Category Archives: bottomfish

Bouillabaisse, Northwest-style

halibut3Fish stews—bouillabaisse, cioppinochowder, bisque, fish head soup, and so on—are some of my favorite meals. Don’t let the authenticity police scare you into passing on such hearty and satisfying fare. These dishes are meant to be simple, to let the ingredients speak for themselves, even when we gussy them up with pretension.

In Marseilles, partisans have been arguing over the ingredients and presentation of a proper bouillabaisse for as long as anyone can remember. Ignore the guy who tells you you’re doing it wrong if you don’t use a freakin’ rascasse fer chrissakes. (The rascasse, also called a scorpionfish, is a Mediterranean species often used in bouillabaisse…in southern France.) Nor do you need to serve it in two courses, with rouille.

The point of dishes like bouillabaisse or cioppino is to use whatever is fresh and on hand. In fact, I’d bet the origin of these dishes is probably less palatable than many would like to believe. The fish were probably those left unsold by the fishmonger or on the verge of being…shall we say…less than perfectly fresh. Perhaps they were bycatch on the boat, the sort of fishes that wouldn’t earn the fishermen any money. Into the stew pot they went, along with whatever else was lying around: onions, garlic, tomato, maybe a fennel bulb.

Since it’s the 21st century and most of us won’t be cooking this dish on board a fishing vessel at an ungodly hour in between sets, we needn’t worry about making use of deck flotsam. We should try to find the best, freshest fish available wherever we live. I happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, not on the Mediterranean, so it makes sense to use local Puget Sound shellfish and cold-water finned fish from the North Pacific. I was in Cordova, Alaska, last week for opening day of the Copper River salmon season. Instead of bringing home a box full of sockeye or king like everyone else on my Alaska Airlines flight, I nabbed me some halibut, which yielded four beautiful fillets and a carcass begging to be used for stock. (The salmon was too valuable as income for my hosts to give away.)

A mix of fish makes a more interesting bouillabaisse. Along with the halibut, I added Alaskan rockfish, Penn Cove mussels, and shrimp. Other choices in my region might include lingcod, Pacific cod, pollock, flounder, Dungeness crab, manila clams, and spot shrimp. You could use salmon, but the strong and distinctive flavor would overwhelm the other ingredients. My nods to tradition included fennel, saffron, and orange zest, though I didn’t bother with leeks or Pernod (though a licorice fern infusion could have given it that extra touch of anise flavor).

You can use store-bought fish stock or clam juice, but a homemade stock is best—a good excuse for buying that whole fish at the market and saving a bunch of money by filleting it yourself and using the scraps for stock.


1 (or more) white-fleshed fish carcass (enough to fill bottom of pot)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 or 2 celery ribs, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1 handful parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

Cover fish carcass (in this case, halibut) with water. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add onion, carrot, celery, white wine, bay leaf, thyme, parsley. Simmer together another 20 minutes, until fish flesh is easily separated from the bones. Add more water if necessary. Season and strain. Yield: 1 quart.


2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine (or splash of Pernod)
2-3 cups tomatoes, cut up
1 pinch saffron
1 pinch hot red pepper flakes
2 tsp orange zest
1 quart fish stock (see above)
3-4 lbs assorted white fish fillets cut into pieces and shellfish
1 handful parsley, chopped

In a pot, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté onion and fennel until softened. Deglaze with a splash of white wine. Add garlic, tomatoes, saffron, pepper flakes, and orange zest. Raise heat to medium-high and cook together a few minutes. Stir in 1 quart fish stock and bring to low boil. Add fish fillet pieces and cook several minutes (depending on thickness). Note: if using a mixture of firm fish and softer fish, add in stages to allow even cooking. Lastly, add shellfish and cover. When the shellfish are cooked, stir in parsley and remove from heat. Ladle immediately over crusty bread (optional: toast bread and rub with cut garlic). Serves 4.


