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Nora Pouillon Back to Q & A List

Photograph of Nora Pouillon

Nora Pouillon is the chef and owner of Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora in Washington, DC, the author of "Cooking with Nora," and one of America's best known chefs.

Top Washington chef Nora Pouillon talks about "Give Swordfish a Break," a successful campaign aimed at getting chefs and consumers to avoid North Atlantic swordfish until conservation measures were adopted. The campaign ended in August 2000.

Q: How did you first learn that swordfish were in trouble?

A: I've known about the problem for a long time. I haven't sold swordfish for the last five years or so because I realized that each time I ordered swordfish, the purveyor sent me smaller and smaller cuts. So I asked him "what's happening?" and he said that the bigger fish are just not out there anymore. And so that's when I realized that the swordfish had gotten decimated and that I was cooking and selling young adults or teenage fish.

Q: So you actually saw this happen personally?

A: Yes, but any chef could see this. It's really as simple as 1 plus 1 makes 2. If the price of the fish gets higher and higher then you know there aren't many of them left and that's why it gets so expensive. If the big fish like tuna or swordfish get smaller and smaller then you know the same thing -- that the big ones just aren't there any more and that we are not allowing the young ones to grow up -- that we've fished them before they've had a chance to grow up.

Q: Have you seen this in fish other than swordfish?

A: There used to be, for instance, rockfish that you couldn't get any more. So they put a moratorium on fishing rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay. And I think they had planned for the moratorium to last five years or longer and after three years they lifted the moratorium and now they allow seasonal fishing. You know that's what we do with game so you can only hunt it in a certain area and a certain time.

Q: As a chef who doesn't serve swordfish, is there a fish you use as a substitute in recipes?

A: I change my menu every day and I always cook seasonally so for me there is no problem keeping swordfish off the menu. The restaurants with the problem are steak houses because swordfish has the same allure as a beefsteak to people. Sort of a big slab of fish that you can throw on the grill and serve with a lemon butter sauce or something.

For me, I think only of texture and color of the fish so I can substitute halibut when it is in season or I can substitute tuna or mahi-mahi. Basically you want a firm textured fish -- that's what swordfish is.

Q: Do you inform people about the swordfish campaign on your restaurants' menus?

A: Yes, I say that we aren't serving swordfish this year.

Q: Can restaurants joining this campaign really make a difference?

A: Absolutely, because not only will a successful moratorium help replenish the swordfish, this is a great opportunity to educate chefs and restaurant diners about the larger issue of overfishing. I know that many people just had no idea there was a problem, and thought that the oceans were a kind of bottomless pit. So raising awareness -- especially during this, the Year of the Ocean, is the major goal of the campaign.

Q: Are there other foods which you won't put on your menu for environmental or other reasons?

A: Oh, yes. For ethical reasons I don't do foie gras. I'm very careful about where I get oysters from. I get mussels only from the cold up north -- Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island. I don't buy any fish that comes out of the Gulf of Mexico because it is so polluted. I don't buy any shrimp or scallops that have been treated by being dipped in a bleaching preservative liquid so they stay fresh longer and look white.

Q: How many pounds of fish does a restaurant like yours use in a day?

A: We have three fish entrees on our menu, about 60 orders of fish a day, so I would say we use about 30 to 60 pounds a day. Actually, 30 percent of the food we sell is fish. People like to order fish partly because they've been told it isn't fattening and also because a lot of people are uncomfortable about cooking fish at home.

Q: What's your favorite fish to cook with?

A: Well, to eat, I really like cod but that's been decimated too. I used to like salmon a lot but it has been so overdone. I mean it's great because it's a farmed fish and very plentiful, but you get it all the time so you get a little tired of it. I like shellfish a lot. Halibut is a wonderful fish.

Q: Are you active in other environmental causes?

A: Everything I do in the area of food I relate to the environment. I think water is very important; after all you can't cook without it -- so we have a special filtering system at our restaurants. And you can't have organic vegetables without proper use of composting. I work to encourage people to buy and eat organic foods. I work with Walnut Acres which has been selling organic foods through catalogs for years by helping them develop easy to make but delicious pre-prepared meals that anyone can make.

Q: Have you ever toyed with being a vegetarian?

A: No. I really believe in balanced food. I eat fish or meat once or twice a week but I eat vegetarian most of the time anyway without realizing it, just because it is what my body wants. I didn't grow up eating meat three times a day. I am happy having a protein like a fish or chicken or meat a few times a week.

Q: Other than your own restaurants, do you have any favorites?

A: Oh, sure. I just came back from New York and all of Jean Georges' [Vongerichten] restaurants are wonderful: Jean Georges, Vong and Jo Jo. Nobu is also wonderful, and there's Daniel, and the Gotham Bar and Grill. In New York, you have an enormous selection of really interesting restaurants that serve flavorful food and balanced food.

Saffron Fettuccine with Ten Kinds of Tomatoes, Fresh Mozzarella, Basil, & Balsamic Vinaigrette

(you will need a pasta machine)
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
3/4 cup semolina flour
3 eggs
1/4 teaspoon powdered saffron
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine the flours on a work surface and make a well in the center. Break the eggs into the well, add the saffron, salt and olive oil and beat with a fork until combined. Gradually mix in the flour, working around the inside of the well, until you can collect most of the flour into a ball of dough. Gather the dough together with your hands and knead it for about 10 minutes or until pliable and smooth. Dust with flour from time to time if it becomes too sticky. Or make the pasta in a food processor or a mixer fitted with a dough hook.

Cut the dough into 8 pieces and shape it into flat ovals. Lightly dust the ovals with flour to prevent them from sticking and also dust the pasta machine rollers. Pass the dough through the widest setting on the pasta machine (#1) about 10 times, folding it in half each time. The dough will become smooth and pliable. Continue passing the dough through the machine, narrowing the setting each time, until the dough stretches to the desired thickness, or about 1/16 of an inch for fettuccine noodles. Repeat the process until all the dough is stretched.

Cut the pasta sheets into fettuccine noodles using the specified cutter. Sprinkle the cutter with flour or corn meal to prevent it from sticking.

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pour the vinegar into a small bowl. Add the olive oil, garlic and pepper, and mix. Adjust seasonings to taste.

(or substitute heirloom tomatoes for a mix such as this one)
1 yellow tomato
1 red cherry tomato
1 yellow cherry tomato
1 red pear tomato
1 yellow pear tomato
1 red currant tomato
1 yellow currant tomato
1 orange or yellow sunburst tomato
1 green grape tomato
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup fresh basil leaves, julienned

Wash and slice the large tomatoes, quarter the medium ones and halve the small ones. Leave the currant tomatoes whole. Add the mozzarella cubes and toss with the balsamic vinaigrette and the julienned basil leaves.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Just before adding the fettuccine, add 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil to the water. This helps prevent the fresh pasta from sticking together. Boil the fettuccine for 3 to 4 minutes or until al dente. Drain in a colander. Toss the pasta with 1 teaspoon of olive oil to prevent it from sticking.

Put the fettuccine noodles on four large, warmed dinner plates. Arrange several spoonfuls of the tomato-basil salad on top.

Photos: Nora, Mahdavian; tomatoes, copyright 1998 PhotoDisc, Inc.

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