I grew up in a small town in upstate New York that didn’t have much access to seafood in general, and I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say virtually no access to truly good seafood at all. I think there are a lot of people who grow up like that. Unless you live in a major city, on a coast, or both, the seafood you have access to might be so lackluster that you could be justified in believing you simply don’t like seafood.
Indeed this is what I thought until I lived—and cooked—for some time in coastal New England. It turns out that seafood of pretty much any type can be amazingly delicious, it just needs to be properly handled and prepared. Most places without the infrastructure dedicated to supplying good quality fish and shellfish are doomed to suffer through sub-par specimens. Unfortunately, when seafood is sub-par it can come across as wholly unappetizing. Mediocre beef, chicken, or pork is still going to scratch the itch of your average meat eater, but mediocre fish and shellfish loses almost all of what makes it so magical when its dealt with properly.
When I moved to Chicago from Rhode Island in 2018, I found myself once again in a landlocked, far inland city with little access to great seafood. That's not to say there is none to be had in the city; it’s there, but it’s hiding. It hides behind the $450 per person price tag of high end sushi joints, or in one of only a handful of well stocked fish markets (and by well stocked, I mean quality not quantity). The problem for many people is that even if they do find one of these markets they find that the quality product is so much more expensive than what they find at their local grocery store it seems out of reach, or like it can’t possibly be worth the extra money.
Worse still, most people outside of coastal towns and big cities might not have even a single worthwhile fish shop within driving distance. That's certainly the case for me now that I’m back in upstate NY (unless you consider four hours to NYC driving distance, which I don’t). For us woebegone souls there is still the option of purchasing spectacular quality seafood from online fishmongers like BrowneTrading or True Fin Seafood. The problem with these is, again, a premium price tag, now compounded by the added cost of overnight shipping. Alack! Alas! What is one in search of a regular seafood fix, but possessed of only a modicum of dollars and cents to do?
Well fear not, dear reader, for the Aussie chef Josh Niland has made it his mission to help alleviate this problem with a collection of three books that hope to make regular eating of beautiful seafood not only more sustainable for the planet, but also our coin purses.
Niland takes a fairly radical approach to fish cookery, advocating for a zero waste (or close to it) approach. I feel like the term zero-waste gets thrown around a lot these days when it's at best an exaggeration, and at worst a whole-cloth fabrication, but in Niland’s case it applies pretty well. Exemplified by his inclusion in the books of recipes and techniques for the use of fish scales, bones, stomach, intestine, even the vitreous humor inside the eyes.
His first release, The Whole Fish Cookbook, includes introductions to many different ways of increasing the yield of a fish from the typical 30%-50% to something approaching 100%, as well as more esoteric methods for increasing shelf life like dry aging, seafood charcuterie, ike jime, and dry handling and processing. All of these are either totally novel approaches, or ideas that were previously so niche even lifelong professional seafood chefs may have never heard of them, or worse, have been taught that the were impossible or anathema to the idea of quality seafood.
He followed this book up with the more home cook focused Take One Fish. In this book, he focuses on a dozen or so different types of fish, going through each one with detail such that you could purchase it whole and know exactly what to do with each different morsel. Add to that his talent for translating fish into recipes that have traditionally used meat (think cheeseburgers, pot au feu, mapo tofu, tagging, and tomahawk steaks), and this book makes the prospect of preparing a whole fish seem not only less intimidating, but actually exciting.
Finally this fall he released what might be the most thrilling addition to his oeuvre yet: Fish Butchery. In this book, he takes the reader through explicit inscriptions on proper dispatch, storage, aging, handling, and breakdown, with an emphasis on the latter. Using almost textbook level detail and step-by-step photography he shows how to achieve all the eye-catching results that were on display in the previous two books, but never explicitly described. He also uses this book to make clear his position on the future of sustainable seafood, and how he hopes to help replenish the world's fisheries not by decreasing consumption, but by increasing yield. He laments the current zeitgeist of removing the center cut fillets off a fish then throwing the rest away, and offers copious alternatives for both the end consumer, and the professional purveyor. If you have even a passing interest in cutting your own fish, this book is a godsend and game-changer.
Many professional chefs have been deeply influenced and inspired by his approach (including myself), but that doesn’t mean his techniques are limited to the professional realm. One of the best aspects of this holistic approach to preparing seafood is that it empowers the home cook to make much more economical use of the fish they buy. It's much more viable for the average consumer to pay $25/lb for a whole fish if they know that 60% of that purchase won’t end up in the trash, and that they will be able to use one fish as the centerpiece to perhaps an entire week’s worth of meals.
Bluefish ‘porchetta’ I made last summer inspired by The Whole Fish Cookbook
Whole grilled fluke from RI restaurant Bywater. The chef here (Luke Mersfelder previously of Blackbird and Smyth) draws inspiration from Niland’s work
Hopefully this post inspired you to dive in a little deeper to the preparation of quality seafood, and maybe even give buying a whole fish a shot instead of just the bits you need for one recipe. If we want to continue eating fish long into the future, shifting the way we think about its utilization is critical. And if you want some hands-on professional guidance on how to work with many different types of fish, I recommend checking out our upcoming Feast of the Seven Fishes class.