Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea


Chef Henry Summers

In the eyes of American commercial fishermen, it must appear that wherever a rare break occurs in the trans-global oil slick, a floating Soviet, Korean, or Japanese fish factory is perpetrating piscatorial piracy. This picture is neither far from the truth, nor from the shore: the titanic trawlers are plainly visible from any beach blanket on the Jersey shore.

The highly mechanized methods they employ to plunder our fish leave the ocean floor desolate and unable to support new life. So if you'd like a recipe for making a fisherman stew, just add a pinch of inflation to the foregoing.

Speaking of inflation and foregoing, have you looked at the prices in the fish market recently? Heaps of cream-colored sea scallops, bay scallops barely bigger than a pencil eraser, flounder fillets trying to pass for sole, thick, meaty swordfish steaks, deeply orange salmon fillets, all priced between $5.00 and $6.50 a pound. Jumbo shrimp, an inflationary nonsequitur if ever there was one, may exceed $10.00 a pound!

To the unschooled eye, the contents of the adjacent display case look more like a science project than anything remotely edible. Serried in chilly repose, we observe a cryptic collection of curious crustaceans, tentacled terrors, grotesquely formed and dark-fleshed fishes. These orphans of the American dinner table are just dying to go home with you. They cost less than 70/30 hamburger. And by understanding their special needs, you will be repaid by an unimagined diversity of tastes and textures. If you find their appearance a little challenging, remember the first time you looked down your bib at a lobster.

It Was a Brave Man that First Et an Oyster

                                                         –Jonathan Swift

The catfish is so uncomely that the thought of two of them getting together to make little catfish causes one to shudder. Perhaps this explains why they are frequently found in muddy water.

Yet ugly as they are, they are twice again as tasty. Every year, millions of pounds of ranch-raised catfish are consumed in restaurants throughout the South. The reason is apparent at first bite: the moist, white, tasty flesh stands up to the rigors of deep frying, perhaps better than any other fish. Catfish is available in North-eastern markets where there is a large population of transplanted Southerners. Expect to pay about a dollar pound.

Many of the most trusted cookbooks provide picturesque instructions for skinning catfish, a technique they also recommend for skinning our next ugly customer, the eel. They would have us nail the brute’s head to a board, make a circular incision below and around the head, and using a pliers, pull the skin off in one piece.

This is utter nonsense. I tried this exactly once, on a six-pound catfish. It immediately became evident that the author had extremely limited experience skinning catfish. The skin did not come off like a glove. In fact, completeing the task took an hour of back-breaking labor. It is perhaps telling that these widely trusted sources fail to mention that the catfish is among the easiest of fishes to fillet in the ordinary way, and by virtue of their stout, primitive skeletons, the fillets are free of the annoying side bones responsible for putting so many people off of fish. After the fillets have been removed, they may be placed skin-side down on a cutting board, and using a sharp, flexible knife and a sawing motion, the flesh is easily freed from the skin.    

Our next slippery contestant is the eel, highly prized since the most ancient of times for its rich, firm flesh. The eel’s high fat content makes it ideal for smoking.

Smoked eel can be found in delicatessens and seafood markets for $4.00 or $5.00 a pound. The leathery skin pulls of unresistingly. Nothing more is needed for an unsurpassable picnic lunch than a squeeze of lemon, and a grinding of pepper, and a loaf of good bread.