Cooking at Home with Barton Seaver
The clean lines of chef, author and seafood expert Barton Seaver’s kitchen in the 18th century farmhouse he shares with his wife, Carrie Anne, in South Freeport are almost exclusively waist high.
Three copper pendant lights hang over the long island that separates the working kitchen from a comfortable lounging area and a dining space comprising a honey-colored farm table that seats eight. Open shelving houses culinary staples like tinned anchovies packed in oil and the double sink is flanked by several varieties of sherry vinegar on one side and stacked dinner plates and serving dishes on the other.
All appliances and storage cabinetry are neatly tucked under an unpolished Maine slate counter top. The baby gates are a wee bit lower than that. But they are only temporary fixtures, jury-rigged to keep the Seavers’ toddling son, Alden, out of the triangular food-prep pathway between his dad’s custom-made Boos Block cutting board, a stunning cobalt-blue French range and a magnetic strip of chefs’ knives affixed to the wall near the sink. Standing at his workspace, Barton has an unobstructed view through two walls of windows into the back yard. There he can make sure the roving fox stays out of the family’s hen house; watch his large garden grow through the seasons; and, ponder what he might write next in his office, a converted shed located at the corner of his property before it slopes downward to tidal river.
Back in the kitchen, an under-counter fridge holds a few go-to seafood cookery ingredients like butter and lemons, but it is mostly chockfull of Alden’s favorite yogurt, cheese, and fruit. The compost bin—most food scraps go to the chickens—is efficiently located in a drawer directly under the cutting board. The wine refrigerator sits next to the dishwasher Barton rarely uses because he finds washing dishes by hand relaxing. With almost a straight face, he rationalizes buying the upscale beverage storage unit because it helps cut down on food waste (because, you know, produce can get lost in the fridge behind bottles of wine and cans of local beer if you don’t take the necessary precautions.)
Carrie Anne, sitting on the couch in the aforementioned lounging area, a spot from which she often reads to her son and chats with her husband while he cooks, rolls her eyes. “You say that as if good wine and beer last long enough in this house for produce to go bad,” she says with a teasing smile.
The full-sized fridge is in the pantry, 15 paces from the kitchen’s workspace. The configuration is a deliberate holdover from Barton’s decade-long tenure at the helm of multiple seafood restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area.
“In a professional kitchen, you ideally go to the walk-in once, get all the ingredients you need, and bring it out to the kitchen to prepare it,” Barton says. He employs the same efficiency of movement in his home kitchen. It gives him more time to converse with his wife, accept child-sized pots and pans of pretend food that Alden passes over the gate, and enjoy a glass of something nice while he gets dinner ready five or six nights each week.
The only appliance that sits on the counter is a toaster oven. The fact that not many professional chefs will plug a toaster oven to the general public is not lost on this one. He argues, though, that better control of the ambient heat that works to cook seafood gently and energy conservation are both points in favor of the toaster oven. He motions to the 36-inch windowless oven of his high-end range and then to the 18-inch countertop unit, shrugs, and asked me to guess which one takes longer to reach a recipe’s required temperature and better holds it there.
“Plus, if it’s my mission to get more Americans across all demographics to eat more seafood at home, I’ve got to make that prospect as unintimidating as possible. Toaster ovens are pretty approachable,” he says.
The cool lines of the kitchen, though, belie the warm tones with which Barton cooks seafood at home when the weather turns autumnal.
In the cookbook he published in 2016, Two If by Sea: Delicious Sustainable Seafood, Barton wrote an ode to mace, the lacy, vibrant red hull that covers the nutmeg seed. It’s most often available as a ground spice. Barton describes mace as having “an exotic scent that is similar to nutmeg, but with its own unique, curious blend of burned cinnamon, anise, blossoming lilies, and Madeira-like nuttiness.” That flavor profile certainly doesn’t categorize neatly. But he contends mace is equally at home in sweet and savory applications and believes the spice is a great match for seafood.
“Its musky, piquant qualities pair especially well with fuller-flavored seafood—think shrimp, salmon, and bluefish,” he writes, adding that while many assertive spices often debate against seafood, this one yields in agreement. So he uses it often, as a seasoning before cooking seafood and as the unidentifiable ingredient in a vinaigrette that is served alongside it.
Barton is known to give his diners a bit of something to nibble on while they keep him company as he cooks. His simplest go-to snack is a tin of anchovies laid out in a single layer on a plate, sprinkled with mace and chopped fresh mint and drizzled with olive oil.
“Serve it with sliced bread and everyone is happy to wait patiently for the main course,” he says.
When Barton cooks with mace, he’s often asked what the curious flavor might be. His response? “It’s but an old friend.”
