There was a time when I would buy new or used cookbooks frequently. Between that and the fact that publishers sometimes send me cookbooks unsolicited, I have something on the order of 500 or so of the things. I’ve read – or at least skimmed – all of them, primarily for ideas and techniques.
There are some that I return to frequently. My copy of Madhur Jaffery’s “Indian Cooking” is dog-eared and stained, as are my copies of cookbooks produced by Antoine’s and Galatoire’s, several books on Chinese cuisine by British author Fuschia Dunlop, books by Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy on Mexican food, Jacques Pepin’s “Complete Techniques,” and books by Susan Spicer, Donald Link, Isaac Toups and Paula Wolfert.
I have other cookbooks that are not generally exposed to the risk of spills and splatters, but to which I return time and again for ideas. “Simple Cuisine” by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for example, and the one I want to discuss today, Kevin Graham’s “Fish and Seafood Cookbook.” Published in 1993, it’s an oversized tome that I find endlessly fascinating and as relevant as it was when it was released.
At the time, Graham was one of the best chefs in New Orleans. He’d run the kitchen at the Windsor Court’s Grill Room from 1988 to 1994 before leaving to open Graham’s and Sapphire in New Orleans. He left town in the mid-’90s and from my periodic Google searches it appears his last professional cooking gig was in Taos, New Mexico, where he opened Graham’s Grille.
I dined at the Windsor Court when he was the executive chef a couple of times, and those remain among the best meals I’ve ever eaten. He was classically trained but not constrained by hidebound rules. He mixed cuisines and techniques in ways that respected traditions from which he drew and always kept the ingredients front and center.
This was long before the concept of “modernist cuisine,” and while many of the recipes in “Fish and Seafood” are hard to find or expensive, that’s not the case for most of the dishes. Or, at least, for parts of most of the dishes. When the book was published, Graham had moved towards lower-fat and lower-carbohydrate dishes. You will find butter and cream among the ingredients called for, but in fairly small quantities as compared to classical French cooking. It was nominated in 1994 for a James Beard award in the category “healthy focus,” and deservedly so.
Here’s an example: poached halibut with celery sauce. In this recipe, Graham calls for halibut steaks to be steam-poached over 2 cups of finely julienned celery and ¼ cup shallot and the same amounts (proportionately) of fish stock and dry white wine. When the fish is done, it’s removed from the pan and the vegetables and liquid are blended, sieved and reduced before two tablespoons of cream are added.
This is not a weeknight dish. It also assumes one has fish stock on hand, as well as dried lemon peel (which is used as a garnish). I love it because the technique of pureeing the braising liquid/vegetables to make a sauce that has the creamy texture of something with a lot more fat is brilliant. It’s not something he came up with; I learned it long before I bought the book, but using celery as the dominant seasoning is something that surprised me, and I love it. Granted, I don’t cook a lot of halibut, because Jesus have you seen what halibut costs now? Still, it illustrates why I love the book – in that recipe he gave me an idea I can use in so many other dishes as long as I keep in mind the proper use of the technique.
Graham also has a recipe for salmon served with a potato vinaigrette. The salmon is cooked simply – seared with rosemary in a hot pan and finished in the over until just done. The “vinaigrette,” however, has a texture more like mayonnaise but with far less fat. You cook about ½ pound of peeled, diced baking potato in 2 cups of chicken stock with thyme and a little garlic, then puree before adding 3 tablespoons of champagne vinegar, 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper to finish. You could add more finely minced fresh herbs or perhaps some chopped capers and it would be outstanding with anything that calls for a tart, mayonnaise-like sauce.
Then there’s his recipe for medallions of monkfish with cilantro “chlorophyll” and a banana timbale. Bananas and fish aren’t, to me, an obvious combination but I’ve used bananas in a lot of savory applications and the combination of diced banana and rice stuffed into a timbale wrapped in roasted banana slices is delightful.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about the book. I’m selecting recipes that I find intriguing. Some are more straightforward in their flavor profiles and some don’t involve techniques or ingredients unusual to a home cook. Sheepshead with white bean and lentil salad; Caesar salad with crabmeat and sesame seeds and grilled swordfish with apple salsa are examples.
But to me the book is about learning new things; like the recipe for braised flounder with sprouting mustard seeds. It requires two days for the mustard seeds to begin to sprout (which is the stage at which Graham calls for their use), and then he directs the reader to “bone each fish so that all four fillets remain connected at the tail.”
Could I do that? Probably. Am I going to? Probably not. But I have a lot of mustard seeds, some of which are from my garden when I let the stragglers among my mustard greens flower and form seed pods last year. I’m starting that experiment this evening, with no clear plan on what I’ll do with them.
That’s why I like this book. It rewards a curious cook with dozens of new ideas, and even if you don’t cook steamed brill with tomato tarragon vinaigrette, you may make that sauce. If you are going to cook one of the recipes, I can tell you that the instructions are clear and the steps are presented in a logical order. There are some things Graham assumes – that you can fillet a flounder so that all four fillets remain connected to the tail, for example – but most other professional-level techniques are explained clearly.
I’m a fan of the two other of Graham’s other cookbooks that I own too, “Grains, Rice, and Beans,” and the “Windsor Court Cookbook,” but this one is my favorite.
I don’t know if I’m going to be doing a regular review of cookbooks in the future. If I do, it’ll be no more frequent than monthly, but please let me know whether you would like to see more of this sort of thing and, if so, whether you have a favorite cookbook you’d like to see discussed.