Articles in Fishing

Fresh mackerel. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

By now, most consumers have heard about community-supported agriculture, or CSA. With a CSA you purchase a share in a local farm at the start of the growing season and, in return, receive a weekly allotment of fresh produce. This system, which arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, ensures farmers earn fair wages for their harvests and guarantees fresh, often organically grown, vegetables and fruit for their supporters.

While CSAs may have become commonplace, the public remains less aware of community-supported fisheries, or CSFs. Granted, CSFs have not been in existence as long. The first, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, began in Maine in 2007. As of September 2015, the number had grown to 39 in North America.

Supporting local fishermen

Fishermen unload their catch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Fishermen unload their catch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Applying the CSA premise to seafood, CSF subscribers buy a share in a fishery. This payment goes directly to local fishermen. Direct payment usually cuts out costly middlemen such as processors and distributors. It also offers income stability for the anglers.

In return for this money, the fishermen provide a weekly or biweekly supply of fresh-from-the-boat seafood for their patrons. They also give peace of mind about food sourcing. With this system people know who caught their fish and where, when and how it was obtained.

Along with promising information and a steady market for their catches, CSFs allow fishermen to seek out unusual and abundant seafood. “They honor the diversity of catch of smaller-scale fisheries. These are the mainstays of fishing communities and have the smallest ecological footprint,” said Niaz Dorry, director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Dorry has been a driving force in the creation and continuation of community-supported fisheries.

Dorry points out that while New England fishermen bring in roughly 60 species of fish and shellfish, supermarkets carry, at most, 12. As a result, only the longstanding favorites get purchased and consumed. Deemed bycatch or unwanted by consumers, the remaining species are discarded.

Instead of fixating on overly popular, exploited seafood, CSF fishermen seek out healthy sustainable stocks and sell all the fish they catch. They also target invasive species such as green crabs and Asian carp. They work with, rather than against, the environment, allowing overfished populations to rebound and reducing, if not eliminating, predatory alien marine life.

Regardless of the good that a CSF can do, consumers may still shy away from joining one. Intimidated by the thought of by receiving an exotic crustacean or whole carp to cook, some may opt for the usual imported shrimp or filleted farmed-raised salmon from the grocery store.

Although store-bought offerings may feel more familiar and manageable, they won’t be as fresh. Rarely are they local; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fish Watch, 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. has been imported. Along with possessing a bigger carbon footprint than locally sourced goods, seafood shipped in from overseas tends to come from less sustainable fisheries.

Community-supported fisheries aim to educate

Cleaning fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Cleaning fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

To combat this reliance on a chosen, foreign few, consumers must be educated.

“People haven’t had enough exposure to other fish. This is why we give a suggested recipe each day, so that people know what to do with their pollock, hake, sole, redfish or monkfish,” said Donna Marshall, director of Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a 4,500-member CSF in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

For members who feel squeamish about looking their fish in the eye, Cape Ann provides the choice of receiving whole or filleted fish. For more daring cooks it offers truck-side filleting demonstrations. On designated pickup days it sends all participants an email detailing the seafood and on which of the 17 participating fishing boats their portions were caught.

Whether you belong to a community-supported fishery or not, Marshall says the public should become informed and know where their seafood comes from. “Go to any restaurant and ask where your fish is from. If it’s not local, why isn’t it? We must start insisting that we eat fresh local fish,” she said.

CSFs part of the local food movement

A barrel of fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

A barrel of fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Demanding access to local seafood seems like a no-brainer. So, too, does backing a community-supported fishery. It helps a region’s fishing community, fosters working waterfronts and boosts the area’s economy. It embraces seafood diversity, reduces the likelihood of overfishing and delivers extremely fresh food. Ultimately, it can provide a win for fishermen, consumers and the oceans.

For those curious about whether a CSF exists near their town, LocalCatch.org has created an online interactive map of “boat-to-fork seafood.” LocalCatch.org is a network of North American fishermen, researchers, organizers and consumers devoted to the growth and maintenance of community-supported fisheries.

Its locator presents information on CSFs, farmers and fish markets, boat-to-school cafeteria programs and small fishing crews that sell dockside and directly to the public.

Main photo: Fresh mackerel. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

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Fish sellers, in the old market, wear red vests that read

A battle is raging over where to buy your fish in Seoul, and the outcome will determine the fate of one of the city’s most iconic food markets and tourist destinations.

The sprawling Noryangjin Fish Market, on the south banks of the Han River, has been where fish sellers, buyers and simply the curious have been congregating since 1927. It’s also one of Seoul’s top tourist destinations.

Conan O’Brien visited, and played with the squirting “sea penises” on American TV. A thousand Chinese tourists visit a day, according to Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper. Fox News rated it the third-best food market in the world, and when Conde Nast Travel ran a photo essay of the best markets in Seoul, 10 of the 20 photos were from Noryangjin.

