More Than Just a Fisherman’s Wife

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"The Fisherman's Wife" by Stephanie Villani and Kevin Bay.

Over the past 30 years, there is one common thread through much of Stephanie Villani’s life: the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket.

It is where she met her now-husband, Alex Villani — he was selling fish while she was selling apples — and the foundation of their friendship. It is where their business, Blue Moon Fish, has thrived, and where his 45-year fishing career found a home.

It is where the Villanis became known among their fellow vendors, fishermen and customers alike, chatting about everyday life and swapping recipes, each impacting Stephanie Villani more than they knew.

After all, it was there, and because of them, that her memoir-cookbook hybrid, “The Fisherman’s Wife,” was born.

“I started working at the Greenmarket in 1990, so we both have been working there for a really long time,” Villani explained. “There were just so many fish recipes floating around the market, I always wanted to collect them all for people. I’m very relieved I actually got it done.”

She let out a satisfied laugh.

“I finally put down the recipes and information about each of the fish — because they’re all local fish and not everybody is familiar with them — their sustainability and when they’re caught, and a few stories about the fishing life,” she said, “like what we do behind the scenes to get everything to the market.”

Every Saturday during the Greenmarket season, the Villani family packs their truck with hundreds of pounds of ice and fresh fish at home in Mattituck, and gets on the road well before dawn — 3:45 a.m. at the latest. By the time they arrive in New York, they have an hour to set up their stand before customers begin arriving at 7 a.m.

First come the chefs, prowling for fish for their daily specials. Then come the regulars, who regard the Villanis — and Blue Moon Fish — as fixtures in the neighborhood. Newcomers round out the day, buying late into the afternoon until the stand ultimately sells out, allowing the happy, albeit exhausted, couple to make the trek back home.

“It’s a really long day. Good weather and lots of people make it go by really fast, though,” Villani said. “Most of what we catch, we bring to the market, and people are happy that it’s fresh. Just like anything at the farmer’s market, they can ask you all kinds of questions. Anything they want to know, they can ask the farmer or the fisherman, and that’s a good thing.

“And people will try stuff,” she continued. “After a while, they’ll trust you. So they’ll try the different fish. It’s good. It’s good to see people eating this sustainable stuff, instead of the stuff you really shouldn’t be eating — pumped with antibiotics, raised in filth and coming from the other side of the world.”

Fresh ingredients make all the difference, Villani said, as well as knowing exactly what to do with them — especially when dealing with more unconventional fish, such as porgies, skate, sea robin, sand shark, blackfish and even blowfish tails.

“The blowfish tails are a big one. I think people on Long Island know, but people in New York don’t. They’re like, ‘What are those?’ I say, ‘This is a big Long Island thing, the puffers,’ and they’re like, ‘What?!’” Villani said. “When they get them and try them, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I really like it.’”

Villani and her husband tee off with rival clam chowder recipes — his a classic Manhattan, hers a lighter New England-style with a celery taste — but they both agree it’s impossible to go wrong with a thick slab of striped sea bass in the summer, which they’ll rub down with spices and toss it on the grill.

“We also have one dynamite blackfish recipe — a poached blackfish in vermouth with mushrooms, and it is so good,” Villani said. “One of my customers gave it to me and I never tried it, and I finally made it and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is sogood.’ I feel like people don’t know what to do with blackfish. It’s like a snapper; you can cook it, really, any way. But that’s a fantastic recipe. I love it.”

The author still finds herself collecting new recipes from her customers, a tradition she may pass on to her daughter, Ruby, who often tags along with her parents to the Greenmarket. She’s 11 now, and just starting to understand the legacy, and family story, that surrounds her every Saturday morning as they unpack the ice and load up the fish.

“Sometimes she’ll help out at the stand, and everybody knows her, and she’s like, ‘Oh my God, who are all these people,’” Villani said with a laugh. “She sells clams, helps us, which is nice. It’s really nice. It’s a family thing, that’s for sure.”

