Monday, September 28, 2009

John Dory versus Flounder

John Dory is a fish of the Eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea , and the Pacific Ocean. His scientific name, Zeus faber (Zeuse’s Blacksmith), places him at Olympus where the Gods of Ancient Greece once lived. His other name ‘St. Pierre’, or ‘Sanpierre’, also ties him in with the doorkeeper of the Paradise.

No wonder, then, that it is one of the most praised fish of Adriatic sea. If you want a perfect fish for poaching or boiling, it is the John Dory. This kosher fish has a flat body with a tall dorsal fin and a central black spot like a thumb print. It can be halachicly (credibly) identified and placed, without any delay, straight from the sea into the poaching pot for a classic Dalmatian leshada. Unfortunately, the fish does not live on this side of Atlantic. Filets of John Dory may be found on the market. Most imports comes from New Zealand. So, its trip from afar is nothing alike ‘from the sea to the pot” imperative for Dalmatian boiled fish.

I remember visiting my friend, a young physician who practices on a Dalmatian island where his family has been living for centuries. I joined him on a visit to one of his patients in a remote village. Our way led us along the curvy hip bones of the island coast. In one of the coves exclamated by a few red-tiled white stone houses and a pier for small fishing boats, my friend stopped to greet fishermen, long time family friends. They were delighted to see him and immediately offered to cook some freshly caught baitfish (gavuni). We couldn’t leave the needed patient waiting and had to excuse ourselves. However, the oldest fisherman insisted that we stop by on our way back.

We were back within the hour, just in time to see youngest fisherman tying his boat to the pier and bringing up a basket of fish. It seemed that the fishermen thought their original offer of bait fish was too humble for a doctor and they wanted to interest him in something better. Luckily, the young fishermen who went to pull out his net, caught a John Dory; a nice looking specimen of about three pounds. While it was boiled in a rush (so as to not make the doctor wait), we feasted on the simmered baitfish seasoned with nothing but a splash of olive oil and freshly crushed black pepper. Nothing could make for a better lunch than that. Nothing but a boiled John Dory. The feast followed the feast. The baitfish and John Dory were cooked the same way. Yet, their flavors were distinctive. Since we ate them with the heads and bones, Gavuni had a bold and pleasantly bitterish taste. In contrast, John Dory’s flesh had a delicate and sweet taste, with the subtlest hint of ocean. They complimented one another beautifully.
Yesterday, my local fishmonger brought in a fresh flounder caught off the North Carolina coast, a decent replacement for the unavailable Zeuse’s Blacksmit.

The moniker ‘flounder’ is associated with many species. Those caught of the NC coast are close cousins to the European flounder, one that lives in the Adriatic and is known by the name “Iverak”. Like the John Dory, it is a flat fish, but because it dwells on the bottom, it is flat horizontally and has both eyes on its upper side. Its scales, tinny but visible, can easily be removed without damaging the skin. Even better, it is halachicly kosher and can be cleaned easily at home. The price is affordable and the yield is much better then the 30-40% of John Dory.

I simmered my flounder in a large shallow pan with a few cloves of garlic, a bunch of fresh parsley, some dry laurel leaf, a few pepper corns and few drops of olive oil. Simplicity is Dalmatian cooking at its best, so I hope these instructions and the list of ingredients do not overwhelm you. Find your halachicly fishmonger, buy flounder, and proceed as above. Cook it yourself and you will not need my testimonial praises to the flounder cooked in the Dalmatian way. The skin will peel off easily once cooked and inviting white flesh will appear beneath. Make sure you have nice crusty bread to dip into the soup and crisp white wine to refresh your taste buds between the bites.

My friend from Dalmatia could not help but send me a photo of four small John Dory, basting "lesho" in a shallow pot that he was ready to share for lunch with his friends.

Why write about food

Writing about food is pretty trivial. If food were just for sustenance, contemplating and writing about it would not be worth neither the blink of a single neuron nor the ink of the world’s smallest quill. Personally, I could eat oatmeal or lentil soup for weeks without noticing it. Why, then, do I waste my time on this blog?

Humans are opportunistic feeders and that, in part, is what makes our species ubiquitous. The ingrained ability to adjust our feeding needs and wants to our circumstance opens a channel for universal communication. As the world moves forward at the speed of globalization, this common strand of DNA programming has become even more important. Regardless of whether we (I am talking about those of us who love food and take the time to read articles like this one) trace the origin of food trough history from our armchairs, or we taste it on our travels abroad (or travels to the supermarket), we discover that the biosphere which provides food to the entire World population makes all cultures as interwoven today as were through the history.

As a Dalmatian-American, I would like my fellow Americans who share the same ethnic roots to see that their heritage is as significant to the development of modern civilization as that of other cultures that American history books refer to more often. The first step is to know your ancestors and your own ethnic heritage. One of the simplest and politically unbiased approaches is to be able to taste it, since the tongue is the mean of global communication.