Battle to remain open

An overview of the old Noryangjin Fish Market from the second floor. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

An overview of the old Noryangjin Fish Market from the second floor. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Today, though, the market is quiet. There is graffiti on the top floors that reads “Demolition.” On the main floor, the fish sellers are wearing red vests that read “Together we fight.” Banners hang from the walls, and there is a militant atmosphere throughout the market.

Parent company Suhyup wants the fish sellers to move across the street to a new market. The new market is smaller than the old one, fully indoors and air-conditioned, and resembles a department store. It is also mostly empty, since most fish sellers refuse to move there, despite orders from Suhyup.

“After they built the whole new building, we didn’t get any notice or have any meetings,” said one fish seller, who refused to give his name but has been selling fish at Noryangjin for 30 years. “On March 16, 2016, we got a notice to move. After we checked the new site, we saw it didn’t match our needs, so we chose to stay and fight.”

Mixed reactions to new

A stall on the second floor of the new market sells dried fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A stall on the second floor of the new market sells dried fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Suhyup says the old building, now 45 years old, is unsafe and unsanitary. But fish sellers have a litany of complaints about the new building, chiefly that the allocated lots are too small. They say the floors are slippery (I almost fell twice), the aisles are too narrow, the rents are too high, they weren’t properly consulted and, most important for visitors, that it lacks any of the atmosphere the old building has.

The corporation, meanwhile, says the fish sellers were perfectly well consulted, rents and lot sizes are the same, and everyone signed an agreement to move as far as back as 2009.

“We have to face the fact they’re not going to rebuild the traditional site,” says Song Young-hi, a fish seller of 39 years who reluctantly moved to the new building. She complains the lots are too narrow, and that it’s “almost impossible” to display the fish. Still, she doubts the company will back down, and she has to make a living. “I have to do what I have to do,” she says. The dispute is now with the courts.

Modern, but will tourists come?

Young octopus are on display at the old market. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Young octopuses are on display at the old market. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A favorite activity among tourists at Noryangjin is getting the fresh seafood cut up right in front of them and served in one of the market’s many restaurants. In the old building, all the restaurants have been shuttered and sprayed with graffiti, their electricity and water shut off by the company. In the new building, the restaurants are open, but with fewer customers.

Stella, a tourist from Toronto who didn’t want to give her last name, bought fish at the new market to eat at one of the second-floor restaurants. But she said she would rather have gone to the old market, and was under the impression the old one was closed.

“My friends showed me pictures of the old one. It seemed to have more choice,” she says.

Traditional-style ‘better’

A seller fillets a fish in the old market. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A seller fillets a fish in the old market. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

In the old market, Achuko and Yoko from Japan look at crabs and discuss the two markets. “I like the new market,” Achuko says. “It’s so clean.” But, she adds, “It’s impossible to move all of [the fish sellers] there.”

She admits the old market is more traditional. “The old one is cheaper and a bigger market,” Achuko says. “So Koreans like this style, I think.”

Jang Han Gi is a fish seller who splits a 24-hour shift with his brother. It’s hard work, but after 25 years, he’s used to it. He says there’s no way he’s moving to the new market.

“The customers prefer the open site and the open style of this building,” Jang says.

Jake Yoo, a local tour guide, agrees. He says there just isn’t time to visit both markets on a tour, and the old one wins with tourists, hands-down. “This is traditional-style here, and it’s better.”

Main photo: Fish sellers, in the old market, wear red vests that read “Together we fight.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Chef Michael Cimarusti, left, and Donato Poto, partners in Cape Seafood and Provisions, on opening day, March 23, 2016. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

Fresh seafood is the beating heart of Chef Michael Cimarusti’s culinary universe. At his Michelin-starred Providence, named “Best LA Restaurant” by food critic Jonathan Gold for the last three years, Cimarusti turns the ocean’s bounty into delicate, edible art. That same super premium seafood is also on offer at his chowder and oyster joint, Connie & Ted’s. “We take fish seriously and want our customers to do the same,” he says.

That’s a challenge in Los Angeles, a rare coastal city far removed from major fishing grounds where both chefs and home cooks rely on fish shipped in from other regions. “People are always asking where they can buy great fresh fish,” says Cimarusti. “There are so many issues — traceability, the sustainability of various species. Concerned cooks want to buy fish with integrity. They want to feel good about what they eat and have it taste good. It’s difficult to know what to buy here.”

Cimarusti addressed that challenge head-on by opening his own fish market, Cape Seafood and Provisions, where he takes the guesswork out of shopping for fish. “All of our fish is wild caught, sustainable, and we can tell people who caught it and where it was caught,” he explains. “You have to be steadfast and stick to your guns with vendors. No compromises. People expect that from us.”

Bringing quality, sustainability

A fish case at Cape Seafood and Provisions, which is bringing sustainable seafood to home chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

A fish case at Cape Seafood and Provisions, which is bringing sustainable seafood to home chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

The secret to doing that for an affordable price is volume. Cimarusti serves the same quality fish at both of his restaurants and his fish market, which not only lowers his costs but also gives him access to more of the tip-top quality portion of a catch he needs for Providence’s specialized menu. L.A. home cooks shopping at Cape Provisions have access to that same product, he says, including Morningstar’s seasonal Maine scallops and the wild, line-caught striped bass previously only available to the city’s chefs. Plus, Cimarusti’s fishmongers cook in his restaurants, lending serious food cred to the serving tips they share with shoppers. “It’s what separates us from other seafood markets,” he says.

