For Shields, coastal dishes across nation are tasty lures

September 22, 2004|By ROB KASPER

NAME A STRETCH of North American coastline and a dish served there and chances are good that John Shields has been there, eaten that.

From fresh scallops in New England to plump shrimp on the Gulf Coast to fresh halibut in the Pacific Northwest, Shields has stuck his fork in it. For the past two years, Shields traveled the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts of the United States gathering recipes and anecdotes to put in his new cookbook, Coastal Cooking With John Shields (Broadway Books, 2004, $32.50). The book is a companion to a series of the same name airing on public television in April 2005.

The other day as I sat with Shields in Gertrude's, the restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art that he named in honor of his mother, he took me on a culinary travelogue. At the mention of a particular stretch of coastline, Shields described his "gotta haves," the dishes he has to eat when he visits that region.

When the topic was New England, Shields talked about the region's fresh scallops and its varied recipes for seafood chowder.

"Their chowders are like our crab cakes," said Shields, a 53-year-old native of Baltimore. "Everybody has his chowder recipe. It may only call for one potato less than the other guy's, but it is special."

In the Mid-Atlantic, the blue crab is a must-eat, Shields said. His book contains 13 recipes for crab, including one that stuffs a whole rockfish with shrimp, crab meat and corn bread. In R months, however, his attention shifts to oysters. (Tonight at Gertrude's, he will serve a variety of oyster dishes from the book at Oysterama, a $60-a- ticket book party benefiting the fight against breast cancer.)

During his travels, Shields also dipped down to New Orleans to enjoy the practice of topping sauteed soft crabs with a dollop of bearnaise sauce.

Despite the fact that food of Louisiana has been "discovered" and imitated by the rest of America, the coastal dishes remain undeniably authentic if remarkably rich, he said. "People down there don't forget their old recipes," Shields said. "Whether you go to a shack or Commander's Palace, the old food is treated right. It is their food and they crave it."

In Florida, Shields feasted on fare on both coasts, the Atlantic and the Gulf. In Miami, he was introduced to Haitian-style flounder. Cooked with lime juice, garlic, tomatoes, orange juice and peppers, this ordinarily bland fish became lively, he said.

The shrimp of the Gulf Coast are exceptionally plump and flavorful, perhaps the best in the nation, Shields said. In Punta Gorda, Fla., he found folks who had the delightful habit of cooking these shrimp by dropping them in warm creole sauce.

Shields lived in San Francisco from 1978-1996 and became acquainted with abalone, and other once-plentiful local seafood. On more recent visits to California he was impressed with wild salmon dishes in restaurants and he was reunited with an old friend, the fish taco sold by street vendors.

In the Pacific Northwest, there are many fans of wild salmon, but folks also look forward to the arrival of fresh halibut.

"There were signs in Portland [Ore.] saying, `The halibut are coming,' " Shields said. "It reminded me of Danny's [a former restaurant on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore] that used to put signs up announcing the whales [giant soft crabs] are coming."

One recent spring when Shields was in Portland visiting his sister, he behaved like a local. He stood in line to buy fresh halibut. Then he and his sister took the fish home and cooked it with fresh peas and fennel butter sauce.

The trick to preparing halibut, he said, is not to overcook it. "It dries out very easily," he said.

But the best way to enjoy halibut, like many of the dishes in his new book, Shields said, is to visit the region they call home, and enjoy them a few hours after they get off the boat.

Halibut With Herbed Fennel Butter and Sweet Peas

Serves 4

PEAS:

1 cup fresh or frozen sweet peas

pinch of salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon finely chopped fennel leaves

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

HERBED FENNEL BUTTER SAUCE:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (divided use)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1/2 cup minced fennel bulb

1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme

1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon

1 large tomato, cored and diced

3/4 cup fish stock (or chicken bouillon)

1/4 cup dry white wine

6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

FISH:

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 halibut fillets, 6 ounces each

kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

For the peas: Blanch peas in a pot of boiling, salted water for about 2 minutes. Remove them and put them in ice water to stop the cooking process. Save cooking water. Drain peas and set aside.

For the sauce: In a small saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and saute the garlic, shallots, fennel, thyme and tarragon, cooking over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often.

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