Archive for August, 2017

The Fisherman’s Wife, by Stephanie Villani and Kevin Bay

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

It’s high summer, and farmers markets from Maryland to Maine are finally showing crimson swaths of local tomatoes. Fragrant bunches of fleshy Genovese basil burst extravagantly from CSA bundles. Even grocery stores have produce sections strewn with corn silks and husks, the detritus of excited customers looking for the sweetest, plumpest ears.

This is the season when – at least from the the Mid-Atlantic states to Down East – eating is finally easy. People are satisfied with platters of the simplest, fresh garden produce, a drizzle of olive oil and handfuls of fresh herbs the only extra ingredient, except if you score some local mozzarella, fresh ricotta, or a creamy burrata cheese. A grill and a cast iron skillet are all you need to cook anything, and everything goes on a platter family style

This is high season for local fish, too. The warm summer waters fill with stripers, blues, swordfish, tuna, halibut, butterfish, herring, whiting and squid. A fisherman’s life is never easy, but the blue skies and calmer seas of August, along with brimming buckets of shimmering catch, remind fishermen there is still a lot to love about what they do. August is a fisherman’s reward for enduring the year of dark 3:00 a.m. starts, iced Grundens and crippling government regulation.

Here is the cookbook you need right now: The Fisherman’s Wife, Sustainable Recipes and Salty Stories, by Stephanie Villani and Kevin Bay. I met Kevin Bay at one of NAMA’s Seafood Throwdowns last year in the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket in Brooklyn, New York. Blue Moon Fish, the company Stephanie and her fisherman husband, Alex Villani, run, is a vendor in the Farmers’ Market, and had supplied the local fish for the throwdown.

I talked with Kevin Bay that day about how hard Stephanie and Alex work, and that Kevin and Stephanie had co-written a cookbook. Below is a portion of my story from that day in the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, a wonderful urban market with that Brooklyn je-ne-sais-quois, and my first introduction to Blue Moon Fish. The cookbook, recently published, addresses local fish the way the Villanis do: treating everything that comes out of local waters with environmental respect and culinary reverence. The chapters are divided sensibly into sections like “Round White Fish,” “Flat White Fish”, “Flavorful Fish,” and “Shellfish,” because this is a great way to think about cooking fish; the basic techniques apply to the shape of the fish, not the name of it. So smart.


So here is my little bit of local color on Brooklyn and a bit of story about Blue Moon Fish. Farther down is the recipe from the book for “Kevin’s Fish and Scallop Ceviche,” an indispensible summer recipe, and not just any old ceviche. The corn and cilantro make this the ultimate high summer recipe.


Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, 2016

The winged goddess of victory, flanked by her horse-leading, trumpeting attendants, marches in frozen glory high above the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, NY. Chariot, horses and gods lunge from their statuesque perpetuity on top of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’Arch that declares the entrance to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Designed in 1867 by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the goddess-crusted arch is meant to echo the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, ours a triumph of the Civil War’s defenders of the Union.

The arch stands in the middle of the largest and busiest traffic circle in Brooklyn, where Flatbush Avenue, Vanderbilt Avenue, Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park West, and Union Street all converge. Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln pose more soberly in relief from the arch’s sides. Within the assault of noisy speeding traffic and death-defying crosswalks, the massive Olmstead/Vaux structure feels like a footnote to a grander, quieter New York. It takes looking up to notice the drama on top – Victory lunging forth, her friends with their horses cutting loose from the sides. But the whoosh of traffic, and the need to cross an avenue safely keeps eyes closer to the pavement. Only tourists and visitors like me still lift their head to see what all that hooved drama is about above.

The Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket feels like a snug harbor away from all this monumental and noisy. It is a tented village of leaves, stalks, pods, blossoms, fruits and flowers underneath a colossal monument to those that kept the country united and ultimately slaveless, in and around the racing traffic. The white cloth tents, one after another, cover tables piled a foot deep with June produce: snap peas, English peas, spring onions, green garlic, garlic scapes, and rhubarb. The market smells like fresh strawberries and basil. Almost everyone is carrying bouquets of local peonies. Not only are there more dogs here than I have ever seen at a farmers’ market, but they are the best behaved. Leashes are as tangled as the garlic scapes, but the dogs stand calmly waiting for their owners to finish a purchase.

The Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket is run by GrowNYC, which began in 1976 with a dual mission: to allow small regional farms a way to sell their goods directly to the consumer and to provide New York “with the most nutritious, locally grown food the region can offer,” its website declares. “What began with twelve farmers July 16, 1976, in a parking lot on 59th Street has grown to over 200 farmers and producers in over 50 Greenmarkets throughout New York City.” Grand Army Plaza is also where gritty Flatbush Avenue meets Park Slope, a neighborhood which has an almost perfect quotient of baby strollers to bars. There are exactly 5061 trees in Park Slope, and probably an equal number of self-described Bohemians. Along with an excellent public school system, this data makes the neighborhood one heck of a good place to have a farmers’ market.

