As far as book release timings go, Seattle private chef Becky Selengut really got the raw end of the omakase deal when her new cookbook, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, was released this month. Glance at that subtitle and how can you not think of the recent tragedies that fish swimming the Pacific's waters are facing this very moment? Particularly when yet another depressing article on radiation levels in fish off the coast of Japan or the lingering 40+ years of residual DDT levels in SoCal fish pops up on our news feeds. But this is a great little book that deserves an unbiased look, if for nothing more than a pre-dinner sustainable fish lesson, a hefty dose of Selengut's signature snark and a solid chef's knife worth of recipe inspiration.
As to be expected, Selengut starts the book by giving us the rundown of the essential fish fanatic's tools, such as a filleting knife, fish scaler, fish tweezers and a Labrador retriever for cleaning up the whole mess. "Feel free to substitute another breed or any mutt," she advises. "Nothing is more effective at cleaning a kitchen floor than a dog." Duly noted.
The book is divided into three sections: "Shellfish" (clams, crabs, shrimp, scallops and the like), "Finfish" (salmon halibut, trout, black cod, etc.), and "Little Fish and Eggs" (sardines, squid, caviar). The true meat (sorry) of the book is in the introductions that Selengut provides for each type of fish. Yet this isn't another textbook-style seafood guidebook. Instead, each begins with a one-page personal reflection, like the time she first tasted clams (New Jersey, 1978), or those live crab days when she worked at Washington's The Herbfarm Restaurant.
What follows each reflection is a two-page spread with the essentials you need to know about each variety: The various types of shrimp that are sustainable, their peak season, how to select the freshest cocktail shrimp (or the best previously frozen of the bunch), how to store them and so forth. But instead of lecturing, Selengut admits when something is complicated to explain. "Oh boy, this is not as easy as you'd think, as there is a lot of debate in scientific circles about mussel species," she says in the "Shellfish" section. We appreciate the honesty.
"The Anatomy of a Flake" sidebar epitomizes Selengut's equally upfront, or some might say a bit testy, writing style. Here, she provides photos to visually describe when a piece of salmon and halibut haven't hit the flake point, when they're just right, and why that final picture of two overcooked bites is the kiss of death. "This fish still has some moisture, but I guarantee, by the time it hits your plate, it will have the squeaky, almost mealy, dry, tooth-grabbing texture that is the calling card of the fish flake." Ha, ha. Sounds like a cooking demo by Selengut would fit in just fine at next month's Pun-Off World Championship.
Though we'd buy this book simply for the basic advice (and we actually like Selengut's fun, dry humor), the interesting recipes feel like a bonus. Sure, some like that gin-and-tonic albacore with dandelion crackers and lime cream are a bit too restaurant chef fussy for our taste. But there are enough inspiring recipes still within the experienced home cook's reach for us to flip quickly past that labor-intensive recipe for home-smoked salmon with handmade gnocchi and stinging nettle sauce. Or at least until we have a Saturday set aside to dedicate to cooking up those nettles (which, coincidentally, are currently at farmers markets for their brief Spring debut).
Instead, we'll be trying that wild salmon chowder with fire-roasted tomatoes, or perhaps the roast salmon with morels (also currently available) and a Pinot Noir sauce. Though the roasted black cod with bok choy and soy caramel sauce or the sautéed squid with red chile sauce and herbs sounds pretty great, too. On that thought, in the book's Introduction, Selengut tells us that "In this book you will find recipes for seafood that is low in mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs)...." Here's to hoping that we'll still be able to find pollutant-free fish not just in Good Fish, but in our oceans as well.