Mark Bittman is the author of over thirty books, including the How to Cook Everything series and his new book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. He was a food journalist and columnist, opinion columnist, and the lead magazine food writer at The New York Times, where he started writing in 1984 and stayed for 30 years. Today, in addition to writing books, he heads the Bittman Project, a newsletter and diverse food publication. He is also the host of the podcast “Food with Mark Bittman.”
Wulf’s team member, Hannah Frith, sat down with Mark — whose very first book, published in 1999, was called Fish — to talk about his favorite ways to cook fish and the importance of starting with quality seafood.
Hannah Frith: Starting off, I have some general questions about your favorite ways to cook fish and how to cook fish. So, do you have a favorite fish to cook with?
Mark Bittman: No. I mean, the favorite to me is the thing that looks most appealing when I buy it. I like a wide variety of fish. If someone says to me, “this was caught yesterday, you should buy it,” that does it for me.
“Really with fish, buying is more important than cooking. Because if you start with a great piece of fish, I mean, yes, you could screw it up, but chances are, you're gonna wind up with something good.”
HF: Okay. And where would you shop for fish?
MB: Well, it sort of depends where I am. But, in the past year I have shopped for fish, almost never in a supermarket. I go to a fishmonger in Newburgh (NY), who's like a guy who goes to the wholesale store a couple times a week and buys stuff. And that's pretty good. I also order fish from Alaska. Frozen fish.
HF: Yeah, that's what Wulf's Fish does, too.
MB: So yeah, I do buy frozen fish by mail. And if I'm at a place where I know I can buy fish that's coming off the boat, I do that. The quality of the fish matters more than anything.
HF: Next question is, in my experience with your cooking, you like to use seafood in simple dishes where the seafood itself really shines. Is that correct?
MB: That is correct.
HF: Why do you do that?
MB: Well, I mean, I like fish. First of all, I cook almost everything pretty simply. I do like herbs and spices, but I like the ingredients to stand on their own to some extent. Fish especially, since it's, for the most part, not very strong flavored, and since it has fabulous attributes, interesting flavor, and different textures. And so on. I don't see any reason to muck about with it. Having said that, I like fish curry. I like bouillabaisse. I like stews that have fish in them, several kinds of fish where the individuality is kind of lost. But, you're right, nine times out of ten I broil it or sauté or grill it or whatever, with almost nothing on it.
HF: In terms of the curry and the bouillabaisse that you mentioned, what fish or seafood would you use in those more flavorful dishes?
MB: I think if the dish is really flavorful, you might as well use a fish that's not that great on its own. So, halibut — which is super mild-flavored, but firm-textured, so it can stand up to stewing; that's a really great fish in a stew. Shrimp, of course, unless you have some brilliant shrimp that's like really amazing, most of it's sort of not that flavorful, put that in a stew. But shellfish is also great in a stew because it gives off liquid and it gives off liquid that tastes good, but the shellfish itself winds up not tasting like much.
HF: What advice do you have for home cooks who are intimidated by cooking seafood and getting it right?
“But as the years have gone by, my experiences have taught me that there are fish that are better when you cook them for a long time. So you have to learn that somehow, either through experience or through reading.”
MB: Well, I mean, I would get a cookbook. Unless you have somebody you can trust to tell you what to do, you need advice from somewhere. It used to seem simpler to me because I'd always say, "don't overcook." But as the years have gone by, my experiences have taught me that there are fish that are better when you cook them for a long time. So you have to learn that somehow, either through experience or through reading. So, most fish can be treated pretty much the same and most fish shouldn't be overcooked. And that's sound starting out advice, but for details you either need a guru or a cookbook. And I think keep things simple. Really with fish, buying is more important than cooking. Because if you start with a great piece of fish, I mean, yes, you could screw it up, but chances are, you're gonna wind up with something good.
HF: Speaking of good fish, one of the most popular fish that people cook at home is salmon, what's your favorite way to cook it?
MB: I like to roast it with oil or butter; just because cooking it on top of the stove can get messy. So, I like to constrain the mess to the oven. I also do like to poach it and serve it cold with mayonnaise. It's still really a great way to serve salmon.
HF: Okay. My problem with salmon is that I really like the flavor, but I actually usually undercook it. I don't know if it's that the pan or the oven is too hot, but it looks really perfect and crispy on the outside, but once I have it on the plate, the middle is like really undercooked. So how do I know that without opening up the salmon?
