Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dish #11: Azerbaijan - Fish Shashlyk

I chose to make a meal including a very typical Azerbaijani ingredient - fish.  I love fish, and ideally we eat it about once a week.  During my vegetarian years, I considered fish a permissible occasional cheat.  Fish can be prepared very simply but, with quality seafood and other ingredients, can be so flavorful and delicious.  We love salmon, sea bass, trout, halibut, and ahi tuna, just to name a few.  Fish is such a versatile ingredient, and I love to cook more than what we need to eat (especially with salmon and tuna) and then use it to top a salad for lunch the next day, or flake it and either mix it with bread crumbs and herbs and an egg to make a fish cake or patty, or add it to a stew for a filling meat-free meal.

I grew up on the Eastern Shore (the collective term for the southern 2/3rds of Delaware plus the small parts of Maryland and Virginia that are separated from the rest of those two states by the Chesapeake Bay) where fish was a staple of everyone's diet.  The little town where my parents still live, Leipsic,  has always been populated mostly by commercial fishers, and the town has waged many battles over recent years to fend off nearby real estate development and keep it that way.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the local rockfish (striped bass) population was beginning to rebound from many years of overfishing (unfortunately it's been overfished since and had to be protected again as of 2007).  I remember many times coming home from school and finding my mother in the backyard scaling a rockfish (or on lucky days, several rockfish) that one of our neighbors had given us, so that it could be filleted and cooked with a simple lemon and herb sauce or frozen for us to enjoy at a later dinner.  I loved the firm but light, delicious meat of the rockfish so much that I even wrote a poem about it when I was around six years old: "Put a fish/on my dish/I wish it'll be/a big rockfish!"

Azerbaijanis' favorite fish to use for Shashlyk, a broiled fish kebab, would be sturgeon.  Sadly sturgeon has been so popular (for both its flesh for fish fillets and its eggs for caviar) that it too is overfished, and the season for it in the Caspian Sea has been greatly limited.  In interests of sustanability, I went with cod as a substitute.  While I am generally very apolitical and do not subscribe to causes, my experience growing up in a fishing community gave me an extra sensitivity to this particular issue.  Fortunately, sustainability of seafood has gotten a lot of exposure over the last few years, and it's very easy to frequently eat a variety of fish and still not contribute to practices that are destroying wild populations and endangering the livelihoods of future fishers. 

I ended up eating this for lunch at the office for two days in a row.  It was great as a sort of free-form fish taco.

Fish Shashlyk (based on recipe from Food & Wine)

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeño, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped dill
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 T onion powder
1 T garlic powder
1/2 t red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup plain yogurt

2 pounds firm, full-flavored skinless fish fillets, such as swordfish or black cod, cut into 2-inch pieces
Vegetable oil, for brushing
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large bowl, toss the onions with all ingredients from garlic to yogurt. Add the fish and stir to coat thoroughly with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours.

Light a grill or preheat broiler. Thread the fish onto 8 metal skewers (or pre-soaked wood skewers), leaving a small space between each piece. Brush the fish with oil and season with salt and pepper.

Grill or broil, turning occasionally, until lightly charred and just opaque throughout, about 8-10 minutes.

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