoroughly.
Pea Shoot and Kiwi Salad
- Pea shoots
- Cilantro leaves
- White onion, thinly sliced
- Kiwi, peeled and sliced
- Vegetable oil
- Sesame oil
- Rice vinegar, unseasoned
- Soya sauce
- Dijon mustard
- Ginger, finely grated
- Garlic, finely grated
Toss greens and onions with vinaigrette. Top with kiwi slices.
Today I used kiwi in the salad because I had some in the fridge, but mango is even better and strawberries are great too. A little thinly sliced red pepper is also a nice touch.
Now back to the original focus of today’s blog. I try to make good choices at the supermarket but there is so much more to sustainability than where a product comes from. Quite frankly, I don’t think we can sustain our population without factory farms and international markets. Perhaps we could order a cull of the human population. We do it with wolves and seals after all. But no, I guess that wouldn’t fly either.
Local and in season sounds great, but what do you do when you live in a northern climate, with a short growing season and poor soil conditions? What if you live in a city? What I’m saying is, that we need to balance a lot of different needs. We all need to recognize that a greenhouse-grown cucumber from close to home is no more “green” than the field-raised cucumber shipped across the country in mass quantities. And then there’s the simple issue of variety. I can’t imagine a world without fresh oranges and I don’t foresee a local citrus industry springing up here in British Columbia. Then there is the endless controversy over fish farms. Are there problems with our current aquaculture industry? Absolutely. Are they insurmountable? Absolutely not, but we do have to demand more of our regulators and of the industry.
So I’ve come full circle. What does Catfish Day have to do with world population. In my case it was the impetus to think about my shopping habits. As an individual all I can do is try to balance my need for quality and affordability with my desire for sustainability and variety. Then there is my even larger desire for sound economic development that supports peoples from around the globe. I wonder if it’s even possible to achieve a balance. As misguided as I may be, I hope I am making good choices along the way. I’m torn, but I will continue to choose Basa and hope that my support will help build a healthy economy and encourage more sustainable practices in Vietnam. My balance sheet says yes to Vietnam Basa and no to BC sockeye. Yes to Fanny Bay Oysters and no to octopus. Yes to both wild and farmed venison and no to veal. What does your balance sheet say?
In which our hero succeeds in making an exemplary classic French dish, and fails miserably in figuring out the depth of field on her camera.
First of all, I have to apologise. I missed my post on the 7th. It was National Cotton Candy Day. I had no cotton candy and I had no internet. And I was out of town on a business trip. Hence, no post. It’s a lousy excuse really, but there you have it.
It’s an interesting point to note that many of these so-called “American Food Holidays” are actually celebrations of traditional French foods. Don’t tell those people who coined the phrase “Freedom Fries” but the French culinary tradition is so deeply engrained in American (and Canadian) food culture that many of the foods that Americans like to think of as traditional American foods are actually French in origin. Why? Well, let’s think about it. The three main colonizing countries of the Americas were France, England and Spain. Spain and France are, like, right next to each other and their cuisine is really quite similar in a lot of ways. And it’s really really good. England? Do I really need to state the obvious? Mushy peas. ‘Nuff said. The Spanish never really got their hooks into the Northeastern seaboard so French food reigned supreme until the next big wave of immigrants from Europe began to hit in the late 19th century.
Which brings me to Bouillabaise. A challenging word to spell, but a relatively easy dish to make. A classic peasant meal – it’s easy to imagine French fishermen cooking up vats of the stuff in an old cauldron over the hearth in the days of yore. As with many classic peasant dishes in the era of Michelin stars and celebrity chefs, it has been elevated to the rarified status of “gourmet food”. In any event, it is the perfect meal at the end of a long, cold, (somewhat) snowy December day. Of course, I had to get all “haute cuisine” on its ass and make it all fancy shmancy so it took me all day. It still wasn’t hard, but the recipe is long on account of there’s a lot of ingredients.
I started out this morning by busting out the trusty ol’ Larousse for some quick research (see my earlier post on Mousse for more on Larousse). Then I arrived at the grocery store shortly after they opened and I entertained myself by selecting my fish and perplexing the poor fish counter guy: “6 mussels, no 9, 9 mussels, 6 clams, 6 scallops, just a little bit of halibut, no a little less, and a little snapper, no a little more, and some shrimp please.” I know he was curious, but he was too polite to ask.
At home, in my beautiful enamelled cast iron Dutch Oven (courtesy of the Fabulous Dea), I sauteed: 2 cups diced sweet onion, 5 cloves of Russian Red garlic (a very garlic-ey garlic, with a nice nutty flavour – an aside: did you know that there are dozens of varieties of garlic? Check out this link to discover more about garlic), a sliced/diced fennel bulb, 2 carrots diced, 2 sticks celery diced until onions were soft, translucent and starting to turn golden. I added s & p, some sprigs of thyme, tarragon, parsley, 2 small bay leafs, 1 tsp. Ethiopian Berbere (a curry powder from a SaltSpring Island company), about 3 tbsp of chopped orange peel and sauteed for a few minutes more before removing from the heat. I added to this mix four large peeled and diced tomatoes, 1 large can of diced tomatoes, 1 can of clam nectar. Then I stuck the snapper, halibut and scallops on top, poured olive oil over it liberally, gently mixed it all up and stuck it on the front porch to marinate all day (it was -2 so I figured it was foodsafe).
After a raucous playdate for G with buddy Wyatt, a long afternoon nap and a trip to a baby shower (to which we arrived 2 1/2 hours late having forgotten it was a potluck and bearing the same gift we had already given to the expectant mommy months before), I made my bouillabaise. I scooped the fish out and set it aside. Then I brought the veggies and broth to a slow boil, adding two more cans of clam nectar and some chicken broth that was in the fridge (had to use it up – I know, I know – alll wrong in a fish soup – bad me!). In the meantime, I fried up some potatoes to be added later. After 30 minutes of simmering, I added back to the broth the snapper and halibut at a slow simmer. Seared the scallops and set aside. Deglazed pan with red wine and added to soup. Scrubbed the mussels and then added mussels and clams. Scallops and remaining juices went back in moments before serving.
I served my serving of bouillabaise in the traditional fashion. The broth goes in a wide shallow bowl with some bread (I used Thrifty’s “Bake your own bread” Filone) and the fish and other goodies get served separately. P had his all in a bowl with the bread on the side. I think the bread was probably too fresh for the traditional method – it got pretty soggy very quickly – but it was a good match flavourwise. My second helping I had P’s way and I think I liked it better (could’ve been the butter on the bread). It was awesome. Reminded me of the fish stew that my dad used to make all the time. Crazy good – sometimes I really love having to do this blog because these are things I just wouldn’t make in the normal course of things. We, of course, toasted poor Dea who was supposed to join us for dinner tonight, but was sadly held back on account of a rotten cold.