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Here’s a little peek into the deranged brain of an Itinerant Omnivore.

My favorite market in the greater Seattle area is the 99 Ranch store at the (I did not make this up) “Great Wall Shopping Mall” in Kent. From their delightfully earnest website:

For thousands of years, the Great Wall of China was known to have been created to fend off the nomads and barbarians of Outer Mongolia. Today, we find the Great Wall Shopping Mall as a relic of not defense, but of gathering.

Awesome.

Anyhow, the 99 Ranch Store is the normal person’s version of awesome-but-touristy-and-crowded Seattle institution Uwajimaya. 99 Ranch is to Uwajimaya as, oh, let’s say Katz’s is to the Stage. They’re both terrific, but I think part of the appeal of 99 Ranch (other than the notable absence of wealthy middle class food snobs) is that it’s part of a chain, as opposed to a ‘specialty megastore’ like Uwajimaya.

Right. Well. Back to the title of the post. One of the nicer things about the 99 Ranch is its exceptional seafood section, far more varied and interesting than the same at similar markets. Although they have the usual selection of in-season fishies in tanks and a veritable tidal pool’s worth of shellfish and urchins, they also often feature nifty delicacies in fresh form that aren’t often found at your neighborhood fishmonger’s. The other day they were stocked to the gills (ha ha ha!) with freshwater eel, whole or pre-sectioned (recipe forthcoming in a future post). They also had skate wings the size of skateboards which I’m dyin’ to try on the grill sometime soon.

On our most recent foray, whilst perusing the pre-wrapped seafood section for cheaper fishy delights, I spied a fairly inexpensive but delightful looking package of bone-in catfish steaks (cut wide, perpendicular to the spine, instead of long like a fillet). Now, as a native of the American South, I loves me some catfish, but where I’m from it only comes in two forms: deep fried fillet in flour batter, or deep fried fillet in cornmeal batter. So, curious as to how it might taste unbattered but grilled, I adopted the package and brought it home.

I knew it was a gamble, based on the fact that these suckers can get pretty bony, but it looked so nice and didn’t have any noticable fishiness in the market– it was very obviously relatively fresh, as far as these things go. Alas, can anyone guess what happened when I opened the package? Yep, it was the dreaded catfish muddiness.

It Smelled Like This


Catfish, y’see, occasionally takes on a muddy smell/flavor due to its position on the literal bottom of the food chain. What should I do? Could I get rid of the muddiness? Is this safe to eat? Could this fish be saved? What does Harold McGee think?

Into On Food and Cooking, where we find the following:

[Muddiness is] most often encountered in bottom-feeding fish, especially catfish and carp that are raised in ponds dug directly in the earth. The chemical culprits are two compounds that are produced by blue-green algae, especially in warm weather (geosmin and methylisoborneol). These chemicals appear to concentrate in the skin and the dark muscle tissue, which can be cut away to make the fish more palatable. Geosmin breaks down in acid conditions, so there is a good chemical reason for traditional recipes that include vinegar and other acidic ingredients.

A-ha! So, get rid of the skin and bathe in acid. Right. So, I took two of the eight smallish steaks, trimmed and chucked the skin, and sat them in a bath of lime juice and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos for a couple of hours. No luck!

This had me stumped, since I still wanted to use the fish, but if an acid bath didn’t kill the muddiness, what could I do? Finally I hit upon an answer: instead of getting rid of the muddiness, why not try to incorporate it into something as a flavor?

I asked myself, what tastes good when it tastes a little like dirt? I guess maybe some kind of earthy salad would work, with a strong acidic component to cut into the muddiness even more. What if I did a faux-tuna salad, with the catfish and a nice bunch of wild sorrel I’d picked up at the Farmer’s Market for acidity and a mayo dressing? That should be pretty good, and easy, and tasty if it’s done right.

OK, so, let’s start by getting rid of as much ‘eau du peat bog’ as we can by covering the fillets in oil and baking them at 250 degrees for a couple of hours. When that’s done, we’ll change the oil and crank it up to 400 for an hour or so, so the flesh falls nicely from the spine. When the fish is well-cooked but not dry, we’ll shred it up, add the chopped sorrel, some chili oil, some mayo, black pepper and Sriracha to taste, mix well and stick it in the fridge overnight and voila!

The final product? The muddiness is still there, but definitely more of a component of flavor and less a deterrent. It’s good! The sorrel (stems and all) is like the more traditional dill pickle in flavor, and the more traditional celery in texture. Its tanginess mixes well with the flavor of the fish, making it more like earth and less like the bottom of a slough. The catfish is moist and flaky, and holds together in just the right way– it tastes and feels like a decent whitefish. Not miraculous by any stretch of the imagination, but passable for a week’s worth of lunches.

