Articles in Fishing

Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Nestled in its elegant, fan-shaped shell, the lustrous and translucent scallop is one of the ocean’s greatest beauties. When removed from its protective housing and placed in a hot pan, grill or oven, it transforms into one of the culinary world’s most delectable foods.

Thanks to its plump and juicy yet firm flesh, mildly sweet flavor, ease of preparation and overall sustainability, this bivalve has become one of my go-to seafood choices.

When talking about scallops, I usually mean sea scallops. I most often see this type in refrigerated seafood cases and on restaurant menus. Larger than the other category of scallops, bay scallops, they range in size from 1 1/2 inches to 9 inches in diameter. They are farmed on coastlines around the world and harvested year-round, making them widely available and relatively affordable.

Their tiny relation, the bay scallop, grows to only a half-inch in diameter. Sweeter and more tender than sea scallops, the bay scallop is less common and, as a result, costs considerably more.

Whether classified as bay or sea, all scallops filter feed on plankton. To do this, they draw in particle-filled water, strain out the plankton for consumption and then push out the cleaned water. They share this tidy method of eating with clams, mussels and oysters, the other members of the bivalve family.

Scallops score high on sustainability

Scallops have a good sustainability rating. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Scallops have a good sustainability rating. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

The ability to filter impurities from water means scallops are considered eco-friendly creatures. Their lack of dependence on fish feed and predilection for eating from the bottom of the food chain further increases their good environmental standing. Good for the environment and likewise safe for consumption, they can be enjoyed by both children and adults at least four times a month.

Unquestionably, I appreciate the scallops’ solid sustainability rating. What I also like is how little effort is needed to prepare them. Unlike other bivalves, I never have to shuck a bunch of scallops.

Simple ways to boost scallops’ flavor

Scallops pair well with many flavors and foods, making them a versatile choice. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Scallops pair well with many flavors and foods, making them a versatile choice. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Because their shells never close completely, scallops spoil easily. To avoid the risk of spoilage, fishermen shuck the scallops right after harvesting them. Everything but the meaty abductor muscle — and, if you live outside the U.S., the orange-colored roe sack — is discarded.

U.S. consumers know the pearly abductor muscle as a scallop; in America this is what we cook and eat. Elsewhere people have the choice of buying and cooking scallops with or without the roe intact. Having tried it both ways, I have to vouch for the use of the rich, slightly salty roe. It adds complexity to and also balances out the scallop’s mildly sweet flavor.

Because I don’t have the option of including the roe, I sometimes toss in an extra ingredient or two to boost the scallops’ taste. Herbs such as basil, chervil, parsley, tarragon and thyme and seasonings such as cayenne, black and white pepper, salt, brandy, vinegar and dry white wine complement this shellfish. So, too, do avocados, bell peppers, carrots, chilies, corn, garlic, ginger, shallots, lemons, limes, mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes. This is a companionable and versatile seafood.

Tips for buying scallops

Consider odor, color and luster when buying scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Consider odor, color and luster when buying scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

When shopping for scallops, I consider odor, color and luster. The flesh should smell sweet rather than pungent or fishy. It should have a bright sheen and appear somewhere between pale pink and light beige in color. Unless soaked in a solution, which increases its weight and, therefore, cost, a scallop will not appear bright white.

Additionally, the meat should not look flabby but instead be firm and well formed. Floppiness or limpness is another sign the shellfish has been languishing in liquid. Because I don’t want to pay more for less and, more important, buy seafood that’s been bathing in preservatives, I ask my fishmonger for dry-packed or untreated scallops.

Lastly, I request either diver-caught sea scallops from Mexico or farmed sea scallops; as you might suspect from the name, diver-caught indicates a diver has hand collected the bivalves from the ocean floor. Both methods of harvesting have low environmental impact.

Because I’m one of those uptight buy-right-before-cooking cooks, I tend to prepare my scallops as soon as I return from the market. If I have to deviate from this practice, I immediately refrigerate the scallops. They will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator.

Cooking methods

Pan searing is one of several cooking techniques that bring out the flavor of scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Pan searing is one of several cooking techniques that bring out the flavor of scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

When cooking scallops, I have a plethora of techniques at my disposal. These include sautéing, pan searing, grilling, broiling and poaching. Along with serving them on their own, I’ve put them in gratins, seafood pies, stir-fries, ceviches, tartares and stews. Light and flavorful, they are a wonderful, all-purpose seafood.

This spring enliven your cooking with simple, tasty scallops. They’re good, and good for you!

Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction

This recipe is from “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013) by Kathy Hunt.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 scant tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 cup sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon light brown sugar, firmly packed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound large sea scallops

Sea salt to taste

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil on medium. Add the minced shallot and sauté until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

2. Pour the sherry vinegar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and stir in the brown sugar and shallots. Simmer until the liquid has thickened and reduced to 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup. When finished, the sauce will be syrupy in texture. Set aside. (Note: You may want to reheat this slightly before dressing the cooked scallops with it.)

3. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on high. Add the scallops, season with salt and pepper and reduce the heat to medium-high. Sear the scallops until brown on the bottom. Flip them over and fry the other side until browned. Depending on the size of your scallops, the cooking time will take between 6 to 8 minutes total.

4. Place the scallops on the dinner plates. Drizzle the shallot-sherry vinegar reduction over the scallops. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

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Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds. Recipe courtesy Norwegian Seafood Council. Credit: Copyright Norwegian Seafood Council

Every time I buy cod I am reminded of my stint as a young political television researcher. During the UK-Icelandic “Cod Wars,” I was charged with getting a suitable specimen to act as Exhibit A. I knew enough to realize it would not come in preprepared steaks, but I was not expecting the 6-foot-long marine monster freshly arrived from Fleetwood Docks.

After the program, no one wanted to go near the blooming thing, so I smothered it in newspaper, crammed it into the boot of my car and did what any sensible Jewish girl would do — took it home for mother. “Oh, just cut it up and bung it in a pan and fry it,” I said breezily. Thanks to her old-school upbringing, she did not flinch: she simply rolled up her sleeves and gutted, scaled, skinned, chopped and filleted while I made my excuses and left.

It’s cod, but not cod as we know it

I was reminded of the superlative taste of that fish when I sampled Skrei (pronounced skray). It sounds like a reggae dance or a fiendishly difficult quiz question, but to those in the know, Skrei is one of the best things to come out of Norway since the Vikings. Indeed, it’s cod, but not cod as we know it.

Skrei swims onto our plates directly from the icy-clear waters of Norway’s beautiful Lofoten Islands. It is a Scandinavian dream of a fish: sweet, bright white flesh with a supple texture scored by fat lines that melt away during cooking and allow the fish to break into tender, opalescent flakes. Rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, Skrei is healthy, wholesome and versatile. It also has an amazing life history.

Between January and April, millions of Skrei migrate thousands of miles from their home in the Barents Sea to the islands to reproduce. Only the very best — fully grown and immaculate — qualify for the brand’s seal of approval, a  special tag fastened to the dorsal fin.

Cod might have been off the sustainable menu in recent years due to overfishing in the northeast Atlantic and United Kingdom waters. But in northern Norway, Skrei ticks all the environmental boxes and is a reflection of the high-management standards of Norwegian fisheries, which banned discards years ago. Most Skrei are caught with longlines from small boats, and the Barents Sea now provides Norwegians with the largest growing cod stock in the world.

Skrei can be eaten both raw and cooked. Serve it lightly cured and thinly sliced with olive oil, lemon, dill and sea salt, or roast it with braised fennel and anchovy to bring out the delicate but full flavor. The most popular way in Norway to prepare Skrei is simply poached or baked with boiled potatoes and steamed carrots. Alternatively, Norwegians like to eat it with cod roe, tongue and liver, boiled potatoes, crispbread and aquavit.

‘Skrei is a great addition to my  menu’

Available at specialist outlets in Europe and the United States, Skrei is a chef magnet. Michel Roux Jr. features the fish while in season at his two-Michelin-star Le Gavroche restaurant in London and is a committed fan. “I think it is fantastic, a glistening, super-fresh cod with beautiful, translucent flakes. I think it is one of the finest products of the sea, and is both truly sustainable and has a unique legacy,” he said.

Ben Pollinger of Oceana Restaurant in New York City adds, “Skrei is a great addition to my menu. It’s sustainable, great quality and unique. I enjoy working with it (and) the customers enjoy it (too). … People are getting more adventurous with food, so this is a good way to (try) new things.”

Also in New York City, Marcus Jenmark at Aquavit shares that sentiment. “Skrei is an essential fish in the Nordic region and its cuisine. New Yorkers are always looking for seasonal and high-quality product, so it is fun … to combine those elements and serve something authentic, extremely seasonal and new to New York guests,” he adds.

UK fish specialist and chef Mitch Tonks of the Seahorse Restaurant in Devon also became a Skrei convert after a trip to Lofoten. “In my search for the finest ingredients for my restaurants, I have discovered this mighty cod, one that I know I can serve with an absolute guarantee of sustainability. I won’t be surprised if Norwegian Skrei is the next big thing.”

