There comes a calm with living by the sea.
Now free from the year’s collegiate madness, I am fortunate enough to come home to San Francisco where I live by the beach. The Pacific a mile from my house, it covers my neighborhood with a blanket of fog at night but, on sunny days, lends to the air a gentle ocean breeze, a fresh respite from the dry torridity of Arizona. I have written very little since my return almost two weeks ago. I have been by the water. My golden retriever has been my faithful companion on evening walks along the beach and early morning runs in the sand. She swims in the ocean and emerges exhausted, falling soundly asleep minutes after we cross the warm threshold into my old home.
The ocean, to my Arizonan delight, is full of delicacies uncommon in states arid and landlocked: fish. I can count on one hand the number of times I have eaten fish in college. It always arrived at the restaurant in half-frozen fillets in a box of ice shipped overnight from Santa Cruz. It was expensive and just okay.
Now, I can purchase fish in its purest form. Whole fish are sold in busy Chinese markets with gleaming eyes, clear, bright gills and skin that shimmers in the light. It smells like fish ought to: of the sea, like fresh ocean breeze. This beautiful hamachi was my lunch today. Also called yellowtail or japanese amberjack, it is sold as centerpoint of many a $30 San Francisco entree. I was astounded when it was being sold at market for $3 a pound. The whole fish cost me $5.
Available now by the bushel, I bought two ears of sweet summer corn for about a dollar. Inspired by the sea, I grabbed dill, which I thought looked like something found swaying at an ocean’s bottom and woodear mushrooms, a variety with which I am completely unfamiliar. I thought they looked like kelp.
Fish butchery is a gentle, almost meditative process. Working slowly and carefully is essential to avoid tearing its delicate flesh. I remember that I am no longer in a restaurant and can slow down to savor the serenity of cooking carefully in an empty kitchen. I kick the dog out of the kitchen and throw on some Sarah Vaughan. Bliss.
“Words Can’t Describe” lingering smokily in the kitchen, I turn to my corn puree, liberating kernels from their ears with gentle strokes of a newly-sharpened Japanese knife and saute them gently in butter. I chop and add dill with a splash of cream and a gentle shower of kosher salt before blending the mixture smooth in a food processor with an indulgent pat of butter. The mushrooms, I saute whole in butter. The little parachutes pop and crackle, jumping raucously from my saute pan. I keep them in constant motion to calm the dissent, but still lose a few of the little bastards, which my dog consumes with canine abandon.
I season my newly-butchered and skinned hamachi with salt and pepper, gently cooking it in in olive oil before turning to plate, laying the fish across a circle of corn puree. I scatter the plate with wood ear mushrooms and garnish the hamachi with sprigs of dill. It tastes like home.