Such a tome is Chef Dean James Max's new seafood cookbook, A Life by the Sea ($40, from www.3030ocean.com). By the time I'd finished drooling over its glossy pictures of mile-long bridges and Florida stone crabs prepared four ways, not to mention the many shots of Chef Max in some sun-dappled field brooding over Homestead tomatoes, I was ready. Not ready to actually cook anything, mind you, but certainly to pick up the phone and see if I could get Dean Max to talk about why the wahoo sashimi at his restaurant, 3030 Ocean at the Marriott's Harbor Beach Resort, is just about the most delicious thing I've ever put in my mouth.
Max grew up on a farm in Virginia. But he's really a Florida boy at heart -- you can still hear faint traces of a surfer accent in his attenuated vowels. Dude, he spent his formative teenage years pulling killer moves in Stuart! With a crate of tangerines under one arm and a longboard under the other, Max worked for his dad's produce brokerage when he wasn't chasing waves; he ate fish caught off the side of a dock and vegetables culled from local farms. That halcyon boyhood has made him a maniac for simplicity.
But what Max means by "simple" might entail something like this: a slab of black grouper, rich and lustrous as alabaster, lightly glazed, bejeweled by sweet golden corn kernels, an emerald-hued mini-bunch of broccolini, pale hearts of palm, a dab of the silkiest potato purée, and a single tiny beet glistening like a ruby within a sheer platinum setting of curry-coconut sauce. At 3030 Ocean, this "simple" dish will set you back $29. Or you can buy his new cookbook and learn how to make it, or something like it, yourself.
The point, reiterated in both Max's cookbook and at his 5-year-old restaurant, where the menu changes daily, is that if you start with great fresh ingredients, there's no need to cover up foods' natural beauty with heavy coatings and sauces.
"I'll give you an example," he says over much background pan-clanging, when I catch up with him by phone at 3030. "Take a BLT. It's the simplest thing in the world, right? If you make it with Wonderbread and a green tomato and some grocery store bacon well, you know what happens. But if you take some Nueske smoked bacon they smoke it themselves, just the right amount and put it on some artisanal crusty bread and you add some homemade aioli, farm fresh tomatoes, and crisp romaine lettuce, it'll be the best BLT you've ever had."
Garbage in, garbage out, eh? Still, I've spent way too many hours pawing through the aisles of specialty stores for precious, weird ingredients (try finding "ramps" in South Florida) in vain hopes of satisfying the sadistic taskmasters who write contemporary cookbooks. I'm skeptical of this organic/slow food/seasonally conscientious thing whenever it threatens to turn my life into a scavenger hunt. Happily, Max's cookbook operates under the assumption that the reader prefers relaxation mode above all else. For Max, you begin with the best food you happen to have, and then you arrange your recipe around it no more high-maintenance dinners. This cookbook helps you get creative. Once you understand the qualities of individual fish and a little bit about contrasting tastes and textures, you can wing it.
A Life by the Sea is organized into sections, grouping together seafood with similar qualities. Under "soft/delicate/sweet/lean," for example, you'll find skate, halibut, turbot, and Dover sole. In theory, at least, you slope down to your local fish market. You see that their snapper looks old and dry, but they've got excellent turbot, right off the boat. So you buy the turbot. But say your local produce stand is out of the cauliflower that goes in Max's turbot recipe. Well, you can switch it out and use your turbot in the Dover sole recipe instead, cooking it with mushrooms and asparagus; or with the skate recipe, which calls for leeks and lentils. Here's a cookbook that actually teaches you how to think about cooking fish instead of only how to slavishly follow the convoluted recipe of some windbag celebrity chef.
Or maybe your fishmonger doesn't have any fresh Florida wahoo. In that case, you throw down your cookbook and drive right over to 3030, where Max will dish up that wahoo you're craving, for $12, as raw sashimi. Pale rounds of fish overlap on a rectangular plate, bare but for a dusting of crunchy sea salt, coarse peppercorns, and a touch of champagne vinaigrette. A tiny, tart salad made with finely diced Savoy cabbage, whole toasted pecans, and an earthy, unbelievably yummy white truffle-oil aioli, comes with it. If I lived nearby, you'd find me bellied up to the bar every night at precisely 6 p.m. opening time, wailing for my wahoo.