Cod willing, of course.

Skrei Glazed in a Whiskey Teriyaki

Created by Michel Roux Jr. of Le Gavroche and Simon Hulstone of The Elephant for the Norwegian Seafood Council

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours

Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

3 teaspoons honey

3 teaspoons superfine sugar

2 1/2 cups mirin

1 cup whiskey (peaty or smoky is best)

1 or 2 chilies finely chopped, to taste

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped

4 cups soy sauce, Kikkoman preferred

1 thick fillet of cod, with the skin on

Directions

1. To make the teriyaki sauce, begin by putting the honey and sugar in a large pan and cook until caramelized, then add the mirin and whiskey, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes

2. Take off the heat and add the chilies, ginger and soy sauce. Once completely cooled, strain

3. Trim and pin bone the Skrei fillet, then marinate in the teriyaki for one hour

4. Drain the fillet and place in a tray with some of the marinade. Put under a broiler; baste often with the marinade. The fish should take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook through and be glazed.

Note: Serve with a very fine “spaghetti” of white turnip that has been lightly cooked and dressed with some of the marinade and some sesame oil, and grilled vegetables, such as mushrooms and zucchini, basted with the teriyaki.

Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds

The buttery soft flesh of Norwegian Skrei lends itself perfectly to this comforting simple supper. Recipe courtesy of the Norwegian Seafood Council.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup Puy lentils

2 large leeks, washed and green ends removed

1 stick unsalted butter

1 packet of kale

Salt and pepper

Juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon, plus 1 extra lemon for garnish

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 Skrei fillets, with the skin on

Salt and pepper, to taste

Handful of pumpkin seeds, plain or lightly roasted if you prefer

Directions

1. Cook the lentils according to the instructions on the packet until they are al dente. If you prefer, cook them in chicken or vegetable stock this will add more flavor to the lentils, but it’s not essential.

2. Place the butter in a medium sauté pan and warm until completely melted.

3. Slice the leeks into 2-inch discs, then add them to the butter and cook slowly until very soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep warm on a very low temperature while preparing the rest of the dish. Remove a couple of spoonfuls of the leek and butter mixture; set aside as garnish.

4. Wash the kale, removing the long thick spine in the middle of the leaves, and finely chop. Add the kale to the leek and butter mixture, gently toss over low heat until the kale is coated in the mixture. Make sure not to fry the kale or it will go crispy.

5. Drain the Puy lentils and add them to the kale mixture, toss a few times and taste. Add the lemon juice; season to your liking with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm while you cook the fish.

6. Drizzle a spoonful of vegetable oil in a large sauté pan; heat until the oil sizzles. Pat the fish skin dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper; place the fish fillets skin side down in the hot oil. Sauté the fillets for about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness, until the flesh of the Skrei is nearly opaque throughout.

7. Season the top of the fish. Using a spatula or fish slice carefully turn the fish and finish cooking for about a minute. Squeeze a little lemon juice on the fish.

8. To serve, place equal amounts of the lentil, kale, and leek and butter mixture on each plate; place a fillet on top of the lentils. Top with a small spoonful of the leek and butter mixture that was set aside earlier; sprinkle with pumpkin seeds before serving.

Main photo: Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds. Recipe courtesy Norwegian Seafood Council. Credit: Copyright Norwegian Seafood Council

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Seafood on display for customers. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Whether you have vowed to eat more healthfully or are just contemplating the addition of seafood to your diet this year, eventually you may find yourself staring into a refrigerated seafood case, wondering which fish is not only safe and eco-friendly but also a pleasure to eat.

No need to wonder. I have a list of wholesome winners for you. The lineup includes a hearty fish that satisfies meat lovers; one for those preferring mild, “non-fishy” fish; and a versatile, no-fuss shellfish.

The perfect seafood for meat lovers

First on the menu is Atlantic mackerel. In the same family as tuna, the torpedo-shaped mackerel possesses firm, oily flesh and a rich, beefy taste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no fish offers more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than mackerel.

Healthful, flavorful and flexible, this fish can be braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed or seared as well as pickled, salted or smoked. Its bold flavor marries with acidic ingredients such as citrus, tomatoes and vinegar and balances out more mellow foods such as lentils, potatoes and mushrooms.

When shopping for Atlantic mackerel, I look for fish sourced from Canada. Caught using purse seines rather than fishing trawlers, it possesses the highest sustainability rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Other mackerel varieties, such as Spanish and King, have elevated mercury levels, making them a less favorable choice.

