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A New England Fish Tale: Seafood Recipes and Observations of a Way of Life from a Fisherman's Wife

Martha Watson Murphy’s A New England Fish Tale combines two of my favorite things: good recipes and folk culture. The best of these books are like visiting with new friends at their kitchen tables. Alongside Fish Tale’s recipes are photos and information both historic and modern that capture some of the atmospheric flavor of New England maritime life.

The author is a commercial fisherman’s wife who never expected to become part of that world, but she learned to respect it and make the most of it. As seen on Deadliest Catch and A Perfect Storm, it’s a hard and dangerous life for those who go out to the sea to catch a living. The loved ones left at home can usually expect a bounty of seafood when the boats come in so it’s very much the focus of fishermen’s family cuisine, much as it is here in our Chesapeake Bay region. While we certainly do have favorite seafood recipes in Virginia, getting more creative takes on them beyond our traditional steamed crabs, fried oysters, and crab cakes is always a welcome experience.
The recipes contained here are largely of Murphy’s devising. In addition to being a fisherman’s wife, she is also a professional chef who ran the award-winning Murphy’s Bed & Breakfast in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Although New England fishermen of Melville’s time surely never saw Clam and Potato Pizza or Mussel-Filled Focaccia on their dinner tables, those recipes look tasty as does more traditional fare such as Old-Fashioned Fish and Chips and Panfried Flounder with Lemon and Wine Sauce.
Besides the fish dishes, there are a few accompanying recipes for vegetables, sauces, breads and desserts such as Gingerbread with Lemon Sauce. These are mostly easy to prepare, and the book itself is less designed for finicky gourmets than for those of us with basic kitchen experience and an honest appreciation of good food. Martha gives novices simple instructions for preparing fillets from fresh fish, a basic guide to steaming, grilling, or sautéing shellfish as well as solid recipes for traditional chowders.
Reel this one in, and keep an eye open for the new edition of A Fish Tale--due to be published in 2012.
Below is Martha’s recipe for Oyster Bread Pudding, which would be great dish to display on many a holiday table:
This is a creamy, chock-full-of-oysters bread pudding, enhanced by onions and red peppers caramelized in rendered bacon fat—midwinter comfort food at its best. Add a romaine lettuce salad and some wine, and settle in for the evening.
This recipe is an adaption of a favorite from the Gatehouse Restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island.
Serves 4 to 6
2 strips bacon                                           ½ teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram
1 tablespoon olive oil                                Pinch of salt and pepper
1 cup thinly sliced onion rings                 5 eggs
2/3 cup finely diced red bell pepper       2 ¼ cups shucked oysters, coarsely chopped
1 cup sliced mushrooms                             (with ½ cup liquid reserved for this recipe)
2 2/3 cup milk                                              5 cups bread cubes from top-quality
1 cup light cream                                             French or Italian bread
2 bay leaves                                                     (cut roughly ½ inch to 1 inch)
½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a large, heavy skillet, cook the bacon until it is crisp and has rendered its fat. Remove the bacon and transfer it to brown paper to drain; when it has cooled, crumble and set aside. Add the olive oil to the bacon fat and place over medium heat. When hot, add the onion, stir once, and turn the heat to low. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, occasionally removing the cover to stir. Add the red pepper and mushrooms and continue cooking over low heat, covered, occasionally removing the cover to stir, for an additional 10 minutes.
  • In a heavy saucepan combine the milk, cream, bay leaves, thyme, marjoram, salt, and pepper. Scald over medium heat, then set aside to cool.
  • In a large bowl beat the eggs well. When the scalded milk has cooled, remove and discard the bay leaves and add the milk to the eggs, whisking well. Add the oysters, ½ cup of their liquid, bread cubes, and caramelized vegetables. Mix gently but thoroughly with a spoon, cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  • Pour the mixture into a buttered 2-quart soufflé dish. Set the dish in a wide baking pan with an inch or two of water in it (enough to extend halfway up the sides of the soufflé dish). Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the top is golden and the pudding has begun to pull away from the sides of the dish. Remove to a cooling rack, let sit for 3 minutes and serve.
This recipe appears on our Shelf Life blog with the author’s permission. Visit her Web site at for more information about the upcoming new edition as well as her other books on New England life and the inns and outs of running a bed & breakfast.