Saturday, June 30, 2007

Snap Peas: Sweet and Sexy

After lettuce and spinach, snap peas are one of the first local vegetables to appear at the roadsides in Rhode Island. Also known as sugar snap peas after one of their most famous varieties, they are members of the club of naturally sweet vegetables that includes corn, beans, the standard English or garden pea, and carrots—but with less starch, or carbohydrates, than most. I am partial to all sweet veggies, and snap peas are one of my favorites.
Snap peas have an edible pod, similar to the flat snow pea but plumper, curvier, juicier, and crisper: they “snap” when you bend them, like a good bean. If a vegetable could be said to be sexy, then I think the snap pea qualifies. Really, look at them. See what I mean? Even their strings curl provocatively when you pull them down…all right, I’ll stop. But they’re enticing.
To prepare snap peas for eating, grasp the stem end and pull it down with one of the plump sides facing you; if the peas are very fresh, this will remove the strings on both the inner and outer curves in one movement. Sometimes it is necessary to remove the strings separately: pull the blossom end toward the inner curve, and pull the stem end toward the outer.
Snap peas are so sweet and crunchy they can be eaten raw, out of hand or in salads. They freeze, and even pickle, well. For cooking, they can be blanched, steamed, sautéed, or, for a real treat, battered and deep-fried. They are glossily beautiful and delicious sautéed plain in butter with a little salt and nothing else. They are a good vegetable for dips either raw or briefly blanched (try the aioli, June 17 post) or, also raw or blanched, can be split open and perkily piped with an herbed soft cheese (sort of an ‘80s thing). I like them with pasta. The two recipes below can be eaten alone as a side dish or as the sauce for your favorite pasta or egg noodle. As a summer side dish, snap peas are great with fish and shellfish, particularly seared or grilled scallops.

Snap Peas with Pancetta
(Serves 2-3)
half of a ½” slice of pancetta, finely chopped
2 T finely chopped shallot
1 T unsalted butter
½ lb snap peas, trimmed
1 ½ tea good-quality balsamic vinegar
salt, pepper

In a medium frying pan, cook pancetta, stirring with a wooden spoon, over medium-high heat until it begins to turn golden. Add the butter and the shallot and let it cook, foaming up a bit, for about 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to medium and add the snap peas; toss them around with the wooden spoon, being careful that they don’t brown, for 2-3 minutes. Add the vinegar, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and toss well; some of the browning in the pan will loosen on its own, but do not scrape. Serve as a side dish, or toss with 6 ounces buttered, cooked semolina linguini to serve two, with grated parmesan to taste.

Snap Peas with Cream
Simplicity in itself. Our local, unhomogenized cream is similar to top cream; it plops thickly when poured, almost like sour cream, yet it is sweet and fresh. If you can find some where you live, it makes this extra-special. For this dish, think of the cream as melted butter: you are not cooking it down, as you would to make a sauce for, e.g., tortellini. You want it to coat and only slightly thicken; that is why you can get away with so little. Serves 2-3.
½ lb snap peas, stringed
2 tea unsalted butter
scant ½ cup heavy cream
salt, pepper
2-3 T chopped flat-leaf parsley and fresh mint (about 4:1) or all parsley
Sauté peas in butter 2-3 minutes over moderate heat; do not allow them to get too brown. Pour cream over; toss; remove from heat, add herbs, salt, and freshly ground pepper, and toss once more.
To serve over pasta: For this, I like the tender richness of an egg noodle, whose large surface area also coats nicely; if you use an Italian pasta, look for one made with eggs (most fresh ones, and a very few dried). Boil 6-7 oz of egg noodles in salted water ‘til just tender, about 9 minutes; near the end of the cooking time, quickly sauté the peas in the 2 teaspoons of butter. Drain the noodles, return them to the pot, and toss them with an additional teaspoon or so of butter. Pour in the cream and toss around over low heat for a bit; remove from the heat and toss with salt, pepper, and the herbs to taste; add the peas and toss once more. Serves 2.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Chicken Salad: Summer’s Little Black Dress

There’s nothing like a little black dress for accessorizing. Dress it up, dress it down. Put it on when in doubt about appropriate attire. Wear it to the office, change the jewelry, shoes, and bag, lose the belt, and go out to dinner or a cocktail party. Hell, throw it on and wear it to the supermarket when all the clothes are in the laundry. You know the one I mean. Something Audrey Hepburn would wear. Plain black sheath, year-round impeccable fabric, versatile neckline, mid-knee length. Beyond reproach.
