Food

Far From the Shallows

I don’t like seafood. How can I tell my dinner hosts without being a pain?

A fish on a plate.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Gregor Moser on Unsplash.

The Pickle is Slate’s food and cooking advice column, written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. Got a sticky situation in the kitchen? Email us at slatepickle@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited lightly for length and clarity.)

I have to frequently accept dinner invitations because of my work. I do not want to make a fuss about food, but the fact is that I do not eat fish or other seafood and often find myself being served just that. I end up eating around it and going home hungry. What’s your advice on how to prevent this from happening without coming across as annoyingly picky?

As readers of past entries in this column know, I have a bone to pick with “picky eaters.” I witness far too many people wearing their dietary restrictions like a badge of honor, often flashing it in the most inopportune moment: namely, when they are being served, literally sending the food back to the kitchen without blinking an eye. How these people remain unfazed by the complications they cause for their host (or whoever is in charge of the food) and the fact that their last-minute demand will rightfully be perceived as capricious is beyond me.

In your case, displaying a nonchalant attitude despite the beef you’re having with fish is a welcome exception. However, since swimming with sharks is apparently leaving you high and dry, there must be a better solution. No one should leave a dinner party hungry, lest attending these functions becomes not just a chore but a cause of frustration. I shudder at the thought of the road you might take on your way home, perhaps stopping at a fast food chain or greasy spoon for a quick fix, or indulging in compulsive fridge and freezer diving as soon as you get home. It’s, of course, an option to eat before arriving at a dinner party, but that tactic is reserved for people who either want to appear as if they hardly ever eat anything in order to, ostensibly, maintain a slim waist or for a certain ilk of egomaniacs and campaigning politicians whose agenda for the evening is to dominate the conversation, something that cannot be done gracefully with a full mouth, or really, ever. Since you don’t seem to belong to either category, you can safely reassess your approach: Give or take some flexibility for good form and sociability, we all have a right to our individual preferences.

As long as you do it with the nonchalance you already showed yourself capable of, I don’t think any reasonable hosts will hold it against you if you casually notify them well ahead of time of your dietary restrictions. This is best done when you confirm your attendance in your correspondence. Simply mention that you do not eat fish or seafood but make it clear that you don’t expect an alternative exclusively prepared for you and that you would be happy with an extra helping of side dishes. Naturally, any self-respecting host would not only accommodate you but indeed have something special made for you and make sure it is brought to you with uttermost discretion (contrary to common practice, dietary restrictions are NOT a conversation starter). In fact, he might be grateful for the advance notice: Chances are you are not the only special case among invitees, and being well prepared is in his interest.

Still, there is a slight chance that your unfortunate aversion to fish and seafood might be caused by bad previous experiences. Heaven knows how rare it is to get a piece of cooked fish that is not, well, fishy, like the unfortunate piece I (and everybody else) was recently served at the Metropolitan Opera’s Opening Night gala. But that’s the world of corporate catering, and I pity anyone who has to attend catered events on a regular basis. For your own sake, I would recommend that you attempt finding a way out of your limitation by taking matters into you own hands. Start by exploring the world of sashimi (omit the customary Japanese seaweed wrapper) and crudo (see this previous post). Fresh raw fish, lightly seasoned (I prefer salt, lemon juice, and olive oil to the more assertive pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce) has an exquisitely clean taste and luxuriously velvety texture that might yet win you over.

If you’re up to it and your aversion is not flat-out visceral, tackle cooking fish next, preferably a skinless filet of a mild, lean specimen like fluke or gray sole (it’s the oil in the fish that lends it the potential “fishiness,” which gets more pronounced when cooked with high heat). Think of it as an experiment: Fish and seafood, like cheese, can become an acquired taste. Be sure to get it from a trusted source—the fresh counter of a quality market or an actual fishmonger with a solid clientele and healthy turnaround, which ought to guarantee that the “catch of the day” is actually the catch of the day. Season it with salt and gently steam it for just a minute or two (until it’s opaque) over a bed of briefly precooked, julienned fennel bulb. Squeeze a bit of fresh lemon juice over it, perhaps add a flicker of chopped parsley or dill and a drizzle of melted butter or olive oil, and see how that works out for you.

I’ve been spoiled my whole life with food: Firstly by a foodie father, who was an excellent cook, and now by my foodie partner, who is so good at cooking that I swear my late father sent him to me as a gift. Now that my partner has gotten more senior at work, he has to travel a lot, and I struggle with meal prep for one, by myself. I tend to make one dish: carbonara, because it comforts me. Any suggestions for better, easier, healthier, cheaper, and faster dishes I could make for myself instead, bearing in mind that I didn’t inherit my dad’s skills at all, only his palate?

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is something of a cult icon: There is an outrageously cheesy song named after it, and the dish is even referenced in one of my all-time favorite movies, My American Uncle, when the heroine, after enduring a co-worker’s long-winded tale about someone who spends his time perfecting his carbonara recipe, drags him into her hotel bed, preferring what will doubtlessly be a bad lay to his boring chatter—need I mention it’s a French film? Even so, having it all too frequently is not a wise choice, though it is in fact, to use your own words, quite cheap, easy, and fast. Considering those particular goals, I’m afraid you might need to reassess how much time and effort you are willing to invest in this new activity that stands a chance to change your life if you take it to heart: It might be a tad late, but it’s never too late to grow up for a daddy’s girl or boy.

The good news is that neither skills nor talent can be inherited. Both begin with a highly personal openness to experience and a willingness to get involved beyond, in your case, opening your mouth and waiting to be fed. Yes, you have indeed been spoiled if both your daddy and your partner indulged your tendency for the latter and prevented the former to develop. Feel free to blame them. But life is kind and has handed you an opportunity for change. Time to roll up your sleeves.

