When I was a kid, my grandpa would take me fishing almost every time I saw him. We were usually pretty successful, too. I always begged him to let me take our bounty home so my mom could cook it for dinner. He smiled and silently released each fish back into the water. I haven’t been fishing in a long time (too long) but I have eaten a lot of fish in my life. There have been the Florida standards of grouper sandwiches and grilled red snapper, bluefin tuna (hey, I was young and reckless) sashimi and salmon maki rolls. And – this one hurts to admit – the favored childhood combo of canned tuna and mac’n’cheese (I have since sworn off all canned tuna).
So when I saw Bluefish – a fish I had never cooked, ordered, or even encountered – at the Union Square Greenmarket, I had to try it. The only thing I knew about bluefish was that it had a bad rap for being too fishy and oily to enjoy. Wade promised me, however, that this large, violent fish was a fisherman’s favorite: as good to eat as it was fun to catch. I was sold.
I got my fillets home and quickly realized I had no idea how to cook a bluefish: would the dark flesh turn out flaky and dry, or would it stay meaty? What flavors are complementary? Should it be poached or grilled? To answer these questions, I turned to Mark Bittman’s Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking, which offered three or four different bluefish recipes. I was immediately drawn to a grilled preparation that called for a marinade of garlic, lemon, and rosemary. The familiarity of those flavors spoke to me, especially against the backdrop of an unknown fish. In Florida, my parents and I made dinner on the grill almost every night, and so grilling the fish really spoke to the Floridian in me. But in New York, I don’t have a grill, so I broiled it instead, a similar method because the fish would be close to the flames, like on a grill.
The end result totally surpassed my expectations. The bluefish was tender and succulent, with just the right amount of bright, herby flavor. It wasn’t fishy or oily at all, and the meat, so dark when it was raw, had turned a much more palatable white color when it was cooked. The skin (my favorite part of a fish fillet) had loads of potential; next time I’ll expose the skin-side to the heat for a little longer to get that nice crispness I love.
Before we lived in Florida, we’d go down every year to visit my grandparents. One night, when I was about 4 or 5, we went to a fish shack for dinner. At the time, I think I was subsisting on a steady diet of chicken fingers and French fries; outside of that first bite of solid food a couple of years before, I hadn’t exactly had a memorable, life-changing meal yet. Until I tried one of my mom’s mussels.
I don’t know how she convinced me to eat one; maybe it was the luster of the shells or the excitingly different orange flesh of the mussels themselves. Maybe it was the way she was scooping up the broth with an empty shell, the joyous slurping that looked like such fun. More likely, it was the enticing, inviting, intoxicating scent of the broth itself: rich with garlic, wine, butter, and tomatoes, a slight brininess from the shellfish. Whatever it was the drew me in, overpowered me: I climbed onto my mom’s lap and devoured her entire dinner, all thoughts of chicken fingers abandoned, pretty much permanently.
Since then, I’ve never missed a chance to eat mussels. In a lot of ways, they’re a ‘wonder food’: high in protein, low in fat, and easy to raise - they grow naturally in salt and fresh water – and are affordable and versatile. Mussels can be steamed, boiled, smoked, grilled, or battered and fried. But my favorite way to eat mussels is steamed in broth. I’ve had mussels in coconut broth with lemongrass and chiles; with curry, mango, and anise; even with sake, ginger, and scallions. But my absolute favorite way of eating mussels is Belgian-style: a broth of butter, beer, and garlic. When I make this in Florida, for my parents, I add a little orange zest for some local flavor; but really, all that matters is that you use a beer you love and don’t skimp on the butter. We chose a Belgian-style beer brewed in upstate New York to keep things local, but frankly, you could use Guinness or Sam Adams or even Pabst. I just wouldn’t recommend using a pilsner.
Mussels are fantastically unfussy, too. Keep them in your fridge under a damp cloth for up to 2 days before cooking them; then just sweat your garlic in butter, toss in the mussels, and add a beer. Cover them and steam them for 10 minutes and serve them with a good, crusty bread (or, better yet, French fries) and you can eat them right out of the pot. Then immediately start thinking of what kind of broth you’ll steam your mussels in next time.
The recipe for Mark Bittman’s grilled bluefish fillets can be found in his book, Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking, which is one of the most useful cookbooks we own. But basically, here’s all you need to do:
2 whole scallions, including green ends (optional)
2 cloves of garlic
½ cup olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, minced, plus 4 whole sprigs for the grill/broiler
2 bluefish fillets, about 2 lbs total
Mix together everything but the bluefish, then toss the fillets in the marinade and marinate at least 30 minutes, turning occasionally.
Heat a grill or broiler and line with the sprigs of rosemary. Lay the bluefish down with the skin away from the heat and cook 4-5 minutes, running a spatula under the fish every now and then to keep it from sticking. Baste with some of the marinade and flip over so the skin side is facing the heat and broil or grill another 4-5 minutes or until the skin is brown and crispy. Remove from the heat and drizzle with olive oil, a little lemon zest, and some fresh rosemary.
Fresh thyme is also a delicious addition to this recipe.
6 cloves of garlic, minced
4 Tablespoons of butter
16 oz beer
1 ½ - 2 lbs of mussels, cleaned and debearded (just scrub under cold water and pull off the beards)
salt and pepper
A good crusty bread (toasting and rubbing with ½ a clove of garlic is optional, but quite delicious)
Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a large, heavy saucepan. Add in the garlic and cook just past translucent, about 3 minutes. Add in the mussels and the salt and pepper; immediately pour the beer over the mussels, and cover with a lid. Leave covered and cook for about 10 minutes, shaking once halfway through. Remove the cover; the mussels should have opened.
Serve with big hunks of bread or garlic-rubbed toast.