Happy Festa Della Repubblica!

June 2 is the Festa Della Republica in Italy and Sicily. It is a national holiday that marks the 1946 vote to become a republic. We celebrated the occasion by going snorkeling in a nature reserve near Siracusa.

We were fitted with flippers and masks—a process that produced a colorful mound of gear, shown in the first photo above, as the proprietor searched for something that would fit my size 13 gunboats—then took a speedy boat from a dive shop located along the harbor in the old section of Siracusa. After skimming and bouncing across the waves we reached the reserve, donned our gear, and tumbled into the water, which was chilly in some spots and warmer in others. We then padded over to the cliff and a cave.

Regrettably, we snorkelers didn’t see as many fish in the water as we hoped. In fact, the most visible fish were on the Sicilian CEO’s brightly colored swim trunks. Still, it was fun paddling around, checking out the underwater reefs, and cool to snorkel into a cave. Our friendly guide showed us a sea urchin and a beautiful, bright red starfish, and the divers in our group saw an octopus.

Our Festa Della Repubblica celebration ended with an excellent dockside lunch served by the dive shop crew. It was all good, but the rice, mussel, and clam concoction, shown in the center of the photo below, was particularly delicious and would be a terrific addition to any Fourth of July cookout. I’ve eaten lots of fish and shellfish over the last few days and enjoyed every bite. Now, if only it would make me a stronger swimmer . . . .

A Fish That Gave Its All

In Taormina we stopped for lunch at Osteria Rosso di Vino, where we had one of those experiences that make travel wonderful. When we sat down the proprietor brought out a huge, freshly caught red snapper. The fish weighed in at 7.5 kilos—about 16 pounds—and he explained it was large enough to feed all nine of us and provide three distinct courses. Who could resist that offer? That’s the fish, after filleting but before removal of the cheek meat, in the photo above.

We started with a gift from the chef: fried sardines with mayonnaise. The mayonnaise wasn’t at all like often-cloying American mayonnaise; if was made only with whipped egg whites and locally grown lemon and was light and delicately flavored. The sardines dipped in the mayonnaise were scrumptious.

Next came snapper tartare over local greens. It was bright and firm and reminded me again that fresh fish is the only way to go. Our titanic snapper was starting to have an impact.

Next came homemade pasta served in the traditional Sicilian style, in a light sauce with capers and potatoes and mint. It was excellent, too. One of the members of our party did not want pasta, so the osteria dipped some of the fish in a light batter and prepared fried fish for him, shown below. It looked and smelled and tasted terrific.

The last course was poached snapper covered in a fabulous broth. It was one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had. The broth and vegetables were so good I asked for seconds, and I used my spoon to finish every drop. And the proprietor was right: the one fish did it all, and in face produced leftovers for the osteria staff.

I’ll always remember that awesome fish lunch.

Putting Our Destructive Appetites To Productive Use

The State of Maryland really doesn’t like the frightful northern snakehead.  Its name, while grimly evocative, doesn’t quite do the creature justice.  It’s an ugly, slimy fish that can reach weights of 15 pounds or more, it looks like a torpedo with a mouthful of sharp, needle-like teeth, and it can even survive out of water for several days and wriggle along on land.  And, it’s an invasive species to boot.

snakehead-fishThe northern snakehead is native to Asia and simply doesn’t belong in Maryland, but when one thoughtless pet owner dumped some of the fish into Maryland waters, the state took action.  (Anybody who would want these horrors for pets probably shouldn’t be permitted to own them, when you think about it.)  When the state found the fish in a pond, it poisoned the pond, and when it found the fish in a lake, it drained the lake.  But the northern snakehead apparently is as wily and hardy as it is repulsive, because the fish kept turning up — and then it was finally found in the Potomac River, where the poisoning and draining approaches obviously wouldn’t work.  In the meantime, people started catching the northern snakehead, or seeing it in the river, and were close to freaking out for fear that it might eat their pets or be some kind of poisonous mutant.

So Maryland decided to take another tack — now, it is encouraging people to hunt for the northern snakehead and eat it.  Maryland sponsors snakehead fishing tournaments and offers licenses to hunt the fish with bow and arrow, and Maryland restaurants have started serving the fish to customers, too.  The fish apparently has a firm, white, mild flesh, but to get to it you have to first scrape off a thick layer of slime — which doesn’t exactly make the fish seem appetizing, does it?  Still, its meat apparently stands up well to seasoning, and it is perfectly edible for most people . . . if they don’t know about the monstrosity from which the meat came.  Some people, on the other hand, actually like the idea of striking back and eating the flesh of the scary invasive species that shouldn’t be in the Potomac River in the first place.