A ‘gateway’ fish

I think of farmed, American channel catfish as the gateway to seafood consumption. Its subtly sweet, low-fat and pliable meat puts it on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from mackerel. It also makes catfish an excellent choice for reluctant or picky fish eaters.

With a flattened head and eight long, whisker-like barbells dotting the region around its nose and mouth, this creature bears a strong resemblance to its namesake. Typically, though, I don’t see whole catfish, with whiskers intact, in markets. Instead, what I find are skinless catfish fillets. Iridescently white to off-white in color, they often get lumped into the broad category of “white fish.”

Virtually an all-purpose fish, catfish can be baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed, steamed and deep-, pan- or stir-fried. It goes well with countless ingredients, including avocados, bacon, chilies, olives, tomatoes, tomatillos and wine.

Farmed channel catfish from the U.S. is among the most sustainable seafood available today. Be sure to purchase U.S.-farmed rather than imported Asian catfish, which also goes by the names “swai” or “basa.” Although equally low in mercury, imported catfish is not as eco-friendly.

A shellfish to get you started

Maybe you prefer the colorful looks, flavor and texture of shellfish but also desire seafood low in cholesterol and mercury; high in protein, vitamins and minerals; and with moderate levels of omega-3 fatty acids. I have the bivalve for you: mussels.

Inside a mussel’s hard, oblong, green or blue-black shell rests creamy, sweet, juicy meat that tastes like lobster but lacks the high cholesterol or price tag of that crustacean. Rich in protein, vitamins B-12 and C, iron and omega-3s, this shellfish packs a powerful nutritional punch.

Yet another adaptable seafood, mussels may be baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, stewed or smoked. They partner with bold, tart, spicy or mild ingredients such as beer, garlic, mustard, lemon, tomatoes, wine, chilies, curry powder, paprika, pasta, rice and zucchini. They also pair with other seafood, including clams, shrimp, squid, John Dory, snapper and monkfish. If you’ve ever tried the Provencal seafood stew bouillabaisse or Californian cioppino, then you know how nicely mussels combine with these fish and shellfish.

Although dozens of mussel species exist, I usually find farmed blue or common mussels at markets. Grown in abundance and available year-round, farmed mussels garner the coveted “best choice” label from Seafood Watch.

More good seafood choices

Along with this nourishing trio, I would suggest adding littleneck clams, farmed rainbow trout and char to your must-try seafood list. They all possess high nutritional and sustainability ratings. Couple these rankings with ease of preparation and agreeable taste, and you’ve got three more champs to add to your dinner menus.

Fans of bolder foods should also check out Pacific sardines and trap-caught sablefish. Both receive rave environmental, nutritional and cooking reviews, and both provide ample flavor and need little, if any, seasonings to shine.

No matter which type of seafood you favor, aim to make 2015 your year of healthful, sustainable and succulent fish and shellfish.

Smoked Mackerel Jackets

Smoked Mackerel Jackets. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Smoked Mackerel Jackets. Credit: Kathy Hunt

From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 stuffed baked potatoes

Ingredients

4 large russet potatoes

1/3 cup skim milk, warmed

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

1 bunch scallions, sliced

1 pound smoked mackerel fillets, flaked

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Using a fork, poke holes in the potatoes. Microwave them on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and softened.

3. Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving behind a small rim of potato in each skin.

4. Place the potato flesh in a large bowl and, using a fork or spoon, mash together lightly. Add the milk, butter, salt and pepper and mash again until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the cheese, scallions and flaked mackerel and stir to combine.

5. Spoon equal amounts of the potato-mackerel mixture back into the skins. Place the filled skins on a baking sheet and bake until warm and golden brown on top, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Seafood on display for customers. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.

“Fishermen in their 70s and 80s tell stories depicting Istanbul like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s as if we’ve moved to a totally different place since then,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, which has organized an annual holiday to draw attention to the city’s rapidly depleting waterways and to try and reverse the tide.

Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish

Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)

Many of the city’s best chefs have signed on, including Didem Şenol, the acclaimed founder of Lokanta Maya and Gram restaurants.

“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”

Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.

fishermen-galata-bridge_zd

Fishermen on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”

Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.

“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”

Campaign nets converts to the cause

A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.

“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.

“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”

Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.

Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.

“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.

Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.

“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”

Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul.  Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.

Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.

As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.

At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.

And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.

Octopus salad with oil and lemon

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”

Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.

Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.

Eating invasive fish aids sustainability

Think that the need for invasivores — people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.

Unfortunately, these aggressive fish didn’t stay down on the farm. After escaping and crowding out or killing off  native aquatic life, Asian carp now rule over large stretches of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. Today, they threaten to take over the Great Lakes and other water systems.