Chicken salad is the little black dress of the summer food scene. It dresses up or down. Its basic ingredients are top-notch. It’s the old reliable, never wrong, no matter the occasion. Everyone raves, and wonders: why don’t I make this? It’s not old-fashioned; it’s a classic, always in style.
My assessment of chicken salads goes way back. In the 1950s, some of the best were found in the form of a chicken salad sandwich, on white toast, at what can only be called “luncheonettes,” or even ice cream parlors, where women stopped for a break from shopping, or families got a sandwich and a sundae after the matinee. With my mother, and then with friends when I got old enough to go on my own, I have sampled hundreds, more likely thousands, of them at small places around the country. I still do.
The chicken salad I make today is only a kissing cousin of the 1950s chicken salad. I like to think it has preserved the best, while moving forward to a thoroughly modern place—much like the little black dress. I make two basic kinds, both of which lend themselves to infinite variation: a refined traditional one, made with poached (almost coddled) chicken and homemade mayonnaise; and a newer version, made with grilled chicken and a vinaigrette. Both go over like gangbusters with family and friends. Both make for satisfying solitary meals.
To make grilled salad, simply grill chicken breasts (boneless is all right here, but on the bone is preferable) briefly marinated with olive oil and salt and pepper, being careful not to overcook. When cool enough to handle, tear the meat into pieces and combine it with grilled onions and at least one other vegetable or fruit. Grilled peppers (especially red bell or poblano); grilled corn off the cob, grilled zucchini, sliced avocado, grilled peaches or pineapple, crisp blanched green beans, grilled figs, roasted garlic, or most any combination works well. Toss with a flavorful vinaigrette, seasoned with salt and pepper and herbs of your choice. Basil is my standby; mustard, fruit juices, honey, and other additions to vinaigrette are optional. Serve on a big platter over a fresh salad of plain leaf lettuce lightly dressed with the same vinaigrette. Garnish with sliced tomatoes if you like. The salad in the photo is grilled chicken (including the crispy skin), grilled poblano, grilled fig, grilled garlic, and grilled onion, tossed with a sherry vinaigrette made in a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar, with chopped coriander. Go lightly on the dressing, because even without it, grilled salads are moist and flavorful: try it before dressing, and you’ll see.
Delicious. But my heart belongs to the chicken salad of my childhood:

Traditional Chicken Salad
The secrets to great traditional chicken salad are purity and restraint. Keep it simple: moist poached chicken on the bone, homemade mayonnaise, and proper seasoning. This will serve 2-3. If you plan to serve it within an hour or so of preparation, it's best not to refrigerate. If refrigerated, take it out ahead at least a half-hour before serving.
1 whole chicken breast, split, skin on, preferably from your local farmer (about 1 ½ lb)
½ medium onion, cut in half, and 1 small clove garlic, both unpeeled
½ tea salt
8 peppercorns
1 small bay leaf and a few sprigs parsley (optional)
water to cover
1/3 cup homemade mayonnaise (last post)
½ cup celery, finely chopped (about 1 average stalk)
salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot with a lid, place the chicken, onion, garlic, salt, peppercorns, and additional herbs if using, and barely cover with water. Put the lid on, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a moderate simmer, leaving a crack in the lid. Cook about 12-15 minutes, or until meat is just firm and begins to pull gently from the breast bone. Remove from the heat, but leave the chicken in the broth, lid on, until it cools to warm room temperature.
