Finger licking good bottom dwellers. These two recipes display rather classic, yet embracingly simple, French culinary approaches. Pourquoi? Because our gallic friends across that watery expanse—long not crossed but which later became a migratory route for immigrants—have long had the fundamentals down on these denizens of the ocean floor.

Flatfish are an order (Pleuronectiformes) of ray finned fish, sometimes classified as a suborder of Perciformes. The scientific name means “side-swimmers” in Greek, so in many species both eyes lie on one side of the head, one or the other migrating through and around the head during development to create their characteristic assymetry. Evolution forever awes me.

Numerous species of flatfish are regularly caught in the Pacific with common market names such as sole (from gray to lemon to Dover), sanddab, turbot, plaice, fluke, flounder, and halibut. The name “sole” comes from its resemblance to a sandal, which in Latin is solea. A caveat emptor: in many markets, some species of flounder, especially the Atlantic species, are incorrectly labelled as lemon or gray sole. The true soles, Soleidae, include the common or Dover sole (Solea solea), so a trusted fishmonger is crucial…and there should be no fear in kindly asking about species identification or freshness.

On the other side of the world, Atlantic flatfish have not fared so well. Populations have experienced heavy fishing pressure by both domestic and international fleets over the last half century, and many species have been depleted to very low levels, particularly Atlantic halibut and some populations of yellowtail flounder. Efforts have been undertaken to revive the declining Atlantic flatfish populations, but until they have been reestablished, it may be prudent to avoid these species.

In this first recipe, fillets of sole are rolled to form what are termed paupiettes. Rolled beginning at the thickest end, the paupiettes will not unfurl as they cook. Sweet as candy.

SOLE PAUPIETTES WITH MUSHROOMS & WINE

2 lbs skinless and boneless sole fillets
2 C mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C scallions, sliced
1/3 C shallots, sliced
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1 C dry white wine, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc

1/2 C unsalted butter
1 T fresh chives, chopped, for garnish

Cut each fillet in half lengthwise, removing and discarding the small strip of sinew from the center of the fillets. With the white side that touched the bones on the outside of the paupiettes, roll up the fillets, starting at the thick end.

Gently place the paupiettes on end with the scallions, shallots, salt and pepper, in a medium heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Cover, reduce the heat, and boil gently for about 3 minutes.

Holding the lid so the paupiettes remain in the pan, pour the cooking liquid into a small saucepan and place it over high heat. Boil for a few minutes, or until the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Slowly add the butter and vigorously whisk mix until well blended. Bring to a gentle boil for a few seconds more.

Divide the paupiettes and mushrooms among plates, spoon sauce over the top, and sprinkle with chives.

In this next recipe, the fillets are poached gently in the oven.

SOLE POACHED IN WHITE WINE

2 lbs skinless and boneless sole fillets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T shallots, finely minced
3/4 C dry white wine
1/3 C fish stock or chicken broth

Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Fresh tarragon, minced

Preheat oven to 350 F

Dry the fish with paper towels, then remove any existing bones. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Butter a 9 x 12 baking dish. Strew half of the shallots in the baking dish, and then lay in the fish, skin side down. Sprinkle the remaining shallots over the fillets, and pour in enough wine and broth to come up just under the top of the fillets. Cover with waxed paper.

Place the dish in the lower one third of the preheated oven. The liquid should begin to bubble, and the fish will be done when it has turned to milky white, around 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully drain the cooking juices into a heavy small saucepan over medium high to high heat on the stove.

Tent the fish as you make the sauce. Reduce the juices until thick, syrupy. Vigorously whisk in lemon juice, little by little, than add parsley while stirring. Spoon the juices over the fish and sprinkle with fresh tarragon.

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Grilled Sardines

March 29, 2009

Never judge a creature by size alone.

Named after the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sardinia, the name sardine is broadly applied to many small fish species of the herring family. Sardines reproduce rapidly and swim in immense sea-darkening schools, making them a proper sustainable choice for your table. As with all oceanic life, though, they still demand and deserve a favorable marine environment.

Sardines are chocked with nutritional value — they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, and also a good source of vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese, and protein — while extremely low in contaminants such as mercury.

Little, thin planks of sea-heaven extolled around the world.

GRILLED SARDINES WITH LEMON & WINE VINEGAR

12-18 fresh sardines, scaled and gutted but heads and tails left intact
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing

1 C extra virgin olive oil
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 T white wine vinegar
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1/2 t sugar
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 T grated fresh lemon peel
Chopped flat leaf parsley

Vigorously whisk all ingredients in bowl to blend. Season with salt and pepper to your liking, then set aside. This can easily be done the day before grilling.

Heat grill to medium high. Consider placing some fresh rosemary sprigs in the fire just before grilling.

Brush sardines with oil and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Grill for 3 to 4 minutes per side or until just cooked through.

Drizzle with vinaigrette and top with grated lemon peel and chopped parsley. Serve over grilled bread which has been brushed with olive oil and rubbed with an open head of garlic or fresh tomato before placing on the grill.

