My Bluefish catch ready to be filleted with ingredients nearby
One of my favorite things to do growing up in Brooklyn was to go fishing in Jamaica Bay. My parents, having grown up in a fishing village, saw it as a way to keep me busy and a way to bring home some food to last us for a week or two. My family did not believe in the “catch and release” concept, unless you count the numerous undersize Striped Bass we let go in the 80s. Yes, I ate the fish we caught and I still have all 10 toes and have grown used to my webbed feet.
The fish here was a lot different than Istra so my family had to adapt. There were no Sardines, Branzino, Cuttlefish or Scorpion fish. Instead we had Porgy, Blackfish, Flounder and Bluefish. Out of all of these fish Bluefish was the one my family gravitated towards. Its flesh reminded them of the oily sardines and mackerel they grew up on and reacted the same way to cooking. On top of that it was one hell of a fish to catch especially when in the 10-18 lb range. Now we only caught one every other time we went out from Canarsie Pier. But once we bought a 17 foot Bayliner we were trolling up and down Jamaica Bay and bagging them like no tomorrow and giving them out to our family every weekend.
It was always a rite of passage to catch the first one of each season, usually around mid May. In the past three years I have re-ignited that rite and caught one each year surf fishing. This year I figured I would beat the chase and get on a boat. So on May 1st, the one year anniversary of my quitting smoking after 23 years, I decided the celebrate by heading out of Sheepshead Bay. I was reliving the tradition my dad taught me feeling the sea wind in my hair as we headed out to Breezy Point. Ahead of us a swarm of seagulls right over a slew of Bunker with Bluefish underneath for sure. And just like when he first took me out there when I was 8 years old I caught my first Bluefish of the season. A nice 13 lb one hitting the same jig I used 30 years ago, thanks Dad for the fish.
All the ingredients getting ready for their trip to the Dutch oven
When Erin and I first started dating she told me about how she would love if we could cook something together one night. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too into the idea at first. I tend to be a kitchen Nazi and like things done my way or you aint eating, I’m slowly working on overcoming that. But being that I wanted to make her happy, and we were still in that impressionistic phase, I said “Sure, lets give it a try, what do you have in mind”, with my most reassuring voice. At that point she proceeds to pull out this small pink leather cookbook that her mom had put together for her when Erin moved to NYC and says “Let’s take a look in here!”
I was in awe when I opened it. It was a collection of recipes her mom had perfected and written by hand into the pink lined note book. First off I was impressed, the penmanship was out of control, not like my mom’s scribble (we’ll leave that for another time). Second, there were so many different recipes that sounded so good and you can tell they were tried and tested. As we were flipping through it one recipe popped out right away… Cioppino. I looked over at Erin and I just let her know “We are gonna rock through this recipe together tomorrow afternoon!” with the excitement of a fat kid in a candy store. Erin seemed just as excited telling me it was one of her favorite dishes, as it is mine. Just then I realized maybe this wasn’t gonna be so bad after all.
The dish originates in San Francisco, it’s beginnings attributed to Istrian & Venetian fisherman who worked the SF Bay and would “chip in” their random scraps of seafood they couldn’t sell at the end of their long days. They took these scraps and would make a spicy tomato based stew that was reminiscent of Istrian & Northern Italian seafood brodetto. Side Note: The most authentic Cioppino is served in SF at Istrian run Tadich Grill, yeah my people are all over this dish. This of course is a match made in heaven for me. Fresh fish, shell fish, spicy broth with just enough of a brine to remind you that this is what the ocean should taste like.
Colorful ingredients of jerk chicken
One of my favorite Brooklyn traditions is to go to the East Indian Day parade with my friend Josh Fruhlinger. We do this every year without fail. We meet up around 11am, make sure we don’t have too much money in our pockets (too much cash leads to over eating), and head out to the food carts. It’s our one time of the year to get what we call “the real deal” and to experience the Caribbean influence on our Brooklyn neighborhoods in it’s full glory. If you live in Brooklyn you have to do this at least once for the shear visual craziness… trust me.
The Caribbean influence in Brooklyn is undeniable, from Canarsie to Prospect Heights, the Caribbean people have been such a strong part of the Brooklyn identity for the past 30 plus years. The people, music, culture and cuisine has seeped it’s way into every neighborhood of Brooklyn and livened them up. I remember having my first roti when I was 12 years old somewhere off of Eastern Parkway and falling in love immediately with the richness of the goat curry wrapped in a hand made flat bread. This was a cuisine I never experienced at home and was hooked from the start. But the one part of the Caribbean cuisine that back then, and every time I go to the parade, I yearn for is Jerk Chicken. A really good homemade Jerk Chicken has no other rivals as far as I am concerned. You can’t even step to it… period. The spice, aroma, char and juiciness is a perfect balance of island style and spirit in one simple dish. Each bite grows more and more complex and makes you feel like you are sitting on the beach even in the coldest North East winter.