So, on Monday, I sit down to eat it for lunch, spread on Wasa bread, and find that, although fairly tasty, it’s FILLED WITH TINY PIN-BONES! Now while I eat lunch this week I have to spend half the time pulling little bones out of my mouth. Catfish, you have defeated me. You, catfish, win.

*Sigh.*

In conclusion, Just Throw The Damn Fish Away Next Time!

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A corollary to our vegetarian Eggplant Bacon recipe: a how-to on turning carrots into something quite bacon-like. We’ll have to give this a try!

(totkb to boingboing)

If you live near or have visited salt water, especially of the marshy variety found near intracoastal waterways, you’ve probably walked past a big ol’ stand of Salicornia, also known as sea bean, sea asparagus, glasswort, picklewort or samphire.

It Looks Like This

This image comes from West Coast Seaweed (http://www.westcoastseaweed.com/)– a fantastic resource for all things Salicornia!

For those of us who don’t live immediately near a wild source, they can sometimes be found in specialty or Asian markets. If you live in Seattle, they can regularly be found during the summer at the “Foraged and Found” booths at almost every weekend Farmer’s Market (find yours here), for an incredibly reasonable $10.00/lb. I pick up 1/2 lb every other week or so, and it lasts me for a couple of dishes. Beats a four-hour drive to the likeliest nearby foraging spots.

These delightful little fellows come to the kitchen pre-seasoned. Since they grow so close to salt water, they’ve adapted to thrive on the stuff, and, for all intents and purposes, draw it up from the sand/soil. This lends the critters a fairly salty flavor, with definite overtones of minerals. They’re so salty that it’s a good idea to soak them for a while before using them in a recipe. Once soaked, they taste like string-bean pods or really tender asparagus like when it’s super-thin in Spring, and retain their crispiness if cooked.

The amazing thing about these guys is their perfect semi-salty versatility, especially considering the whole low-salt cuisine thing. If you cook with sea beans, you don’t need to add any salt to what you’re making! Properly soaked, 1/2 cup of sea beans contains about 70 mg of sodium, but the additional mineral content stretches that flavor and enhances the taste of whatever you’re making. All you need to do is add a few of them, finely minced, to any savory dish and they’ll add a delightful augmentation of flavor that precludes the need for any additional NaCl.

They’re really nice raw, in salads, but I prefer to cook them, either in small amounts as a salt replacement, or as a side dish, the same way I’d use asparagus. One good thing to do is to mix 1/4 cup sea beans with 1/4 cup sweet onions and cooked underneath a broiled steak seasoned with black pepper (no salt!); the juices from the steak seep down and cook the vegetables, and then cut the meat into bite-sized pieces so each fork-full of steak/sea beans/onions provides the perfect balance between umami/salty/sweet/tangy/juicy. Heck yeah!

Another good trick, especially nice on the grill, is to take some nice whitefish– cod, trout, catfish– and season it with a couple of twists of ground pepper, a squeeze of lemon, a pat of unsalted butter, and double-wrap it in foil with a 1/4 cup sea beans. Toss it on indirect heat for a good 15 minutes, take it off the heat, unwrap it and breathe in those amazing aromas. The littoral essences from the sea beans envelop the fish during the cooking process, bathing it in green, slightly briny delight. It is like eating cooked sashimi.

Finally, here’s a more formal version of a recipe I keep returning to every time I procure some of these guys. Note, once again, the lack of directly applied salt– the sea beans provide plenty. The actual recipe is super-easy to make, though it may require some wait-time while some of the ingredients soak.

Quinoa Sea Bean Salad

Ingredients:

1 cup cooked quinoa, chilled overnight
1/2 cup firm tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup chopped sea beans, soaked overnight and rinsed to taste
1/2 cup extra-firm tofu, pressed and cubed, soaked for 1+ hours in juice of 1 lime
3 scallions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
*1/4 cup crumbled feta or gorgonzola cheese (leave this out or replace with fresh mozzarella or swiss for less sodium)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp white pepper
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp flour
virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar

1. Remove the tofu from the lime and pat dry. Mix the flour, paprika, white pepper and cumin and toss the tofu in the mixture until well-coated.

2. Sweat the scallions and garlic on medium-low heat. Add 1 tsp of the olive oil and cook for ~1 minute, until soft but not yet golden.