To make salad, place the mayonnaise in a bowl. De-rib and chop celery. Remove and discard the skin from the chicken, pull the meat off the bone with your fingers into bite-size shreds, and combine it with the mayonnaise and celery. The meat should be extremely tender. Taste, and correct for seasoning with salt and pepper. If your mayonnaise is very thick, you can thin it with a little cream or some of the poaching water, now a light broth. You can serve it as above for the grilled salad, over a leaf lettuce salad garnished with sliced tomato, or treat yourself to the following:
Chicken Salad Sandwich. Use thin-sliced, good-quality white bread, nothing too artisanal. Toast; spread with mayonnaise, and lay on the chicken salad generously. Add leaf lettuce of your choice. When the tomatoes are in, you can make a chicken club, placing the lettuce, along with sliced tomato and bacon, between the second and third slices of toast. I like my chicken salad sandwich with a glass of champagne.
Chicken Salad California. During the ‘70s, it was popular in California to mix chicken salad with peeled green (Thomson) seedless grapes and slivered, toasted almonds. This is sometimes called “Veronique,” and it’s quite nice. Other California-style combinations are raisins and walnuts (with the addition of apple, it becomes a chicken Waldorf salad); avocado and sun-dried tomatoes; or snipped dried apricots and pistachios. Some of these you might want to add a touch of honey, chutney, or soft preserve to. I’m not a fan of adding a lot of spices, like curry powder, but go ahead if you want.
RI Swiss Chicken Salad Canapes. When I was in college during the 60s, I cooked one summer for a woman from New York whose Park Avenue cook refused at the last minute to come up to Narragansett; in desperation, she turned to me. I did a large cocktail party for her one weekend, and this is one of the things I made, at her request. I have adapted the original recipe somewhat. Finely chop ½ cup blanched almonds. Let 3 poached chicken breast halves cool completely, then pull it off in big chunks and pulse briefly in the food processor to shred (in the 60s, I minced it by hand). Combine with about 1 cup of grated Swiss cheese and two tablespoons of grated parmesan, and add enough mayonnaise to make a moist, spreadable paste. Add in, bit by bit, a little very finely grated onion (maybe a scant teaspoon), tasting as you go so as not to overpower it, and season with salt, white pepper, and fresh-grated nutmeg. Using a good Pullman-type bread, dried out a bit but not stale, spread on the mixture, trim the crusts (you of course should eat the timmings), cut into quarters, then broil briefly on a sheet pan until the mixture begins to bubble and brown. Pass with cocktails. (If you are feeling lazy, you can put the entire mixture in an oven-proof gratin dish, put it under the broiler, and serve with toast points for your guests to spread themselves.) This makes a party amount; if you don't have a crowd, you can put some of it aside in a bowl and have it as a sandwich or on crackers next day.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Brown eggs are local eggs. . .

…and local eggs are fresh!” This jingle played over and over on the radio in the 1960s, and has, like all things vintage, recently made a comeback.
The eggs themselves, of course, have never gone out of style. Indeed, the Rhode Island Red hen, developed during the mid-nineteenth century in the Village of Adamsville, Little Compton, a stone’s throw from where I live, is an international celebrity. A so-called “dual purpose” chicken (eggs plus meat), the RI Red is known the world-round as a hardy, non-brooding (no one likes a depressed chicken), highly productive bird, yielding up to 300 eggs per year. We are terribly proud of our brown eggs here in Rhode Island. This includes me, raised on white eggs in New Jersey, and skeptical at first.
It’s an irrational pride, of course. Brown eggs are no different from white eggs, except for shell color. Red-eared chickens lay brown eggs and white-eared chickens lay white. The chemist tells us that, nutritionally, they are identical. Their greater expense is because of the larger size, and greater appetite, of the hens, not for any difference in quality. This is what the experts say. I say, don’t buy anything else. Brown eggs are local eggs, and local eggs are fresh. And the ones from your neighborhood farm have likely been fed differently, perhaps allowed to wander around free, and do taste better. Ask your farmer if his chickens are pastured, what he feeds them, and (for the reasons discussed below), when the eggs were laid.
