Barton Seaver isn't your average National Geographic fellow. For starters, the Washington D.C.-based chef didn't earn his chops covering war ravaged coastlines, investigating dolphin atrocities or some similar magazine-worthy massive reporting project.
The author of For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking cooked his way to that fellowship (he has worked with José Andrés and helmed numerous D.C. restaurants). Those movie star good looks certainly haven't hindered the chef from spreading the sustainable word in glossy magazines and through television appearances.
But how's the cookbook?
The sustainability side of things is of course a focus here, with a good thirty pages dedicated to the “A Cook's Quick Guide to Fish” chapter. The quick aspect is what makes this a compelling read (yes, quick even at thirty pages). The dictionary-like guide is organized by seafood ingredient (catfish, oysters, crab). Seaver is thorough — he tells us why to be wary of labels that say a scallop is “diver caught” (so few actually are, it's likely that scallop really wasn't). Yet he also has an engaging voice that makes you want to read more about why he believes “tuna and other apex predators such as sharks and swordfish are, in effect, the trees of the ocean.”
He doesn't mean they are trees in that mighty, admirable oak sense. But that tuna is the “aggregator of energy in the sea” because of the trickle-down effect of what they eat (Seaver makes the association to trees because “hundreds of years of sunlight” are stored in trees; We would actually argue that tuna are more like humans, the ultimate top-feeders, than trees). Either way, “when we eat tuna, or swordfish, we are eating the most inefficient protein on earth. The environmental cost is so high that it just doesn't warrant our sustained use of the product… and bluefin is just a disaster. There are so few of them left in the seas that we should not touch them at all, for any reason.”
Still, Seaver includes two tuna recipes in the book. He says “there are fishermen who do it right, and they deserve to be supported.” And so when making that pounded tuna with tarragon and parsley (p. 55), he implores us to buy pole or troll-caught canned albacore tuna. If you aren't already doing so, by the end of the book you will be.
And about those recipes. They are organized by season, as Seaver reminds us seafood really is (or should be, anyway) seasonal just like produce. And so as summer rolls around, we should be cooking up crab and corn toast (p. 98) to serve with that grilled okra with charred onion dip (p. 92) that we picked up at the farmers' market. Or perhaps barramundi with creamed zucchini (p. 104), squid with green beans, potatoes and basil pesto (p. 100) and mahimahi with grilled peaches, arugula and a buttermilk-mint dressing (p. 113). You'll also find yogurt-marinated sturgeon, trout with a warm cherry tomato and dill salad and soft shell crab with corn and black bean relish. All pretty great.
Not all of the recipes are seafood-focused mains. There are plenty of sides here too: Eggplant stuffed with smokey tomato-anchovy ratatouille, watermelon salad with lime and mint, and big leafy bunches of kale grilled and drizzled with Seaver's favorite condiment, a homemade “almond oil” (toasted sliced almonds in olive oil). As with so many of the recipes in this book, that kale recipe is pretty brilliantly simple yet flavor-focused.
For Kale and Country, now that sounds like just the sort of sequel we're hoping for.