3. Increase heat to medium-high. Add the tofu and stir frequently until scallions, garlic and tofu are all golden. Remove and set aside.

4. Mix the quinoa, tomatoes, sea beans, tofu mixture and olive oil and vinegar to taste.

That’s all there is to it. Eat some sea beans today!

I’ve been looking suspiciously into the pinholes on top of my salt shaker of late because I was recently diagnosed with hypertension (that’s High Blood Pressure). This is incredibly rare for my age– I’m in about the 1-2% range (screw you, all you lottery winners– I beat a different kind of odds). It’s not directly attributable to the amount of salt I get– in fact, it’s likely largely genetic– but it certainly will do me a world of good to cut back substantially on the ol’ NaCl (we can talk about the increased exercise and such another time, on a different blog).

The problem is, when you’re a food geek like me, there are some things that require salt. It is, after all, one of the five Simple Machines of Flavor (bitter, sweet, sour and “umami” being the other four). There are items (pretzels come to mind) and recipes (certain baked goods) that are, for all intents and purposes, pointless without a couple of spoonfuls from the ol’ salt pig.

You Salty Little Bastard


This, however, to my occasionally maniacal mind, makes what could be seen as a dire punishment into an intriguing challenge. How can we make freakin’ delicious recipes which typically call for salt (I’m looking at you, any kind of dry-rubbed meat, and your pal bacon, too) into still delicious, yet way better for you recipes that won’t eventually cause your brain to explode?

This isn’t just an academic question. If you live in an industrialized country and eat any kind of processed food whatsoever on a regular basis, you eat too much salt. Hell, even most cookbooks out there, regardless of how hoity-toity or high-falutin’, use far more salt than is necessary in most recipes. Here’s the thing: the more salt you eat, more you acquire the taste. The more you have a taste for salt, the more you use in a recipe. And so on. So, the way I see it, we’re culturally trained to use more salt than we need in our cooking, and maybe we can take a look at ways to cut it out.

Health-wise, we get plenty of sodium from a “well-balanced diet” (whatever that means); anything additional is the icing on top of the salt cake. Most of our salt comes from the aforementioned processed foods and from eating out at restaurants. Thanks to perceptions of low-cost and convenience, most people rely on this stuff, and where the Recommended Daily Allowance of Sodium tops out at 2,000 mg (at most)/day, the average U.S. Consumer eats between 4,000-5,000 mg/day. Yikes!

So, as a salt aficianado, I’m going to take a look at some ways to cut back this insane amount of salt we eat. I’ve come up with a little set of rules that I’ll be trying out, and posting here occasionally with updates, successes and failures.

THE RULES:

1. Occasionally we like to eat processed foods and dinner out. One of our goals will be to reduce our sodium intake at home so we can still enjoy meals out where we won’t be able to know how much sodium we’re getting.

2. We will not eliminate salt completely; we will still cook sausages and other salty treats every now and again. We will, however, attempt to balance our meals so that a salty sausage isn’t accompanied by a salty side dish and a salty dessert.

3. We will be eagle-eyed label readers and have an idea of just how much sodium we’re getting in packaged food. We will opt for no- and low-salt versions of the food we eat unless they are somehow chemically modified. If salt has been removed by adding a chemical, we’ll pass.

4. When I used to paint pictures, it took me some time to realize that my artowork looked far better if I didn’t ever use the color black (totkb to Bing, who taught me this trick). When I tossed my tube of black and replaced it with dark shades and hues in my paintings, the difference was astounding. I think this is because absolute black doesn’t really occur in nature. With this in mind, we will try to add salty substances to our recipes instead of salt itself. Instead of a tablespoon of salt in our dry rub (one tablespoon= ~2500 mg of the stuff), let’s use something that contains 1/12th of a tablespoon of salt and 11/12 of something else that is awesome and tasty.

5. We will get to know the underused flavors– bitter and sour– and find out how our jaded western palates can use these to help us appreciate cuisine in a way that doesn’t require as much salt.

6. Finally, we will make simple low-sodium and salt-free versions of our favorites that usually have lots of sodium. Homemade stuff always tastes better!

Hey, we are not doctors, nor are we dieticians. If your doctor or nutritionist has instructed you not to eat any sodium whatsoever, do not follow advice from some guy on the internet. If, however, you’re interested in coming up with some ways to get rid of some of that excess sodium but do so in a way that doesn’t result in cardboard-flavored grossness, it should be fun; feel free to play along, or discuss as we go! This will be a totally unscientific experiment; our instruments will be our taste buds and common sense.

Woo!