- by Carol Standish
A New England Fish Tale - Seafood Recipes and Observations of a Way of Life from a Fisherman's Wife (Henry Holt and Company; 235pp; $25.00) by Martha Watson Murphy is "way" more than just an exceptional seafood cookbook--but it is most certainly exceptional. Murphy is thoroughly professional, as a writer and as a cook. Her writing style is clear and conversational. The book is cleanly organized into chapters which differentiate types of recipes as well as types of fish (fin and shell). One chapter is devoted solely to complementary vegetable accompaniments and side dishes. Another contains light desserts. Whole menus may be assembled from the one book. She is a stickler for freshness for all ingredients, not just the seafood, and she pays sharp attention to detail. When a recipe calls for "basic pesto," for instance, page numbers for that recipe are included beside the ingredient. A chapter on seafood and veggie combinations for pizza toppings also includes recipes for several types of pizza dough and different ways of cooking pizza. The final chapter includes all sorts of "basic" recipes such as "basic pesto," piecrust, several types of bread and pizza dough, seasoned croutons, tartar sauce and mayo and "other miscellany" which make all the other recipes a breeze to follow and accessible to the most beginning cook. Appendices include, How to fillet a (fin) Fish, Puchasing Guide, a Nutritional Information Chart (by specie).
Married to a fisherman, Watson is an "insider," culinarily intimate with more fish species than most of us ever thought existed. In fact "there are over two thousand species of fin fish in the coastal waters of the United States and Canada…..only about five hundred are harvested for human food…..[of these] only about a dozen species are generally accepted by the American consumer," Watson states in one of her informative asides. Such variety inspires her. Not only does she include recipes for the less common market fish like monkfish and mackerel ("unfairly maligned…..delicious, cheap, highly available") but species like tilefish, tautag (a.k.a. "blackfish") and skate. Full descriptions of taste and texture accompany these adventurous entries. In the case of species like skate and squid, separate detailed instructions for dealing with these odd shaped morsels are thoughtfully provided.
Intriguing as Tautog Stuffed with Spinach and Scallops or Broiled Tilefish with Red Pepper Pesto sound, the book is packed with both basic and innovative recipes for all the delicious familiars such as shrimp, tuna, lobster, cod, salmon, sea bass, oysters, mussels and scallops. She introduces each chapter with the most necessary information. The fin fish chapter starts with recipes for basic baked and sauteed fish fillets (any kind). The first recipe in the chowder and soup chapter is for fish stock; the shellfish chapter begins with the simple but seldom described procedure for steaming a lobster, and so forth.
So far, though, this description is only of an exceptional seafood cookbook. What makes it more than an exceptional cookbook is the wealth of additional information and illustration Watson packs around her excellent recipe selection. Practical tips related to food and cooking, like How to Store (or Freeze or Rinse, or Grill) Seafood, How to Clean Squid, or How Much Fish to Buy are interspersed with historical, factual and anectodal tidbits about the fishing industry, such as Fishing - The Most Dangerous Job, Fish and the Price of Freedom (how the New England fishery influenced the American Revolution), Lobster Facts, a truly astonishing description of the cook's duties on a Gloucester fishing schooner, "Three times a day he prepared food for seventeen men..…pared buckets of potatoes…..baked huge loaves of bread, pies, cookies, cakes, made puddings and doughnuts..…kept the ship in the vicinity of the seine boat, avoided collisions…..sprinting forward to trim jibs and foresail sheet, darting down to the fo'c'sle to catch a glimpse of the pies in the oven…" Accompanying these vivid vervbal glimpses of fishing life, both past and present, are an array of black and white photos from various museums, historical societies and private family collections (The photo shown is by Herman F. Lippman). The pictures span almost 100 years of fishing activity along the New England coast, from Southwest Harbor to Point Judith.
The book's design is especially handsome. The jacket sports a Sally Caldwell Fisher illustration and the text is printed in two colors; the body copy is black and the recipe ingredients and graphics are a pale but readable green.
Dedicated to her husband, Kevin, and "all the others who go down to the sea in ships," Murphy's affection, appreciation and respect for the the people engaged in the fishing industry, the food itself and the reader pervades the entire book..—making it way more than just an exceptional seafood cookbook. If Murphy doesn't persuade you to bake stuffed sea bass for Thanksgiving, she will certainly convince you to "support your local fishermen."