To say that Michael Cimarusti is obsessed with fish would be a severe understatement. Cimarusti is the Executive Chef at Providence in Los Angeles and Connie & Ted's in West Hollywood, both featuring an extensive fish- and seafood-centric menu. Last year, he also opened his own seafood market called Cape Seafood and Provisions. Clearly, he is a chef who thinks deeply about fish and is willing to share some unusual observations with home cooks. Our contributor Russ Parsons talked with Chef Cimarusti about different techniques for cooking certain types of fish, supporting dock-to-dish sustainability, and the key elements to a perfect clam chowder (or three). Chef Cimarusti shared with us his recipes for Vermilion Rockfish with Braised Artichokes and Herbs, Rhode Island Clear Chowder, Manhattan Clam Chowder and New England Clam Chowder.
Russ Parsons: Americans seem to be famously afraid of cooking fish, but slowly we seem to be getting over that. Still, most of us continue to use the same handful of basic techniques. We throw it on the grill, sauté it, or run it under the broiler. As a chef who runs two seafood restaurants and a fish market, you've got some interesting ideas about how we can do better. Let's go over a couple of them because I think they're interesting techniques. The simplest is the brining. That's something a lot of us do for poultry or pork. I never thought about brining fish, but it works wonderfully.
Michael Cimarusti: There are two different ways. You can either do it wet or dry. Dry is the simplest way to do it. Just put sea salt on a filet of fish and let it rest until the fish begins to sweat. That draws a little bit of moisture and protein up out of the flesh. The fish will appear dewy at that point. You can wipe that off with a paper towel or even rinse it under a cold tap for a second, and then let that fish rest for six to eight hours. That's a great technique if you want to eat the fish raw. For sashimi, it's delicious and creates a seasoning that's throughout the filet, which is really important. It also keeps you from having to season the filet with finishing salt at the end. When you eat the fish, you definitely taste the salt. But there's no specific source of the salt, it's just sort of there – and that's really nice.
If you're talking about a fish that you want to grill – like halibut, snapper, or bass – depending upon the thickness of the filet, you would brine the fish in a five- or seven-percent salt solution. That means that for every 100 grams of water, you do 5 grams of salt; you can do the conversion on that in terms of tablespoons and ounces, it's not really that hard. Depending on the thickness of the fish, you would let the fish sit in that brine for an hour or two, or maybe even three or four if you have, for instance, a big albacore loin, which is something that we brine a lot at the fish shop for smoking. We let it sit overnight, but that's an extreme case because it's a big piece of fish. Once you brine the fish for a specific period of time, you pull it out, let it rest, even overnight is great, and you don't wrap the fish at that point. Pull it out of the brine, put it on a rack, cover it with cheesecloth, not plastic wrap, and let it sit in the refrigerator. It forms what's called a pellicle on the outside of the fish. This is always the first step before smoking, whether it's hot smoking or cold smoking. But, it also works great if you want to pan roast the fish, throw the fish on the grill, or poach the fish.
RP: You talk about the pellicle, which is this sticky coating on the surface of the fish. What does it do in the cooking?
MC: In the cooking, what it does is almost seals the filet. It serves a different purpose in smoking. In smoking, it creates a surface that the smoke actually rests on. But when you're grilling a fish or cooking it in a pan, that surface creates a barrier and it locks in moisture and it keeps the fish beautiful.
RP: Now that whole fish are becoming more and more available, you also like to roast them like you would a piece of meat. Can you walk us through that part?
MC: Especially when we have larger fish, we don't always necessarily do it on the bone. For instance, during a service at the restaurant, if we have a salmon main course on the menu, what we'll do is cook a large piece of the filet of salmon that's enough for five to seven portions. We'll put that fish on the grill or roast it in the pan in the whole state. And then, once we've achieved the color that we're looking for, we allow the fish to rest in a warm spot in the kitchen for a good, long period of time. Even 30 or 45 minutes greatly benefits the fish. It allows the heat to pass through the filet slowly and consistently. Then we slice those fillets – the large pieces – into portion-sized pieces that we re-warm briefly before we put them on the plate. And you're right, it is very much akin to preparing a roast, whether it's a whole roast beef or a rack of lamb. When you apply those same theories to fish, you wind up with different results and textures, and a cooking that's far more consistent.
