An old lady about half my size almost pushed me into a bucket of fish today. I had just wanted in to Isaacson and Stein and I was kind of disoriented. I felt like I hadn't walked into a fish shop, but a school of fish already organized in a way I could hardly comprehend. Immigrants from around the world, Chicago old-timers with heavy accents, cooks from restaurants, and a few random confused white people circling bins of every possible fish I could imagine. Mainly whole fish, of course. I didn't ask questions, I just tried to figure out what to do and how I could obtain some fish without getting fish goo all over my clothes and shoes. One thing I've learned from traveling is just try your best to do what everyone else is doing. I saw a woman reach for a bin labeled "gloves" and grabbing plastic bags. I did the same.
I escaped with a bad of whole head-on smelt for less than $2.00. The French Market nearby had smelt too, in a less chaotic environment, but missing the heads and for twice the price. Sorry, but as I've written before, I think the head is an essential part of the experience. You should look your tiny tiny fish in the eye before devouring it.
But it's a typical case of culinary creep for me. Because you can't have smelt without homemade aioli. And I can't seem to make that without destroying my tiny kitchen with some mixture of oil and duck fat. I'm almost tempted to go to DMK burger bar and try to buy their aioli because the chef says it's made with only olive oil, a rarity in the world of Hellman's.
I'll definitely be back at Issacson and Stein because I just got a new cookbook I'm kind of excited about. I've already written about Ferran Adria's influence on fine dining, but The Family Meal focuses on the kind of relatively-simple meals shared by the staff "family" at elBulli. Not "fancy" like the food served to the restauarant's visitors, but still elegant and tasty.
Being Spanish, there are lots of great fish recipes here that I'm looking forward to try. Most of them feature the whole fish, though he also has a good recipe for fish stocks and several recipes that feature it. Interestingly enough, a lot of the recipes are already gluten-free, even the baked goods. Spain already had a history of using ground almonds in cakes. But a lot of the desserts of just simple fruits and custards.
The only depressing thing about buying fish in Chicago is that so few options are local. Which is stupid since Chicago happens to be right on Lake Michigan. My father gets some amazing fish from the lake, including salmon, but I'm more concerned about the pollution than I am from ocean fish. The last advisory I read said to remove as much fat and organs as possible, AKA all the good stuff, from fish caught from the lake. Mercury and PCB pollution sucks. Imagine- I would be able to walk just a few blocks and get fish for almost nothing if we hadn't messed the ecosystem up so much.
I think The Family Meal is exactly what American fine-dining chef Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home should have been. Family Meal has better pictures, showing each recipe step-by-step, which is important for those of us who don't have much experience with things like cooking with whole fish (though this is quite funny since so many of my family is fisherman, but I was too picky when I lived around them). Also, Keller's cookbook contained lots of canola oil, which I'm not a fan of and is also somewhat mystifying considering that olive oil is now produced in Keller's home state of California. In Spain, almost everything is cooked with olive oil (and I was surprised to see that studies there show you can fry in it without damaging it, which is probably a testament to the protective effect of antioxidants) as a "neutral" oil, but in the United States, the flavor of olive oil is not considered neutral.
Anyway, after I bought the smelts, I headed to Publican Quality Meats, where the owner, Paul Kahan, was holding court. He looked the part of a butcher, because he is one, but he's also a chef and owner of several of Chicago's best restaurants. It's awesome to walk into a shop where everyone who works there seems to like the same things you do. Like offal. And authentic fish sauce. It's worth the price. After chatting with one of the butchers about blood, I walked out with my Red Boat fish sauce, heart, blood sausage, and Pok Pok drinking vinegar.
I've also been shopping at The Butcher and The Larder. Their liver pate is truly excellent and they will cut some great marrow bones for you to go. So far there isn't much in NYC that I miss, except the Asian food in Queens and the raw offal/meat at Takashi.
And my meatshare buying club. I've not started it up because I haven't had the time, my own family's farm isn't producing that much, and I was super lucky to have Spring Lake Farm to work with there. Seems like the market for lamb and goat, my typical starting point for shares, is much tighter here. So far all the farm's I've contacted have been sold out, but I guess I need to be more systematic and do a day of calling.
I will say that if you are in Chicago and you want to try lamb, it's easy enough to find Mint Creek Farm's stuff at farmer's markets and specialty shops. A lot of people tell me that they don't like lamb. And I understand, because a lot of it does have that acquired "gamey" taste going on that Americans don't really like. The New Zealand lamb at Whole Foods is a perfect example of that gamieness. But Mint Creek farm doesn't have any gamey taste and it's delicious, if a bit expensive. I recommend the Italian Sausages.