“We’ll be priced competitively,” he says. “But good fish is not cheap, and cheap fish is not good. Farm-raised fish is cheap. The methods used to bring that fish to market are questionable. People have to come to grips with the tremendous environmental costs behind cheap fish. And the taste? There is no comparison between farm and wild.”

Cimarusti is part of a movement among environmentally progressive chefs who are betting that a market-supported approach will rebuild threatened fishing grounds. Buying wild, sustainable, traceable fish, he says, supports the small-boat American fishermen dedicated to using managed fishing to bring back wild fish stocks and restore fish habitats. The higher price honors that investment and assures the economic viability of these small businesses.

In Providence’s hushed dining room, Cimarusti rarely discusses fish politics. The new market is his soapbox. Standing behind the fish counter, he explains to consumers how they can play an active role in restoring our ocean ecosystem. His message is simple: If you want to protect wild fish, you should eat wild fish.

Cape Seafoods is a double bottom-line business for Cimarusti, supporting both his restaurants and his values. The best part, he says, is the opportunity to share the stories of the fish he sells. “Consumers want answers,” he says. “It behooves us to supply them.”

Chef Michael Cimarusti, left, and Donato Poto, partners in Cape Seafood and Provisions, on opening day, March 23, 2016.  Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

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A salmon leaping in a cage. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, a highly regarded institution, has been considered for many years a welcome watchdog over our seafood. Why? Simply because there is so much information, misinformation, myth and reality afloat that a poor consumer never knows which way to turn — or which fish to buy.

Enter the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Card (and for all you smartphone addicts, an accompanying app). Updated every month or so as new information comes along, the Seafood Watch Card lists “best choices,” “good alternatives” and “avoid,” colored appropriately green, yellow and red, for all the seafood you might be lucky enough to find at a fishmonger or restaurant near you.

And now, for the first time, as I recently learned, Maine-farmed salmon has been awarded a yellow sticker as a “good alternative,” meaning Monterey Bay has given its seal of approval to the way salmon is raised in Maine.

Maine has stringent environmental controls over salmon farming, most of which takes place way Down East from Machiasport to Cobscook Bay; all of Maine’s current salmon farms are operated by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian family firm with a long history in Maine and the Maritimes. (Cooke salmon is marketed under the True North label.) Whether in Canada or Maine, the company is required to follow strict environmental protocols. In Maine, that includes a particularly stringent “bay management system,” wherein the salmon are separated into year classes, each in separate pens and a separate bay from the others, making disease control much easier. Moreover, when a year class is harvested, the bay in which it was raised must spend a year in fallow, to allow the ocean bottom and surrounding water to recover. This system means a third of Maine’s 25 licensed fish farms are fallow in any given year.

Two other problems frequently raised about farmed salmon are the use of antibiotics and hormones, and the ratio of wild fish used to produce farmed fish, called “fish in/fish out.” Maine, like Canada, has stringent rules governing the use of medications such as antibiotics. Like most modern fish farmers, Maine farms control disease in fish through inoculation at the parr (juvenile) stage. And, like other responsible fish farmers, Cooke Aquaculture is constantly researching ways to cut back on the quantity of wild fish that are fed to its salmon, using, according to company literature, marine, plant and animal proteins and fats, grains, minerals and vitamins, as well as carotenoids. The current ratio is about 1.2 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of salmon flesh. Currently, a lot of the fish meal and fish oil in the feed for Maine salmon actually comes from byproducts of fish intended for human consumption. I should note, too, that Cooke’s feeding program is certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, an international overseer of aquaculture practices.

Here’s what Monterey Bay had to say about Maine-farmed salmon: “Effluent and habitat impacts are moderate and stringent operating permit mandates have resulted in superior fish containment. Also of note is the industry’s very low reliance on marine feed ingredients. The industry is limited by high concerns for chemical use. Sea lice levels are also high, but there is evidence that no on-farm diseases have been transmitted to wild fish.”

Salmon a nutritious and versatile choice

The only problem now is where to find Maine salmon. Here in Maine, that’s not such a big deal, but elsewhere? Look for the True North label, and as with any quality food product, ask and ask and ask. If the answer brings a shrug and a bewildered look, keep asking. True North fish raised in Maine should be marked somewhere on the label. With such limited knowledge, it’s no wonder consumers are just as bewildered as fish mongers are, but persistence will pay off. Meanwhile, I’m making my voice heard, loud and clear, for Maine salmon. If it’s good enough for Monterey Bay, it’s good enough for me!

