Another Day in Poe's Kitchen at The Rattlesnake

Chef Brian Poe shows you the world in the back of the house.

Old Poe & the Sea: My Fish Tales (+ a recipe)

fishing off the coast of South Carolina

fishing off the coast of South Carolina

Fishing keeps me true to the person that I am. In Arizona, I hit the rivers and streams every week and developed a rhythm around trout, honing my catch-and-release skills. I got to know the catfish on the family farm in Alabama. I’ve fished almost everywhere I’ve traveled.

In other words, I’ve long considered myself a passable fisherman.

But that all changed when I moved to coastal Massachusetts and took up saltwater fishing.

For one solid year, I fished. I tried every type of bait imaginable—squid, shrimp, rubber fish, eels, spinners, and, finally, clams. I stood chest-deep in the waters off the North Shore with the freezing cold taking my breath away. I stood on the rocks, allowing the bait to dangle just where the little guys might feed. I went under bridges. I went chumming—I mean really chumming—in Narragansett with a run on Block Island. All to no avail. I began to curse the gods of the water with every cast. I did this weekly for an entire summer. I would not let these waters beat me.

cleaning a catch in Chile

cleaning a catch in Chile

One particular sunny afternoon I found myself back at my favorite sanctuary, Plum Island. I had packed a nice chardonnay, some incredible cheese from Joppa Fine Foods in Newburyport, and a selection of cigars. I set up shop. I scanned the waters. I was calm but determined. Today I was going to to catch a fish. 

I fished all afternoon. I cast every imaginable type of bait. It was only after about 8 hours spent casting into high tides and low that I knew I’d reached my last cast—but it would, I swore, be my best. I marched through the waves until my feet could barely touch the sand. I held my rod and, in the pause between waves, I reached back and cast as hard as I could. The topneck clam went spinning through the air for what seemed like a mile. I was going to catch that fish! I could feel it.

Just then, I heard a plunk about ten feet away from me. It was my hook and weight. The clam went flying and my line stayed put. I let out every curse I knew and some I didn’t. I sounded like Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. I was so furious that I waded shoreward just enough that I could rebait and immediately marched back in, this time deeper. I focused on the same spot that the clam had landed. I reached back and cast my best one ever. The line ran. I began walking backward toward the coast, newly calm and focused. The sun was setting. I took a deep breath and relished the beauty of the Parker Refuge at dusk.

Then I felt a tug.

I yanked back, but the line went slack again. I wondered if I’d run into a bit of seaweed. Then suddenly I was being pulled left and right. I reeled. It stopped. For 20 minutes, the fish and I played tug of war—and then suddenly, there she was in the clear shallows. Easily 36 inches long, the very picture of summer in New England, she was the famous striper that I had heard the locals speak of. And she was staring right at me.

A few passersby stopped to eye my catch, wondering aloud what a chef would do with such a beauty. I already knew. We had worked too hard this summer to meet, this fish and I, to say goodbye. As I held her in the water until she had her rhythm back, I looked up at the sky, thanked the sea gods, and watched her swim off. After a moment of silence I packed my kit and headed home, at peace. I had become a New England fisherman.

My trusty fish purveyors provide me the best of the best. Some are old-school, some new, but they all spare my conscience when it comes to the actual kill. They stand for everything chefs believe in—in the moment. The fish and shellfish they bring into my kitchen is as fresh and good as it gets—and the still-thrilling memory of my own catch has taught me how important it is that I prepare theirs to the best of my ability. In fact, seafood may be my favorite thing to cook. Unlike beef and chicken that need to marinate for hours, fish are a snap. Buy them right—fresh, from the right purveyor—and you can prepare the perfect meal in no time.

Here’s a great example.

Pancetta-Wrapped Cod in Chambord, Sundried Strawberry & Balsamic Reduction with Acorn Squash Puree

For the cod
10 thin slices pancetta
10 1-oz. square portions of cod (about 1 in. x 1 in.)
20 toothpicks
1 c. flour
salt and pepper to taste
whole basil leaves
3 c. grapeseed oil
chopped chives for garnish

On a clean surface, lay out each slice of pancetta, then place a basil leaf in the center and a cod square on top. Fold the pancetta around the cod and secure with 2 toothpicks in the form of an X. Gently toss in flour to lightly coat.

Fry for about 2 minutes, or until pancetta is crisp. Remove toothpicks and reserve.

For the reduction

1 c. Chambord
1 c. champagne
1/2 c. sundried strawberries
1 c. cleaned, sliced fresh strawberries
1 c. brown sugar
1 bay leaf
1 c. balsamic vinegar
1/2 c. veal stock
1/4 c. fresh basil, chiffonade

Combine berries in a pan and allow to plump for 1 hour in Chambord and champagne. Then place on stove and bring to a boil with 1 cup of balsamic vinegar. Add brown sugar, bay leaf, and veal stock. Remove from heat. Puree in food processor and return back to pan. Allow to cool to room temperature; then add basil. If sauce is too vinegary, add more sugar. Reserve.

For the squash puree

5 acorn squashes, split, seeds removed
1/4 cup Chambord
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 piece star anise
1/2 c. maple syrup
3 c. white wine

Place acorn squash, skin side down, in a roasting pan; add all remaining ingredients except wine. Cover with foil and roast in oven at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or until the flesh of the squash is easily removed from the skin with a spoon. Scoop out the flesh. Add wine and puree the mixture until very smooth. (Add extra wine and sugar if necessary to achieve texture.) 

For the presentation

In the center of each plate, spoon a circle of squash puree, then place a cod-pancetta purse in the center. Drizzle the reduction around and on the purse.  Garnish with chopped chives, if desired, and enjoy. Serves 5.

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