I was more than a little reluctant when my friend Nate suggested that we go for codfish on our big New England fishing trip last week. After all, striped bass of gargantuan proportions are being caught inshore around Cape Ann right now, and what’s more, I prefer the flavor of striper to cod. But there was another reason: I’ve been cod fishing in New England, off and on, for 20 years. And every time I go out, it sucks.
There was that time in 1992, when I was visiting my sister Lizz. Skunked. Nada. A few years later, the same thing. I finally caught a haddock sometime in the early 2000s, notable only in that, with the exception of a cusk — a borderline trash fish — it was the lone legal groundfish I’ve caught in New England waters.
The reason for this is not only bad luck. As most anyone in America knows, the stocks of codfish, haddock and pollock have crashed due to overfishing. Groundfish, as this trio of species are known, once supported the entire region’s economy. They may even have been an impetus for the early exploration of North America. Now they’re gone. We killed our golden goose.
This too tugged at me as we left Gloucester Harbor last Saturday in a driving rain and sullen, oily seas. Do I really want to be targeting a fish so depleted? Do I want to be the guy who caught the last codfish?
Everything about this trip seemed grim. The rain, the ugly seas, the motley collection of men gathered on the Yankee Clipper to seek out a fish notorious for its pathetic fighting abilities. A hooked codfish is like a bored lover; it just lays there, resigned to what happens next. Largely in silence, we steamed into the Gulf of Maine for more than two hours. A bunch of Poles played penny poker, and two old-timers talked about how the fishing used to be. But most of us sat quietly. I slept, fitfully, my head bouncing off the bulkhead each time we caught a particularly large wave.
Finally, we anchored in 200 feet of water. The rain had slackened to a drizzle, the seas calmed. We let our lines down, down, down. Every one of us hoped the glob of sea clam threaded onto our hooks would attract a codfish of legal size, which, these days, is 24 inches. Haddock can be taken at 18 inches, and pollock at any size.
“Fish on!” The guy to my left grinned as his rod bent. I was watching him when I felt a tink, tink, TINK! on my line. At such a depth you don’t set the hook as you would in shallow water. You simply point the rod tip at the ocean and reel in quickly; this reduces line stretch and sets the hook on the fish better than a swing. As I reeled, my heart sank. Small fish, and since it felt like it was shaking its head, I was pretty sure I knew what it was.
Confirmation came with the guy on my left: A spiny dogfish. Until recently, this little shark was as depleted as the cod, but conservation efforts have worked with them. Now they are everywhere — but they’re all small, so we threw them back. (A big dogfish makes great eating, if you gut it on the boat.) After I let Mr. Shark free, I settled back into fishing.
Soon Nate’s rod was bending. So were those of many of my comrades. Huh. This was a lot more action than I had remembered on my previous cod fishing trips, which were mostly exercises in Zen meditation, of staring endlessly at the sea.
As Nate reeled, he said he thought this might not be a shark; no head-shaking. He was right. “Gaff!” He shouted, and Josh, the mate, swung over a nice haddock, maybe 22 inches or so. Phew! At least we wouldn’t get skunked. Then I caught a codfish, although it was too small to keep. After about an hour or so, I noticed something: We were all catching fish. I had not seen action like this since the late 1980s. Weirder still? Most of the fish were cod.
Several hours later, we anchored in a spot in 250 feet of water, which is about as deep as I’ve ever fished. Ting, ting, TING! A huge bite bent my rod double. I reeled down to set the hook and lifted the fish. Uff. Tremendous dead weight. Definitely a groundfish, and probably a cod. It felt so heavy I had to rest the rod on the boat’s railing to drag this fish upwards. Hauling a big fish up from that deep water is work. My shoulders burned, and an exposed screw on the reel bit into my hand. But I made steady progress, and soon saw the fish. It was indeed a huge cod! Josh gaffed it, and there, flopping on the deck, was a 20-pound codfish, the largest I’ve ever caught.
Incredibly, that fish was not even terribly impressive on board. Nate caught a larger fish, and the pool winner was more than 30 pounds — it tied with a 30-pound pollock for the win. In all, Nate caught three cod and two haddock, and I caught three cod, plus four short ones I returned to the sea.
I was dumbstruck. What had happened since I’d been gone? Could it possibly be true that the groundfish were back?
I began to do some research, and the more I read, the more I began to smile. The answer is an astounding “yes” for both haddock and pollock — according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, both species are at historic levels, which means they are fully recovered. The story on cod is more complex. They are still hurting in the Georges Bank, but in the Gulf of Maine — where we were fishing — cod stocks have returned to 58 percent of historic levels, according to NMFS. And they’re on an upward trend.
