Ben Pollinger Wants to Demystify Cooking Fish at Home


Fish and seafood may be high on the list of popular dishes at restaurants; however, when it comes to cooking it at home, most people don’t know where to start. Oceana (120 West 49th Street; 212-759-5941) chef Ben Pollinger wants to help. The executive chef of the midtown restaurant recently released School of Fish, a book dedicated to teaching novices the nuts and bolts of preparing creatures from the sea.

“The goal was demystifying cooking fish at home for the average home cook,” says Pollinger. “I really wanted to identify the fact that a lot of people have told me how they like to eat fish, but how many people are just intimidated by it, because they don’t know simply what to do with it. For most people it’s just something they’re not used to cooking at home.”

School of Fish is broken down into basics. Techniques are organized by level of difficulty; each section starts with novice instructions, making its way through more challenging recipes. It goes through everything: how to buy and store fish, how to know when it’s cooked through, how to prepare stocks and seasonings, and how to choose species that are available in local stores. Dishes range from poached black sea bass with piquillo aioli to steamed grouper with Indian-spiced black bean sauce and mango to Caribbean fish chowder to Thai-style bouillabaisse with ocean perch, tamarind, and glass noodles to roasted lobster 101, with basil garlic butter and fried clams.

While Pollinger is now highly regarded for his skill with fresh, seasonal seafood, like many Americans, he didn’t grow up eating fish. As a kid, he remembers his parents attempting to force him to eat fish sticks. He wouldn’t do it. The extent of his seafood experiences were limited to his mother’s tuna casserole (which he still loves) and blue crabs from family crabbing excursions near the Meadowlands. “That wasn’t very often,” says Pollinger. “Those were rarer occurrences. I don’t know why we didn’t eat it. Probably for the same reason most people would be hesitant, because of the expense. You can get meat cheap, for the most part, and decent fish isn’t necessarily cheap.”

For the future seafood master, passion developed while in cooking school. It had been growing for a while; however, the first time Pollinger remembers being blown away was during an externship at Christian Delouvrier’s Les Célébrités. Like Julia Child, the dish that sealed the deal was dover sole. Here, it was simply steamed with sautéed cucumber and a savory vanilla sauce. At the time, it was one of the best meals he had ever had.

Following graduation from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Pollinger’s first job, at Le Louis XV, Alain Ducasse’s flagship in Monaco, sealed the deal for his love of food from the ocean. The eatery used fish so fresh, it would still be stiff from rigor mortis. Shrimp, from the Gulf of Genoa, was still basically alive. While that wasn’t necessarily a surprise for a restaurant deemed one of the best in the world, the supply of the delicacies didn’t end there. Pollinger would frequently spend time in cafes and local eateries in Nice and other coastal villages, eating products of the same high quality. “The fish we got there was absolutely insane,” he says. “We used to get a fish called bar — it’s Mediterranean sea bass, basically, just a wild striped bass. Just fantastic-quality stuff; it really opened my eyes up to what fish could be.”

Black sea bass is still one of Pollinger’s favorite species to work with; he loves it steamed with the skin on (he’s a huge proponent of the benefits of learning to cook the dermis well). Part of his aim in the restaurant and in the book, however, is to expose people to different, lesser-known varieties. Hiramasa (he loves it in tartare), a jack somewhat similar to hamachi, is another preference, as is the commonly maligned blue fish. “People who eat that fish usually have grown up in an area where they go fishing for it and that’s usually just how they eat it,” says Pollinger. “But by me, people will eat blue fish, because they know I know what I’m doing with it; so, that’s part of it, but just in general, blue fish itself is just a great fish.”

