Friday, April 01, 2005

A True Fish Story

So many fish, so little time! I am fortunate to live in an area that is ocean-close. Near many harbor areas, up and down the California coast, there are clusters of specialty shops. Within those clusters, there are often fantastic little fish markets. One need only walk a few steps, along the harbor-front sidewalks, to see the fishing boats unloading the precious day’s catch. You can’t get any closer to “whole food” than that! At the same time, as one of nature's little bonuses, you have the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with a variety of ocean birds – they are always there, watching the fish being unloaded too!

Baked, sautéed, poached, fried, grilled … the preparation options for fish are myriad. I use them all, often as I can. There is one recipe, though, that maintains a special place in my heart. As so often happens in such cases, that preparation method is linked to memories of my youth.

Summertime visits to Door County, Wisconsin, whether a day or a week in length, were always a special event for me. Small cities, with names like Sister Bay, Egg Harbor and Fish Creek are replete with water views – some of Lake Michigan and some of Green Bay (the body of water, not the Packer's football stadium).

In fact, surrounded by water for virtually its entire perimeter, the Door County Peninsula has always been fish-friendly. A highly-touristed area, the county is filled with interesting gift shops, excellent restaurants, great golf courses and friendly people. And those friendly residents have a longstanding fish preparation method that has come to be emblematic of Door County – and a necessity for my visits there. Let's go there, for a short fish story --

Now, as then, as the sun moves lower into the afternoon sky, the summertime crowds begin to gather and the preparation for the evening’s meal event gets underway. In progress: the Door County Fish Boil. Huge iron cauldrons are suspended over an outdoor fire, then filled with water to the appropriate level. To peer into the giant cauldrons, one would have to be tall enough to ride the height-restricted rides at Disneyland!

As the fire is stoked, the water begins to boil. People in the watching crowd (many holding frosty glasses of beer in hand) begin to applaud as the stainless steel buckets of unpeeled, whole potatoes are carried to the awaiting cauldron and emptied with a flourish by the muscular cooks. The boiling proceeds for some time, as the steam rises to the skies.

The next round of applause greets the onions, peeled but left whole, about the size of the potatoes. They too leave their stainless steel containers as they join the potatoes in the boiling cauldron. And finally, after the potatoes and onions have continued their cooking for awhile longer – and perhaps the second round of beer has been delivered – the gleaming, white fillets of fish are added. The fish, of course, cooks very rapidly and soon thereafter it is time for the “big finish.”

Pounds of salt are brought to the cauldron with much pomp and circumstance, then lifted overhead by the attending cook. As the crowd becomes quiet – at least as quiet as possible, given the beers-in-hand – the salt is added to the mixture. Immediately, the salt works its magic. All of the froth that has been created by the boiling rises to the top of the cauldron and spills over the edges.

This salt-induced boil-over not only seasons the fish and vegetables. It also removes cooking residue from all the wonderful ingredients and spills water onto the fire which, hissing and sputtering, creates the final “splash” of drama that is the trademark of the event! You don’t have to be an ingredient sleuth to appreciate the theatrics! The crowd roars and then immediately heads to the rows of waiting tables. Finally, it’s time to eat!

A small army of servers is on hand to receive the dozens of plates that have been filled by the cooks. Steaming servings of well-drained potato, onion and fish (each with its own mini pitcher of hot, melted butter) are then whisked to the waiting diners. All of the accompaniments, waiting at the tables, are already well in-hand by the hungry eaters: coleslaw, various breads, sauces and condiments … all the trimmings. Soon, the boisterous sounds of happy diners fill the land and the slanting rays of days-end sun reflect all-too-soon from well-emptied plates.

Dessert follows, as naturally as the setting of the sun, and provides several choices, much emphasis being focused on fruit pies made from locally-grown cherries and apples. Dessert was always secondary to me, though. Perhaps my appetite was already satiated – because I always used every available drop of my melted butter? For me, the fish was the thing.

Once home, Door County visits well behind us, my mother decided that there was no need for us to go into fish-boil-withdrawal. She set about recreating a year-round method of imitating those tasty feasts. Certainly, the wood fire, giant cauldron and bubble-over conclusion were foregone. But, with a large stock pot and the carefully-timed addition of potatoes, then onions, then fish – and mom’s signature addition of celery stalks and leaves, at the same time as the onions, for added flavor – our mini fish boils were almost as eventful around our kitchen table as they had been in Door County. From time to time, we even had beer and applauded!

Today, my at-home fish boils have moved to the West Coast and are made with any firm, white-fleshed fish that looks good at the market. Whether fish from streams, bays, lakes or oceans come my way, there is always something compelling about them – as if they are calling to me with those little fish lips. I am even drawn to them at markets when I am traveling. Hence: today’s photo is from the outdoor market in Rouen, France. Maybe I wasn’t able to take those fish back to my hotel room and cook them – but I certainly did ooh and aah at them at the market. Bon appetit – and cheers!


Doug said...

Let's not forget the traditional Wisconsin Friday night Lake Perch fish fry! Always something I try to squeeze in when I visit the Door County area. Lake Perch are tender and sweet, also with a white flesh and when fresh, have no hint of a fishy flavor. When I moved to MN for some years, I left my Perch fry behind, since sadly, many MN folks don't realize that Lake Perch are edible, much less delectable! Now on the West Coast, I have many fabulous fish options I never had before, but I still am looking for a Fried Perch substitute. The Tilapia fry at Joe's Crab Shack brought back the memories and was tasty indeed, but still wasn't quite the same thing as a gold old Fish Fry at Dorn's Supper club on Highway 55 in Kaukauna! Maybe my parents can be convinced to bring some when they visit! ;)

Dennis said...

What a good description. I'm from Milwaukee and we go to Bailey's Harbor every year in August for a week. Your description makes me hungry already. Good job.

Carolyn said...

This sounds like loads of fun. Always something new to try, even if it is actually an old favorite.

Anonymous said...

My family used to go here all the time too! I had forgotten so many ofthe details that you talked about. Really brought back loads of memories to me and makes me think that I have to go there with my own family this summer.