Sunday mornings, just like most people in Brooklyn, I wake up a bit hazy from the partying the night before. Clothes are scattered through out the house, Erin is dead asleep, somehow there is an empty bag of chips on the coffee table and the sheets are not on the right way at all. Yeah, we had a good night last night but we need food badly…and my head is spinning like a wooden merry-go-round. So I, and many of you, have that classic Sunday hangover dilemma.. “Do I order in or do I just brave the kitchen and cook myself?”
I tend to go with the later. I just force myself to drink down a Gatorade, take a few Advil, play some old Massive Attack, and get to work in the kitchen. Now this is not to say that I get all El Bulli up in this piece and cook up a dehydrated egg with a bottarga foam over a hash of purple potatoes & truffles, although that sorta sounds good right now. I look in my fridge and try to come up with something that I wont have to use too many pots, can just throw together and will satisfy me as well as give me some nutrition. This particular Sunday my brain was mush and I felt like I was doing calculus computations looking into my fridge and then all of a sudden… solution… Country Style Baked Eggs.
The first time I ever went to Texas was over a winter break many years ago. It was to be a quick trip but when I got to the airport to come back home my flight had been delayed for a few hours because of a snowstorm back East. Snowstorm… in NYC.. what a surprise. I was pretty pissed and just wanted to get back to my NYC apartment and get under the covers watching tv. Being that I was going to be stuck there for a few hours, I think it wound up being 6, I needed to eat. The person I was with, a native of Texas, took me over to the breakfast place they had in the airport. It smelled pretty good of sausage and carbs as we slowly walked over. I figured some scrambled eggs and bacon would hit the spot. Just as I was about to order she says “Have you ever had Biscuits & Gravy”. Now in my Yankee state of mind and upbringing I thought that meant some brown diner gravy with some Pillsbury instant biscuits. The thought kinda grossed me out and I wasn’t drunk yet to get into that. I said “No thanks, that sounds straight up nasty”. Then she proceeded to explain to me what real Biscuits & Gravy was. A very classic poor man’s dish from the South West found in truck stops where buttermilk biscuits are halved and covered with pork sausage cream gravy. It has both German and Cowboy influences and is a perfect example of the first American fusion food.
I placed my order for 3 biscuits smothered in gravy. As I waited I could smell the familiar baked bread smell that is so penetrating to our primitive senses of hunger. The sausage in the gravy was rich with sage, thyme and pepper deeply penetrated my northern sinuses. As I sat down it wasn’t the most appetizing looking dish, it really never is, but I could tell I was in for a treat. The creaminess of the gravy that is loaded with black pepper and bits of pork sausage layered over flaky buttermilk biscuits is a match made in heaven. That first bite was an awakening in Americana cuisine and simplicity. I will never forget that experience and flavor profile as long as I live.
My mom has a little subscription based organic farm in Upstate New York. It’s really cute, gives her something to do & yields me alot of free random produce. I think half the time she doesnt have a clue what she is planting. But I look at this as a blessing in disguise. It gives me a chance to try something new and add to my cooking repertoire.
This time around my mom brings me a bag and says “This is some Asian carrot thing that I don’t know what it is…figure it out”. I look deep into the paper bag and look up with a smile and say “Mom, it’s daikon radish and I want any of it you have on your farm”. Now I haven’t ever made anything with daikon before but one of my favorite things is pickled daikon radish. It is always so crisp and bright that it’s the perfect addition to anything you need to cut through fat with. I was obsessed with finding a simple recipe that I could adapt to make a few jars of it for the house. I looked around and found a few tips and recipes online. I combined the best and added my own twist. The tumeric gives a nice depth and the addition of the grated fresh ginger gives it a brightness over the vinegar that takes it to the next level. Here’s a recipe I adapted that made perfect use of my mom’s “Asian carrot” and I hope you enjoy it too.
1 lb daikon radish peeled and cut into 3/4 inch chunks
1 cup of water
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of un-seasoned rice wine vinegar
1/2 lbs of ground pepper
1/2 tbs of ground tumeric
1 tbs of grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp of kosher salt
In a saucepan bring to boil the water & vinegar. Once at a boil add the sugar, tumeric, ground pepper & ginger and stir well to dissolve and combine. Let mixture boil for 3-4 minutes and then remove from the heat and let it cool for an hour. As the mixture is cooling put the daikon and salt into a bowl and toss well for a couple of minutes. Next place the daikon and salt mixture in a colander and let it drain over a bowl for an hour. Take the daikon radish and rinse with water followed by a nice de-dampening with a few paper towels. Put the daikon radish into a sterilized mason jar, within an inch of the top, and cover with a piece of cheese cloth. Pour the cooled vinegar mixture into the jar through the cheese cloth until the the daikon radish is covered. Close with an airtight lid and place in fridge. It’s best to wait at least overnight before enjoying. Note it can last for 4-5 weeks if refrigerated properly.