Maryland has gone from no commercial fishing of the northern snakehead to harvesting thousands of the pounds of the fish for restaurants.  It’s still got a long way to go before it can eat its way out of the northern snakehead infestation, but it’s made a good start.  We all know about how the destructive activities and appetites of human beings have put some creatures onto the endangered species list, and worse.  Maybe this time we can finally put those destructive tendencies to good use.  Who knows:  if we can eat our way to the demise of the northern snakehead, perhaps we can take the same creative and filling approach to the dreaded Asian carp, zebra mussels, and sea lampreys that are invasive species in the Great Lakes?

Not An Afishionado

My doctor has long been after me to eat less meat and more fish.  It’s easy to rationalize ignoring his heartfelt advice — which is what most of us do with doctorly advice, when you think about it — in Columbus, Ohio, which is more than 100 miles from any substantial body of water.  It’s not exactly the fish capital of the world.

In Belize, though, there is no viable excuse or rationalization.  So, I’ve been eating seafood until it’s coming out of my ears.  Ceviche.  Grouper.  The whole red snapper shown above, complete with head, eyes, and little bones that you pick out of your mouth.  And lots of shrimp.

It’s all fine, I guess, and I suppose I’ve added a few minutes to my lifespan by adhering to doctor’s orders.  But to my mind the highlights of my Belizean culinary experience so far were the stewed chicken I attacked on Tuesday and a flavorful jerk chicken sandwich yesterday.  

Nothing satisfies like meat.

Fresh Fish

  
Hey, Dr. Z!  Look, I took your instruction that I need to eat more fish, and had some absolutely fresh off the boat grouper for lunch.  It made me realize, once again, what a difference freshness makes.

I feel so much healthier now!  Of course, I had French fries and a few beers with the fish, and the fish was fried . . . but hey, it’s a start!

Frank’s Fish

IMG_5293It’s always an educational adventure when you go to lunch with Dr. Science.  When it comes to Columbus food options, he knows the good places, the new places, and the remote places tucked away far from the downtown core of which only foodies are aware.

So it was yesterday, when we drove west, out beyond the I-270 outerbelt, to Frank’s Fish and Seafood Market.  Our drive was a voyage of discovery of sorts for any seafood lover, because Frank’s turns out to be the primary fish supplier to many Columbus restaurants.  Fortunately, it also offers its fresh fish options to the general public, and it has a nice little restaurant and carry-out menu, too.

IMG_5290The fish market part of the operation, with its tubs of fresh fish laid carefully on beds of shaved ice, will remind seafood afficionados of the fishmongers on the east coast.  And that, in a nutshell, is the problem in Columbus.  Fresh fish is great, but fish doesn’t stay fresh for long — which poses a problem in land-locked Midwestern towns like Columbus.  That’s why eating fish at restaurants along the American coastline seems like a revelation in comparison to the pale piscine offerings found here in the heartland.

I didn’t grab one of the iced-down mullets (the fish, not the appalling hairstyle) on display yesterday to conduct a closer examination, but Frank’s offerings looked pretty good to this untrained eye from a freshness standpoint.  For one thing, the fish options are limited — which suggests that someone knowledgeable is making good judgments about what is reasonably available — and regional options like walleye are included.  Frank’s also has lots of frozen and smoked fish, shellfish, and chowders, as well as a handy wine area.

The restaurant section of Frank’s offers a number of sandwiches, shrimp, oysters, fish and chips, and seafood entrees, as well as what Dr. Science swears is the best gumbo in the Columbus area — and he backed up his words by getting a quart to take home.  I got the fried perch, and it was terrific — hot, fresh, and with the flaky mildness that makes perch one of the best eating fishes available.  We sat out on the patio on a fine spring day, feeling the sun’s warmth and enjoying the gifts of the sea.  I’d go back to Frank’s again.

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Your Mom and Grandmother Were Right About There Being More Fish In The Sea

When you first had your heart broken, chances are your mother and your grandmother told you to forget about the person who jilted you and added: “There are many fish in the sea.” It turns out that they were more right than they knew — about fish, at least.

A recent Australian study determined that the oceans are filled with many more fish than scientists suspected. In fact, the study concludes that the global biomass of fish is 30 times higher than was previously thought.

Why the incredible undercount of fish? Because most of the world’s biomass of fish falls in the category of mesopelagic fish, which live in the dark depths of the ocean at levels 200 to 1000 meters below the surface. The populations of those fish have been underestimated because the fish have remarkable sensorial capabilities and are incredibly adept at avoiding detection and capture by fishing nets. Their true number was revealed only when acoustic detection devices were used.

