With his new seafood cookbook Hook, Line and Supper coming out, the Orangevale-based food blogger Hank Shaw shares some true fish tales.
You’ve been an angler your whole life. Tell me about the one that got away.
I’ll preface this by saying that I was on a packed boat with lots of people I don’t know. And when that happens, it’s quite often that you will be fishing next to people that don’t really know how to fish. Ninety-nine times out of 100, that’s no big deal. This was the one time out of 100.
So I’m fishing out of Wilmington, North Carolina, and we’re in blue water. The prize on that day would be a grouper—and sure enough, I hook into a big old gag grouper. When I say that, I mean 50, 60 pounds. And there’s a woman next to me, and she’s clearly never fished before. She’s freaking out because she has what is essentially an undersized black sea bass, maybe a 9- or 12-inch fish, circling just under the surface at the end of her line. And she’s like, “Net! Net! I need the net!” And you don’t need a net for fish that small. The saying is, “Lift them or lose them,” and I keep saying, “Lift the fish up! Lift it over the rail! Lift it over the rail!” And she’s not doing it. She’s letting this fish swim around just under the surface. Well, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I get this gag grouper almost to the top of the water. It’s a gigantic fish. And what happens? The stupid little black sea bass swims a circle around my line. TINK! My line snaps and that gag grouper goes back down to the bottom. I was so mad. This is now over 20 years later, and I’m still mad about it.
I read that your mom taught you how to fish when you were 5 years old. What are some memories you have of that?
If there was a dictionary picture for the word “Yankee,” it would be my mom. She is from Ipswich, Massachusetts, so we come by fishing honestly. Fish and shellfish and seafood are part of our family’s DNA. Mom used to hand-line for cod and for perch when she was a kid in the ’40s and ’50s. And then my stepfather, Frank, he’s the one who got us into party boats. [I have] a lot of old gauzy kind of ’70s, early ’80s memories of going on these party boats and catching just barrels of flounder and bluefish back when the limits were a lot looser than they are now.
I dug clams as a toddler. There are these great pictures of me at 4 or 5 or 6 years old shucking clams and eating raw clams on Block Island, which is off the coast of Rhode Island. In the 1970s, it was a little bit rough and tumble. Now it’s gotten very chichi, but back then it was not. And Mom would save all her money so that she could take us to Block Island for—I think we went for three weeks once? But it was always at least two weeks, and we essentially became feral children on this island. One of the things that we would always do whenever we had a good low tide was we would, as a family, go to New Harbor—Block Island looks like a pork chop with a bite taken out of it, and New Harbor is the bite. There’s a great clam flat there, and they gave you a little ring. You had to buy a license from the township of New Shoreham, and you had to have this ring with you. If your clam fit through the ring, you had to put it back where you found it. I was in charge of all of the clams that were close to shore, because I was very small at the time. If I went to where the bigger clams were, I would be in way over my head. So I would wander around, and I would get frustrated sometimes because where I was, it was shallow water and all little clams. When I learned how to swim, I would bob out to right about head height and I would dive like a puddle duck, with my feet up in the air, and I would use my hands to scrape for clams in the sand underneath while holding my breath. And I would grab two fistfuls of clams and kick back to where I could get my head out of water. The little ring was on a necklace around my neck, and I would see if I could fit those clams through the ring and then add them to the family bucket if they didn’t. When we got enough for what we wanted, we would come back to the cottage and shuck them and eat them. Typically, it was going to be either raw or we would put them on the grill with some butter and breadcrumbs. Mom makes a dish—we always called it “Clam Things.” Most people call it stuffed clams, but it was chopped clam with Ritz crackers and green pepper and Worcestershire and obscene amounts of butter. They’re amazing, and they’re definitely in the book.
Clam chowder is also very important to your family, right?
Oh, yeah. Clam chowder for us is not the thick, gloppy trash that you see at a tourist trap in New England, the kind that you can hold the spoon up in. That’s disgusting. For us, clam chowder—it’s got dairy in it, of course, but it’s brothy. And it’s a bit more of a soup.
What’s the story behind your family’s centuries-old chowder recipe that’s also in Hook, Line and Supper?
My mother’s adopted and her adoptive family is of Swedish descent via Maine. So my mother’s mother’s mother—so I guess that would be my great-grandmother—it’s her recipe from the 1800s from Maine. Our family chowder has a very, very Maine-style character. It was passed on to Grandma Ingrid, and then to Mom, and then to [my] generation of the family.
And was this passed down on, like, little handwritten index cards?
Exactly! The little 3-by-5 cards.
You’ve previously written on small game and fowl and I believe what you’ve called “antlered things.” Given that fishing seems like a more common hobby than hunting or foraging throughout the United States, why did it take you this long to focus on fish in a book?
Because I know too much. To distill 45 years’ worth of experiences—in many countries and in every state of the union, except for Hawaii—down into a book of manageable size was so daunting that it took me a long time to be able to wrap my mind around it. This book has to be every bit as useful to us here in Sacramento as it would be to someone in Des Moines, Iowa, or in Maine or in the Florida Keys or in Alaska. And this book does that. But it was not easy.
How did you go about figuring out what to put in this book and what to leave out, and how to organize it all?