Apart from the fact that it’s enormously good for you, with plenty of those treasured Omega-3 fats, there’s another great thing about salmon: it’s so easy to prepare in dozens of tasty, interesting and easy ways. Dress a fillet with a little extra virgin, a few drops of lemon juice, and maybe a splash of soy or a smear of garlic paste, then run it under the broiler and cook to your taste until it’s a little browned on top. Or have the fillet skinned, then cut it in chunks, toss the chunks in olive oil in a skillet set over medium heat and serve with a side of home fries and a green salad. Any leftover salmon can be flaked and mixed, just like tuna from the can, with a little mayo, some chopped green onions, maybe a bit of chopped celery, capers and green olives, to make a delicious salad.

Or try this simple but elegant recipe for tataki salmon, which I discovered on a trip to Santiago de Chile, where it is popular as a first course. One pound of salmon makes plenty for 4, but if you want to serve it as a main, I’d count on 2 to 3 servings from a pound. Incidentally, this is also a good dish to prepare ahead, even by a couple of hours, but keep the prepared dishes in a cool place until ready to serve.

Tataki Salmon

Tataki Salmon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Tataki Salmon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Total time: Less than 20 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings as a main course, or 4 to 6 as a starter

Ingredients         

1 pound boneless Atlantic salmon, skinned, in one or two pieces

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

For garnish:

Half an avocado, cubed

Sprigs of cilantro

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Directions

  1. Pat the salmon fillet dry on both sides with paper towels, then sprinkle it liberally with ground black pepper.
  2. Using the flat blade of a knife, crush the minced ginger to a paste. Add it to a small bowl, along with the lime juice, sesame oil and soy sauce. Beat with a small whisk or a fork to make an amalgam.
  3. Set a heavy duty skillet on the stove over medium-high heat and heat it until it is very hot. Have the salmon ready, but first add the olive oil, roll it around the skillet to cover completely, then immediately add the salmon fillet. The oil may start to smoke before you add the salmon, but not to worry. The hotter the oil, the less likely it is the salmon will stick to the pan.
  4. Sear the salmon for about 45 seconds, then carefully turn it over and sear the other side, searing again for 45 seconds. It should be browning on the outside but still quite raw in the middle.
  5. Remove the salmon to a plate and set aside to cool down. If you try to cut the salmon when it’s very hot, it will fall apart.
  6. When the salmon is sufficiently cool, cut it in bite-size cubes and arrange on plates.  Whisk up the dressing again and spoon it over the salmon cubes. Garnish with avocado, cilantro and sesame seeds and serve.

Note: It’s important to heat the skillet to very hot before adding the oil and then, immediately after, the salmon; if the skillet is not hot, the salmon will stick to the pan.

Main photo: A salmon leaping in a cage. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture

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Squid stir-fry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

For as long as I can remember, I’ve encouraged cooking students, friends and fellow diners to opt for squid over octopus. In return they usually say they have never tried it or they like deep-fried octopus too much to give up “calamari.” Besides, does anyone really know what to do with that freakish, tentacle-waving thing?

It turns out quite a few people and cultures know how to prepare squid. Japanese cooks slice it and serve it raw with grated ginger and soy sauce, or they batter it, deep-fry it and offer it as tempura. In Southeast Asia, chefs add it to curries and stir-fries, while in the Mediterranean they may stew, stuff, grill or fry it.

As for that beloved, deep-fried appetizer calamari, it’s not octopus that diners dunk into bowls of tomato, cocktail or tartar sauce. Whether calamar in Spanish, calamaro in Italian or calamari on restaurant menus, the name refers to the same thing: squid.

The cephalopod family

Octopus. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Octopus. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

I can understand the confusion surrounding squid and octopus. Both are cephalopods from the mollusk family, a family that also includes clams, snails, cuttlefish and abalone. Both possess eight sucker-lined arms, three hearts, two eyes and a large head. Both have been dubbed head-footed, meaning their heads attach, loosely speaking, to their feet. Saltwater creatures, both live in tropical to temperate zones and propel themselves by sucking in and pushing out water.

While they do have many physical similarities, the two differ in one crucial aspect. Generally, squid possesses a better sustainability ranking than octopus.

Squid fisheries, particularly those dedicated to the longfin species, tend to be well managed. They track and restrict commercial landings and monitor habitat damage and bycatch. The fisheries also have the squid’s prolific reproduction and rapid growth rates in their favor; these traits make squid less susceptible to overfishing. Meanwhile, octopus fisheries are notorious for exploiting populations, harming habitats and hauling in large amounts of bycatch.

Sustainability and versatility are why I choose squid. Along with being fried, stewed or grilled, squid does well when braised, broiled, roasted, sautéed, steamed or served raw in sashimi or ceviche. Octopus, on the other hand, performs best with three techniques: braising, stewing or grilling.

Squid. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Squid. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

With squid you can eat everything — eight arms, two tentacles, head, ink — but its beak, eyes and thin, hard, transparent interior bone. These should be removed and discarded before cooking.

The cigar-shaped head can be stuffed and cooked whole or sliced into strips, flat pieces or rings. Depending upon their length, the arms and tentacles can be cooked whole or halved and then cooked.