Halibut with Porcini and Nettle-Mint Sauce

king4The king bolete (aka porcino) is one of the few wild mushrooms that can be served raw, in limited quantities. Fresh porcini, both spring and fall, have a strong floral aroma. Make use of this arresting feature by thinly slicing or even shaving the mushroom over foods. Firm #1 buttons are best.

king6This recipe was inspired by a dish I had earlier this spring at the Willows Inn, where chef Blaine Wetzel  is earning plaudits for good reason. At the Willows I had a course of spring porcini stewed with asparagus and woodruff. My server shaved mounds of fresh porcini over the plate to the point of obscuring everything else underneath. The cooked mushrooms were contrasted by the snappy texture and floral sharpness of the fresh.

For my take, I oven-roasted halibut fillets and plated them with sautéed spring porcini mushrooms and a nettle-mint sauce. The sauce was quick and easy because I already had cubes of nettle pesto in the freezer. To make the sauce I sweated diced shallot in butter, added three cubes of defrosted nettle pesto, and stirred together with a generous splash of chicken stock and a tablespoon of chopped mint from the garden. The sauce was finished with heavy cream.

Once plated, I shaved a nice spring porcini button over the top.

Given the sort of spring mushroom season we’re having in the Pacific Northwest (worst in memory), this might be my last dance with the king until fall.

Oh Canada!

I love Canada. At my old bookstore job I used to work regularly with Canadian publishers, who came down to Seattle each season to present their latest frontlist books. We’d go out to some nice restaurants on the publisher’s dime, and I can say unequivocally that those Canadians put me under the table each time. The next day they’d be chipper as ever at the day-long meeting while I felt like slapping a cold t-bone across my face. My Canadian friends mountain bike over teeter-totter logs suspended a dozen feet above the ground, surf the icy waters of Vancouver Island’s west coast, and ski like bandits on a getaway run.

I just wish I could get up there more often, if only to let some of that Canadian gnarliness rub off on me and my kids. Happily, in recent years a tradition has sprung up among four Seattle families who share a waterside cabin for the better part of a week each summer in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. There’s an outhouse and a well with a hand-pump. A variety of mismatched camp stoves function as the kitchen. Everyone agrees that to update a single feature would be sacrilege. In the U.S. it’s getting harder to find such rustic accommodations; not so in Canada.

The real magic of this setup is watching our nine American kids do without their accustomed gewgaws and explore the natural environment. Games of tag and sardines go on among the old-growth Douglas-firs. Hide-and-seek in head-high salal bushes is a real challenge. They build “fairy houses” on the property and keep eyes peeled for the legendary Island Trolls. But it’s the water that’s most tempting.

This year the older kids showed a surprising interest in catching their own food. They dug clams for hours, used a dropnet to gather bait, fished for bottomfish, and set a crab trap. They even ate oyster po’ boys. In a “Lord of the Flies” moment that might freak out some parents, one little girl—a few days shy of starting kindergarten—caught a kelp greenling from shore, using a clam she had dug up for bait. All the other kids clamored ’round, each one administering a blow to the head to do it in. We grilled the greenling that night and they all ate of it with gusto under the stars. Rockfish and flounder landed on the menu as well, as did three species of clam: mahogany, littleneck, and horse. The adults had to hide batches of steamed clams just to have a few to eat.

Bottoms Up!

I don’t own a boat and rarely have access to one, so one of the real treats is taking an ancient battle-scarred Whaler out to the bottomfish grounds, where it’s virtually impossible to get skunked. Every kid caught a fish, bouncing weights along the bottom and using clams for bait. Sometimes you get more than you bargain for; one of the flounders came up half-eaten and it’s not uncommon to haul in the occasional dogfish. Sadly, as in much of the Northwest, the salmon runs have been badly depleted and we don’t even make the effort of time and gas to look for the remaining few.

The Myth of the “R” Month

Spend any time harvesting oysters and you’re bound to hear the old saw about “R” months, that you should avoid oysters in any month without the letter “R”: May, June, July, August—the summer season, effectively.