Mesopelagic fish are otherworldly looking, with their jutting jaws and special sensory devices, but they play an important role in the oceanic ecosystems. They rise at night to feed, then sink back to the depths to take their craps — a process which transfers carbon from the ocean’s surface to its deepest depths. The decarbonization of the surface helps to keep the oceans healthy.

Curious, isn’t it — after millennia of fishing and sailing the oceans, and hundreds of years of careful scientific study, humans still know so little about the oceans and their inhabitants that we underestimated the fish population by a factor of 30. What else don’t we know about the waters that cover most of the Earth’s surface?

Fish-Eyed

IMG_4563Seriously, can’t you just smell this place from this photo of goggle-eyed fish, ready to be consumed by happy fish lovers?  Water on the floor, people walking around with heavy aprons and boots that come up to the knee, and the sharp, clean scent of fish — ridiculously fresh fish — everywhere you care to take a sniff.

And this is just the retail side of the Portland fish market.  Imagine what the wholesale side looks and smells like!

Fishy Signage

IMG_4436One of the cooler things about Lunenburg, Nova Scotia is that the town features appropriate artwork at every intersection.

IMG_4434An artist has prepared very fine depictions of fish, clams, lobster, squid, and other denizens of the deep that hang at the crossing signs along the main road in town.

IMG_4443I don’t know a cod for the halibut, but I do know that marine life artwork definitely gives the town the feel of a seaport.  I’ve attached a few of these fishy signs for everyone to enjoy.IMG_4435

Fish Cakes And Clam Chowder

Lunenberg, Nova Scotia is a beautiful little town built into a hillside.  With carefully preserved Victorian houses, a cool harbor area, and lots of little touches here and there, it’s a very picturesque spot.  (I mean that literally; after our visit there today Webner House readers should expect to endure some photos over the next day or two.)

IMG_4428This little town also is home to a great place to eat called Magnolia’s Grill.  The folks we are renting from said it’s their favorite restaurant, and I can see why.  It’s unprepossessing inside and outside, but exceptional.  I had the fish cakes and clam chowder, and it knocked my socks off.

Living in the Midwest, it’s very hard to get fresh fish.  So hard, in fact, that one of the airlines that used to fly into Columbus, America West, advertised its flights to Boston with the tag line “Because fish in the Midwest tastes like fish in the Midwest.”  Fresh fish just tastes better by several orders of magnitude.

So it was with the food at Magnolia’s Grill.  The fish cakes, made with halibut and grilled, were fresh and flaky and fabulous.  The cakes were served with a rhubarb relish chutney that was sweet and tart and went perfectly with the fish.

The clam chowder, on the other hand, was superb.  It wasn’t overly creamy as some faux chowders are.  It had a touch of milk, but mostly that fabulous clam broth, some potatoes, and dozens of clams that had just left their shells.  Fortunately, we were served bread with the meal, so I could sop up very drop of clammy deliciousness.

Kish and Russell had the key lime pie to round out the lunch, and Kish said it was the best key lime pie she’d ever had.  I passed on dessert, because I wanted to savor my food.  If I lived here, I’d eat this meal at least once a week.

Dining Hungry Heifer-Style

In a classic episode of Cheers, Norm — “Norm!” — talked about eating at the Hungry Heifer, a blue-collar dining hall where the portions were immense because all of the food was imitation.  Woody, intrigued, decided to join Norm for a meal.  When he returned to the bar he explained that the imitation food had to be called by a slightly different name, then raved about the “loobster” and “beff.”

IMG_3746Lately I feel like I’ve been channeling my inner Norm.

When my doctor told me to try to eat more fish and less red meat I groaned.  I don’t mind the taste of fish, but it’s a pain to prepare and tends to stink up the house.  One day at the neighborhood Kroger, however, I noticed packages of chilled imitation crab and imitation lobster.  They were cheap, so I decided to give them a try.  Surprisingly, they were tasty, and now they’ve been worked into my evening meal rotation on days when we don’t feel like making a big sit-down meal.  I feel good about listening to my doc when I buy them, because they have a “heart healthy” logo, too.

What’s in the imitation crab and lobster?  Mostly Alaska pollock, apparently.  The ingredient list also indicates that the product includes water, wheat starch, sodium, extracts of crab, oyster, scallop, lobster, cutlassfish, anchovy, and bonito, fish oil, rice wine, egg whites, and corn starch, as well as some more exotic sounding experiments from the chemistry lab, like disodium inosinate, guanylate, titanium dioxide, carmine, and canthaxanthin.  For all of that, the imitation lobster and crab taste pretty much like lobster and crab.  And, on the laundry list you won’t find anything that looks or sounds like red meat.  So, on any random night you might find me munching on some imitation crab leg, feeling good about my dietary habits and food spend, and inevitably thinking:  “Norm!