Be humble and start with the basics, like a simple roast chicken, that can become the base for as many as four separate meals of, say, roasted thighs and legs with rice and sautéed spinach; reheated wings over rainbow coleslaw; chicken salad (made with the breast meat); and chicken bone broth (with tofu and kimchi). Define what you like to eat and weigh that against some very simple principles of dietary balance that call for an ample use of vegetables, leafy greens, and fruit next to your egg-curdled comfort food. Because your carbonara preference tells me that you are apt to quickly fall into the comforting but lethal wormhole of the just add bacon, eggs, and cheese school, at the very least, balance your messy spaghetti with a lightly dressed, freshly assembled (by you!) salad with lots of crunchy sliced or diced vegetables. That would be a start.

Next, since you know how to cook pasta, explore pasta dishes that involve neither bacon nor eggs nor cream nor the opening of a jar with a finished sauce. Getting some cookbooks that teach you the basics is always a good idea (I have recommended several in past columns). Perhaps most importantly, don’t ask yourself, “What would Daddy do?”—ask yourself what it was that made him a good cook to begin with and honor that by trying to emulate that principle instead of aping his dishes. Chances are that he infused his food not just with his love of cooking but his love for his family. Try to live up to this standard, but be patient with yourself. Maybe it’s time to love yourself a bit more and cook food that gives you more than cholesterol-heavy comfort. And when your partner returns from one of his senior business trips, share that love with him by preparing a lovingly home-cooked dinner for the two of you.

I got married and wound up with lots of nice cookware. Now I have a cast-iron pan, a stainless-steel pan, and a basic nonstick pan. How do I know which pan to use when?

Ah, the perks of marriage—and not knowing how and when to use them. Here’s the shorty: The nonstick pan is your slick everyday friend, and you can use it for pretty much anything but the hot bun in the oven. Seriously, do not place it in a hot oven. Use it for quickies, and get down and real with the other two.

Basically, nonstick pans are best suited for things that are fast-cooking, fragile, and, well, likely to stick, like egg dishes and fish. Yes, eggs and fish can be cooked in a stainless-steel pan, but you’d have to be very, very meticulous in the way you care for it, clean it, and use it. More on that later. Suffice to say that even old-school French chefs like Jacques Pépin have embraced the nonstick pan to make an omelet, that deceptively simple staple that requires a fair amount of technique, prompting many a veteran chef to test young cooks by asking them to prepare one on the spot. As to pan-searing a filet of fish in a stainless-steel pan, whether with or without skin, try it at your own risk. You might end up like the young chef I once watched in the tiny office kitchen of the Calvin Klein headquarters, many years ago, when I was moonlighting there as a waiter. Lunch was usually outsourced, but on that particular day, a young woman came in to audition for a position as an in-house chef for Mr. Klein’s needs. This was back in mid-’90s, when pan-seared fish filets with beurre blanc served over a bed of “beluga” lentils were all the rage. I will never forget how she tried, in a near state of panic, to pry a pan-fried red snapper filet off a very sticky stainless-steel pan. … She did not get the job. And, like several chefs who later “auditioned” for the position, she never got compensated either.

Stainless-steel pans are best if you want some real browning action on a piece of meat or chicken (known as “searing”) or need to quick-sauté some cruciferous vegetables over high heat. Here’s the rule: Always heat the pan well before adding anything into it—including any oil. If you don’t, things will inevitably stick. I prefer to not add oil directly into the hot pan (and certainly not butter, which would burn right away) but instead opt to coat whatever it is I want to sear or pan-fry with a thin film of oil and then add that into the pan. It should sizzle but not smoke. This way, you’ll end up using way less fat, sparing yourself the mess left behind on your stove from sputtering oil. You can sear meat on both sides and then move the pan into a preheated oven if it needs more time to finish cooking (or you can add a splash of wine or other aromatic liquid, quickly covering it with a tight-fitting lid and finish cooking it that way with the help of steam). Most importantly, you must clean the pan meticulously after use, preferably when it’s still hot: Bring the empty pan to the sink, turn it upside down, and run cold water over its back. (Do NOT pour water directly into the pan or you’ll be greeted by a bellowing, smelly, fast-traveling cloud that will haunt your apartment for days to come.) Once the pan is no longer steaming hot, you may turn it around and clean it swiftly with a scouring pad and a little bit of detergent. If the surface is spotty despite frantic scrubbing, use a scouring powder called Bar Keepers Friend and your pot will be shiny as new.

Your cast-iron pan, unless you have a “preseasoned” one, must be “seasoned” before you use it (look it up, it’s easy). It is also quite apt for searing, but I tend to use it for things that take a bit longer and also benefit from some time in the oven, like pan-fried potatoes and frittatas (yes, that is an egg dish, but one where you are cooking it long enough for the egg to form a resilient crust). I also use it for burgers, thoroughly browning the patties on one side before flipping them and finishing them in the hot oven. Always rinse it while hot, using the same “flipping” trick as described above, but don’t scour it:  Merely brush it with lots of hot water and little soap if necessary, then wipe it dry before applying a thin coat of oil to keep it “seasoned.”

Finally, here’s one last trick: Because of its hefty weight, the cast-iron pan is a perfect tool to weigh down whatever you want to sear in you stainless-steel pan, like chicken breasts or thighs, resulting in wonderfully crisp skin (cover the meat with a sheet of aluminum foil before placing the cast-iron pan over it to keep it clean). It’s also a good weapon to fend off unwanted intruders.