One of the most beautiful things about fish is they're all different in appearance, color, and flavor, but they also have very different textures. If you apply the same techniques to every single fish, you wind up with textures that are very similar, and that belies the true nature of the fish. In our restaurants we use different techniques for different types of fish to achieve a result that reveals what the true nature of that fish is both for texture and flavor. If you sear a fish really hard on one side, let's say in a pan, and flip it over and sear it really hard on the other side, it's going to have a texture that's not unlike a chicken breast or a steak that's been pan-seared. But, if you cook it slowly and gently, or sometimes cook it quickly but only apply heat to one side – let’s say the skin side of a fish – then when you get it at the table, the texture is very different and much more true to what it should be.
RP: One of the big problems with seafood in America is that we still concentrate on one or two species – shrimp, salmon, things like that – but those are getting scarcer and less sustainable.
MC: And more expensive.
RP: But, there are lots of other fish that are re plentiful, delicious, and completely sustainable. What are some of the ways for a cook who may not be familiar with those fish to approach them?
MC: There are so many different ways. Smaller fish like sardines and anchovies, anchovies specifically, if you are going to cook them at all, the best thing you can do is salt them and throw them on the grill. It's almost true for sardines as well, unless you get really big sardines, in which case you might filet them or butterfly them open and cook them in different ways. Mackerel is sort of the same thing. I love mackerel grilled. When we get what are called tinker mackerel – which are smaller mackerel – we take them, debone them, butterfly them open, and grill the skin side just briefly. We then pull them off the grill and brush them with an herb oil. At this point, the flesh has not been touched by any direct heat at all. Brush the flesh with a little herb oil, a little squeeze of lemon juice, and put breadcrumbs over the top of it with lots of extra-virgin olive oil. Finish it in the broiler so it gets crispy and golden brown. Underneath, you have the grilled flavor of the fatty fish and this beautiful herb oil that's just a little spicy from red chili flakes, and it's incredible. That's a fish that, at the most, it's going to cost you six or seven dollars in a fish market, but they're incredibly delicious. They're low on the food chain and they're plentiful. But go and try to find one; it’s a very difficult fish to find. That's because it's a low value species. It's not worth a lot to the fisherman, so you don't see a lot of them on the market, which is a real shame.
RP: Along those same lines, if you're new to the fish market, you go and see many different kinds of fish. What are some of the ways that you can look at a fish and think about how you’re going to cook it? Are there different things – maybe textures and fat contents – that you can tell just by looking at the fish that will help you determine how best to cook it?
MC: Let's be honest. If you're a casual cook at home, or even a serious cook at home, you're not going to have the kind of experience that somebody that works in a good fish market will have. My advice is to just go in and ask questions. What's looking good today? What's super-fresh? Talk to the people behind the counter about what you plan to do with the fish.
RP: As a chef at one of the country's best seafood restaurants, you can purchase the finest fish from anywhere in the world. For many years, that was the menu that you offered. But a couple of years ago, you switched and became part of a Dock to Dish fish program here in Southern California that is buying mainly locally-caught fish from small fisherman in Santa Barbara. What kind of fish are you getting, how has that changed your approach to cooking, and how has it changed the menu?
MC: It's changed the menu a lot. Right now, everything that's on the menu – with the exception of one ingredient – is from the Pacific seaboard. We stretch that all the way up to Alaska and down to Baja, but we don't use that much from Baja right now except an occasional oyster. It’s changed things tremendously, and Dock to Dish really was the beginning of that. Through Dock to Dish we get all sorts of delicious and underappreciated fish like the many rockfish species that exist here in Southern California; things like vermilion rock cod, black gill rockfish, longspine and shortspine thornyheads. There's a fish called a fantail sole, which is a by-catch of the halibut fishery. If you’ve spent any time on the East Coast, you’ve probably had flounder; it's very much like that, absolutely delicious and very mild, and an interesting fish to work with. California halibut, California yellowtail, sheepshead, the list goes on and on including incredible Pacific mackerel from right here in Southern California, hook-and-line caught, just delicious.