Two more of his old friends sit comfortably inside the pepper grinder on his counter. Mixed in with the black peppercorns are allspice berries and fennel seeds. While the former is most often considered a baking spice, Barton contends that when allspice is ground with black pepper it softens the pepper’s aggressive taste, implies a hint of the exotic, and makes the resulting mix an elegant accent for seafood.
Fennel, as far as Barton is concerned, is the perfect partner for all seafood. Its anise flavor complements the briny and sweet taste of both fish and shellfish. The seeds go into the grinder to finish the fish dishes. Bulbs are shaved into salads he serves with grilled seafood and are quartered and braised in his seafood stews. He uses the stalks in stock or as an aromatic raft to hold fish to be steamed. He chops the frilly fronds like herbs and anise-flavored liquors like Pernod, pastis, vermouth, absinthe, and his personal favorite, the New Orleans staple Herbsaint, to help cure gravlax and serve as flambé agents.
When Barton talks about the warming notes the spice rack can provide seafood dishes, he says he’d be remiss if he didn’t bring on the heat and fire up the smoke.
No matter the season, chili peppers are in the mix when he cooks at home because the combination with fish is as basic as a lemon is. He prefers the Mediterranean varieties like Arbol and Calabrian in sauces and stews; says bright, mild fresh chilies like serrano and Fresno add both complexity and balance to acidic dishes like ceviche; and believes dried chili products like Aleppo, Espelette, and traditional red chili pepper flakes should be used in moderation, sprinkled on briny fish before they are baked, broiled, or sautéed.
Barton grills seafood year-round on the 20-year-old Weber kettle grill he’s toted to every home he’s had in his adult life. In his mind, seafood cooked over a flame is as good as it gets because smoke is as basic a flavor in seafood cookery as olive oil is. Evidenced by the pinecones he placed in the embers to add a fall-like herbaceous aroma to the grilled swordfish he prepared for Edible Maine editors, he uses what’s in season—everything from cinnamon sticks, to his beloved fennel stalks, to the Christmas tree boughs—to play with the palettes of family members and friends lucky enough to dine on one of his home-cooked meals.
Broiled Black Sea Bass Flambé*
4 Black Sea Bass fillets, skin on
Zest of 1 orange
6–8 stalks rosemary and/or sprigs savory
4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 shot port
1 shot gin
Season fish with salt and zest and let rest 20 minutes. Preheat broiler to medium and set rack to closest position.
In the bottom of an ovenproof dish, arrange herbs in a single layer and place fish on top. Put a pat of butter on top of each fillet. Cook until done. Remove from broiler. Add port and gin and flambé by lighting it with a match. Allow alcohol to burn off before serving.
*Barton served this dish with a simple salad of shaved fennel and apple that was tossed with orange juice and olive oil.
Roasted Acorn Squash with Anchovy Herb Butter
1 (2-ounce) tin oil-packed anchovies, drained
½ tablespoon lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chervil, tarragon, and/or parsley
Ground black pepper, allspice, and fennel mix
1 wedge Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 acorn squash, cut into 12–16 wedges
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 400°.
Whisk together anchovies, lemon juice and zest, herbs, ¼ teaspoon ground pepper, allspice and fennel mix, 1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter. Set aside. *
Coat squash wedges with olive oil and season with salt and ground pepper, allspice and fennel mix. Spread seasoned squash on a baking sheet and roast until tender, about 30–40 minutes, turning once so the wedges are caramelized on all sides. Remove squash from the oven and douse with 3–4 tablespoons of anchovy herb butter. Garnish with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and serve warm or at room temperature.
*The left-over butter can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or the freezer for 2 months.
Pinecone Grilled Swordfish with Citrus and Herbs
½ bunch parsley, chopped
2 lemons, zested
1 garlic clove
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 portions swordfish
3–4 large pinecones
Make a gremolata: Chop together the parsley, zest, garlic, and ½teaspoon salt until finely minced. Transfer to a bowl and stir in ¼ teaspoon mace and 4 tablespoons olive oil. Set aside.
Season fish with salt and a pinch of mace and let rest 20 minutes. Prepare a charcoal grill with a medium fire, concentrating hot coals on one side of the kettle. Brush fish with olive oil and place it on grill directly over coals. Cook until the edges of the fish begin to brown, 4–6 minutes. Lift entire grill grate and rotate it so fish rests opposite hot coals. Add pinecones to fire. When they begin to smolder, cover grill and continue to cook over this indirect heat until fish is done. Serve with gremolata.
Fennel, Apple and Orange Salad
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 Honeycrisp apples, thinly sliced
1 shallot, finely minced
1 cup thinly sliced radishes (optional)
Juice of 1 orange
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Combine fennel, apples, shallot, radishes if using, orange juice, olive oil and a healthy pinch of ground mace. Toss well. Season with salt and pepper. Toss once more. Serve immediately.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.