Buy only clean, large, fresh eggs with intact shells. When you buy in a market, eggs will be labeled according to either U.S. Dept of Agriculture standards, or state standards; that is, not all eggs are USDA graded—in fact, only about a third of eggs sold. If you don’t see the USDA shield on your carton, then they are not. What this means is that your state may not require that you be informed where they were packed, or when. Almost all eggs carry a “sell by,” “good until,” or “expiration” date, but that is different (perhaps as long as 45 days) from the packing date, which is usually within a very few days of laying and is your key to freshness. The packing date is known as the “Julian Date” and is a three-digit code for the day of the year, from 001 to 365. So a Julian Date of 030 is January 30; if you buy your eggs on February 5, you know they were packed six days earlier, and laid perhaps 7-14 days before purchase. The packing location is a number beginning with P, which can be decoded at: You can readily convert a Julian date at: If the eggs you buy at the market lack these dates, contact your legislator and say you want them included in state standards; they do not translate into a cost difference.
Eggs are a natural topic for the ‘tween months, what with spring, rebirth, etc., and the reappearance of fresh eggs at the roadside. But they are a worthy subject in their own right, a perfect food that is at once the indispensable protein, leavener, and liquid in your kitchen. At only about 75 calories each, they are packed with nutrients, including 6 grams of the highest quality protein, complete with all essential amino acids, of any food.
In addition to their simple and unadorned selves, very fresh eggs are perfect for soufflés, meringues, angel-food cake, and other good things requiring volume achieved by incorporating air into egg whites. Whether you use an electric mixer, a copper bowl and balloon wisk, or an old rotary beater, the transformation from cloudy, viscous liquid to opaque foam to shiny white fluff is truly magical. Very fresh eggs are also right for perfectly shaped, tender hard-boiled eggs (although they are harder to peel than older eggs, new eggs are “full,” not having yet lost some of their volume, so result in perfect ovals with centered yolks), which of course means egg salad or deviled eggs. Which brings us to mayonnaise, another fresh-egg essential.
Mayonnaise is a stable emulsion made by slowly beating oil into egg yolk and/or whole egg mixed with a small amount of acid—lemon juice or vinegar— and salt. You may see recipes calling for dry or prepared mustard, which some say assists in the emulsion, but I never use it in my basic mayo; you can always add prepared mustard to the finished product if you want it for, e.g., deviled eggs. Ditto for pepper. Mayonnaise is one of the “mother sauces” of cuisine, so-called because it forms the basis of numerous sauces and dressings, including classics like sauce remoulade or sauce ravigote.
During the summer, now hot on our heels, you will need loads of mayonnaise—for making potato salad with newly dug potatoes, creamy salad dressings like ranch or green goddess or thousand island, tartar sauce for lightly flour-dusted and fried scallops, sublime chicken salad, garlicky aioli for dipping vegetables or spreading on fish for grilling (as in the last post), and, of course, for tomato sandwiches and the divine summer BLT. You may as well make some right now.
Making Mayonnaise
You can make mayonnaise by hand with a whisk or rotary beater (although a beater takes both hands and makes it hard to add oil steadily), in a blender, or with an immersion blender or food processor. A food processor is the most sensible tool, and I particularly like a “mini” food processor for mayonnaise because they are just the right capacity for making a small quantity. Mine recently died, so I am using my full-size processor; just be very careful at the outset to get your emulsion going when you use a full-size processor to make fewer than 2 cups.
Most mayo recipes call for two fresh, large egg yolks for each 1-1/4 cups oil, but you can use only 1 yolk, or even 1 whole egg, or both, and any oil or combination of oils. It all depends on the taste and texture you are after: experiment to see what you like. Similarly, your acid can be lemon juice, any vinegar (even balsamic, which will produce a brownish but tasty product for flavorful foods), or combination, depending on what you’re going for. (Mayo in the photo was made with the yolk/whole combo, cider vinegar, and corn oil). I don’t recommend using 100% olive oil, particularly extra-virgin, unless making aioli; it is too strong, to say nothing of the cost. Even for aioli, a light olive oil mixed with another relatively neutral-tasting oil yields a more palatable product for some tastes; again, experiment. Keep your addition of vinegar or lemon while making mayonnaise to perhaps 2 teaspoons for these proportions while making it; once the emulsion is stable, you can thin or flavor your mayonnaise with more lemon or vinegar if you like. If your mayonnaise breaks at any point while making it, stop. Try whisking in a teaspoon of hot water (a method of thinning and bringing together the finished product as well), or use the standard fix: Treat the broken mayo as oil/vinegar, and start over: beat another egg yolk, and beat the broken mayo slowly in. It will come back together. But “breaking” is largely an issue of handmade mayonnaise; the food processor is virtually fool-proof.
