This is difficult for me to write today. The nation is divided and protests have broken out, we are still enduring a pandemic and COVID-19 case counts have increased in Alaska. The economy is in turmoil and we are facing an uncertain tourist and fishing season. I feel I should write cheery paragraphs about cooking and food, but it feels like a challenge.
And yet, as ridiculous as it sounds, the one thing we can do in troubled times is cook, to feed each other and ourselves and push troubles away if only for a little while, to make our lives better. Cooking is love. When I am feeling blue, I try to do something nice for someone else and before I know it, I feel better.
The first tastes of spring for me are rhubarb, fresh-caught fish from Kachemak Bay and chives. After eight long months of winter, I am really anxious to see something green popping up out of the ground and more anxious to harvest something, anything, to cook with. Nettles or fiddleheads are green local delights and are available for harvesting found in the woods. The market offers asparagus, baby spinach and strawberries. Morel mushrooms are an incredible treat if you are fortunate to find them. My first time tasting them was akin to the first time I tasted shallots. My only thought was how incredible and unique tasting they were and why have I not discovered them before this?
The Other Fisherman is a very traditional guy and doesn’t like me messing around with a treasured recipe or preparation for his favorite dishes. Me, I am always experimenting to see if I can improve on something already perfect. I may never learn, and should know better after cooking for him for more than 40 years. (Insert laughing, crackup smiley emoji here.) Don’t mess with recipes for his mom’s rhubarb dessert that includes strawberry gelatin, the homemade tartar sauce he likes with fried fish, the way I grill king salmon and the batter recipes I use to fry fish. I tried to improve on the croutons I make for Caesar salad recently and ended up giving them to the chickens.
I wanted to try a rhubarb strawberry crisp recipe that included anise seed, five spice powder and elderflower liquor in it, and just possibly, you would enjoy it, but he wouldn’t. When people ask me how to best prepare fresh fish, I know they are thinking I will tell them some special way, as I they know I love to cook. My answer is always the same: fresh fish has such a perfect and delicate taste you don’t want to mask, so simple is best. Use the best ingredients to prepare it with, don’t overcook it and be happy. Let the fish be the star. A little salt and pepper, lemon and butter for pan-fried fish. A little olive oil and shake of salt for salmon before it goes on the grill. Maybe a sprinkle of fresh chives or dill if you dare just prior to serving it.
Roasting certain fruits and vegetables brings out a sweetness in them. I love it dining at the Little Mermaid. When getting seafood, they serve it grilled lemon, and it has such a different sweetness and taste that complements seafood. Think of roasted tomatoes, asparagus and peppers — to name a few — that taste great when roasted. Try roasting rhubarb for a wonderful taste sensation.
Rhubarb is one the first plants to awaken from a long winter’s nap and poke through the spring soil. Its tart flavor is refreshingly delicious. It’s a versatile ingredient as well, used to make many delicious things. Roasted rhubarb is wonderful spooned over thick yogurt, ice cream, pound cake, or just enjoyed on its own.
Pre-heat oven to 350°. Thickly slice 2 pounds of rhubarb and put it into a deep oven-proof pan or pot. Add ½ cup of sugar, ½ cup red wine and a pinch of salt. Split open 1 or 2 vanilla beans and add them to the rhubarb. Roast the rhubarb until very tender, about 30 minutes. Makes 2-3 cups.
Steamed Fish with Buttery Sorrel Sauce
Like rhubarb and chives, sorrel is one of the first to shoot up in the spring. It is also a member of the same family rhubarb comes from, containing oxalic acid as well. Sorrel has a remarkably bright and tart flavor. Many people liken its taste to lemons, which is likely due to its sour flavor. Its lemony flavor is mixed with a deep grassy flavor.
4 fillets fresh white-fleshed fish, such as halibut or cod, 6-6 ounces each
For the sorrel sauce
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons dry white wine
1 scallion, minced or 2 tablespoons shallot, minced
Salt and pepper
12 tablespoons, (1 ½ sticks) cold butter, cut into pieces
8-12 sorrel leaves, stems trimmed off and leaves finely chopped
Sprinkle of cayenne pepper
Steam the fish in a covered steamer basket set over a pot of simmering water over medium heat until just cooked through and the flesh turns opaque.
Gently boil the vinegar, wine, scallion, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a sprinkle of cayenne in a small saucepan over medium heat until there are only about 2 tablespoons of liquid left in the pan. Reduce the heat to low and whisk in the butter, one piece at a time, waiting for each piece completely melt and be emulsified before adding the next one. Stir the sorrel into the thickened butter sauce at the end. Cover saucepan to keep sauce warm for serving.
Serve a generous spoonful of sorrel sauce on top of each piece of fish.
*Note: if you omit the sorrel you still have a lovely sauce known as beurre blanc, which is delicious on fish, shellfish and asparagus.
That just doesn’t sound appetizing, but a tasty fish cake is my favorite way to enjoy leftover fish. They can also be made with fresh fish. There are as many recipes for fish cakes as there are for meat loaf, so feel free to make it your own with additions or substitutions. Serve them with good tartar sauce and lemon wedges on the side.
Saute 1 finely chopped small onion in 2 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl.
Break up 2 boiled, peeled russet potatoes, and 1½ pounds of steamed cod or halibut fillets into meaty chunks and add them to the bowl. Gently mix in 1 whole egg, 1 egg yolk, ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley or chopped scallion and ¼ cup panko (adding a little more if mixture is too moist). Season with salt and pepper. I like to add a shake of seasoned salt and a few shakes of Frank’s hot sauce.
Shape into 8 fish cakes, then coat each one with more panko.
Melt 6 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry the fish cakes until golden brown on each side, 5-7 minutes per side.
Cook. Cook together. Wear your mask, wash your hands, say a prayer. Plant something in the dirt.