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Best General Book on Fish. Highly Recommended
on April 11, 2004
Of all the single topics on which cookbooks have been written, it seems to me that fish is the most common. It is certainly true if you look at my library, where there are seven (7) volumes devoted to fish in general, fish of a particular region, or even one family of fish such as the salmon or oysters. Not only is it a popular subject, but it is a popular subject for prominent male cookbook authors. In my library alone, there are volumes by James Beard, James Peterson, Alan Davidson, and the current volume by Mark Bittman. All of these authors are simply dripping with awards for cookbook writing.
There are at least two different approaches one can take to a single subject cookbook. James Peterson in his books on Fish, Sauces, and Vegetables tends to take a deep look, with more details about a fewer number of recipes. Mark Bittman, in this book, tends to take exactly the opposite approach. His main selling point is that he is giving us `more than 500 recipes for 70 kinds of fish and seafood'.
Fitting this approach, the book is laid out very much like an encyclopedia, with all articles on fish labeled by their common names, placed in alphabetical order. Each article begins with a taxonomic section giving both common and scientific names, common commercial forms, general description, substitutions, and reference to buying tips. The scientific name may not be very informative, as a common name such as shrimp may be applied to not only multiple species, but also multiple genera covering thousands of species. The general description is also a mixed bag in that it may be anything from physical description to geographical distribution to economic importance. The most important item in this header is the `For other recipes see:' entry. This is where you see that a recipe that is good for conch, mussels, or oysters may also be good for clams. I get some sense that the author could have exercised some restraint here. As an example, consider that while squid and shrimp share the property of being done best by cooking very quickly, I may be reluctant to apply a long cooking squid recipe, the kind Mario Batali describes as giving a `bottom of the sea' flavor to any kind of shrimp.
The essay introducing each named fish can vary from three pages for `shrimp' down to three lines for `tilapia'. The longer essays are very informative and, as far as I can see, very accurate. I can also add that they can express very strong opinions about some fish. The very short entry for tilapia dismisses the flesh of the fish as having an undesirable, murky flavor. The author gives no recipes for this poor fish and simply leaves us to consult the recipes for porgy and sea bass.
The number of recipes per fish is roughly proportional to the economic desirability and availability of the fish. Shrimp, for example, gets twenty recipes including three different versions of curried shrimp. Other classic recipes such as crab cakes also get more than one treatment. Oddly enough, the best-known American shrimp dish, the shrimp cocktail, is not here. Not that I really miss it. The twenty recipes do seem to cover the world, with a just about right distribution of recipes from America, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific Rim.
Most recipes are concise without being overly sparse. The list of ingredients is better than many. For example, it goes to the trouble of specifying a `dry' white wine for a sauce and it is precise enough to say ½ cup minced parsley rather than the less precise `handful of parsley, minced'. The procedure is clear and I have yet to find any mistakes (I cannot say the same for the equally distinguished James Peterson's procedures). I prefer recipes written with numbered steps, with each step beginning on a new line, but I prefer good recipes to bad even more, and most of these recipes seem to be better than average.
As many, if not most of the recipes in this book are ethnic classics and not the invention of the author, the chance is good that they will appeal to those who are disposed to like the ingredients. If you don't like coconut, don't fault the author for giving recipes using coconut. Since there are so many different recipes from so many different culinary traditions, the chances that you will find something interesting to do with your lovely swordfish steak will be very high. As a food editor for `The New York Times', Bittman has greater access to current and historical information about fish dishes than most, so the depth and reliability of the information herein is very high.
This book is by no means a complete book of fish cookery. There are some entries for escabeche and seviche, but not a word about sushi or sashimi. Of all the books I mentioned on Fish Cookery, I may prefer James Beard for the last word on recipes from America or Alan Davidson for recipes from the Mediterranean, but Bittman has given us a book which gives a broad coverage to recipes from around the world. He succeeds admirably in achieving his goal `to teach you how to buy good, commonly available fish, and cook it quickly in a variety of basic and delicious ways.
Highly recommended. A better general reference for the average cook than other books in a crowded field.