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5 Seafood Lessons I Learned From Writing a Cookbook

November 16, 2019, 1:30 PM UTC
From coho and sockeye to Dungeness and Kumamoto.
Countryman Press

The first thing I learned when I began writing a cookbook about seafood was actually about people. I started reading their faces. No matter how excited someone seemed for me, no matter how enthused about the book, I would find that hesitance: People are scared of seafood. I wrote The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook in part to help them get over that fear.

And in the course of cooking hundreds of seafood meals, testing recipes endlessly, and figuring out the best ways to ease people into my world of salmon, crab, and clams, I learned a few things that surprised even me.

It’s okay to buy fish on the Internet

If I’ve learned anything about the Internet in my life, it’s that you should never buy anything from Instagram. My only exception: There are lots of great fish on there—including on the Internet.

For years, buying fish has been fraught with worries about freshness and sustainability. Shoppers shy away from the kinds of questions they need to ask at the seafood counter because they don’t want to seem stupid. But you don’t need to be bashful at the fish market: You can mail order some of the best seafood in the world and never have to speak to a soul about your salmon. Buy your fish straight from the fisherman or shellfish farmer with folks like Sena Sea, Drifters Fish, Lummi Island Wild, and Taylor Shellfish, and let them be the ones to worry about getting the product to you in pristine shape.

Fillets on ice.
Countryman Press

It will be frozen, and that’s also okay

As we put the finishing touches on my book, the publisher proposed “New and Classic Recipes for the Freshest Catch” as a subtitle, and I bristled. One of my main points in the book is that our idea of “fresh” is completely catawampus. Most seafood begins to deteriorate the second it leaves the water. Freezing it pauses that. So, if fish is properly frozen on board, that’s only a few minutes of getting less fresh.

“Fresh” seafood brought in without freezing likely takes many hours, if not days, to make it to you. Nearly all of the time, that means frozen will get you better fish than “fresh.” Unfortunately, “New and Classic Recipes for the Well-Stocked Freezer” did not go over well with the publisher.

Want one simple rule for sustainability? Buy wild American fish

Concerned crab crackers and suspicious shrimp eaters alike worry about whether what they’re eating is sustainable. Nobody wants to be the person that ate the last of a species or contributed to the end of an ecosystem. But in researching sustainability, I kept coming back to one easy mantra: Wild American seafood is pretty much entirely sustainable. The U.S. might not be strong on sustainable seafood when it comes to imports or farmed fish, but a simple way to put your mind at ease is to stick to wild American seafood.

Don’t be afraid of the no-names

Salmon, Dungeness crab, halibut, oysters—those are the big stars of seafood, and they’re all in my book—but the best thing I learned in writing this book was how to use their C-list siblings.

When a fisherman confessed to me she’d rather take home a lingcod than halibut, I finally switched my thinking: Just because it’s more famous or costs more doesn’t mean one type of seafood is better than any other. Smelt, sardines, sea urchin, and rockfish deserve to share the spotlight with scallops and spot prawns.

Salmon chowder
Countryman Press

Be gentle with your fish

Despite a national love affair with raw fish in the form of sushi, poke, and ceviche, when it comes to actually cooking fish, Americans tend to err in the opposite direction, grilling salmon until it glues to the grate and leaving halibut in the oven until long after it has lost any natural moisture. An inclination to treat seafood like meat, a deep-rooted fear of undercooking fish, and a lack of familiarity with the nuances of different varieties lead to much of the home-cooked fish hitting tables without the elements that make it so good.

This is me—a woman who wrote a book on seafood—begging you, the American public, to stop trying to cook your fish as if it were meat.

Slow-roast your salmon, cook your halibut en papillote so it steams, and oil-poach your albacore. These methods are far easier than trying to time your fillet frying and master your fish flip. My book will teach you to do those, too, but let’s focus on walking before we race Usain Bolt.

Featuring 75 recipes reflecting the people who live in the region today, including Red Curry Mussels, IPA-Battered Cod, Dungeness Crab Deviled Eggs, and Pink Scallop Ceviche.
Countryman Press

The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook: Salmon, Crab, Oysters, and More by Naomi Tomky was published by Countryman Press on November 5, 2019.

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