Oh, dear. And here I thought he was an icon of American cuisine. There’s a cooking prize named for him, right?
I won’t say I met him, but once, years ago, I was having lunch in one of my favorite Berkeley restaurants, the Fourth Street Grill (alas, now gone, but it was terrific when it was new) and in walked the unmistakable James Beard in all his very large glory. Of course I recognized him immediately.
And now he’s all but forgotten. But not by me! When I was growing up, for some reason we had a copy of James Beard’s Treasury of Outdoor Cooking, even though we were living in an apartment at the time and had no place to grill anything. It was almost an art book, with beautiful large format, full-page pictures. It was published in 1960, and—you won’t be surprised—I still have my mother’s copy.
The recipes are interesting because they’re more broad suggestions than detailed instructions. Some are almost tongue in cheek, like the one where you should find a whole salmon, nail it to a plank of wood, and prop it up at an angle over your fire to cook it. (I didn’t try that one.)
But I had a nice 1-1/2 pound piece of salmon, thick enough to stand up to grilling, so I thought I’d pay homage to the immortal Beard and try one of those recipes. (Note: we have a vintage Weber grill—no frills, no dials or bells and whistles, no propane tanks. It does the job.)
One comment before we grab that fish: mid-20th-century cookbooks tend to be a little conservative with their spicing. To my mind, a half-teaspoon of any spice isn’t worth the effort. So I tend to ramp up the spices, and experiment with substituting ingredients--as I did for this recipe.
Sesame Fish, as inspired by James Beard
Fish (Beard suggested using any largish fish that can stand up to grilling, and also using a whole fish, split. I had that nice big chunk of fresh Maine Salmon. Substitution #1.)
Cooking oil, or oil mixed with butter (I was worried this would be dull, so I added just a dash of sesame oil. Substitution #2)
Sesame seeds (the recipe called for the usual tan ones. Nope, didn’t have any. But I did have black sesame seeds. Since the purpose of the seeds was to give some crunch to the fish, rather than flavor, the black ones worked fine—and hid any bits of the fish that might be a wee bit overcooked. Substitution #3)—enough to provide a layer than will cover the fish (not the skin side).
A fire (Weber grill. Over-the-counter charcoal. A few random chunks of hardwood charcoal. Aha! I have applewood chips for variety. Soak, drain and add the chips to the fire right before cooking—and watch out for the smoke!)
Spread the oil/butter on the flesh side of the fish. Add salt and pepper, then press on the sesame seeds to form a uniform layer.
|No, it's not burned--those are the|
black sesame seeds
Light your fire. When the coals are ready (for me this usually takes about half an hour), spread the coals out, and add the drained wood chips if you’re using them.
|The fire's ready!|
Place the fish on the grill, skin side down (okay, Substitution #4: my fish would no doubt turn into an unholy mess if I put it directly on my grill and then tried to pry it off intact, seasoned though the grill is. But I have a nice tray with perforations for the smoke plus handles to carry it, and laid my fish on that. Problem solved!)
Cook for roughly 10 minutes, depending on the kind of fish and how thick it is. I can attest that this piece of salmon was still nicely pink in the middle after 10 minutes over a very active fire. If you’re worried about cooking it through, you could cover your grill for the first five minutes (more smoke flavor that way!), then open it up for the final five minutes to crisp it.
Divide into portions and serve, with fresh corn and a salad. And remember James Beard!
Seeds of Deception, coming in October from Berkley!
No barbecues--it's mid-December in the book.
If you want to know a secret, the house in the picture is based on one where I lived when I was a child. For the plot I needed a large patio that the neighbors couldn't see.
Available for pre-order at Amazon (where it seems to be on sale at this moment, although who knows how long that will last?) and Barnes and Noble.