"There are five Pacific species of salmon and one Atlantic which is mostly farm raised and they cook at different rates and they cook differently”
MB: Well, first of all, some of that is a matter of taste, some people like it less well-done and some more. Some of it is a matter of species, because there are five Pacific species of salmon and one Atlantic which is mostly farm raised and they cook at different rates and they cook differently. So it's sort of pays to know that; but to answer that question directly, if you take a thin-bladed knife or a skewer, or anything like that — if it's meeting a lot of resistance when you poke it into the fish, then it means it's probably still underdone, it's gotta be tender throughout.
HF: So, then the opposite is true? If it's more flaky, then it's probably cooked.
MB: If it's really flaky then it's overcooked.
HF: Got it. Moving on to another favorite, let's talk about swordfish. Similarly to salmon, because swordfish is really thick, I worry about both under-cooking and over-cooking it.
MB: Yeah. And you're right to worry about that, because it's trickier. You really want to get it right. But again, I think in the same way - first of all, if you cook slowly, you have a little more control than if you'd cook fast. You're not worried about burning the outside, you're not going to wind up with that phenomenon where the outside looks crispy and fabulous, and an inside that's raw. If you cook slowly, you're more likely to cook the fish well throughout. The thing is that overcooked swordfish can be kind of dry, so you really want to catch it.
That poking thing — you take a thin-bladed knife or a skewer and you just keep sticking it into the middle, and as soon as it passes through the middle without much resistance, the fish is done like that second. And you do it in the thickest part. I mean, you should try that because when it's not done, you know, it's like you can't stick a skewer into a raw piece of fish very easily, and if it's raw in the middle, you're gonna know it; so that's really the best way to do it. There's no way to do it visually or by touch until you've done it a hundred times, at which point it becomes instinctual.
HF: Right and if you were cooking it in the oven for example, would it be like a medium heat for a longer time?
MB: I mean, if I were cooking it in the oven, I would do like 400 degrees if it was one-inch thick, and go check it after like 12 minutes. But that's guessing, that's my experience and I'd know how to make adjustments. I think what we're talking about here is advice for people who don't have a lot of experience, so maybe a little lower temperature, a little longer time. Just be careful. You know, with swordfish, I think a little undercooked is probably better than a little overcooked, because it's big enough so that it'll retain some heat and keep cooking even after you take it off the stove.
HF: Right. Okay, that makes sense. And since swordfish is a very meaty fish, how would you recommend serving it?
MB: I mean, it's obviously one of the best steaks for people who don't eat meat. It's one of the best steaks for people who do eat meat too, so I just either grill it or broil or cook it in a pan, but that's just a fish that I almost do nothing to because it tastes so great.
HF: Right, but after you've cooked it, would you even like serve it with rice or anything?
MB: Oh yeah, I serve it with other things, but I wouldn't doctor it up. The one doctoring up thing I would do with swordfish is just maybe capers and lemon; or capers, butter, and lemon. I really love that. Yeah, it's great with rice, it's great with a salad, great with any vegetable. But it's also good on its own as a sort of separate course after one of those things — after pasta or before a bowl of rice, something like that.
HF: Okay, moving on to less everyday items — Wulf's sells some great head-on shrimp. And if you're a beginner with head-on shrimp, how would you approach cooking and serving that?
MB: Well I don't know whether it's a beginner thing or just that some people find the head-on shrimp distasteful. But the fact is that most of the flavor of the shrimp is in that head, so I cook head-on shrimp with the heads on and rip the heads off and suck that stuff out. And that's the most fun means of eating good shrimp to me. So that's what I recommend. If that idea grosses you out, then you break the heads off. You could use it for stock or don't use it at all, just cook the tails the way you would cook shrimp ordinarily.
MB: It's not that it's hard, but I think people need to feel comfortable cooking fish before they start tackling off-cuts. I mean anyone who's brave enough can do it, it's not like it's hard. The same rules apply. You want to cook it until it's done. But it's like the head-on shrimp question. If it intimidates you or grosses you out, steer clear until it doesn't intimidate you or gross you out. But if you feel like it's appealing, you'll be fine.
HF: And that's probably the same for cooking a whole fish, right?
MB: Yeah, the whole fish can be really fun to cook. It's harder, but it's a challenge and it can be a lot of fun. Really, in terms of results it's usually really good. Even if you overcook a whole fish, it will be good.