So it seems that maybe, just maybe, the decades-long closure of the commercial cod fishery is working. We recreational anglers are enjoying the fruits of that closure, and the only major question will be what becomes of the commercial fleet. It seems unlikely that the old trawling fishery will return — it’s too destructive, with too much bycatch. But a hook-and-line cod fishery has been plugging away, and line-caught cod can be found in New England markets. It is a hopeful sign.
Back at my sister Lizz’s house, armed with codfish, I thought about how to celebrate the cod’s return.
I was in New England on tour for Hunt Gather Cook, and I’d already had one fantastic wild foods book dinner at Craigie on Main in Boston, and was soon to have another at La Laiterie in Providence. All three chefs who worked on those dinners, Tony Maws at Craigie, and Matt Jennings and Beau Vestal at La Laiterie, put enormous amounts of thought and effort into their dishes. I thought it might be fun to thank Tony, Matt and Beau with a dish dedicated to them.
My family had gone mushroom hunting earlier in the week, so I wanted to mix mushrooms and fish, something I do a lot. I went out to Wingaersheek Beach on Cape Ann with my mom to collect wild mustard, orach and sea rocket. I also wanted to add some more seafood to the dish, so I bought a little local swordfish, and some local pink shrimp.
What I came up with is autumn in coastal New England, all on one plate. I call it the Nor’easter. Tony, Matt, Beau: This one’s for you.
The Nor’easter, an autumn New England dish
This is something of a complex plate of food, and I include the recipe mostly for demonstration purposes. It is tough to replicate if you don’t live in New England, but I hope you can take some inspiration from the dish and use pieces of it in your own cooking. To that end, I’ve broken down the steps so you can play with the parts of the dish on your own. Enjoy!
Some technical notes: You can of course substitute different mushrooms, depending on what you have. They will not taste the same, but if you have three different kinds you will be all set. The little pink shrimp are pretty widely available frozen, and they thaw well. As for the fish, use one that is white, lean and flaky — cod, haddock, pollock, walleye, etc — and one that is dense, like swordfish, mako, thresher shark, sturgeon or white seabass.
Prep Time: 2 hours
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 1 pound small pink shrimp, cooked
- 1 quart fish stock
- 1/2 pound coral mushrooms (or other mushrooms)
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- Lemon juice to taste
- Splash of truffle oil (optional)
- 1/2 pound hedgehog mushrooms (or other mushrooms)
- 1/2 pound chicken of the woods mushrooms (or other mushrooms)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 cup chopped white or yellow onion
- 1 pound mixed wild greens (orache, lamb’s quarters, mustard greens, sea rocket, etc)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound white flaky fish, skinless (cod, haddock, pollock, etc)
- 1/2 pound swordfish
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Lemon juice to taste
- Sea rocket pods and flowers, for garnish (optional)
- Cut the fish into squares or rectangles. Save the trimmings to make chowder or stock. Salt them and set aside at room temperature.
- Wash the greens and mushrooms well and chop roughly.
- Start with the shrimp. Melt the butter in a small pan and gently fry the coral mushrooms until they are crispy. They will reduce in size by a lot. Once they are crispy, set aside on paper towels. Heat the stock to the steaming point and drop the shrimp in — do not let this even simmer. You are just warming already-cooked shrimp here.
- On to the mushrooms. Saute the mushrooms in a pan over high heat. Put them in dry first, then add the butter, thyme and onions. Saute until slightly browned, then add about 1/4 cup of fish stock. Let this boil away. Taste for salt, then turn off the heat and set aside.
- For the fish, heat the butter in a heavy saute pan over medium-high heat and sear the swordfish well on one side, about 5 minutes. You want a good sear here. Turn the swordfish and cook it for one more minute — you want most of the cooking done on the one side. Remove and set aside and add the cod or haddock. Turn the heat to medium and gently fry the fish. Do the same thing, letting it mostly cook on one side, and gently turn the fish. It will want to fall apart.
- While the fish is cooking, quickly saute the greens in the olive oil. Cook them until they wilt, but no further — you want them to remain a vivid green. Depending on which greens you use, this will take 2-5 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
- Finish the shrimp. Remove the shrimp from the stock, then toss with the coral mushrooms and some truffle oil; if you are not using truffle oil, toss with a little melted butter.
- To finish, lay down some greens, then some sauteed mushrooms. Place the fish on top, and arrange some of the shrimp and coral mushrooms alongside. Garnish with the sea rocket pods and flowers.