From the moment you first delve into Sea Gastronomy – Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic you know that you are dealing with a book that has been a labour of love for author and well known Galway Chef Michael O’Meara. Produced in conjunction with Connemara based publishers Artisan House this encyclopaedic book details the wonderful variety of seafood available around our shores.
In his introduction to the book, food writer Ernie Whalley laments the fact that as an island nation surrounded by some of the world’s best fishing grounds we often appear to be indifferent to the bounty available from our seas. It is hard to argue with Ernie’s analysis because for many of us, the prospect of preparing and cooking fish at home is something that is terrifying and as a result we tend to avoid it.
As Chef/Proprietor of Oscars, a popular Galway restaurant that specialises in seafood, Michael O’Meara is a man who understands and loves his subject. In this book, which is packed full of recipes, he seeks to demystify seafood cookery and tempt us into our kitchens.
From an early age Michael knew that he wanted to be a chef and picked up his love of seafood from time spent with his father, a Waterford City man, who loved to go out working on the small fishing and lobster boats operating out of Dunmore East and Ballymacaw. Family holidays to France cemented his love of seafood which he carried with him when he trained as a chef and subsequently worked in the then Michelin-starred Dromoland Castle and as private chef to Ryanair founder Tony Ryan. He eventually opened Oscars in 2000 and it has thrived ever since becoming a mainstay on the Galway dining scene.
Running to 440 pages, the book describes the different fish cuts and how to source seafood in clear, concise terms. There are also a huge number of recipes which are laid out in a similarly straightforward fashion. Whilst some of the recipes use unusual ingredients, many also use seafood that is familiar and reasonably easy to acquire. Michael points out that fish and shellfish are wild foods and many are seasonal, so they are not always available but there are plenty of recipes to choose from in the book to cover each month of the year. The book also showcases Michael’s love for food photography and many of the beautiful images contained in it were produced by him.
I decided to get stuck in and try out some of the recipes starting with the Oatmeal-Coated Fish Cakes which seemed very doable. In his instructions Michael suggests using a variety of fish so I included equal amounts of fresh salmon, cod and hake. Normally, when I make fish cakes I tend to use cooked fish but here the raw fish was chopped into small pieces before being added to an equal amount of cooked and cooled, crushed potatoes. Bound together with a small amount of self-raising flour, some beaten egg and flavoured with herbs and dillisk, the fish cakes were then formed into 8 equal sized balls which were flattened and pressed into some jumbo oat flakes before being pan fried in a mixture of oil and butter until golden and cooked all the way through. The resulting fish cakes were moist, extremely tasty and a great hit with my family. I particularly liked the oatmeal coating which took on an almost nutty flavour when pan-fried. This was an incredibly easy recipe which even the most inexperienced cook could attempt.
My next dish was another seemingly simple recipe for King Scallops with Buttered Leeks and Chorizo. I was unable to get my hands on fresh king scallops but used some queen scallops instead which are smaller than the former and often considered to have sweeter meat. Involving minimal preparation consisting of chopping some leeks and slicing chorizo, this dish took approximately ten minutes to make and was a delicious combination of textures and flavours.
Emboldened by my success with the fish cakes and scallop recipes, I then decided to make the Grilled Mackerel with Russian Kale, Roast Cherry Tomatoes and Salsa Rossa. Mackerel are plentiful in our seas and as a result are often inexpensive to buy. For me, they are a hugely underrated fish with a rich oily taste that is second-to-none. I bought two whole fish at an embarrassingly low price and set about filleting them myself. This was easy to do and in no-time-at-all I had four fillets prepared and ready to be cooked. Salsa rossa is a punchy sauce which contains peppers, tomatoes, garlic, anchovies and herbs which, in the recipe given was made using a pestle and mortar, but I decided to employ my mini food-processor instead which worked a treat. After blanching the kale I then pan-fried the mackerel and tomatoes and assembled the dish. This was another triumph; cheap to make, beautiful to look at and delicious to eat.
To finish my recipe road test, I made the Pan-Roasted Cod with Pancetta, Tomatoes and Fried Polenta Cakes. I began by making the polenta cakes and after some vigorous stirring and time spent cooling in the fridge, they were ready to be stamped out with a cookie cutter and pan-fried. I also pan fried the cod and made the pancetta and tomato based sauce. With obvious Italian influences, this was a dish where all the ingredients highlighted the wonderful sweet taste and flaky texture of the cod. Whilst this recipe took longer than the others to complete, it was still easy to follow.
I was really impressed by Michael O’Meara’s book and I am delighted that I now have a reliable ‘go-to’ seafood book in my cookbook collection. Sea Gastronomy has been nominated for a Gourmand World Cookbook Award for 2016 in the prestigious Cookbook of the Year category which will be announced at the end of this month. He is up against some stiff international competition but after having read through it and cooked many of the recipes from the book, I have my fingers crossed that he will bring the award home to Galway.
Sea Gastronomy – Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic
Hardback, 440 pages
Published by Artisan House
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.