Blue Moon Fish Mongers are the very first booth to greet you from the Union Street side of the market.  Kevin Bay used to be one of the fishmongers in that stall.  Bay, a Manhattan fiction writer and band member, was pulled in, like so many artists, to the fresh food movement years ago. Bay met the Villanis who own and operate Blue Moon Fish at the Union Square Greenmarket. He said he knew right away, of all the odd jobs he had taken to support writing and playing music, “this was the right odd job for me.”

“Working with fish is addictive. It’s romantic. There’s a narrative there; as a writer I got sucked right in.” For eight seasons Bay stood under the Blue Moon tent at the Union Square, Tribeca, and Grand Army Greenmarkets, just like the six fishmongers working the stall that day. The Blue Moon fish cases are built with worn old wood boards painted Delft blue. That morning, the ice in the cases was snow-blind bright with the sun angling into the tent. Buckets of gleaming striped bass fillets, squid, flounder, and blues shone in the the ice as brightly as if they had just been landed.

Another case held a variety of hot-smoked fish, ruby and golden chunks of cured fillets. Stephanie Villani, wife of Alex Villani of the Blue Moon husband and wife partnership, smokes the fish herself twice a week. “It’s a good way to use up leftovers,” Stephanie said. She smokes bluefish, monkfish, tuna belly and eels when they can get them.

The sign above announced the fresh fish available along with that day’s fishmongers: Sally, Andew, Joe, Nick, Phillip, Patrick and Boaz. Smack in the middle of the sign a circle declared in red what Blue Moon Fish DIDN’T have that day: shrimp, salmon and crab, three species that Americans have come to expect for sale everywhere, whether or not there is even a body of water around. But Blue Moon sells the fish that Alex Villani lands in Long Island Sound. There are no salmon or shrimp in Long Island Sound, and he doesn’t catch crabs to sell. Blue Moon doesn’t sell lobsters either.

“There are no lobsters on Long Island. They all died in 1998 after the region was sprayed for West Nile virus. That, combined with the warming water temperatures, and the Connecticut and Long Island lobster industry got wrecked,” Stephanie Villani said. Many people have come to imagine that certain species are always available everywhere, forgetting that these are live animals that live in specific ecosystems. Many fish markets fill their cases not with fish being locally landed but what their customers want, and they all want the top four: salmon, scallops, shrimp and cod. Most fish markets today do business with fish dealers who are shipping fish around the world, so everyone has forgotten that there is no Gulf Shrimp in New England and no wild Atlantic salmon anywhere.

Why and how did this happen? How did we forget that there are one hundred other species being landed on New England and mid-coast Atlantic shores alone? – The rise of large fleet, corporate efficiency. It’s easier and ultimately more efficient to make a hundred thousand dollars from one load of one species of fish, ship it around the world, rather than manage many different boats and their diverse catch.

Alex Villani, 64, has been a commercial fisherman for forty-five years now. Going to the Greenmarket to sell his fish began as a way to make some extra cash, and now it’s become a ten-month-a year job. To become their own version of “efficient,” Blue Moon set up a separate business to land the fish, weigh it, report it to NOAA, and deliver it. Basically, Villani the fishermen sells his fish to his own business, which then manages the landing and distribution costs. It’s a lot of hard work, but also a brilliant way for a fisherman to use “efficiency” to his advantage.

That makes a huge difference in the price of fish, and a fisherman’s income. “It’s a lot of extra work for us. It takes two days to prep for a market,” Stephanie Villani says. Along with all the extra work, she says that most fishermen simply don’t enjoy doing all that talking and dealing with the public.

Emily Peterson, from Heritage Radio, was at the market that day.  She is also the daughter of a former commercial fisherman. (Her favorite smell is low tide.)  Peterson said, “like any other species, the best way to keep fish alive is to harvest and eat them. I grew up to be a chef, and I think having the opportunity to teach people how to eat fish is critical for keeping fish alive – it’s good for the species and good for our health.”

To that, I say find The Fisherman’s Wife, and then find some good local fish.



Kevin’s Fish and Scallop Ceviche

from The Fisherman’s Wife, by Stephani Villani and Kevin Bay

serves 4-6 as an appetizer


1 pound combination of scallops and fish white fish. (we used fluke fillet.)

7 limes, juices 1 orange, juiced

1 tablespoon salt

1 red onion, sliced as thinly as possible

1 red peper, diced

2 ears fresh corn, kernels cut from the cob, or 1 can of corn drained and rinsed

1 bunch of fresh cilantro, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

Tortilla chips (optional)


1. Juice the lines and orange. Strain and refrigerate in a non-reactive bowl until ready to add ingredients.

2.  Remove and discard the tough muscle on the side of each scallop and cut scallops into cubes.  (about 1/2 ” to 3/4″).  Cut the fish fillet into strips, making sure the flesh contains no bones, and cut fish into cubes about the same size as the scallops.

3.  Combine the scallops and fish with the lime and orange juice; it should be swimming in get bowl.  If not, make more juice.  Add the salt, and then refrigerate for 3 hours.

4.  Add the onion, pepper, corn, cilantro and paprika.  (and garlic if using).  Continue to refrigerate for at least another hour.

5.  Srve cold or at room temperature with tortilla chips.

Note, if you double, triple or otherwise multiply the amount of fish in this recipe, don’t add more than two tablespoons of salt during the marination.