Cookbook Review: Fish Without A Doubt
Creative, Useful, Guiding and So Very Appealing
Cooking fish and shellfish has always intimidated me. I'd order it in restaurants and I knew it was a healthy food, but my first attempts to cook even a simple fillet didn't end well. Over the years my fish cooking has improved but it's still often a challenge for me and I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.
For all we timid seafood cooks as well as those of you who triumph with fish and shellfish, Chef Rick Moonen and writer-editor Roy Finamore have written Fish Without A Doubt (Houghton Mifflin Company, $35.00, hardcover, with both black and white and full color photographs). If only I had this book 10 years ago.
Rick Moonen is best known as the chef-owner of RM Seafood in Las Vegas and in New York, RM Seafood, Oceana and Molyvos. Roy Finamore is a James Beard Award-winning author and editor and has been an editor for Martha Stewart, Ina Garten and Diane Kennedy. Even though Moonen is a successful chef, this book is no restaurant show-off. Written for the home cook, it's not dumbed down, giving us lots of knowledge and recipes that range from the most simple to the very sophisticated.
It starts with "The Basics," including advice for buying seafood, how to store fish and shellfish, equipment and spices to keep on hand, and 90+ black and white photos illustrating how to clean mussels, shuck clams, clean and skin fish, and how to cook fish in parchment paper that makes it as easy as wrapping a sandwich.
There's a primer on all the fish and shellfish in the book: flavor, buying tips and how to cook. If you get daunted by the range of salmon choices in some of our fish stores, you'll love this section.
The 250+ recipes, organized into 15 chapters, teach us small techniques and tips that make all the difference. For example, when sautéing a fillet, dust one side with flour (with or without the skin), season both sides, cooking the floured side first on high heat in a little oil for about 3 minutes, basting with a tablespoon of melted butter, and then turn it over, turning off the heat but let the fish sit in the pan for about 30 more seconds. You'll see this method in their recipe for Sautéed Char With Hoisin Glaze (see our link).
Chef Moonen's whole-meal perspective had to have prompted the inclusion of sides dishes to serve with seafood. And Mr. Finamore's skill as an editor makes this book notably readable. The book is also accessible, handsome and a pleasure to hold, with nearly 40 appealing color photographs.
And it's friendly to city cooks -- the book includes a chapter on broiling, recipes for stovetop grilling, and advice for getting fish smells out of our kitchens (and apartments).
The recipes are the heart of this book but you will have vastly more success with them if you read the first 74 pages as an essential prelude. That's because with seafood, how you buy and handle the ingredients has a major impact on your cooking. And you'll want to get the best result when you see these recipes.
Every recipe includes "Accept Substitutions" which is a list of other fish or shellfish that can be used in the recipe in case you either can't find or don't like the seafood featured in the recipe. Can't find Arctic Char? The recipe will suggest salmon or maybe striped bass.
Here are the chapters and a few examples of the recipes:
Poaching: Poached Whole Branzino, Salmon Steaks Poached in Red Wine Court Bouillon, Butter-Poached Bay Scallops with Rice and Peas, Crab Poached in Scampi Butter Sauce, Tuna Preserved in Oil, and more.
Steaming and Boiling: Steamed Black Sea Bass with Sizzling Ginger, Steamed Salmon with Fennel, Steamed Jumbo Shrimp, Stovetop Clambake, Better Boiled Lobster (plus Lobster Roll), and more.
Broiling: Broiled Fish Fillets with Butter and Herbs, Broiled Flounder with Arugula Pesto, Broiled Swordfish, Citrus Broiled Shrimp, and more.
Grilling -- Stovetop and Outdoors -- and Smoking: Jerk Tuna with Mango Sauce, Grilled Tuna Tacos (cooked on a Foreman Grill), Remoulade Salmon on the Grill, Sea Scallops with Jalapeno-Grapefruit Marinade, Easy Branzino on the Grill, Smoked Trout, and more.