Squid’s sweetly salty, black ink, which it uses for defense, remains a prized flavoring. You can add it to homemade pasta dough for a touch of color and taste, incorporate it into a sauce, simmer it in rice dish or dress other seafood with it. Spaniards pair the ink with white rice, garlic, green peppers and squid or its close relation cuttlefish for the paella-like specialty arròs negre. In Italy, squid and ink partner with risotto, white wine, shallots, parmesan, parsley and shrimp for riso el al nero di seppia.

Squid goes especially well with such ingredients as celery, garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, onion, scallions, shallot, peppers, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, walnuts, pasta, rice, polenta, couscous, fish and shellfish. Its mild flavor complements bay leaf, cilantro, honey, marjoram, mayonnaise, olive oil, parsley, ground pepper, saffron, sesame, soy sauce, thyme, vinegar and white wine.

Shopping for squid couldn’t be easier. Select fresh, slightly sweet-smelling squid with bright eyes and, if its been cleaned, a glistening, white body. If your fishmonger hasn’t cleaned it, the squid will have a purplish-brown membrane over it.

Of the species sold in markets, longfin is preferable. Along with being environmentally sound, it has fine, tender flesh and a delicate flavor. The same holds true for young or small squid, which can be as little as 1 inch long.

The majority of squid grow no larger than 2 feet long, but giant squid can reach up to 40 feet. Bigger squid are tougher in texture and should be used for stuffing, stewing or braising.

In all likelihood, what you purchase at your local market will have arrived there frozen and been defrosted before being put on display. If you purchase frozen squid, you should place it in a bowl on ice in your refrigerator and allow it to defrost overnight. Use it within one day of buying or defrosting.

The next time that you’re out for dinner or shopping at your local market, go for the more sustainable and adaptable seafood choice. Skip the octopus and ask for squid instead.

Salt ‘n’ Pink Pepper Squid

Cleaned squid. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Cleaned squid. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)

To boost the flavor of this simple but delicious dish, set out a small bowl of hot sauce for dipping.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 4 minutes

Total time: 9 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/4 teaspoons coarse sea salt

1 tablespoon pink or red peppercorns

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound cleaned squid

Sesame oil, for dressing

Hot sauce for serving (optional)

Directions

1. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the salt and peppercorns together so you have a rough mixture of the two.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high.

3. Using a knife, score one side of the squid sections in a crisscross pattern. Cut the squid into four equal, bite-sized sections; if you have small squid, just cut them in half. Season the squid on both sides with the salt-and-pepper mixture. Shake off any excess coating and place the squid in the pan.

4. Cook until the pieces start to curl up on the edges or bulge in the center, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over and cook on the other side until it also curls, about 1 minute. Remove and place the squid on a platter. Drizzle sesame oil to taste over the squid. Serve immediately.

Main image: Squid stir-fry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

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Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

There’s a phrase Mainers use when they really, really like something: “Wicked good,” they say. Right now they’re saying that about Maine sea scallops, harvested from the cold, clean waters in the state’s deep bays and around its widely scattered islands.

These are scallops from day-boat fishermen, who forage only inshore (within 3 miles of shore), leaving port before dawn and returning in the early afternoon with their 10- to 15-gallon allotment of fresh-shucked scallops. (A gallon of scallops weighs about 9 pounds.)

The season for these beauties just opened, and, with luck and a little help from Mother Nature, it will last through the winter, providing sweetly succulent seafood with a flavor and texture that put scallops high on a gourmet’s pinnacle. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply and the catch is tightly regulated. Maine sea scallops represent just about 1% to 1.5% of all the scallops consumed in the U.S. each year. Back in the 1980s, Maine fishermen harvested 4 million pounds of scallops annually, but that figure declined to an all-time low of just 33,000 pounds 10 years ago. Now, thanks to a combination of efforts from fishermen, along with the Penobscot East Resource Center, a prominent fisheries NGO, as well as the state’s Department of Marine Resources, the scallop population is being restored to sustainable levels, and a project is underway to give Maine sea scallops the same cachet as Maine lobster, a recognizable and sought-after treat for a festive winter table.

What makes Maine sea scallops so desirable is both their texture and flavor. That requires a brief lesson in physiology. The part of the scallop we consume is the adductor muscle, which connects the two shells of this bivalve. Most bivalves — clams, mussels and the like — are immobile, sitting in one place throughout their entire life cycle, patiently waiting for food to float by. But scallops are unusual in that they actually swim, clapping their shells together to propel themselves away from predators as their adductor muscle grows into a meaty chunk, as tender and tasty as filet mignon. As for the flavor, Maine sea scallops have a distinctive sweet nuttiness that experts say comes from the cold salt waters in which they thrive. Unlike scallops from other areas, they are as tasty raw as they are seared in a skillet or baked in a sea pie.