So this book is admittedly idiosyncratic. I am not a gigantic fan of simple baked fish. I’m not a fan of the air fryer. And poaching in water is OK, but it’s not something I do all the time. So the methods that I feature and focus on are ones that I think highlight fish better than some other methods that may be more common in the American kitchen. Another piece is preservation, which has been such an important part of how we deal with fish and seafood. It had to be a big part of the book. So there are a lot of things that involve smoke and salt and time because every culture does it: everything from fish sauce to smoked salmon to salt cod.
The fundamental flaw of most fish cookbooks is that they organize by species. [This book] is structured by method of cooking. To put it succinctly, to organize by species is specious. There are minor differences in cooking technique that are not something you necessarily need to care about between all whitefish and all salmonids and all shark-like fish and all catfish. I spend an awful lot of time in this book going over prep and going over good practices if you’re an angler, and good practices if you’re a consumer, because this book is more applicable to way more people than anything else I’ve ever written.
Is Sacramento a good city for fishing?
Yes and no. I would say the two best things about Sacramento fishing are sturgeon and shad. Sturgeon are all over the rivers here, and this is arguably the finest remaining fishery for sturgeon in North America where you can keep one. There is catch-and-release fishing that’s fantastic in the Columbia River up north, but you can keep three a year here in California. And shad fishing in May and June is amazing here. There’s good salmon fishing as well, but I am such a salmon snob that I don’t fish salmon in freshwater. I prefer saltwater salmon because they taste better. That said, there are lots and lots of salmon that swim up the rivers—the American River, the Feather River and the Sacramento—every year.
You can also catch striped bass here. A really big spot for them is at Rio Vista in the Delta and another is at Knights Landing. That’s a big April and May thing, and then again in the fall. Stripers are native to where I’m from and were brought to California in 1871, and they’ve been happy here ever since.
So there are a number of really good fisheries here, including steelhead. Right around [early January], they’ll run all the way up to the Nimbus Basin. There’s a huge crawfish fishery in the Delta. We’re a top producer of crawfish in the nation.
Let’s say you don’t want to catch it yourself. When you want fresh seafood to cook with in the Sacramento area, is there one place that you go?
I think the No. 1 place that I would start looking would be Sunh Fish [Company on Broadway]. If you walk in there, whatever they have is good. They don’t have everything, but if they don’t have it, that means it’s not good. Conversely, you could go to pretty much any of the big Asian markets, and if you know what a good fish looks like, there’s amazing fish to be had there. The fish should look beautiful. They should have clear, crystal, bright eyes, their gills should be either bright, bright, bright red or a very pretty-looking color of pink. They should not be burgundy or brown. The skin should look like it just came out of the water, and obviously there should be no smell. So if you know how to identify a good fish—which I go over in the book—then an Asian market can be a very good place to find excellent quality fish. The Sacramento [Natural Foods] Co-op actually has pretty good fish pretty consistently. And finally, the old faithful for quality is Whole Foods.
What are some of the techniques we can expect to see in your book?
There’s an entire section on frying fish. Everybody loves fried fish, and everyone’s had bad fried fish. Frying fish is an art, and really good fried fish is something you remember forever. Really bad fried fish is something you’re really going to remember forever too. It’s just vile. It’s soggy and disgusting. But really good fried fish, it’s ethereal. It’s surprising because it’s light and it’s crispy, and it’s not oily. And that technique is not easy to master.
Another example is poaching in oil or butter or in liquid. [I have] an entire section on how to go about poaching in water or other liquid correctly, where you don’t annihilate the fish. You coax much more subtle flavors than you would if you were frying, because frying is very bold and big and in-your-face kind of cooking, whereas poaching is very delicate and subtle. But poaching in whey or poaching in mushroom broth or poaching in court bouillon or poaching in wine—all are different. You can do the same piece of fish in all of these different ways, and you’re going to get a different effect.
Do you know what you’re going to be doing next?
No, not really. I have to keep my eyes on what’s right in front of me.
So from now until a year from now, you’re fish all the way down?
I pretty much have to be, because the hardest part of being in the book business is not actually doing a book. It’s making sure that people know that your book exists—and then beyond that, getting that validation or support or good reviews, however you want to put it, so that people say, “Oh, here’s a book that meets my need. It’s a book that’s solid, that works, and it’s tested.” And that’s a big, huge deal for me, because every one of these recipes has been tested by non-chefs. I don’t let chefs test my recipes, because they don’t follow directions. These are all tested by normal humans. And because sometimes fish is expensive, I work very hard to make sure that my recipes are as airtight as they can be. Obviously, it’s possible to mess them up, but I try to minimize that as much as possible so that people can have a good experience.
What are you having for dinner tonight?
I’m actually making a venison stew with root vegetables and horseradish—there’s a great combination. It’s very German, Nordic, Slavic. And since I grow horseradish, it’s a fresh root that I dug this morning
And where’s the venison from?
It’s a buck I shot in Oklahoma.
Anything else that’s going into this dish? You bring it all yourself, right?
I mean, I bought some carrots.
Out of all of that? You bought the carrots, but you grew the horseradish and you shot the buck?
People think that I’m some sort of a weird food monk. Like, “Do you go to the supermarket at all?” Yeah! A lot, actually. I gotta buy beer. I grew enough onions for six months this year, but I can’t grow a year’s worth of onions. That would be half my yard. I can’t grow rye, and I can’t grow rice, so there are definitely things that I go to the supermarket for. Just not meat—and definitely not fish.
To preorder Hook, Line and Supper ($30), visit honest-food.net.