fish

Baccala!

by Caroline

Our stay in Portugal was planned as a respite, a no-agenda, unscheduled interlude without a lot of sight-seeing. It’s not that Lisbon and Sintra don’t offer a lot to see, but we know that with kids you can only be a tourist for so long before rebellion sets in and you risk finding yourselves stuck in a relatively expensive vacation rental with children who refuse to do anything but lie on the floor and color (or worse). We’ve learned to pace ourselves so that everyone gets to see and do interesting things, everyone gets some down time, and no one gets (too) cranky. It’s not an exact science (nothing in parenting is) but we’re getting better at it every year.

So, we puttered around the house and garden. The kids drew and played with stomp rockets and practiced their headstands. I picked ruffly leaves of kale from under the laundry line and admired the amazing harvest of red peppers:

We didn’t hurry (well, except for the trip to the ER).

And that gave us all the more time to make baccala, which is pretty much the national dish of Portugal. Or I should say, it would have given us more time to make baccala, but in fact the meal arrived on the table without my input or participation at all. So while I would love to be able to share the recipe here, as well as pictures of how it all came together, would have loved to be part of the process, asking questions about how long to soak the dried cod, who taught her the recipe, how many variations she’s made or eaten, Ursula’s mother-in-law soaked the cod, and rinsed it and soaked it again until it was tender, starting a couple days before our dinner. Then she and Ursula pulled it all together, chopping onions, potatoes, parsley and olives.


It all happened in the background while the kids played and we relaxed. It gave me a wonderful sense of being cared for, which of course made the meal especially delicious. So while I can’t tell you how to make baccala, I can tell you that the soft and salty layers of salt cod and potatoes and onions, eaten at a table with family and friends, make for a most unexpected and wonderful comfort food. And I can tell you that it is the perfect meal after an afternoon scrambling over walls of a ruined 9th century Moorish castle — but you shouldn’t wait for an outing like that to eat it.

Salmon Backs

by Lisa

Looking for a fast, economical, and really delicious fish dinner? One that’s appropriate for a school night, guests, or a weekend brunch?

The answer is Salmon Backs.

Pietro introduced me to them, and they’re basically a “throw away” part of the fish, and they do look like scraps and bones.  But they cook up fast and truly do taste better than any other part.  At about $4.95/lb.,  even now, they’re terrifically economical for a family.  We’ve been eating them for a few salmon seasons now, and with the closing down of the California salmon fishing, and the rising price of salmon, they’ve been the only way we’ve been able to afford to keep salmon a regular part of our diet.  Of course, they’re not locally sourced–Pietro gets them from a friend in Alaska, but buying from him does support him & his boat, and we regularly buy locally caught fish as well.

If you don’t have a Pietro but do have a good local fish monger, ask if s/he can get some for you.

To prepare:

Sprinkle the backs with salt on both sides. Pepper if you like.

Squeeze a little lemon, drizzle a little olive oil and white wine or sake if you like.

Grill on high heat for about 2 minutes on each side. Alternatively, you can roast/bake at 450 degrees for 5 minutes.

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Let the salmon cool a little, then with a fork, flake the meat off the bones.  This bit takes a little time, but it’s not hard, and the fish flakes easily.  Be slightly careful of bones. They’re large and easy to see, but if you’re feeding kids I like to be extra careful.

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You can serve any number of ways.  I like to pile it on a plate with lemon wedges, sprinkled with tarragon or dill.  You can mix it in salads or use it to top bagles.  Good sides are a fresh Italian or French bread, white beans with olive oil, garlic, and salt, quick gazpacho, a green salad.

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If you have any leftover, or are feeling ambitious, it’s also great  in salmon cakes, which you can make by binding the salmon with egg, bread crumbs, and adding whatever other seasonings you like: parsley, tarragon, a little minced and sauteed onion, green or red peppers, etc. Use your imagination and whatever is in your pantry.  Lightly flour the cakes and pan fry them in butter &/or olive oil.