The chef loves opening customers’ palates to new flavors; that desire has benefits in terms of sustainability as well. Because he’s trusted, he’s able to use a wider array of product. Pollinger is extremely mindful when sourcing. He buys a lot of products from Alaska, because the fisheries are so well managed; salmon and sablefish are some of his top picks. He stays away from Chilean sea bass, because it’s the opposite (aside from one Marine Stewardship Council–certified fishery in South Georgia, the species suffers from overfishing, and even piracy). He refuses to buy bluefin tuna, because it’s in danger of going extinct; however, he occasionally buys Japanese aquacultured kindai tuna, as it has been developed from a small pool of wild bluefin that have spawned in captivity. And when he can’t get wild salmon, Pollinger seeks out salmon farmed from more sustainable outfits in Europe. “It’s a balance,” he says. “I still have to serve fish that people demand, but I also have the opportunity and responsibility to present more sustainable species, as well, if they don’t happen to be already popular.”

To help readers cultivate a more thorough understanding of the variety that exists, School of Fish features a fish-ionary in the back of the book.

Pollinger Tuna Noodle Casserole

Serves eight to ten generously
While I was growing up, my mom’s culinary library consisted, in good portion, of recipes from the backs of boxes and on labels from Campbell’s soup cans. (What can I say? It was
the ’70s.) Her tuna noodle casserole was a Pollinger household staple: canned cream of
mushroom soup, canned tuna, and cooked elbow macaroni, stirred together in a casserole
and topped with crushed potato chips. It was my favorite fish dinner — far better than the despised fish sticks.

When I was invited to cook at an event at Rockefeller Plaza to benefit Citymeals on
Wheels, the other chefs and I were asked to serve dishes we had grown up with. I decided
to dignify my mom’s dinnertime staple by making it from scratch. Tuna noodle casserole
was a hit at the Pollinger household, it was a hit at Rockefeller Center, and it’ll be a hit at
your home, too. This is a good make-ahead meal: You can poach the fish, make the sauce, and cook the macaroni ahead of time. Put it all together and bake it when you’re ready to eat.

For the Tuna
1 3/4 pounds tuna steak, cut into 1/2-inch dice
Fine sea salt

For the Mushroom Sauce
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Two 10-ounce packages white button mushrooms, wiped clean, stems trimmed, thinly sliced
Fine sea salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
7 cups whole milk
Freshly ground black pepper

For the Casserole
1 pound elbow macaroni
Unsalted butter, softened, for buttering the casserole

1. On a baking sheet, season the tuna with 3/4 teaspoon salt. Let stand 15 minutes to allow
the salt to penetrate.

2. Prepare an ice bath by filling your sink with ice and cold water. Bring 2 quarts water to
a boil in a medium pot. Add 4 teaspoons salt. Add the tuna, shaking the pot gently so the
tuna doesn’t stick to the bottom. Lower the heat and simmer until the tuna is just cooked
through, about 5 minutes. Set the pot in the ice bath and let stand, shaking the pan every
10 to 15 minutes, until the tuna is cool.

3. For the sauce, melt the butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion
and garlic and cook without coloring, stirring often, until translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add the mushrooms and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook without coloring, stirring often, until
tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring often, 3 minutes. Add the milk
and stir well to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring frequently,
until the taste of the raw flour has cooked out, about 20 minutes. Season with 1 teaspoon
salt, and pepper to taste; set aside.

4. For the macaroni, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place a colander in the sink. When
the water boils, add enough salt to make it taste like seawater. Add the macaroni and cook
until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain in the colander.

5. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 3-quart (9-by-13-inch Pyrex) casserole or baking

6. When the tuna has cooled, drain it and gently flake. Discard the poaching liquid.
Transfer the tuna to a very large bowl. Add the sauce and cooked macaroni and stir well
to combine and break up the clumps of macaroni. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon into the prepared casserole or baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake
until heated through, 20 to 30 minutes.

7. Break the seal on the bag of chips, empty half the chips to eat at another time, and pass
a rolling pin over the bag to coarsely crush the chips. (Or crush the chips in your hands.)
Remove the foil and top the casserole with the crushed chips. Return to the oven and bake, uncovered, 10 minutes more until the crushed topping is lightly browned.