Moreover, because this is entirely a day-boat catch, the scallops arrive in port within hours of harvest and are usually shipped out within a short time frame, as fresh as a Maine morning. Deep sea scallop fishermen pack their catch in ice and frequently also in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate. Scallops are like little sponges, absorbing moisture and, of course, increasing in weight. These deep sea scallops are sold — or they should be sold — as “wet” scallops, and they are to be avoided. If you try to sear off “wet”scallops, they exude a milky liquid into the frying pan and will never brown properly. Consumer alert: Even if you can’t find Maine sea scallops, you should only buy “dry” scallops, which have not had anything added to them.

Once you have the best-quality scallops in your kitchen, you should use them quickly, within a day or two. In Maine we often freeze scallops in order to prolong the season, but otherwise, we eat them raw (a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of chopped green jalapeño and a little fresh cilantro will give them a delightful Mexican touch) or we cook them up in a variety of simple ways. Here is one, adapted from my “New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”

But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:

  • Be sure you get dry scallops.
  • Remove and discard the thick, opaque bit attached like a strap to the side of the muscle — it’s tough.
  • Dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels before you start to cook.
  • Don’t crowd the scallops when you sear them — they need plenty of room to brown perfectly.

Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin

Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Ingredients

About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finally chopped

1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and slivered

4 to 6 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped (1 ½ cups)

1 tablespoon mild Spanish or Hungarian paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 pounds “dry” Maine sea scallops

1/4 to 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra, for example)

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 to 3/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs

Directions

  1. In a deep skillet, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the onion and garlic and set over medium-low heat. As the vegetables start to sizzle and soften, lower the heat and stir in the pepper slivers.
  2. Stir to mix well and let cook until the pepper slivers are soft, then stir in the tomatoes, paprika, salt and pepper and let cook 4 to 5 minutes longer. If the vegetables start to stick to the pan, add a couple of tablespoons of wine to loosen them.
  3. When the vegetables are done and have reduced to a thick sauce, set aside. (These steps can be done well ahead.)
  4. When you’re ready to continue with the recipe, lay the scallops out on paper towels and pat dry on both surfaces. Turn on the broiler.
  5. Sprinkle the flour on a plate.
  6. Smear about half a tablespoon of oil over the bottom of a gratin dish or another type of shallow baking dish.
  7. Add 3 tablespoons of oil to another skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is very hot, dip each scallop in the flour, dusting both sides lightly, then add to the hot oil. Sear on both sides until golden-brown, turning with tongs — about 2 minutes to a side.
  8. As the scallops finish cooking, remove each one to the oiled baking dish. (You may need to add more oil to the skillet before you finish with all the scallops.) Ideally you will cover the bottom of the dish with a single layer of scallops.
  9. When all the scallops are done, add 1/2 cup wine to the skillet and boil rapidly, scraping up any brown bits, then stir the tomato-pepper mixture into the wine and cook briefly, stirring to mix well.
  10. Spoon the hot sauce over the tops of the scallops, then top the sauce with a combination of chopped parsley and bread crumbs. Dribble a thread of olive oil over the top, using about 2 tablespoons of oil, no more.
  11. Transfer the dish to the broiler, keeping it 3 to 4 inches from the source of heat, and broil until the top is lightly browned and sizzling, about 5 to 7 minutes.
  12. Remove and serve immediately.

Where to find Maine sea scallops

Fresh Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fresh Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

You can get Maine sea scallops, fresh or frozen, from the following locations. Note that prices vary depending on the harvest.

  • Stonington Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Flash-frozen fresh. 207-348-2730.
  • Downeast Dayboat Scallops: Fresh scallops. 207-838-1490.
  • Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Port Clyde, Maine: Fresh and frozen. 207-372-1059.
  • Ingrid Bengis Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Supplies chefs and restaurants only (for example, French Laundry, Blue Hill Stone Barns, et al.), not private customers, with fresh diver scallops. 207-367-2416.

Main image: Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Cod are hung out to dry in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Stockholm. As newlyweds we were deliriously happy, but as grad students we were broke. Our best entertainment consisted of visiting the city’s beautiful food hall, where we longingly eyed all the seafood we couldn’t afford. After a while, a kindly fishmonger named Tommy Henriksson took pity on us and introduced us to some local fish within our budget. Tommy taught us to make magic with fresh herring and cod — fish so inexpensive they were taken for granted. We learned how to pan-fry herring and to sear cod in a blazing hot cast-iron skillet with plenty of salt. It cooked up into beautiful, moist flakes.

But times have changed, and we can no longer take cod for granted. By 1994, the once-bounteous stock of cod in Georges Bank, a continental shelf off the coast of New England, had been depleted from overfishing. And although strict quotas were put into place, these protective measures came too late. Our native fish stocks still haven’t recovered.

Wandering skrei

A freshly caught skrei. The fish is now threatened by industrial development. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

A freshly caught skrei. The fish is now threatened by industrial development. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

The world’s largest population of native cod now swims in the Barents Sea, which washes the far northern coasts of Norway and Russia.

