Souring his taste for old-time soused fish


February 16, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Some people have trouble with colors. They look good in blue, for instance, but awful in brown.

I have trouble with vinegar. It works fine when I use it as a meat marinade. Or when I clean the carpet with it. But it gives me fits when I get it near seafood.

The other night, for example, I cooked some fish in boiling vinegar. It was not a great success. When I took one bite, the flavor of vinegar was so strong my mouth puckered up like I was a grouper.

I tried this "Soused Fish" dish because I liked its name. It had a historic ring to it. I could imagine a bunch of ancient mariners, tuckered out from a long day of chasing pirates, chowing down on some soused fish. I found the old recipe in a new spiral cookbook, "Party Receipts From The Charleston Junior League," a collection of hors d'oeuvres, savories and sweets from the South Carolina city ($12.95, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).

This is the third cookbook published by the Charleston Junior League. All have the word "Receipts" in their titles, a reminder, a note explained, of an old practice of using the words "recipes" and "receipts" interchangeably in recipes passed down through the generations.

The recipe for soused fish, for example, is about 100 years old and was printed in the league's first cookbook, "Charleston Receipts," published in 1950. It was written in old-time recipe style, a style that assumed the readers knew what they were doing.

In my case that was a stretch. "Sprinkle any fish with salt and pepper as if you were going to fry it," the recipe read. "Then boil the fish in vinegar instead of water. Season with cloves, mace, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Put fish and sauce into a mold, the bones will become soft and the whole will turn out in a form like a jelly."

My fish never made it to the mold stage. After boiling some white fish in vinegar and sprinkling on the seasoning, I tasted the fish. It tasted like vinegar. That was not a plus.

Maybe I had used too much vinegar. I had covered the bottom of a frying pan with about a quarter-inch of apple vinegar.

Or maybe I used the wrong kind of fish. The recipe did not specify what kind of fish to use, but the illustration accompanying it showed a whole fish, maybe a grouper. It was a big burly fish, with head, tail, scales and bones.

I used a fillet of modern fish, Cape Haddie, a mild, white fish. Maybe if that vinegar had some bones to dissolve, or a tail to mollify, the vinegar would have lost some of its puckering power.

Or maybe when it comes to cooking fish in vinegar, I'll let somebody else do the honors.

I was much more comfortable with oysters and bacon. That was a winning combination the Charleston cookbook recommended as an appetizer. Just wrap a half-slice of bacon fastened with a wooden toothpick around a shucked oyster, the book advised, and bake in a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes until the bacon is crisp. When I have this dish, I prefer fat oysters and thick bacon.

Charleston is known for its shrimp, and I was happy to see the book passed along the local wisdom on the correct way to pick the shell off the shrimp. Just "pull, peel and pinch," the book said. "You pull off the heads, peel the shell off the body, and pinch the shrimp out of the tail."

Ruthie Smythe, a Charleston cook who stopped in Baltimore as part of a publicity effort for "Party Receipts," even claimed that the book had a recipe in it that would do the impossible. That is, it could make okra taste good.

The dish she offered was called "Okra Flowers." The idea is that you take a slice of boiled ham, cover it with cream cheese, then roll up two juxtaposed pieces of pickled okra inside the slice of cream-cheese-covered ham. Finally, you cut this "okra roll" into little bitty slices, about a half-inch thick. The slices, she said, resembled flowers.

As a longtime opponent of okra in any form, even disguised as a flora, I remained skeptical.

But I was intrigued by a dish called "Dawhoo Highlight." First of all, it was not every day you get to say "Dawhoo" at the dinner table. The name, Ms. Smythe said, comes from the Dawhoo River, which is near her family's farm, which was where this dish was created.

Secondly, it was dip made from either venison or pork sausage that had been browned in a skillet, then cooked in a casserole with cream cheese, tomatoes, green chilies and red pepper flakes.

It sounded terrific, and I noted it was also vinegar-free.

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