Food safety issues around mayonnaise are associated with eggs themselves, and the risk of salmonella infection. You minimize this risk by buying top-quality, properly produced eggs. If your eggs are fresh, whole, clean, shell eggs bought from a reliable, preferably pastured, source and are stored and handled properly, mayonnaise presents no greater, and perhaps slightly less, risk than other raw or minimally cooked (below 140 F) egg products, such as some custards, meringue, or even a sunny-side up egg. In fact, mayonnaise is acid, and salmonella do not thrive in acid environments; if your eggs are safe, your mayonnaise is likely to be, too.
My Standard Mayonnaise
This makes approximately 1 ½ cups. Some variations are listed below the recipe.
1 yolk and 1 whole egg (large)
½ scant tea salt
2 ½ tea cider vinegar
1 ¼ cups corn oil
½ tea boiling water to finish
Have all ingredients at room temperature. Place egg yolk/egg in food processor with salt and half the vinegar. Pulse briefly. Through the feed tube, begin dribbling oil drop by drop with motor running, pausing from time to time to give it a chance to be absorbed. As the emulsion comes together, you can add the oil in a steadier stream, but still slowly. About half-way through, add half the remaining vinegar. When all oil has been added and you have a beautiful, creamy, glossy emulsion, add the remaining vinegar and ½ teaspoon boiling water, and pulse briefly. Taste for seasoning; if it needs more salt, dissolve a little in another ½ tea of boiling water and blend in. If not using immediately, store in glass jar in the refrigerator; properly made, it will mound softly but firmly. Homemade mayonnaise keeps well for up to two weeks, but is best if used sooner. Some permutations:
Herb mayonnaise: Use lemon instead of vinegar. Add 4 T chopped mixed fresh herbs, such as tarragon, chervil, parsley, chives, basil, or mint, to your taste, plus a little black pepper and extra lemon. You can add them at the beginning or to the finished product (preferred). Good for fish, vegetable, egg or cold meat salad, and tomato or onion sandwiches (yes, onion sandwiches).
Chutney mayonnaise: Mix a few tablespoons of homemade or store-bought chutney into a cup of mayonnaise for chicken salad. Nice twist for a Waldorf salad, too.
Tartar sauce: To one cup mayo, add 1 T each finely chopped sweet onion and parsley, and 2 T chopped dill pickles; stir in a little lemon juice and salt to taste. An optional addition is 1 T chopped capers. A classic for fried shellfish.
Other thoughts: Anything that will infuse flavor and not destabilize the emulsion can be added: fruit syrup or jam, horseradish, maple syrup, relish, chopped dried fruit, chopped nuts, grated cheese. Mayonnaise sweetened with minted fruit puree or syrup and lightened with whipped cream can be very nice on a cold, juicy fruit salad.
American Aioli
Makes 1 generous cup of thick sauce, suitable for a dip, my favorite use for aioli; it will absorb substantially more oil if you want it more fluid. You can also control texture with the water and lemon. For aioli, I prefer to form the emulsion without acid so I can control the taste and texture better, but you can add it with the yolks if you prefer. The soaked breadcrumbs of traditional Provencal aioli is omitted—this is really a garlic mayonnaise.
