Seafood Simple: A Cookbook
Cooking seafood is, in truth, not that simple. To most cooks, it’s a paradox, an oxymoron, an obvious contradiction; a kitchen task perceived as complicated, demanding, and messy. And while it does require a great deal of focus, technical skill, and experience, cooking seafood can be a fun adventure, especially once you start to explore and practice new techniques and recipes. I created this book to remedy these perceptions and to take seafood from daunting to rewarding. Often, home cooks tell me that they are intimidated by preparing fish, that it’s overwhelming and they don’t know where, or how, to start. You may feel that way, too, and while I completely understand your hesitance, my goal with Seafood Simple
is to teach you that it really can be just that: simple. I will share with you a series of techniques that are straightforward to master and will help to demystify the process and to guarantee success in your kitchen. My hope is that this book serves as a source of both inspiration and education. The secret to Seafood Simple
is to trust the process, and yourself!
As a chef whose career of thirty-five years and counting has been committed to seafood, and who is currently at the helm of a restaurant, Le Bernardin, dedicated to seafood, I started writing this cookbook by asking myself: Why now? The truth is, it has taken me decades to truly realize the complexities of seafood, to develop and master a knowledge for it, and to use this understanding and expertise to unpack the misconception that cooking seafood is anything but simple.
My love for eating preceded my love for cooking, which itself preceded my love of fish and seafood. Of course, I wasn’t born with knife skills, but my taste buds developed early and furiously. Eating was an utter joy for me, but school on the other hand was not, so enrolling at a small culinary college when I was fifteen was my way of transforming my passion into my career. It was a long journey through culinary school and my first kitchen jobs before I began to understand, learn, and finally master the techniques that today allow me to cook demanding food in complicated ways. But mastering these skills in the kitchen has also taught me a valuable lesson, and one that I hope to impart here: how to strip back the complexities and prepare food that’s incredibly simple but just as enjoyable—and often, even more so. (Think about your favorite dish: For many of us, it’s something we ate in childhood whose deliciousness lies in how uncomplicated it is. For me, it’s a simple fish soup made by Grandma.) This is the most rewarding way to approach cooking: using culinary knowledge to achieve simplicity. This book’s nine foundational cooking techniques, which I’ll teach you how to master step by step, will show you how working with fish can, indeed, be simple.
By nature, fish is very delicate, in terms of both flavor and texture. When I joined Le Bernardin in 1990, my respect and appreciation for these characteristics deepened under the mentorship of chef Gilbert Le Coze. No one understood fish more than Gilbert, and he wasn’t just teaching me the beauty of cooking with seafood, he was educating each and every guest who walked through the doors of the restaurant. Le Bernardin was a pioneer in the style of fish it was serving: prepared simply with few ingredients, like the restaurant’s signature dish, Pounded Tuna. Our mantra states that the fish is the star of the plate, and our philosophy of adding only ingredients that elevate and enhance the fish’s natural qualities applies even if we’re serving a vegetable or a meat dish.
This approach defines our cooking style, and its success lies in the quality of the ingredients we use. It’s especially important to source the best quality of produce; if you start with mediocre ingredients, you will have a mediocre result even if you’re a genius in the kitchen. It’s very difficult to achieve anything good with bad ingredients, and this is especially true when it comes to seafood. There are many variables to consider: Seafood is very sensitive to temperature and time, and (like me) you must be borderline obsessed with how to keep it in the best conditions possible to maintain its freshness. As you cook your way through these recipes, you will notice how obsessive I am about freshness. These reminders serve to highlight just how key freshness is to safe and flavorful seafood. It might sound tricky, but thanks to advances in technology and transport, it is actually easier to source fresh seafood today than ever before. Even as recently as the beginning of the twentieth century, fish was rarely served at restaurants that were beyond close proximity to coasts and local fishermen, and most of the time the fish was smothered in ingredients and heavy sauces to disguise the unmistakable fishy smell and taste of old or bad seafood. Today, at Le Bernardin at least, our sauces and ingredients must complement the fish and celebrate its natural flavors and qualities.
When choosing and sourcing seafood (and everything you cook with), it’s important not only to have respect for the ingredients but to practice good ethics and take responsibility for your choices. I have spent a lot of time educating myself over the years about food sourcing, sustainability, and the environmental and economic factors that affect the supply chain. It’s essential to know the source of ingredients and to therefore be able to choose the suppliers who engage in good practices for the well-being of the planet. I spend my days with many varieties of fish, considering which are best for the restaurant. This means more than just judging by their flavor and composition. It includes understanding the ethics and politics surrounding how they have been made available to us. While sourcing organic produce is relatively easy, identifying sustainable fish can be more difficult. Some species may be in jeopardy in certain regions but have healthy populations in others, and as the seasons change, so do the lists of species you should be buying. It is worthwhile to do some research to ensure that the fish you’re using is not endangered, was fed naturally, and was treated humanely. Several organizations provide information on sea life sustainability, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Oceana, and the Cousteau Society. In my own research, I also significantly rely on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to discover where there are overlaps and shared concerns. In America, we are lucky that the U.S. government is proactive in protecting fish species and the coastline, but it’s important to educate yourself through research on the current status of seafood species: Take a look at not just which are under pressure or on the verge of disappearing, but also which are abundantly available. Seafood Simple
follows my previous book, Vegetable Simple
, which was a celebration of vegetables, encouraging cooks to elevate them to main components in our meals. While I see it as a companion book, it’s very different in terms of its goals and origins. My intention with Vegetable Simple
was not to convert you to being a vegetarian or vegan, whereas my intention with Seafood Simple
is to convert you into a competent and confident seafood cook. If Vegetable Simple
is a reflection of a new evolution in my eating and cooking habits, Seafood Simple
is a culmination of the knowledge and expertise I have gained over the course of my career as a professional chef.
The book is broken into chapters organized around what I believe to be the essential, core techniques used to prepare almost any kind of seafood. Within each of the nine techniques is a collection of recipes using specifically selected seafood ingredients that will be best represented by that technique. Of course, there are species of fish that are versatile and can be prepared using more than one technique, such as salmon, which can be raw (poké bowl), steamed (red wine butter), poached (à la Gilbert), slow-baked (olive oil), sautéed (strudel), broiled (carpaccio), and grilled (cedar plank). However, not all techniques are suitable for all fish; for example, poaching is not a good method for meaty or rich fish like tuna but is great for more flaky, lean, and delicate fish like halibut.
You’ll find a guide at the back of the book, as well as tips throughout the chapters, to help you navigate aspects of sourcing and shopping, seasonality, sustainability, and storage. While I believe this book to be a sufficient, approachable, and effective road map to seafood success, it is not an exhaustive, in-depth encyclopedia. These recipes and techniques are my topline choices for the quickest and most comprehensive way to achieve the best results. They do not have to be followed in sequence, and I encourage you to begin by trying the ones you find easiest. As with all my cooking, the dishes included in this book were inspired by memorable times in my life: fun experiences while traveling, convivial moments with friends, and celebrations with my family. I truly believe food tastes better when prepared with love, so I hope as this book inspires you to cook with confidence, you will come to approach seafood with joy and, most important, with love.