Stephanie Villani will discuss her book “The Fisherman’s Wife: Sustainable Recipes and Salty Stories,” co-authored with Kevin Bay, on Thursday, April 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Rogers Memorial Library, located at 91 Coopers Farm Road in Southampton. Copies of the book will be available for $25. For more information, please call (631) 283-0774 or visit myrml.org.


Broiled Blowfish Tails

Serves 2

1 pound blowfish tails, rinsed and patted dry

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 bunch scallions, sliced lengthwise and then in half, both white and green parts

½ cup white wine

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

Set broiler to high. Coat a large casserole dish with one teaspoon of the olive oil.

In a medium sauté pan, heat the remaining olive oil. Sauté the garlic and scallions over medium-low heat until soft, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Arrange the blowfish tails in the casserole dish in one layer (they should not touch each other) and season with the cumin, salt and pepper.

Pour the wine over the fish and add the garlic and scallions on top.

Broil for 8 to 10 minutes until fish is browned. Check the largest blowfish tail with a thin-bladed knife to see if it is cooked through.

Serve with the pan juices spooned on top of the fish.

Baked Dogfish with Tomato, Red Onion and Olives

Serves 2

I have given this recipe out at the fish stand for two decades (!). You may substitute almost any other type of fish (blackfish, striped bass, fluke, sea bass). Use any combination of fresh herbs you can find at the market.

1 pound dogfish, trimmed of any skin or pieces of cartilage and cut into two pieces

1/3 cup sliced red onion

1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, roughly chopped

½ cup tomato, roughly chopped

1/3 cup white wine

1 tablespoon chives, chopped

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon olive oil

Salt to taste

Set oven to 400 degrees. Brush the bottom of a baking sheet or cast iron pan with the olive oil.

Set the fish in the pan; pour the wine over the fish. Season with the salt.

Arrange the onion slices, olives and tomato over the fish.  Sprinkle the chives and parsley on top.

Bake for 15 minutes. Check the fish with a thin-bladed knife and return to the oven if not cooked through (another 2 to 3 minutes).

Alex’s Manhattan Clam Chowder

 

Serves 16 appetizers or 8 as a main dish

5 dozen large clams, opened and chopped in bite-size pieces, with their juice

6 pieces bacon, chopped

6 medium carrots, peeled and cut into rounds

2 medium onions, diced

6 medium potatoes, skin on, cut in 1-inch chunks

4 large celery stalks, with leaves, chopped

32 ounces canned whole plum tomatoes

1 pound frozen corn kernels

2 ½ teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

2 teaspoons fresh oregano, chopped (or ½ teaspoon dried)

½ tablespoon black pepper

5 bay leaves

1 to 1 ½ quarts clam juice or fish stock, or a combination (be sure to strain clam juice from the just-opened clams)

In large stockpot sauté bacon and onions over medium-low heat until soft. Add all ingredients except chopped clams to pot. Bring to a boil; turn heat to low and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes.

Add clams and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes.

Spice Rubbed Striped Bass

We use a dry spice rub on ribs quite often it is easy and very flavorful. Here are two different rubs that work well on the meaty, firm flesh of the striped bass. It’s easy to throw on the grill, or you can use a grill pan on the stovetop or broil in the oven.

Serves 2

For the Bass:

1 large fillet striped bass, about 1 pound

Cinnamon Spice Rub

2 tablespoons ground red pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Mix all spices together. Store in a tightly sealed container.

Turmeric Spice Rub

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon ground garlic

½ teaspoon black pepper

Mix all spices together. Store in a tightly sealed container.

Trim the bass of any ragged edges or stray bones and cut it into two or three smaller pieces.

Using one of the above rubs, rub each piece of the fish with a liberal amount of spice, covering the fillet entirely.

Put on a plate and cover with plastic wrap, or use a Tupperware container with a lid. Refrigerate the fish for 3 to 4 hours, letting the spice penetrate the flesh.

Prepare a grill or grill pan. Grill the fillets, 4 to 5 minutes on a side, depending on the thickness of the fillet.

 

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