Equating the tongue which is the most complex muscle used by human brain to produce vocal communication with the carrier of taste buds common to all non-speaking animals- this sounds like a miraculous escapade! Well, like it or not, the later function of the tongue may be the lowest common denominator of all humankind.

As often as it is demonstrated that taste for food is acquired and that there are insurmountable cultural difference in feeding habits among ethnic groups, we are equally often reminded that all the differences are mainly circumstantial. Through forty years of life in Dalmatia, I came to appreciate “gruda”, wild grown greens boiled and lightly seasoned with olive oil, a diet staple on the Eastern Adriatic coast. My island, Korcula, is particularly fond of this delicious green. Research into the feeding habits of the island’s population during times of shortage has shown that inhabitants used over 130 species of wild greens in their daily diet. In good times, they “substituted” wild greens with “blitva” better known in America as Suisse Chard. Unfortunately, this green or anything like it is not popular food in America, and to find it one must go to more expensive grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joes.

On the other hand, I was happy to learn that “horta” (with the most praised variety being “vlita,” (amaranth) which sounds like “blitva”) in Greece and “hollow water spinach” in China, were quite common on dinner tables and were prepared in a similar way as Dalmatian “gruda”. Moreover, the gustatory pleasure they provide is the same.

The Mediterranean diet has become very popular in modern times due to assumption that it ensures a long and healthy life. Olive oil was identified as one of the sources of these purported health benefits and now it is promoted indiscriminately on TV shows for frying, braising or just seasoning food. As I remember from my childhood, olive oil was a commodity for harsh times. Most families had their own olive trees and so produced their own oil. A standard procedure involved a long season of collecting olives as they ripened and then keeping them in brine until the harvest was completed. The oil mills were few on the islands and households made sure that they completed their oil production in just one visit. By that time, most of the olives have had already fermented and all the health beneficial ingredients were gone. So, my subjective, untested hypothesis is that it was not the olive oil that kept the Mediterranean population healthy. Instead, it was the gruda, horta, blitva or vlita, and/or the chines water spinach. Olive oil it seems is the easier, more marketable answer to a world that craves miracle cures.

Chinese call water spinach “hollow” not only because of its hollow steams, but because it does not provide enough energy to replace the rice as a staple food in time of shortages. Nowadays, in the time of energy packed fast food, these “hollow” meals are a much needed break for our bodies.

Before I get lost in the labyrinth of food writing justification, let me simply conclude that it has “global cultural” merits . I will touch on this many times in the future. For the moment, let this piece be just a short glimpse into my obsession.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Last night I had cioppino in a local North Carolina seafood restaurant. In a large deep plate, there was an abundance of huge scallops, shrimp, oysters, white fish pieces and crab chunks, basting in a tomato broth. I could not finish it though I tried persistently, hoping that my taste buds would eventually wake up. At the end, when the feeling of satiety became unpleasant, I gave up.

I had cioppino before and I liked it. I was introduced to it on the Fisherman’s Warf of San Francisco which is close to the cioppino’s birthplace. Cioppino was created when Southern-European immigrants recreated their local dishes from memory but using the ingredients and infusing the spirit of San Francisco Bay’s North beaches. You could call it an Old World dish born again in the New World. Now it is an autochthonous American recipe as the Zinfandel is an autochthonous American wine.

It started as a fisherman stew concocted of the remains of daily catch in a fragrant tomato broth. Except onion, garlic and olive oil, all other ingredients were optional. Cooking liquid was sterilized with wine, red or white, whatever. It is not known neither when this dish got its present name nor where from the name came. Most likely, it came from Italian Ligurian ciupin, a name for another seafod dish. Other explanations exist, like the urban legend that cioppino was named after fishermen’s calls along the beach to chip in the fish for the common meal.

In the meantime, cioppino has become a tourist dish on the fisherman wharfs of both coasts and a star dish in seafood restaurants across the country. As it was always made opportunistically from what was available, nowadays when it is sold on the beaches and in the plains far from the coast, variety is its main characteristic. This is a similarity that it shares with all other fish stews and soups. Eaters must be equally open to surprises regardless if they order cioppino or bouillabaisse. And, most of the time you will get the same dish regardless what you have ordered.

I like the variety but cannot forgive misinterpretations. For one, if the fast food means the food that can be eaten with one hand while teletexting with the other, modern cioppino could be that. However, if the fast food means something concocted in a rush, that is not cioppino.

All good recipes for choppino – that is to say, recipes that stay true to the original methods of cooking the dish – call for simmering the base sauce for at least 60 minutes. This is especially important for tomato based sauces. I like tomato raw and will eat a tone of salads or gazpacho. But an undercooked light tomato broth tastes like water in which a tomato salad cup was rinsed. This is what “fast cooking” does to a great meal.