Salmon backs are easily one of my kids’ favorite dinners, so I trust that all 5 of you  who read this blog won’t buy them all up before I get to market on Sunday.

Fish. Tacos.

by Lisa

We have a fisherman.

For more than half a decade, we’ve bought our fish from Pietro Parravano, who docks his boat, the F/V Anne, near Half Moon Bay, and who sells his catch only at farmers markets. He’s an extraordinary man, active in environmental politics and sustainable fishing for decades.  He’s smart, articulate, and kind; he has a sense of humor and a sense of wonder; he can tell you how to cook whatever he’s selling that week and he will remember to show my kids his live crabs, or ask about Ella and Finn on the days they stay home.   He’s taught me a lot about fish and sustainability, and our table and market would not be the same without him.

Many nights all I’ve had to say to Ella and Finn to get them to eat a new fish dish is, “Pietro caught this fish for you,” and they dig in.

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And his fish is extraordinary.

Fresh and local (with a few exceptions in the past year, including Gulf Prawns and scallops, brought on in large part to combat the closing of the salmon fishery), it’s worlds better than anything you can buy anywhere else. I’ve tried.  You might get a wider selection at a larger store like Whole Foods, but it’s just not as good.    There’s no comparison, really.    Of course, all Pietro’s fish is seasonal, but over the course of the year he has a good range on on offer, including: crab, salmon, albacore tuna, halibut, sand dabs, ling cod, petrale sole, red snapper, scallops, prawns, (cleaned) calamari, and a range of smoked fish that will blow your mind: lox, smoked salmon & salmon fins, albacore, etc.  The smoked fish is so good–smoky and salty and sweet–we have to sit down with the kids as soon as it’s on the table or we don’t get any.

Some of the fish, of course, can be expensive–like the salmon or halibut, and prohibitive for a regular family to eat every week.  But it’s worth every penny when we do get it.   We can always afford red snapper, though  which is affordable and satisfying and delicious. We broil or pan fry it–with fish this fresh you don’ t have to do a lot to it–but lately we’ve been eating a lot of fish tacos, which have become one of Ella and Finn’s favorite meals.

And this is one of the ways that their childhood is light years from mine. I didn’t even know what a fish taco was until I was in graduate school, here in California, and even then, it took years to convince me that they were something worth eating. Now, I lament all the years I lost not eating fish tacos.  Both my husband and kids still laugh at me for it. But I’ve made up for lost time and to please my fish taco loving family.

I would agree that the best fish tacos are the classic ones, built on a fried white fish, and we do this sometimes. But really, frying can be rough on weeknights (the flour, the hot oil, the dredging and clean up). So I improvise by broiling or grilling the fish and using as many good-quality pre-made sides as I can, and our table is not much poorer.   Also, since we have most of the fixings all of the time, this is a meal I can pull together in a matter of minutes.  It’s a Monday night standard, since we buy our fish on Sunday, and we like it to be very fresh.

First, I season the fish, drizzle it w/olive oil, and squeeze a little lime juice over it, and broil it in my convection oven until it’s cooked through.  I flake the fish and make sure the bones are removed, and set it on a plate.  Then, I set on the table:

  • warm fish
  • warm tortillas (the kids like flour and Trader Joes has great hand made or organic ones)
  • a bowl of salsa
  • a bowl of shredded cabbage  (A side benefit is that they have both realized recently that they like cabbage. Raw. I kid you not.   Piles of the cool, crunchy stuff have been disappearing, which is another weird habit that is just fine with me.)
  • a bowl of guacamole (or fresh avocado if they’re in season)
  • a bowl of baja sauce (one part sour cream, two parts mayo, lime & salt to taste)
  • a bowl of sliced limes
  • a bowl of chips

The kids craft their own tacos. And I say craft because they take very great pride in making theirs exactly the way they like.  It’s satisfying, really fast, really fresh, and really healthy.

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These of course, were made by The Husband. But they give you an idea of what one can aspire to.

If you’ve been in an aquarium anywhere in the last five years, you probalby know something about sustainable fishing.  More information on clean (though not necessarily local) fish here and here.