Wednesday, December 16, 2009

a fishy solstice

Abashed that she is touching what she caught, Zoe is nevertheless proud of her catch. Local fish is probably
a better choice over ocean fish for the fish soup below in this land-locked state.

Dear readers, I suspect most of you would join me in grieving some circumstances in our lives, and in taking joy in others. It’s the winter solstice, you know, when the earth tips over from short days to lengthening ones in her relation to the sun. It is a dangerous time, this solstice season, when the skin of the worlds, it is said, are worn thin, and one must be careful not to glide too near that thin skin for fear of entering another world and leaving this one. Well, that’s as good an explanation as any, to my mind.

Which must be why our ancestors felt the need, so soon after Autumn’s plenty, to light their remaining candle units and begin with a vengeance to consume their hard put-up bounty. “We’ve had it with the darkness,” they seem to’ve said, “and so here is a splurge of light and food to welcome in longer days.” For that IS the irony, isn’t it, that winter only begins with this lengthening light.

Now just tell me if you’d like me to stop right here and if you do I’ll just rerun last year’s Christmas message – cookies, cookies, and more Christmas cookies. And even that column had a grumbling tone. Let’s face it, Christmas is a hard time, a time when you might feel obligated to shop at all the trash stores around just to surround the Christmas tree with presents. Tacky things, wrapped eptly in this dark time can be sources of great joy, whereas unwrapped, under the July sun, they would be subject to unwonted scrutiny and judgment.

But if you don’t mind, I’ll just keep on this tangent of thin places, the yin of things, with a nice brothy dish that is perhaps not soup, but if it is not soup, what is it? I think of it as a composed soup. It is made of a little mound of rice in the bottom of the soup plate, the rice surrounded by steamed vegetables, just a few, and laid over this are filets of steamed white fish, the whole sunk beneath a lake of pungent fish broth, and a scatter of chopped green over it, either parsley or, preferably, cilantro.

a fishy solstice

Rice is made.
(I cannot believe how many people swear desperately by the rice cooker, but I have never had the desire or need for one.) Two cups of water are brought to a boil. A generous bit of salt is pinched into it. A cup of rice is stirred into it, the pan is covered, a moment of contemplation while it comes again to the boil, then the heat turned down to a bare minimum. The timer set for 20 minutes.

Gently a carrot is scrubbed and then cut into irregular small chunks, turning, turning, sharp knife. A stem of celery is cleaned and sliced into half circles. A shallot is peeled, trimmed, and sliced thinly. An inch of good fishy broth or water is poured or drawn into a smallish sauté pan – if water, a cube of fish bouillon dropped into it. If you have it a bit of Asian fish sauce – Nom Pla – give it a squirt to deepen the flavor.
This is put onto a high flame, the bamboo steamer fitted over that, and the carrot and celery put into the steamer and covered. Five minutes after the boil and the heat turned down a bit the vegetables are becoming tender. Four small filets of cod or other fish are rested on top of the vegetables, cilantro is chopped, and ten minutes later the bell rings for the rice, the vegetables are tender, the cod easily flaked, and all is ready. Heats are turned off, or ever so low. A towel under the cover of the rice will absorb any residual moisture if one is not eating right away.

A fishy solstice

But no, you are hungry: Into wide shallow bowls are spooned a pile of rice into the center, and around it the vegetables and the fish. The cooking water has been enriched with the vegetable and fish juices and become a broth. It is ladled over all and the dish strewn with cilantro. Perhaps a drop of dark sesame oil.
There’s time enough before and after for those much-heralded long-cooked thick, cold-weather stews of beef and pork and chicken. For now, Soup’s on, and what a gentle and meditative and lovely thing it is no one can deny.


That said, I must confess my mixed feelings about that fish when I stood in front of the fish counter and said, “Give me a slab of that cod.” So simple, right? Give me a slab of that cod. How often would I eat cod if I had to catch it myself?

At least it was frozen. I often have a conversation with a very good friend who exults in finding fresh ocean fish here in Vermont. I’ve told her that I want my fish flash frozen as soon as it’s caught, on that big ship out on those deep gray waves. Fish is delicate, and by the time it gets to shore, unloaded, transported, and in my display case... it is NOT fresh. Even if it was caught yesterday, which is unlikely. The only fresh fish I want is the one I buy off the day boat at 4 in the afternoon to be put on the grill at 6. That’s, of course, when I find myself on the coast. That also determines that the fish is not scraped up with the ocean floor with everything else, leaving destruction and mayhem behind, but caught, hopefully, on a line with a hook.

A check at Seafood Watch tells me that I probably made a bad choice, because my cod was probably US Atlantic cod, and it was probably overfished: “Avoid” Atlantic cod from North America,” Seafood Watch tells us. “Decades of severe overfishing has resulted in massive population declines. Scientists agree that we’re now fishing the last 10% of this population and that the population may never fully recover.” The best choice would be the Pacific cod from Alaska. That would have been caught on a longline, with a jig, or trapped.

I avoid any farmed fish except shellfish because they’re fed what I like to call chicken feed. One of the reasons you eat fish is to get the Omega 3s and maybe a little vitamin D. By eating farmed fish you might as well eat chicken or even tofu. And in addition they’re subject to parasites and diseases which they spread to their neighboring free fish.

It's also best to eat small fish, as bigger fish eat smaller fish and on up, and Mercury and other contaminants are consolidated each step of the way, until the large fish is filled with them. But the most sustainable of all fish, and incredibly rich in nutrients, are the shellfish, the oyster, the mussel (even farmed), and the clam.

I was recently at the Hanover Co-op, attracted by some tiny Maine shrimp. They’re a seasonal delicacy, but I’ve seen the big trawlers sitting off Monhegan Island just scouring the ocean floor for them and anything else that gets in their way. We have a whole other world under our oceans that is all but unexplored, and we do great harm to that world without even recognizing it.

But we’re not perfect – certainly I’m not – and when I asked the woman behind the counter why the Co-op offered these unsustainable things she answered, “We can make recommendations to the buyer but we can’t police them. Now, do you want the shrimp or not?” Well, I grimaced, just this one time!!

You can download a pocket-sized Seafood Watch guide from that website.

And have a wildly happy and mindful solstice!


DK said...

Mmm, mmm, made me hungry Sharon. Wish I could have been there to partake. I guess I will just have to make some for myself. Also reminded me of a T-shirt I saw walking around a couple of days ago -- "As Cod Is My Witness". Must have been a Newenglander.

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Hee hee hee, DK. Cod will come up and get us in the end. Hope you made the soup -- ultimately easy -- and preferably with a fish YOU caught!