Almost September, and the storms of summer have yet to arrive on the Sun Coast. True, our yards and the produce fields of Plant City and Ruskin need more rain, but we’d prefer that it be delivered by forces more benign than Dean, Erin, or their NOAA-named siblings.
Like it or not, we face two more months of official hurricane season. Though the Europeans’ favored month is August, there’s a reason so many Florida businesses and restaurants close during September, the middle of the five-month storm season.
Where do all the Sarasotans go? Those who don’t have homes back in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan seem to favor North Carolina. Those who are truly en vacances, without second homes they feel compelled to use, may pack up their cars and drive through New England (lingering in Maine, in particular) and coastal Canada. We hear about those who cruise the Pacific Northwest… But the entire exodus is not to places cooler than Sarasota; many actually go through the indignities of airport security to travel to destinations just as warm, but DRY, where little rain falls from June through September and humidity is not the topic of everyday conversation.
It may be American travelers’ Euro-focus and the fact that Spain and Italy have provided so many place names to developers and city planners in Florida, that some forget about the other end of the Mediterranean. As cooks and diners, our September thoughts turn to the Mediterranean country with the longest coastline—where the dollar is still strong and simple restaurants’ “catch of the day” is literally that, not something that was trucked in overnight by Sysco.
In late summer and early fall, we think of Turkey—and fish, not fowl—caught in waters surrounding a largely peninsular nation lapped by the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas. Each body of water has different habitats that support different fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. And then there’s the Sea of Marmara, tucked between Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait and the northern Aegean.
In Istanbul, September is the beginning of bluefish season. Though they may share the nomenclature of the fish so abundant in coastal New England, Turkish bluefish have a different diet, more delicate flavor, and are more highly esteemed than their over-caught American relatives. Istanbul has at least five different names for them, depending on their size. A few inches long, they are nicknamed defne or bay leaf. For fish 1—1/2 lbs, they are lufer, and then kofana for a fish that might serve five or six diners.
If you are not bluefishing off Nantucket or along other northern shores this summer, try this supremely simple grilling treatment on Florida kingfish, amberjack, bonito, or pompano.
Whole fish, scaled and gutted, preferably no larger than 4 lbs. and as small as 1 lb. Those whose flesh or skin have a high oil content are best.
Florida white onions—sliced in 1/4 inch slices and separated into rings, tossed with coarsely ground black pepper and a little salt.
Lemons or limes
As a guideline, for each pound of fish, you’ll need 3 bay leaves and 3—4 onion slices.
Fill each fish cavity with one layer of onion rings, some bay leaves, and 2-3 paper-thin slices of lemon or lime.
Brush or rub each fish with a little olive oil and place on a grill about 5 inches above coals that have developed a thin coating of ash.
You’ll want steady heat, but no direct flames, to slowly char the fish. When one side is nicely charred, turn over to do the other. 10-13 minutes should be enough time for a one-pound fish.
To serve: Remove the bay leaves, but keep the onions as edible garnish. If the flesh seems dry, drizzle a little more oil over the cooked flesh, and plate with citrus wedges.
Soon Turkey’s famous Black Sea hamsi, anchovies will appear in myriad dishes. In Turkey, anchovies are usually enjoyed fresh, though they can also be bought salt-cured or oil-packed. These little fish are eagerly awaited and show up as meze—filets in a cool vinegar bath or corn meal-dipped and deep-fried. As main dish elements, they are featured in rice pilav and baked between sheets of savory, flaky dough as borek. The fish are so closely associated with the northern coast of Turkey that Black Sea natives are themselves known as hamsi.
Perhaps the most irresistible hamsi presentation is similar to the bluefish recipe above—but the anchovies are first wrapped in grape-leaves and then grilled. The smoke from the singed grape leaves can’t be replicated with our abundant banana foliage. But the real problem with preparing grilled anchovies in Sarasota is: no fresh anchovies!
Sometimes one simply has to meet a dish on its home turf, or surf, as the case may be!
But thanks to BJ’s and Costco (both mega-markets sell whole, dressed trout), you can reproduce another classic Turkish fish dish.
See a photo and follow the simple recipe for pilav-stuffed trout on this engaging,Turkish-English food blog.
If you have the good fortune to travel in Turkey, you’ll see fish markets like this in every coastal town. The artistry with which fishmongers display their offerings is striking: traditionally, red wooden trays are laid with ferns or other fresh greenery—the better to show off the silvery catch.
Thank you, Tony Nuccio for loaning us this quintessential Istanbul Balik Pazari (fish bazaar) photo. In the foreground, are anchovies, in the middle range, palamut, bonito, with their red gills flipped back to show their freshness. And at the very top, in all their bumpy glory, the most prized of cool season fish—kalkan, turbot—which the Turks like to cut into steaks and deep-fry.
The fish-sellers have age-old street cries, exhorting all pedestrians within ear-shot to examine their stock. Holding up octopus or huge shrimp from the Mediterranean coast near the Syrian border, the vendors appear genuinely distressed if you remind them that you are just a visitor, returning to a hotel room and not strolling back to your own kitchen.
As you might guess, we’re a little homesick. But cooks can assuage those pangs more easily than most. How serendipitous that our Sarasota Vietnamese community has as much yearning for fresh, whole fish as we do. Phuoc Loc Tho on Twelfth Street had some beautiful Florida pompano, Trachinotus Carolinus. Cleaned, but left whole, ours weighed 1.5 lbs., just right for two for dinner. We grilled our pompano alla turca according to the basic Turkish bluefish treatment above.
We put the seasoned onion slices and other ingredients inside our fish about 30 minutes before it went on the grill. Served with grilled zucchini and a minted potato salad, it would have pleased the Turks as much as it delighted us.