Look, Doc, I’m Eating Fish!

IMG_2330When you’re an aging guy in your 50s, your doctor tends to be concerned mostly with your prostate and your blood statistics.

Fortunately, my prostate hasn’t exploded — yet — or ballooned to basketball size, and most of my blood statistics are within the optimal range.  The only exception is “bad” cholesterol, where I’m two points above the maximum target.  My excellent doctor presented three options — start to take medication, go in for some kid of scan, or try to change my diet and eat more fish and chicken and turkey and less fatty red meat.

On general principles, I try to avoid medication or medical procedures unless they are essential.  So, I’m going to try the diet modification approach.  This is not as easy as it sounds — and not just because I can’t image a more succulent meal than a juicy cheeseburger or a sizzling New York strip.  I’m prone to poultry-fatigue, and when you live in the land-locked Midwest it’s hard to eat fresh fish.  And, let’s face it — fish that isn’t fresh blows.  It’s rubbery or dry or oily and not very appetizing.

IMG_2331When you come to a seaside resort, however, eating seafood becomes as easy as sipping that chilled glass of rum punch.  The fish are beautiful, absolutely fresh, and perfectly cooked and prepared.  The raw tuna appetizer shown above, half of a Caribbean lobster, a local fish served hot from the griddle, and a swordfish filet with a white bean sauce — all have gone down very easy.

So far I’ve had fish for lunch and dinner, and I’d have it for breakfast if it were offered — it’s that good.  Who knows?  This one vacation may get me below the line.

Hey, doc!  Look!  I’m eating fish!

On Catching A Fish And Eating It

Until last weekend, in my 55 years on this planet, I had never eaten something that I caught or killed.  Last Friday, that all changed.

As I mentioned yesterday, thanks to the excellent guide work of Woody Becker, our little party found an area where the fish were biting.  I caught a plump small mouth bass that, according to my much more experienced companions, probably weighed between 3 and 4 pounds.  It fought like crazy as I reeled him in, bending my fishing rod almost to the breaking point, and after Woody netted it and we dropped it in the tub it continued to flop and thrash.  At the time, it was exciting.

When we later returned to our dock, and one of our party prepared to fillet the fish, I began to feel uneasy.  The fish stared at us, wide-eyed, and its gills continued to flutter.  My friend the Brown Bear loves to fish because he likes the challenge, but he’s a catch-and-release man.  Perhaps I should let the fish go?

The temptation to at least try eating something that I had caught and killed, however, overcame my reservations.  My friend expertly filleted the fish and tossed the remains into the harbor, where it would serve as sustenance for other aquatic parts of the food chain.  I felt guilty, but remembered that I had caught the bass only because it couldn’t resist gobbling up the live minnow that I was using as bait.  The fish clearly understood the circle of life and the notion of survival of the fittest — or so I rationalized.

We prepared the fish fillets in simple fashion, by dunking them in corn meal and then dropping them in a skillet where hot oil popped and snapped.  After a few minutes the fish fillets were ready, and they were astonishingly good — the flesh firm, light and mild, absolutely fresh, with no oily or fishy taste.  It was, quite simply, the best fish I’ve ever eaten.  I’d do it again.

That Piquant Office Microwave Smell

By law, every American office must have a microwave in a common area that is made available to all employees.  Any office worker will concede that the zone around that microwave is a crucial part of the rich tapestry of their work space.

Educated noses in the office can learn a lot from the smorgasbord of scents in the microwave zone.  Is that the heady aroma of maple that I detect wafting from some mid-morning oatmeal that will linger, cloyingly, for an hour or more?  My God, has Jim reheated that pungent fish and rice dish again?  And how about the subtly nuanced aroma of blended chemical preservatives that floods the area whenever a frozen entree is zapped?  The welcome dinging of the microwave timer acts like the bell Pavlov used with his dog, and summons the office epicures to revel in the sight and smell of whatever appetizing radiated fare is removed from the pristine microwave chamber.

The delightful experience is compounded when reusable microwave dishes are left to soak in the sink below the microwave.  Each has the unmistakable pink smear of sauce residue that has been permanently bonded to the plastic by countless doses of radiation, thereby allowing the diner to enjoy the taste of all previous reheated meals along with whatever he has chosen as today’s sustenance.

Curiously, on our floor the microwave is positioned directly across from the door to the men’s restroom.