Author Archives: garyfleener

Bringing Home the Herring

whole herringWhen we arrived at the Pier near Richmond Point the only suggestion of herring were the hopeful women and men fishers lined up along the railing. The gulls and cormorants were bobbing in the slow ebb and flow of a mid-tide, giving no indication of the wild feeding that was reported in the area on the day before. Not much was happening.

There was a time when winter herring fishing in the San Francisco Bay was an annual bonanza – but after some serious overfishing for the export market (herring roe are a prized food in Japan) the stocks were pretty depleted. The commercial fishery was closed for a time and last year the herring were back in abundance. Each winter the herring come in waves from the open Pacific, pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, and seek out shallow eel grass beds to spread their milt and eggs. Some days are thick (like yesterday) and some are not (like today). Still, as we unloaded our gear (cast nets and fishing rods) we could tell that folks of the pier were catching a few. And a few would probably be enough for a boy and his dad looking to capture a bit of the bounty. Cast nets are the traditional harvest tool of choice for the thick days but today was going to be about a slower method: five small, hooked psuedo-bugs daisy-chained together. Called a sabiki rig (a Japanese invention), these ganged hooks are mostly used to catch bait. Herring might be bait or dinner, depending on your perspective and your willingness to try out different parts of the food chain. After an hour we had 30 or 40 in the cooler and Sage was getting cold from the wind. We picked up and we called it a morning.

In truth though, fishing is never just about the catching. Much of the work still lies ahead – cleaning and preparing the fish for the next steps in the dance. In the case of herring (and other oily fish like salmon and sardines) this next step must happen almost immediately. All that delicious and nutritious oil starts to go bad in matter of hours – certaicleaned herring 2nly within a day or so. And gutting and filleting small fish is pretty laborious. Still, like so many things I whine about, once you get into a rhythm it goes along smoothly. Now longer in the the tooth myself, I find a certain meditation in the repetitious work of the kitchen – the chopping, slicing, and cleaning. Somehow knowing that the repetition leads to sustenance – a daily repeating need for self and family – makes it quietly heroic as well. With herring there is scaling, gutting, and filleting (for the pickles). I had chosen two recipes – one for smoked “kippered” herring and another for pickled herring. I also made a quick lunch following Hank Shaw’s rendition of Scottish-style fried herring – brushed with mustard, coated in oats and fried till crisp. I didn’t even get a picture!

I have eaten a lot of fish – in all shapes and sizes and in many parts of the planet. And I like a can of good sardines or kippers as much as anyone – fishy though they may be. But it must be stated clearly that even the oiliest little fish, if handled carefully and processed quickly, can be deliciously delicate in flavor. And these herring have been just that – delicate and delicious. I love them as pickles with a bit of creme fraiche and chopped dill on dark rye. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, bit this must be pretty close to the real deal.

herring and citrus

Welcome to the Geographer’s Kitchen!

Every meal has a backstory. The ingredients were grown/produced by someone, somewhere. They may have been processed by others, elsewhere. The styles of preparation also have a place of origin – Italian, Chinese, South Asian, etc. And each food we eat also has a wild backstory – a place where wild plant or animal ancestors were selected and tamed for the sustenance and enjoyment of human communities living nearby. Despite the seeming instant availability of just about everything, we lack context – a sense of place – for our meals.

The Geographer’s Kitchen is a place to explore the rich intersections of food, people and landscape.  A place to put the meal on the map and celebrate the incredible backstories that link our everyday eating to the farthest reaches of the planet – often in ways we can scarcely imagine. Perhaps by understanding these linkages better we may also learn to eat in ways that support and sustain our wealth of food diversity – a wealth we have inherited from countless generations of farmers and food producers.

Change of Perspective: Peppers too hot. Relish just right.

Gary's Worldview

pepper relish and plantWe love padron peppers. Blistered in some hot olive oil, and a few sea salt flakes – it’s one of our favorite summer appetizers. Thanks to the Galicians of NW Spain, these little peppers have found there way to Mediterranean climates around the world. The problem with padrons is this – leave them too long on the bush, and they get fiery hot. By this time in the autumn they are bright red AND hot. Too hot. What a waste to have a pepper bush covered with inedible peppers! At least the color is lovely. But then it occurred to me that you could eat them in other ways…. they didn’t have to be fried and salted. So I merged a few simple recipes for pepper jam, chutney, and relish and today we are eating hot red padrons in a whole new way. A little sweet, tart and spicy. But…

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Hot, Hot Roti at the Holidays

Gary's Worldview

Sage's roti doughThere is a wonderful children’s story called “Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji” (F. Zia, 2011) about a young boy that makes fresh roti for his grandfather – roti that bestows superhero powers!  Gwen and Sage discovered the book last year and we have had a blast crafting flatbread ever since. Today after school we decided to make a batch to go with dinner. We have evolved our house recipe a bit – straying from the traditional dough of semolina flour and water. Here is the basic outline:

  • 1 cup of semolina flour (or whole wheat)
  • 1/2 cup of unbleached white flour
  • 1/2 cup of masa harina (tortilla flour)
  • 1 tsp. salt

The touch of masa adds a rich corn flavor that I really love. Mix the dry ingredients with enough warm water to make a medium-soft dough. Knead until smooth, roll into a ball, and let rest in…

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Beauty and the Beast: A tale of two Mondays

Gary's Worldview

Vermillion rockcodLast Monday Reuben and I slipped out to Stillwater Cove for an afternoon of kayak fishing. The previous week had been blown out with large swells and high winds, but this day was lovely. As we paddled through the kelp beds and out to the open sea I was struck by how clear the water was – it seemed like I could see farther down the stipes than ever before. Looking from a kayak into a kelp forest can be pretty hypnotic – you are so close to the skin of the water. The baseball-sized pnuematocysts look like shrunken heads, with their hair-blades swaying and bobbing in the swell.

I wanted to find a reef I remembered from last year, but I forgot the battery for my sonar and I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I was testing depths with a jig and staying close into the kelp –…

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Farmer Sage meets (and eats) Hog Island Oysters

Gary's Worldview

Last week Sage and I loaded up for a day on the coast – tidepooling, whale watching, and an exploratory visit to Tomales Bay and the Hog Island Oyster Farm. Sage is 5 and generally adores fresh fish and seafood of all kinds – grilled Baja dorado, my cider-cured and applewood smoked trout, and Bodega Bay crab are all favorites. He also eats ikura, shrimp and tako nigiri like a champ. But I wasn’t sure how oysters would go over, and I knew it would be risky to drive all the way from Bodega Bay (the whales) to Marshall (the oyster farm). But lately I have been fixating on local seafood myself, and I discovered that the Hog Island Oyster Farm was not only visitor friendly but also produces what might be the finest oysters in the Bay Area. So I took my chances and we made the drive.


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