Based in Hudson, New York, Tamar Adler is a former professional cook turned writer. Alongside being a contributing editor to Vogue, she has written for publications including the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. We share an extract from her book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, where she muses on how to thoughtfully prepare fish, followed by a recipe for brandade de morue.
There are plenty of fish in the sea as good at sharpening our minds and oiling our bones as tuna and salmon. They are not big fish, but small fish and shellfish and fish whose silvery little bodies are unfamiliar but delicious, or fish whose hard shells intimidate, but keep safe the sweetest flesh. There are plenty of freckly mackerel, meaty little sardines, delicately saline squid, and flinty-shelled clams and oysters. In New York, there are oily-fleshed blue- fish; in California, rock cod and fierce Dungeness crabs; in cold lakes and brooks and mountain farms, there are trout. Most of these fish are more affordable than environmentally troubling tuna and salmon, which makes buying them doubly responsible.
We should approach this wide variety of smaller fish with the inclusiveness of cultures that rely on fish as a staple. Their diets are not made up of one kind of fish, cooked one way, but all the fish the deeps can offer, cooked in all different ways.
On days when mackerel is the freshest, mackerel fillets will be on the table, tasting as clean and oceanic as the water they were pulled from. If bony, rocky fish are in the net, they will be simmered whole in tomato and olive oil and enjoyed because they were easy to catch and easy to cook. If clams were dug it will be clams. If eels, thick, terrifying eels it will be.
We should also cook our fish more inclusively. We act as though fish is singularly resistant to resourceful cooking. This is not because it is, but because it comes from a strange dark world, where things fall up not down and it is hard to see.
Where fish is common, it is treated like the rough-and-tumble wild animal it is, the same peasant tricks applied to it as are applied to loaves of bread. Fish is bought in its entirety. Fish that isn’t freshest is kept, even though there are more like it in surrounding waters. It is salted so that it can be poached in milk, or turned into a stew with strong flavours, like chile and lime, and an amount of fish that would have fed two if fresh, or none if discarded, will feed four, and well. When there is no more fresh mackerel, there will be a few jars of it stored in olive oil, where it will stay good for months. Fillets of big fish will be smoked or cured, so that the hard work that went into catching them won’t be used up in a single dinner, and another big fish simply down for the count.
Buying fish whole, on the bone, with head and tail, is a good practice. It means fish stock, and there may be nothing more elegant or subtle than a minimally made one. You can also tell the most about fish’s freshness if you can press its skin, which should bounce back, and look in its eye, which should be glossy.
There is, too, something noble about serving a whole, antique-looking, picturesque fish, evoking a long tradition of handing over a fishing rod instead of a fish itself, echoing the miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes.
Salting fish is the process by which we used to preserve all fish, and still preserve some. If you buy a fillet and don’t cook it on the day you intend to, shower it with kosher salt so that it is well covered but not caked and put it in a drainer pan or colander over another pan in the refrigerator. Cover it lightly with plastic wrap.
Your salting won’t preserve the fish long term, but draw liquid out, which both keeps it good and leaves it firm enough to be made into one of my favourite, and possibly the thriftiest of all fish preparations, brandade.
I served a traditional French brandade, a purée of poached salt cod, potato, and garlic, for years because it was inexpensive, sounded elegant, and could be made ahead. Then I learned about the overfishing of Atlantic cod, which was a great disappointment, but left me a clear plan for any other white fish I didn’t cook immediately.
Brandade de Morue
450g salted white fish, such as halibut, croaker, pollock, rockfish, or trout
1 bay leaf
2 big baking potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes, or any other potatoes to equal the same volume such as 5 new potatoes
2 cloves garlic, ground to a paste with salt
300ml olive oil
Freshly cracked black pepper
1. Remove the fish from the salt, brush off the excess, and place in a small pot with the milk and bay leaf. Cook at just below a simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until flaky, then remove and mash by hand or in a food processor, making sure to remove the bay leaf and any bones and/or skin. Reserve the milk.
2. Boil the potatoes until they’re chalky and then press them through a potato ricer or a food mill, or mash them with a handheld masher. Whip the garlic and olive oil (which will seem like way too much) into the fish mash and then combine with the potatoes. Taste for salt and add pepper. Add a little milk if it needs loosening to your taste. Smooth into a shallow, oven-safe container, like a small glass roasting pan.
3. Before serving, brown under the grill. Save the reserved milk if you’re going to make another batch in the next week or so.
Extract and recipe from An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler, published in the UK by Swift Press.
Images from video by Justine Quart. Images of book by TOAST.