Now it may be true that in earlier days without reliable refrigeration and fast transportation, the warm months were the most likely to see fish spoilage. Similarly, the warm months are when we usually get the algae blooms that can cause red tides, which were less closely monitored in the past. Neither of these issues should obtain now.

The only other factor is the oyster spawn. When the water is warm enough, oysters undergo a physiological change in preparation for spawning, with their organs largely given over to the task of reproduction, resulting in a milky, somewhat mushy meat (see above). It is during this stage that many oyster lovers spurn their cherished bivalve. But wait. The milky substance is not the result of any sort of toxin or sickness. Most of it can be washed away simply enough by running the oyster under tap water. While I don’t slurp down oysters raw at this time, I can think of no reason to not batter them in egg, flour, and cornmeal and fry them up for po’ boys. The half-pints didn’t seem to mind either.

Go Make Your Clam Bed

Probably more time was spent digging clams than any other activity. We used big shovels and small shovels, spades and scratchers. The kids dug trenches deep enough to hide in. Native littlenecks lay just a few inches beneath the surface, but butter clams (which we only used for bait) secreted themselves well below the littlnecks—and horse clams, also known as gapers, were deeper yet. Higher up the beach the kids discovered mahogany clams, a silky smooth clam with a lustrous brown shell that is delicious steamed and dipped in butter. The gapers got cut up for chowder.


Collecting bait is often more fun for kids than the actual hooking and catching of fish. Heck, I feel pretty much the same way about it sometimes—which is why filming these two kids going at it with the dropnet was such pure pleasure. It hurt my knees just to watch them squat down on their haunches so effortlessly for minutes at a time. I was reminded of more innocent summers in the distant past, of catching frogs and building bike jumps with my neighbor Sarah Sulger, the complications of adolescence and adulthood still years away. Watching this scene unfold, only a short bit captured here, might have been the highlight of my trip.

And then it was time to go home, to get back to work and prepare for the school year. While waiting for the first of two ferries to shuttle us back to the mainland, we found a monstrous patch of Himalayan blackberries and picked until the last car had debarked before running back to our vehicles for loading. I’ll post the result of that quick pick in a future post: blackberry crisp.

I hope everyone had a tremendous Labor Day Weekend!

A Good Week for the Wetsuit

While the East Coast may be sweating out its first heat wave of the year, here in Seattle the weather’s been unseasonably miserable: sideways rain and bone-chilling cold. I’ve been down in the basement performing unspeakable rites, putting in calls to Nawlins voodoo shops, even screaming “Uncle!” at the top of my lungs. The cold rain and snow just keeps a-coming. So, if you can’t beat ’em…

I put on the wetsuit the other day and went free-diving with my half-fish friend David Francis. Dave gets in a minimum of 100 dives a year. Long ago I stopped worrying about staying submerged even half as long, or seeing the things he sees underwater. I just like getting wet, working muscles that don’t normally see a lot of action, and checking out the marine environment. There’s food to be had, too.

Dave calls it human-powered hunting. We don’t carry fancy spearguns; the Hawaiian sling is our tool of choice (although according to Wikipedia, what we’ve always referred to as a sling is more properly known as a polespear).

When I first started free-diving 15 years ago, there were abundant populations of rockfish and lingcod—or at least they seemed abundant to me—all along the jetties up and down Pugetopolis. Rockfish are slow-growing and often don’t reproduce until several years old (and older), but the lings were considered fair game in limited numbers. Back then it seemed like we were the only ones targeting lings. Lately with salmon runs so depressed, more and more anglers are turning to bottomfish. We see them anchored off jetties that boats used to ignore on their way out to the deeper trolling waters. And now we see fewer and fewer lings. Each spring I wonder if this will be my last backyard ling hunt…and don’t get me started on the chemical contaminants cropping up in these urban in-shore fish.

That said, we saw a few lings… If you want to read more about my adventures free-diving in pursuit of this toothy—and toothsome—delicacy, check back soon and I’ll have details about a forthcoming magazine piece.