So let’s get to an understanding: the cioppino is a fish stew which includes Dungeness crab and shells. It is cooked in a fragrant tomato broth flavored with wine. Most importantly, it is slow cooked and although it could be eaten as a fast food, one should be ready to sit down and enjoy it slowly and in good company. The large quantities that an honest chef offered to me last night cannot compensate for the absence of flavor. Chops and chunks of seafood may be chipped in from various nets but they must become one through the warm love of wine and slow cooked tomato broth.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Black, sepia or tyrian risoto?

Cephalopods like octopus, squid and cuttlefish (, fair much better in an icebox than does fish. I have always few pieces of either kind in my refrigerator and can prepare it on a short notice. These sea animals share a common name „ink fish“ as they all have in common „inking“ , releasing a dark cloud when attacked. Most of their ink animals release when caught, but enough of it remains to be used in cooking a black risotto, arrozo nero or „crni rižoto“ ( risotto nero di sepia ) as it is called in Dalmatia.
The problem is that once frozen, ink loses its qualities as food coloring. Unless your fishmonger harvests and sells ink, you are stacked when trying to cook it black. In Italian food stores one can buy ink-colored pasta. That works pretty good for black pasta. Why not then use ink-dyed rice? Well, I am not aware that it is available. But I have found a natural black rice and I decided to try it with cuttlefish the very moment I discovered it.

This rice comes from China. It is one of heirlooms plants that produces non-glutinous short-grained rice. Its purple color comes from a natural pigment anthocyanin. Cooked black rice is of deep tyrian purple color, another color extracted from marine animals. In China it was known as emperors rice. Old Greeks knew about this rice and banned it because they believed it gives strength to their enemies.
Well, is the tyrian purple good substitute for black ink? In fact, only octopus has a black-black ink. Squid makes it blue and cuttlefish makes it sepia brown. Sepia is both another name for cuttlefish and a name for the cuttlefish ink used as a paint in painting and printing. So, we are on the good track. Let's cook!

Have your frozen cuttlefish (1.5 to 2 lb) tow overnight in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator. Clean it and cut it in a half-inch cubes. Cut tentacles also. Throw away parts of head containing eyes and tooth. Dice few cloves of garlic and one shallot and cook it in a pan with olive oil until it becomes fragrant (do not burn garlic or shallot). Add cuttlefish pieces and braise it on a low heat. Season with salt, sweet red pepper and ginger powder. Add minced parsley and a half cup of dark red wine going brownish (Postup). Allow for alcohol to evaporate and add a cup of black rice. Add fish stock or vegetable stock, or just a water and let it cook for 40 minutes. Add more liquid as needed. After 40 minutes add a handful of white rice and cook for another 20 minutes. Black rice will still be al dente but the cooked white rice will provided creaminess. Before serving, stir in a two spoonfuls of a cream.

Black risotto is now ready for serving. Enjoy nutty flavors of black rice imbibed with garlic and sea flavors, end its great tyrian-sepia color produced by anthocyanins, tannins and cream. Crisp white wine will keep your teeth unstained.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fisherman's lunch - Spam

So I went fishing. In fact, I was on a business trip in the beach city on the Gulf coast.
In sunset I walked to the pier to watch fishing. Two dolphins chased around schools of fish.

Spanish mackerels were hungry and lucky anglers hooked several large pieces.

Another one hooked a redfishof 28 inches. (Note: the redfish is from the family sciaenidae to which belongs the Adriatic species kavala or konj). A keeper! Fishing charters were coming back to the nearby marina with a rich catch of mahi-mahi, tuna and rockfish.

My daily schedule was tight. Work continued during lunches and dinners. I had fish for lunch, fish for dinner,  every day. Fish and chips, grilled grouper stuffed with lobster, oysters, broiled snapper, grilled blue fin tuna. Great fresh fish, big meals. But then again, I did not eat that much fried or baked potatoes in a year. Other vegetable was rarely offered. If asked for, it was slightly boiled, gummy, unattractive. Grilled, broiled, fried fish! It got boring before I satisfied my craving. And it was not healthy either.

Last day I finally had a free afternoon. Too late for a charter, but my partner offered (or I cornered him) to take me fishing on a lagoon some thirty miles further to the South.

A twelve feet long metal boat was perfect for a company of two, on shallow waters sheltered by sand dunes.

White sand of the bird reserve populated with cormorants and a kind of small seagulls stood out against a clouded sky as in one of my favorite Doutreleaux painting. We started casting unconcerned about competitors watching us from the beach.

But the clouds grew fast, got dark and became menacing. We continue casting undeterred until the lightning and thunders chased the fish away.

With our fish bucket still empty, we reached the landing soaked with showers. In the safety of our car we reached for the reserve solution and opened a can of spam.

Fishing does not know for convenience. Would be fisherman must first learn patience. Waiting for the right opportunity is the first lesson. Second most important lesson is, if you are fishing for a lunch, buy a can of spam, just in case.

If you have experienced fishing, you have also learned that fish is not just a right size fillet on your plate. Fish is much more and if you ever get bored with the fish meal, something is wrong (with the cook). I would like you to think how wonderful dishes one can make out of fish. Dalmatian fishermen learned how to do it. And they never get bored.