Baking and Roasting: Tandoori Sable, Slow-Roasted Salmon with Stewed Baby Artichokes, Sole Stuffed with Crab, Baked Scallops, Packets of Bluefish with Peperonata, Packets of Scrod with Clams and Potatoes, and more.
Searing and Sautéing: Seared Tuna Tonnato, Sautéed Mahi Mahi with Beets and Skordalia, Sautéed Blackfish with Mushrooms and Celery Root and Potato Puree, Sole Piccata, Pecan-Crusted Turbot, Dorade in a Potato Crust, and more.
Frying: Crispy Calamari, Shrimp Tempura, Fish Fingers at Home, Catfish Tacos Shrimp Toast, and more.
Shellfish Appetizers and First Courses: Oyster Shooters, Clams Casino, Mussels with Fennel, Shrimp Scampi, and more.
Chowders, Soups, and Stews: Fumet, Manhattan Clam Chowder, Potato Leek Stew with Shrimp and Hake, Hot-and-Sour Soup, Bouillabaisse for the American Kitchen, Cioppino, Shrimp Chili, Lobster Gazpacho, and more.
Salads, Ceviches, and Gravlax: Classic American Tuna Salad, Saumon au Frisee, Key West Ceviche with Grouper, Escabeche, Coriander-Dill Gravlax, and more.
Fish Cakes and Burgers: Shrimp and Tilapia Burgers, Jalapeno SalmonBurgers, Tuna Burgers with Harissa Mayonnaise, "Brandade" Cakes, and more.
Pasta and Rice: Pasta with Shrimp and Roasted Tomato Sauce, Lobster FraDiavolo, Red Curry Shrimp, Shrimp Risotto, Paella, and more.
Salsas and Relishes: Simple Salsa, Salsa Cruda, Tzatziki, and more.
Sauces, Vinaigrettes, and Spice Mixes: Basic Butter Sauce, Rouille, Spicy Mayonnaise, Coctail Sauce, Soy-Orange Sauce, Coconut and Green Curry Sauce, Bacon Vinaigrette, and more.
Essential Sides: Green Beans and Chorizo, Cauliflower Puree, Asian Cucumber Salad, Lentil Salad, Jasmine Rice, and more.
Test Driving the Recipes
All the recipes I've made thus far have been huge hits for both technique (not too hard or complex to cook) and for flavor. Each recipe also had some technical lessons that can make us better cooks, even if we're not cooking from this book. It coaches us to pay attention to detail, take care with process and handling materials, and be precise -- not in terms of staying a slave to the recipe but by appreciating how ingredients are handled will impact the final result.
I made three recipes that combined to produce a single dish: Sautéed Char with Hoisin Glaze and Wasabi Butter Sauce. You'll see that the instructions are clear and thorough and the combination of the sour-sweet sauce on the rich fish is a perfect balance. I'm often a bit tentative when sautéing fish but these instructions produced a perfect, almost restaurant-quality result on my first try. Bravo!
The other recipe is one that's perfect for a summer lunch or light supper -- Saumon Au Frisée. This is their spin on the classic Frisée With Lardons and a Poached Egg. They've replaced the bacon with smoked salmon, although they emphasize that any smoked fish would work (think smoked trout or bluefish), and added some beautifully cooked potatoes which turn the salad into a main course. This is the kind of recipe that can easily become part of your regular repertoire, the dish that friends will ask you to make again and again.
The best thing I can say about this cookbook is that it is attentive to and respectful of the way we really cook at home, and the way we want to eat. If it is our goal to cook for everyday real life -- without ruling out having wonderful food on our tables at home -- this is the kind of cookbook we want and will use often.
There's little I didn't like about the book. For that matter, my only complaint is the title for its tentativeness. With this book in hand, there's no reason that the word "doubt" should ever come up. Fish with delicious certainty is what you'll get.