These cod are called skrei, from an Old Norse word meaning “to wander.” And wander they do. The skrei live for five years in the Barents’ nutrient-rich waters, where they acquire exceptional flavor. They then migrate to spawn in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway’s northern coast.

Until the 1980s, when wet-fish and factory trawlers began to proliferate, small-boat fishing was the islanders’ lifeblood. They lived by the annual rhythms of the fisheries and revered all parts of the cod. By simmering the cod with its liver, roe and a little whey, they made a traditional one-pot meal called mølje. Besides adding depth of flavor, the liver’s high content of vitamin D kept people healthy during the dark, sun-starved winters.

The importance of cod

Cod drying racks stand empty in the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

Cod drying racks stand empty in the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

Book links

FireAndIce

"Fire and Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking"

By Darra Goldstein

Ten Speed Press, 2015

304 pages

Cod’s importance to the North dates from the earliest recorded times, both for its nutritional and commercial values. The Vikings were trading dried skrei by the 10th century. Today, the fish continues to be dried in various traditional ways, two of which are recognized by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an international effort to identify and catalog unique regional food items.

For tørrfisk (stockfish), the cod is line-caught, then quickly gutted and beheaded before being brought to shore. Two fish of similar size are bound together by their tails and draped on wooden racks to dry for two or three months in the salt air. Klippfisk (salt cod) is prepared farther south on Norway’s coast where large, flat rocks rise at the edge of the sea. The rocks are cleaned and spread with salt before split cod is laid out on them to dry into a delicacy that is less hard and brittle than tørrfisk. My personal favorite is boknafisk, cod that has been only partially dried in the salt air. When poached, its texture turns silken.

Population is threatened

A dried cod tail in Norway. The Barents Sea population faces depletion. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

A dried cod tail in Norway. The Barents Sea population faces depletion. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

The Barents fisheries have been generally well regulated. Norwegians recognize that a healthy population of cod also means rich populations of valuable groundfish like haddock and pollock. But this piscatorial treasure is now threatened. In 2010, after years of negotiation, Norway and Russia ratified the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean Maritime Delimitation Treaty, which opened the waters to commercial interests.

The sea contains rich oil and natural gas deposits, and corporations on both sides of the border are eager to begin exploiting them. And although Norway is highly sensitive to environmental concerns, Russia is not. Pressure is increasing to drill for oil and gas in one of the last truly pristine places on earth.

Preservation is vital

Because of the decline in the annual catch, the Lofotens are already less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

As the annual catch has declined, the Lofoten Islands in Norway have become less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

Undamaged ecosystems are essential for fish to thrive. Unless carefully regulated, the oil and gas extraction industries will deplete the Barents Sea’s resources and then move on, leaving behind oil boom debris and polluted seabeds. The World Wildlife Fund expressed concern as far back as 2004, well before the international treaty was signed, over the potential loss of the Barents Sea habitat to overfishing and industrial development.

Because of the decline in the annual catch, the Lofotens are already less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Rows of wooden drying racks now stand empty on some island beaches, like so many looming sculptures memorializing a once-crucial livelihood and tradition. Cod encapsulates the collective history of the Barents region and the Lofoten Islands. It is vital that we preserve the last healthy population of wild cod and protect these waters that nourish not only the body but the soul.

Main photo: Cod are hung out to dry in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen

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The memorable scallop ramen at the roadside restaurant found on the way north to Wakkanai. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

It began at 3 a.m., a bursting, loud, rumbling noise that broke the rural silence and my sleep. It came and went continuously. I couldn’t take it anymore and got up to investigate.

I was staying at a Japanese resort hotel next to Lake Saroma on the northeastern coast of the island of Hokkaido. Little did I know that the jarring racket in this usually quiet town would lead me to discover one of the most memorable meals of my trip and one of the area’s most lucrative food industries: scallop farming.

Scallop farming starts with a perfect lake

The calm and beautiful Lake Saroma. This is the view from my room at the hotel. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The calm and beautiful Lake Saroma. This is the view from my room at the hotel. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Lake Saroma, the third largest lake in Japan, is adjacent to the Sea of Okhotsk, separated from the sea by a narrow sand spit. It was once a freshwater lake. Every year in April and May, snow melt from the mountains gushed into the 13 rivers that empty into the lake and flooded the area. Aside from destroying homes and villages, it also ruined the livelihood of the fishermen. To prevent future floods, locals dug out a bit of the sand strip to create a channel.

The narrow passage not only let the freshwater out to ease flooding, it also allowed seawater to come in, especially during high tide, leaving much of the lake brackish.

The passage frequently closed because of moving sand during winter storms, and locals worked to reopen the channel every year. People soon discovered other advantages to keeping the passage open.

New fish come to the lake and scallops, too

Kuniyoshi Ooi, a scallop farming fisherman. Credit:  Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Kuniyoshi Ooi, a scallop farming fisherman. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Fishermen could now easily catch salmon, herring and ocean trout that swam into the lake. Scallops and oysters that thrive in brackish water also found a home. In the 1950s, Japan studied the idea of introducing scallop farming at the lake, and it has been very successful. Today the lake has two permanent, man-made concrete passages to the sea.

