Now you can forget about fishing for compliments

June 26, 1996|By JeanMarie Brownson | JeanMarie Brownson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

If you don't own a seafood cookbook but want to learn to cook fish at home, you'll want to know about James Peterson's new book "Fish & Shellfish: The Cook's Indispensable Companion" (Morrow, $40).

If you already own one, chances are you will still want this book.

"Fish & Shellfish" ranks among the most comprehensive cookbooks on the subject. Like his award-winning books, "Sauces" and "Splendid Soups," this new release is paced with details, expert advice, delicious recipes and common-sense tips and techniques.

He also has filled this 400-page, encyclopedic volume with his own photographs of finished food and techniques such as cutting, filleting and cooking. His 32-page fin fish dictionary -- tTC from anchovies to whitefish -- may be worth the price of the book.

"Freshness is the most important thing to consider when buying fish," Peterson said.

"A really fresh trout will be stiff, from rigor mortis, meaning it was caught recently, and covered with a clear sheen." Also, trout should have had taut skin and a tail that did not curl up at the end.

Peterson said halibut steaks should have a fresh, briny (as opposed to fishy) odor, the grain of the fish was still dense, the color properly pale white and the surface possessed a moist sheen with no hint of a film.

Peterson set about showing us how to easily remove the halibut skin with a small paring knife and to cut it into large chunks devoid of bones and cartilage. He then ground the fish in a food processor with a variety of Thai seasonings for his classic Thai fish cakes.

Peterson, who apprenticed as a chef in Paris and is the former chef and owner of Le Petit Robert in New York City, spent three years researching and writing "Fish & Shellfish." Besides poring over every book on the subject, he spent hours at fish markets talking to the experts. At home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Peterson and an assistant cooked the more than 300 recipes that feature a variety of cuisines, mostly French and Asian.

We tried a half-dozen recipes from the book -- all with excellent results and enjoyed by tasters. Equally impressive are the tips sprinkled throughout the recipes: items like whether to leave the skin on fish (he says to leave it on as a crispy accent to grilled, sauteed or broiled fish, but remove it from poached fish after cooking) and when to eat an oyster (fall and winter for peak flavor).

Peterson has a common-sense approach to seafood safety and the consumption of raw fish and shellfish. He recommends shopping at a reputable market and to get to know your fishmonger.

He includes a glossary of unusual ingredients and tips preparing artichokes, peeling chilies, making broth, using herbs and how to stir-fry.

While some of the recipes, such as steamed clams, whole baked red snapper, microwave seafood stew and sauteed shrimp, are simple enough for the novice, many more are aimed at the advanced cook: mousses, souffles and other French classics, Vietnamese-style stuffed squid, French bay scallops with truffle mayonnaise and fish baked in pastry, for example.

The following recipes are adapted from "Fish & Shellfish." Kaffir lime leaves and other unusual ingredients are available at Asian markets. Finely minced lemon grass or lime rind can replace the kaffir lime leaves, but the flavor will not be the same.

Sauteed Thai fish cakes with dipping sauce

Makes 18 small cakes, 6 servings


1 1/2 pounds fillets of lean white fish such as cod, halibut or sea bass, skin and pin bones removed, cut into 2-inch chunks

3 Thai chilies, seeded and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

2 shallots, finely chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

3 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce

1 egg beaten with 1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon salt

pepper to taste

1/2 cup all-purpose flour or bread crumbs

1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil


2 Thai chilies, seeded and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 shallot, finely chopped

1/2 cup rice vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce

2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter without additives

Combine all ingredients for the fish cakes except the flour and oil in the bowl of a food processor. Puree the mixture for about 2 minutes and transfer it to a mixing bowl. If you don't have a food processor chope ingredients by hand. Count on 10 to 15 minutes if chopping. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate about two hours so the mixture stiffens. Meanwhile, make the sauce.

Whisk together all the ingredients for the dipping sauce and let sit in a bowl in the refrigerator for at least an hour for the flavors to infuse.

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