For more food-related blogs from Georgia Pellegrini, check out her website www.GeorgiaPellegini.com.
A few weeks ago at 5:30 am, I was running on a green banana and acid coffee and I'd slept four hours and couldn't feel my pinkies. I had found the one square mile of the country where it was still snowing. Somewhere between Oregon and Washington, though I wasn't sure because it was 5:30 a.m., and I had only slept 4 hours.
It turned out I was on the Cowlitz River, which is a major tributary of the Columbia River. We were in Washington, the fish were winter-run steelhead, and Mother Nature was in a bad, bad mood.
I can't say that the fish were biting during our Arctic morning on the river, the pressure kept rising and falling and the fish kept rising and falling with it. But we did catch a couple — a boy and a girl. The girl was lighter in color, because she had only been in the river for a short time, which meant she'd been in the salt water for a long time as she ran up the ocean. This made her lighter in color on the outside with bright pink flesh — like the color of cured salmon after it's been in the salt for a while.
The boy on the other hand, was much darker on the outside and lighter on the inside because he had been in the fresh water for longer. He also had scars on his scales from having made it out of a commercial fishing net at some point along the run. Frankly, given the weather, we were just relieved that we would be eating fish and not Cheetos for lunch.
Any shore lunch requires some acrobatics. It is also a time to keep things really simple. The first thing you'll need is a sharp knife. The second thing you'll need is a flat surface on which to fillet your fish. The third thing I'd recommend are pliers to help get out some of the pin bones, though that can be hard if the fish hasn't come out of rigor mortis.
I'd also recommend some salt and pepper and good olive oil. And guess what else I'd recommend ... if you've read my blog you probably know this ... a skillet. Or, if you're feeling modern, a grill would work too. But I suggest you go native, and get out some coals and a skillet and cook the fish over radiant heat. That's the road to a perfect piece of fish.
Low heat is your friend when it comes to cooking fish. High heat is your enemy. Especially with oily fish because the oil will break when the heat is high, and that's when it becomes smelly and bitter.
Here's something else to remember. I have to credit Jon Rowley for teaching me this lesson long ago. You'll read all about him in my book this fall, but to put it simply, he changed the way America eats seafood.
Fish can actually be too fresh. According to his "Rigor Mortis Theory," the best tasting fish is one that has gone through rigor mortis and comes out of it before it is eaten.
When it curls like it did for me that day on the shore, it is actually going through rigor mortis in the pan, which causes the skin and flesh to contract, which tears the cell walls and often causes that "white goo" that you see coming out of cooked fish. That's albumen.
It's a sign that the fish is too fresh, or hasn't been handled properly on its way to the plate. A way to avoid this and still have a shore lunch is to eat the fish you catch immediately, before it has a chance to go into rigor. But that can be hard to do.
Nevertheless, we pushed forward with the shore lunch, because too fresh fish is always better than Cheetos for lunch. Plus I took the leftovers home and ate them a few days later, when they were even better.
Here's how to cook the perfect piece of fish when you're at home. If you're lucky enough to cook on the shore over radiant coal heat, simply keep the temperature low and steady and have a skillet handy.
The Perfect Steelhead or Salmon
1 inch thick portioned skin-on fillet
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 200° F and heat a dry skillet until quite hot.
2. Brush both sides of the meat with good olive oil and season both sides with salt and pepper.
3. Place the fish in the dry skillet, (flesh side down if using a fillet), until meat is bronzed, 1-2 minutes. Then turn it over and do the same to the other side.
4. Place the skillet in the 200° F oven. Cook for about 10 minutes more, until tender and juicy but cooked through.
Editor's note: Georgia's passion for good food began at an early age, on a boulder by the side of a creek as she caught her trout for breakfast. After Wellesley and Harvard -- and a brief stint on Wall Street -- she decided to leave the cubicle world behind and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
Upon graduating at the top of her class, she worked in two of America's best restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, as well as in one of the premier destination restaurants in Provence, France, La Chassagnette. It was there that she decided it was time to really get at the heart of where our food comes from and head to the source -- Mother Nature. She bought a shotgun and set her sites on the cutting edge of culinary creativity intent on pushing the boundaries of American gastronomy, from field to stream to table.
Her new book, "Food Heroes: Tales of 16 food artisans preserving tradition" will be coming out this year. She currently roams the world, hunting, tasting good food and meeting the good people who make it. You can read more about her work at www.GeorgiaPellegrini.com.