When I checked into the hotel the day before, I found a pair of binoculars in the room and admired the calm, silent lake and the sea beyond. The next morning I rubbed my drowsy eyes and tried to reconcile two very different experiences: the prior day’s calm with the early morning noise. Soon I saw the source of the racket: boats moving at high speed on the lake. I noticed that the boats raced out, stopped for a while and then raced back to shore. They looked as if they were competing. I quickly dressed and went to the reception desk to find out what was happening. “They are scallop farmers at Sakaeura Fishery,” I was told. Without having breakfast, I dashed to the fishing port about a mile from the hotel to get a firsthand look at the operation.

Fishermen work day and night bringing in scallops

Boat that retrieves scallops on Lake Saroma in Japan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Boat that retrieves scallops on Lake Saroma in Japan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Fishing boats were still coming in and leaving the port every few minutes. I approached a senior fisherman, Kuniyoshi Ooi, who seemed to be overseeing the operation. He told me that 90 fishermen in this port are licensed to farm scallops. Each fisherman has his own boat, and each employs an average of 10 part-time workers — students from a nearby university — at this busy time of the year. Students are attracted by the good pay, $25 dollars an hour for work from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., Ooi said. The workers, dressed in bright colored uniforms, work as if part of a conveyor belt operation inside a long shed, extending several hundred feet along the quay.

Baby scallops are retrieved from the sacks

A scallop farmer removes 1-year-old chigai from the sack. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

A scallop farmer removes 1-year-old chigai from the sack. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Scallop farming in Lake Saroma is a sustainable, environmentally friendly business. The first year of scallop culture begins in May when the fishermen drop a rope with a knitted sack to collect natural scallop larvae in the lake. Scallop larvae in nature affix themselves to the grass in water. In farming, it’s different. The larvae attach to the ropes lowered by the fishermen.

In August, fishermen remove the ropes with larvae from the water, transfer them to a larger, roughly knitted square sack and drop it into the water again. By the following May, the scallops in the sack have grown to about 2 inches. The boats retrieve the sacks, 200 at a time, with 1-year old scallops, called chigai.

Mostly students work on the scallop harvest

Workers harvest the scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Workers harvest the scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

It was the roar of the boats engaged in this process that woke me from my deep sleep.  The part-time workers removed the scallops from each sack, cleaned and sorted them, and transferred them into large, blue plastic bins. After unloading the sacks for processing at the dock, the boat again sped back onto the lake to fetch more.

No words were exchanged among the workers; each silently and rapidly did his job — on the boat, on the pier and in the shed. Neither did anyone show any interest in the visitor watching them and snapping iPhone photos so early in the morning. I learned that the year-old scallops are then transported through the channels to the sea and remain there to mature for 3 years before being harvested and sent to market.

Scallops go back to the sea for three more years

Scallops are in the sack, but other sea creatures cling to the outside. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Scallops are in the sack, but other sea creatures cling to the outside. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

According to Ooi, the scallop harvest from the lake is about 44,000 tons each year. Fresh, frozen and dried scallops from this port not only satisfy the market in Japan but are exported to China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the United States. The 90 fisherman are part of a cooperative that provides for all of their needs, including food and housing allowances, funds for boat upkeep and crews, and generous retirement benefits. Ooi said last year’s profit from the scallop harvest, after all expenses, was more than $250,000 for each member of the co-operative. Not a bad catch; these fishermen are not poor.

The sustainable side of scallop farming

Scallops out of the sack. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Scallops out of the sack. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

In addition to their sustainable scallop farming operation, the Tokoro Fishery Association, of which the Sakaerura Fishery is a part, helps maintain the health of the local environment. In the past, cutting trees for opening the nearby land upstream from the lake for commercial development created problems at the fishery. Eroded sand and soil entered the lake and suffocated the fish. And the chemical contamination from the developed land degraded the water quality, which also affected the fishery.

The sustainable side of scallop farming

The uploaded chigai in sacks are stacked up and waiting to be processed. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The uploaded chigai in sacks are stacked up and waiting to be processed. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

In 1959, seven years after the establishment of the scallop culturing industry, the association purchased 1,500 acres of upstream land and planted 600,000 trees. The Tokoro Fishery Association is one of the pioneers in recognizing the important connection between healthy land and a healthy fishery. You might say the noise from the early morning fishing boats woke me up physically and mentally; the experience educated me on one of the most successful, sustainable and ecologically sound aquaculture systems in the world. And, of course, it stimulated my appetite for Lake Saroma scallops.

The next day on my way north to Wakkanai, the northernmost city of Hokkaido, I stopped at a roadside restaurant to sample the “scallop ramen.” As I devoured the delicious dish, vivid memories of my early morning visit to the fishing port flashed back to my mind. No scallops ever tasted better than the ones in my ramen.

Main photo: The memorable scallop ramen at the roadside restaurant found on the way north from Lake Saroma to Wakkanai. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

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