SARDINHAS ASSADAS (Portuguese Grilled Sardines)

1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled, cut into eighths
1 lb fresh tomatoes, seeded and sliced 1/4″ thick
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, sliced about 1/4″ thick

12-18 fresh sardines, scaled and gutted but heads and tails left intact
Sea salt, ample amounts
Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing

Sprinkle sardines liberally with sea salt and let rest for at least 1 hour, preferably more.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Season the peppers with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a baking dish lined with aluminum foil and roast until the skin blisters and darkens, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool in a paper bag, then remove the skin and seeds. Slice the peppers into strips, about 1/2-inch thick.

Place the potatoes into a saucepan, over medium heat and cover with water. Season liberally with salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain. Toss the potatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, toss and set aside. Drizzle the onions with olive oil, salt and pepper, and set aside.

Heat grill to medium high.

Rinse the sardines under cold water and then dry with paper towels. Brush the sardines with olive oil and then grill for several minutes on each side, 3 to 4 minutes, depending on size.

Platter grilled sardines surrounded by the arranged potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Drizzle olive oil over the top, with a sprinkling of sea salt.

Pourboire: if grilling is not an option, simply use the broiler. Prepare sardines as above. Heat the broiler until hot. Move the oven rack as close to the heat source, and preheat until hot. Heat a jelly roll pan for a few minutes in the broiler, then carefully remove and place the sardines in the pan. Broil for 4-5 minutes, then check for doneness. The fish should be opaque, the tip of a knife should flake the thickest part easily, and the outside should be lightly browned.

Sustainable Seafood

January 31, 2009

Sorry, another screed from the bully pulpit…

Fish is a high-protein, low fat food that provides a range of health benefits. In particular, white-flesh fish is lower in fat than any other source of animal protein, and oilier fish contain substantial quantities of omega-3, or the “good” fat in the human diet. A growing body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids help maintain cardiovascular health by playing a role in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction.

In addition, fish does not contain those “naughty” omega-6 fatty acids lurking in red meat.

Despite their nutritional value, fish can pose considerable health risks when contaminated with substances such as metals—the most commonly discussed being mercury. Once mercury enters a waterway, naturally occurring bacteria absorb it and convert it to a form called methyl mercury. Unfortunately, humans absorb methyl mercury readily and are especially vulnerable to its effects. Because the poison is odorless, colorless and accumulates in the meat of the fish, it is not easy to detect and cannot be avoided by trimming off specific parts. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals, known as congeners. Eating fish contaminated with mercury or PCBs, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system, causing serious health problems, especially for young children and pregnant women.

How do you select a fish?

Rule: Know thy local fishmonger or butcher. There is no excuse for timidity—his job (the one he is paid to do) is to serve you fresh fish, fowl and meat. Probing inquiry about his product is completely de rigeur, if not mandated; and a fishmonger or butcher who does not openly share his intimate knowledge with you is one to avoid. (I knew one.)

(1) “Flat” fish:
The shorter the “boat to plate time” the better; firm, shiny, bright colored flesh; fresh, mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent, not “fishy” or ammoniac; scales intact & even; clear, not cloudy eyes (except for deeper fish, e.g., grouper); bright pink or red gills, not slimy, dry or mucous covered; fillets & steaks should be moist and without discoloration.

(2) Shell fish (crustaceans & mollusks):
“Boat to plate time” again rules; mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent; Lobsters and crabs should be purchased live and as close to the time of cooking as possible. Both should actively move their claws; lobsters should flap their tails tightly against their chests or, when picked up, curl their tails under their shells. Shrimp should have uniform color and feel firm to the touch. Hard-shell clams, mussels, and oysters, purchased live in their shells, should have tightly closed shells or snap tightly closed when tapped. If they do not close when tapped, they are dead and should be discarded. Soft-shell clams are unable to close their shells completely. To determine if they are alive, gently touch the protruding neck of each clam to see if it will retract. If the neck does not retract slightly, discard the clam. Discard any clams, mussels, or oysters that have cracked or broken shells. Freshly shucked clams, sold in their liquor, should be plump, moist, and shiny. Freshly shucked oysters should be surrounded by a clear, slightly milky, white or light gray liquid. Freshly shucked scallops vary in color from creamy white to tan to a light pink color. Squid should have cream-colored skin with pinkish patches.

Rule: Keep in mind how the fish in our precious oceans are preciptiously vanishing…the numbers from studies are staggering. For instance, since 1950, the harvests from about one third of the world’s fisheries have collapsed to less than 10% of their historical highs. Among the culprits are overfishing, habitat damage, climate change, oxygen depletion and bycatch. So, solemnly chose a species which is relatively abundant, and whose fishing/farming methods are friendly to the seas and rivers. The fish should also be one which is commonly free of known toxins or contaminants…that is, not found in troubled waters.

Because of the number of fish involved and the ever changing populations, a well researched, almost indispensable, site which rates current seafood choices is the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch . Another equally informative site is Blue Ocean Institute, offering assessments and suggested better alternatives to fish in significant environmental danger. Both sources also offer seafood and sushi pocket guides to assure your restaurant choices include sustainable fish.

Finally, a new book entitled Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving The Oceans One Bite At A Time was released for publication last month which provides a comprehensive guide for conscientious sushi diners.