3 very fresh cloves garlic
2 egg yolks (all yolks preferred for this)
¾ cup extra-virgin (or lighter) olive oil
¼ cup corn oil
¼ tea salt
2 tea lemon juice and 1-2 T boiling water to finish
Crush/mash garlic to a paste with salt with a mortar and pestle, and add this to yolks in the food processor. Pulse briefly, then follow above directions for adding oil. When finished, blend in the lemon juice and boiling water to achieve the flavor and texture you want. Excellent with fish (salt cod is traditional), vegetables (particularly barely blanched carrots and green beans), fried foods of all kinds, or cold meat.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The First Strawberries

By the sheerest luck, I drove down a road that I don’t frequent much and saw the sign, tacked to a tree: “Our own strawberries.” Already? With all that rain? I hadn’t even been thinking about strawberries yet as a present versus anticipated pleasure. So, so much for writing about mayonnaise this week. Strawberries call.
At this early stage of the year, when a few pints are available rather than entire flats, the temptation is to just eat them out of hand. Early as it is, the berries are still red right through, with true strawberry flavor and, if not fully sweet as they will soon be, sweet enough. Strawberry shortcake seemed the just-so thing to do: classic, quick, requiring only a pint of good berries, a symbol of early summer, and preserve-making yet-to-come.
In New England, we make shortcake with biscuit, not sponge cake: that, after all, is why it’s called short-cake. It is old-fashioned and satisfying, for breakfast or dessert, a favorite end to church suppers and a centerpiece of June strawberry festivals. It is easy to make and easy to eat.
You can use any biscuit you like--buttermilk, sour milk, sweet milk, sour cream—and each brings a slightly different match to the berries. Sometimes, like here, I make a richer, and somewhat sturdier and less crumbly shortcake, particularly useful when you make it a large round instead of a lot of little small cakes—which, of course, is faster and leaves no messy counter to scrape clean. And eliminates the fussy assembly of individual servings.
Instead of whipped cream, I actually prefer the more traditional New England approach of pouring fresh, thick, unwhipped heavy cream over strawberry shortcake. Most people expect whipped, though, so I try not to be too purist when potentially inflexible diners are around—I can save that for private consumption. And if you cannot obtain real, high-butterfat, unhomogenized cream, you are better off with whipped anyway. For these reasons, the recipe below specifies whipped.

Strawberry Shortcake (This will serve 4-6.)
2 cups all-purpose flour (see Note)
1/3 cup sugar
½ tea salt
3 tea baking powder
1/3 cup butter (a generous 5 T) or a mixture of butter and lard
¾ cup whole fresh milk
1 egg
softened butter
1-2pints ripe, juicy strawberries (you could use the quart; I like a greater proportion of
of shortcake)
2 T sugar, more if needed
¾ c heavy cream, whipped
Triple-sift dry ingredients. Cut in butter; if using some lard, cut butter in first, then lard. Beat egg and milk together, and pour over, blending with a fork just until flour disappears. With your hands, gently turn the dough over a few times to bring it loosely together, then turn it into a buttered 9” cake pan, patting it lightly out to about ½ from the edge. Bake 15 minutes in a 425 F oven. Let cool in pan 5 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack and cool an additional 5 minutes.
While shortcake is baking, hull and slice strawberries, in half or quarters depending on size. Lightly crush about half of them with the back of a wooden spoon, then toss them all together lightly with the sugar and set aside; you can usually get away with less sugar on local berries, and they will still yield plenty of juice. When the shortcake has cooled down but is still warm, split it horizontally with a serrated bread knife, turning the cake to cut through evenly. Place the bottom, cut-side up, on a decorative pie plate (to catch juices), and spread with soft butter and about half the whipped cream. Distribute half the sweetened berries over the cream. Place the top of the shortcake, top-side up, on the berries. Spoon the remaining whipped cream into the center, cover with the remaining berries and their juices, and serve, cut in wedges or simply spooned, as soon as possible. Like summer, fresh strawberry shortcake is an ephemeral thing.
Note: You could use White Lily self-rising flour, a soft-wheat flour that already includes baking powder and salt, instead of all-purpose; increase the flour amount by ¼ cup, and cut the baking powder to 1 teaspoon. This flour is a bit more forgiving than a-p flour for making biscuits, but it is a light touch that goes a long way toward biscuit success.
P.S. OK, it’s a day later and suddenly there are the signs—everywhere. “Strawberries--Pick your own,” etc. Time to pull out the canning jars. As you can see, the lettuce is out too!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Stripers Are Running!