These are all species that I overlooked for years at Providence. Part of the reason was that there are no clear channels to get that fish from the small boat fishermen to restaurants. The supply chains were built to handle the fish that we were talking about earlier, things like salmon, shrimp, tuna, high value species that are abundant and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That's really what the market drives into restaurants like mine. Obviously, we sorted through it and found the very best, and we would bring in stuff from all over the world. But, the truth is that in the past several years I have found the best fish I've ever worked with was right at my back door the whole time, there was just no clear and easy way to get it to our back door. Through several years of work and building networks Dock to Dish has been able to bring the best fish I've ever worked with to the restaurant, and it's being harvested no more than 100 miles away.
RP: It’s interesting when you have the ability to choose from any kind of material – when the world is your palette and you have to make hard choices about what it is you're going to cook – it brings out a different kind of creativity.
MC: I absolutely agree, and it makes perfect sense. This is something that started with people like Alice Waters way back in the 1970s, and then evolved through all sorts of people like Larry Forgione – who I worked for – and guys like Rene Redzepi, who really took it to the extreme. It’s the idea of localism, the idea that the food that's on the table should represent time and place, the times and place that we're living in. I feel like we're doing that more now at Providence than we ever did. I'm proud of that, and I'm happy that it's been done in this way.
You can see the impact of what we're doing, see the impact in the lives of fisherman like Eric Hodge [of Dock to Dish] who decided that he didn’t need to run his auto garage anymore, that he could turn it over to his partner and fish more because there's a market for it now. That's a great thing. Ultimately, I'm as happy about that as anything I've ever achieved through cooking, because it's keeping American fishermen on the water. If I had my druthers and had my life turned out different, I may have wound up as an American fisherman. I mean a commercial fisherman. I am a fisherman, but I don’t do it for a living. But I could’ve ended up there because it’s one of the things that I love most. So, I’m happy to support people that do it for a living.
When it comes to making a wonderful examples of classic clam chowder – be it in the style of Rhode Island, Manhattan, or New England – Cimarusti says the key is to focus a few essential ingredients. He shared with us his recipe for Rhode Island Clear Chowder, Manhattan Clam Chowder and New England Clam Chowder.
RP: You're a Southern California cook now and that's where you've been for the last 20 years. But, you've still got this Northeast thing going and you've got deep theories about chowder. Talk to us about chowder.
MC: First of all, it’s a ubiquitous dish, right? You see it everywhere; you could be in Seattle, New Mexico, or Rhode Island and you'll see it. I often feel like it's not given its due and I think the roots of what a chowder is supposed to be are not truly respected in many places. At the end of the day, with something like chowder, simplicity and an elemental approach to it are the best ways to do it.
A chowder should have potato, it should have some sort of pork product, it should have onion, and it should have clams; there's not a lot else that needs to be in there. And frankly, when you eat a chowder those are the things that make it great. You don't need a whole bunch of other stuff; you certainly don't need flour. Just allow the clams to speak for themselves, to flavor the broth and potatoes, and to pick up a little richness from the pork fat. That's all you need. That's how we make it at the restaurant. Take fatback, onion, juice from freshly shucked clams, and lots of potatoes. Cook that as broth. By the time it's done the potatoes are soft and the broth thickens from the starch in the potato. Pull that off the fire, cool it down and let it rest.
In a separate pan, take lots of good fresh cream and reduce it from say a quart to a half of a quart. And then the following day, once that chowder has rested overnight, you can either serve it clear as it is, which is a Rhode Island staple; that dish was created in Rhode Island and it's still served in good restaurants today there. But if you want to turn it into a New England chowder, just add a portion of that cream that you've reduced by half into the clear chowder and – boom! – you’ve got New England chowder. And that's honestly all it should be. Just good simple, wholesome ingredients because at the time when those dishes were created, it wasn't about purity or simplicity it was about, “This is all we have. We have potatoes, onions, clams, and we have some salted pork from the hogs that we slaughtered last spring or last fall.” That's what it was and to me that is when it was in its best form, so that's how we make it.
RP: As a cook, the thing that interests me the most is the overnight rest.
MC: To eat it that same day, I don't think that you get the full effect. It's way better after it sits one night. The flavor just seems to be truer and it's more layered, more nuanced.
Related Article: From Dock to Dish: A New Model Connects Chefs to Local Fishermen (NPR’s The Salt)
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Russ Parsons was the food editor and columnist of the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years. He is the author of the cookbooks How to Read a French Fry and How to Pick a Peach. He is a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, and has won awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the Association of Food Journalists and the James Beard Foundation.