(part two of my journey to Florida journal)
I’m pretty sure that, in a past life, my mother was either a caterer or the head lunch lady at an elementary school. Come to think of it, she is one of 14 kids, so she may have learned a few things about meal planning from her own mother. And she told me, on my recent visit to see my dad and her in Florida, that my grandfather was a cook on a Great Lakes Freighter in the 1930’s, a piece of family history I had never known before. Not only is my mother the master of planning and executing meals, she can plan a whole week’s worth with dizzying precision and accuracy.
Months before my sister and I ever arrived in Florida, my mother was busy consulting, planning, and finalizing our eight-day meal plan. It included such delicacies as shit-on-the-shingles, a breakfast consisting of white sauce and chipped beef over pieces of toast that she made nearly every Sunday when we were kids, grilled T-bone steaks and steamed Gulf shrimp, a traditional Fish Boil, and the most uniquely prepared turkey I think I’ve ever eaten.
I’ve watched my mom make roast turkey, bucket turkey, deep-fried turkey, and smoked turkey (smoked stuffing, by the way is the closest thing to tater tot casserole that I’ve ever come to) but never the kind she made for dinner on the first night of our visit. She found this particular recipe for roast turkey in one of her Woman’s World magazines. Apparently Trisha Yearwood submitted it on behalf of her grandmother, who she learned it from.
Here’s the gist of it. Put the turkey, 12-15 pounds, in a roasting pan, add two cups of boiling water, cover it and put it in a preheated, five hundred degree oven for one hour (don’t start timing until the oven gets back to five hundred degrees). After exactly one hour, shut the oven off and leave it for five hours. Do not open the oven under any circumstances.
When my mom pulled the well-browned bird out of the oven, the meat was so tender it fell right off the bone, and the white meat, which I generally don’t like because it’s so dry, was moist and flavorful. There were enough juices left in the bottom of the pan to make a really good gravy to go with it. The only thing you cannot do with this recipe is stuff the turkey. I’m guessing the stuffing would throw off the whole temperature/timing thing that makes this approach work so well. Fine with me. I’m adding this you-really-can’t-screw-it-up recipe to my own repertoire.
A few days after the turkey treat, my parents hosted a good old fashioned fish boil. They invited a few neighbors and my aunt and uncle, who manage a campground near my parent’s house. In my family, the fish boil is on par with a holiday feast. It takes its place with the Thanksgiving Turkey and the Easter Ham. It’s usually, a late summer tradition because that’s when the Salmon Run starts in Lake Michigan, and that’s when we catch ten to thirty pound lunkers that are perfect for the fish boil.
But since my parents catch ocean fish that they bring back to Michigan and fresh water fish that they transport to Florida (in their chest freezer, hooked up to a generator, in their horse trailer), a fish boil in Tallahassee in March somehow seems justified. Besides, it really doesn’t matter when you have a fish boil, as long as you invite a lot of people with really big appetites.
According to the 1957 pamphlet that came with my parent’s trout kettle (a twelve quart pot with a smaller strainer pot inside of it) the fish boil originated more than a hundred and fifty years ago in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The lumbermen of the 19th century, “finding white fish and lake trout plentiful, found it easy to prepare a meal by boiling the fish and potatoes together in a pot out-of-doors.”
The ingredients for a fish boil are quite simple: fish, potatoes, onions, salt, and lots of melted butter. The proper way to prepare the fish is to gut it first and then, starting behind the head cut two inch steaks down the length of the body. The idea is that when the fish is fully cooked, the meat will easily fall away from the bones and skin. My dad is finicky about eating fish, though, so our fish boils cut out the skin and bone step, leaving beautiful, fuss-free chunks of meat. While any meaty, hearty fish will work in a boil, the sturdy pink flesh of the salmon is far superior than any other species I’ve tried.
A thin skinned potato works best so the salt has an easier time penetrating the flesh, and the recipe suggests cutting a small piece off each end of the potato. They go into the water whole, as do the peeled onions. The per person portions, as articulated in the original 1957 pamphlet, are an interesting read: “Portions to use when figuring for groups are usually one pound of fish per person when only men are being served and one-half pound per person for mixed groups. Two medium sized potatoes for all male groups and one potato per person for mixed groups. One onion per person.”
Here’s a step-by-step approach to the fish boil that you can use to replicate it for yourself. While we do the boil outside (may dad rigged up a wagon, a gas burner, and a propane tank—he has one at home in Michigan too, but instead of using a little propane tank, he tapped into the house’s main gas line) it can be just as successful on top of the stove—indoors, if that’s where you keep your stove:
For 12 servings, use 15 medium potatoes, 2 cups of salt, 12 pounds of fresh fish, 12 onions, and two pounds of butter, melted (this will be poured over the food, so feel free to experiment by adding lemon, garlic, or other herbs and spices).
Step 1: Remove the inner basked and cook the potatoes in eight quarts of water. Keep the lid on and keep the vents open. Get the water to a good, hard boil, setting the heat as high as it will go.
Step 2: When the water begins to boil, add one cup of the salt (my parents cut the amount of salt by a third to a half, but I prefer the full amount that the recipe calls for). Start timing when the water boils, and let the potatoes cook for twenty minutes. You my need to regulate the heat to produce a steady rolling boil. After ten minutes, add the onions, and try to maintain a rolling boil.
Step 3: After twenty minutes has elapsed, place the fish into the strainer basket, mounding it in layers, if you can. Lower the basket into the pot so that it’s situated above the potatoes. Add the other cup of salt, cover the pot, and boil the whole thing for another twelve to fifteen minutes. Cooking time may vary slightly depending on the size of your potatoes and meat.
Step 4: Remove the pot from your heat source and remove the fish basket. Then drain the liquid from the potatoes and onions. Now, here’s where I really part company with my parents. They just pour the liquid out on the ground. Aside from the fact that all that salt isn’t very good for the soil, the liquid from the boil is not unlike the liquid from a Mongolian Hot Pot. You’ve got various flavors mingling around in the liquid, and while there’s no useful role for the liquid in the fish boil after you remove it from the heat, it could be used later as a base for a fish chowder. Granted, it may be overly salty, but you can temper that any number of ways and still have a good base for soup.
At any rate, once the liquid has been drained, arrange the potatoes, onions, and fish on a big platter and serve. I think the platter wants for a hint of color, and I would suggest adding cobs of fresh sweet corn to the boil. While you might need to cook it in a separate pot, the sweet flavor and the texture would be a nice contrast to that of the more savory ingredients. Corn or not, make sure to pour butter over the fish and potatoes because this is the crown jewel of the fish boil experience. The melted butter transforms the flavors and creates what I can only describe as a culinary out-of-body experience. Eating this delicacy with a bottle of cold beer only enhances the out-of-body-ness that is the Fish Boil.