Rhode Island is famous for its saltwater fishing. We’re the smallest state in the nation, only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long, but we have 400 miles of coastline (compare that to California’s 800 mile length and 1340 miles of coast: we are truly exponential). Rhode Island waters are a veritable fisherman’s paradise, and not simply because they’re within an hour’s drive from anywhere in the state, and for many, within a short walk or bike ride. Giant tuna, yellowtail flounder, marlin and swordfish, blues—you name it, we’ve got it in abundance.
But it is the striped bass that is our state fish, duly elected by our legislature, and a favorite of locals. We pretty much stick to the names striped bass or striper, but it is sometimes called rockfish. Stripers tend to run close to shore, somewhat surprising (at least to me) for such a large and impressive catch. When I was in college, I used to walk to the beach with my friend Ray, who would fish for stripers off the jetty. I’d bring a book, and would barely finish a chapter before he had dinner for a small crowd.
A schooling breed that moves between fresh and salt water, the stripers have started their return from spawning in rivers and streams to the Atlantic shores and bays, and avid noncommercial fisherman are once again eagerly reeling them in from boats or surf. From now to fall, striped bass will be on our tables. Even if you don’t live in Rhode Island, you may enjoy this excellent eating fish, as it is found up and down the Atlantic coast.
Today a friend and neighbor caught a beautiful striper in the waters outside his house, and I changed dinner plans when I got a call asking me if I wanted some. It was late in the day when I picked it up, and the fish was so pristine, a fast and simple preparation was the obvious choice. This, of course, is usually the best course to take with a fresh piece of fish. You can treat striped bass much as you would any other firm fish--broiling, roasting, pan-frying, grilling, or steaming—and serve it plain or with a simple sauce, fresh salsa, pesto, or slice of herb butter (see recent post on herbs). Judge cooking time as you would for any fish steak or filet, by thickness, gauging according to a general rule of 10 minutes to the inch at a moderately hot heat (375-400 F).
I cooked my piece of striped bass by an old-fashioned and somewhat surprising (although completely logical) method, one that I have used for 35 years, first, back in the ‘70s, for sole and flounder, and later for fish steaks and thicker filets. It is always good, and lends itself to infinite variety (see Note).
Crusty Striped Bass
1 ½-2 lb fresh, line-caught wild striped bass
½ cup mayonnaise
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium clove garlic, chopped fine
5 or 6 whole pecans, chopped fine
small sprig tarragon, snipped, or other herb of choice
2 sliced scallions (optional)
Wash and pat filet dry if necessary; sprinkle with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, briskly combine mayonnaise with oil, garlic, and pecans. Spread about half of this mixture over one side of your fish, and place face-down on a medium-hot grill or, if cooking indoors, ungreased heavy pan. Slather the remaining mayonnaise mixture on the topside of the fish. Cook, without moving, 4 or 5 minutes, or until the fish is brown and loosens easily; turn over (I use a long, heavy, unslotted spatula) and cook an additional 4 or 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Remove to a platter and scatter with tarragon and scallions; squeeze about ¼ lemon over all, and serve with additional lemon.
This will serve about 3 people, depending on the size of the fish. It requires nothing more than a fresh-tasting, cool salad, like cucumber or romaine; in another month, plainly dressed sliced tomatoes would be nice. The amount of sauce in the recipe is generous, so you may not need it all for a piece of fish on the smaller side.
Variations: You can use this sauce on almost any fish, such as salmon, haddock, or swordfish, and you can also use it on more delicate filets, such as sole or flounder, for broiling: if broiling any filet or steak, spread on one side only, and broil with that side up, about two inches from the heat source. You can leave out the nuts, change the nuts, add more garlic, add a little cayenne, or, for a more delicate fish, mix mayonnaise with soft unsalted butter and ¼ finely grated parmesan, and the nuts or not. A true aioli (a very garlicky, olive-oil based mayonnaise) is also nice. Now that I think about it, it’s probably time to talk about homemade mayonnaise; it’s a summer stable. Next post!