This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.

Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.

Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.

Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.

Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.

Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.

Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.

With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.

Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

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Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

Perhaps no fish has a more fabled and forgotten place in American history than shad, a seasonal springtime fish that can be found up and down the East Coast where freshwater rivers meet the ocean.

An oily fish that lives in saltwater but spawns in fresh water, shad was a staple of the Lenape Native Americans’ diet as well as a fertilizer for their crops. George Washington supplemented his income with an ingenious netting method that captured spawning shad running through the Potomac River in front of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. In addition to selling the fish, he used them to supplement food for those enslaved on his plantation.

Shad gaining favor from East Coast to West

Through the years, Chef Walter Staib has had shad on and off the menu at Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, where he is the executive chef. He has served boneless shad and shad roe, which is pocketed in a lobe and considered a delicacy by aficionados.

“The problem is that people don’t really know about it — including new, younger chefs. It also has an unusual though delicious taste,” Staib said. “Twenty years ago, I did a lot with shad and had regular customers who started calling when the runs began, wanting to know what we’d have on the menu.”

The chef’s love of the fish prompted him to feature it on his PBS cooking series “A Taste of History.” He said the fish was a favorite throughout the 18th century, including among the founding fathers who gathered at the original City Tavern during the Continental Congress and afterward when the city served as America’s first capital.

Washington’s own relationship with shad was a lifelong one. Legend has it British troops netted the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia to divert the shad run from where Washington’s starving troops were encamped downstream at Valley Forge. The commander in chief’s own taste for shad was legendary, and his steward and cook often sought to procure the earliest fish for his breakfast table — at considerable cost.

In those days, shad was an abundant fish, making the fortunes of many an East Coast river town, notably among them Fishtown, Pa. When overfishing for food and fertilizer reduced stocks, the fish went out of fashion.

Today, the fish is making a comeback, although declining stocks are not all that prevents shad from regaining its place as the quintessential American fish.

“Shad fisheries are rebounding because of regulations that have moved gill nets offshore,” said Joe Lasprogata, vice president of new product development for Samuels & Son Seafood in Philadelphia. Gill nets, which had traditionally been strung across river mouths, prevented shad from spawning and made them easy prey for the striped bass that find them so tasty.

The larger issue, Lasprogata said, is that shad is strongly flavored because of its high oil content and has an unusual bone structure that makes filleting a challenge.

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Place the fillets with their thick (head) end facing you and perpendicular to the work surface. Using a sharp filleting knife, cut into the fillet along one side of the darker red center line starting about 4 inches (10 cm) back and cutting toward the head end. Credit: Steve Legato

Samuels & Son has specialty shad filleters, and its process was featured in the book “The Fishmonger’s Apprentice” by Aliza Green. (See slideshow above for directions on how to fillet shad.) Specialty shad filleters are also a feature of the many shad festivals that still take place during the small window of opportunity to enjoy the fish.

“There is an urban legend that shad can be roasted whole in low heat for a long period of time, and the bones will soften enough to simply eat, but I’ve never tried it,” Lasprogata said.

In Essex, Conn., John Mackuck is one of the few, if not only, remaining  shad smokers, using a closely guarded old recipe that starts with a salt, sugar and molasses brine then hot smoking with hickory, apple and cherry woods.

On the West Coast, with most harvested shad used for canning, some Pacific Coast chefs are putting shad on the menu.

“It does not have much of a following here in the Pacific Northwest due to the popularity of salmon,” said chef Thomas Dunklin of Three Degrees in Portland, Ore. “However, I welcome the opportunity to educate my guests about it.

I like the delicacy of it.  The roe is amazing served up seared. “

Shad roe and fillets can be sampled at various, mostly East Coast, festivals to which devotees flock. The shad festivals start earlier the further south you go and generally are held by community organizations.
You’ll find a shad bake virtually anywhere the ocean meets fresh water.

The Grifton Shad Festival in Grifton, N.C., has been around since 1970 and is generally held in early April.  Lambertville, N.J., has a renowned ShadFest and art show that takes place yearly in late April. The Shad Derby in Windsor, Conn., is usually held in mid-May and has crowned a Shad Derby Queen every year since 1966. In Essex, Conn., the Shad Bake has taken place since 1955, and organizers say they fillet and roast between 300 pounds and 350 pounds of shad yearly. This year’s Shad Bake will be June 7 in the Connecticut river town.

These festivals are a great way to sample shad prepared at the hands of loving experts, but if you hurry can still get your hands on shad fillets or the highly prized roe. Fillet of shad can be had for roughly $15 per pound. Try the recipes below, which feature simple, tasty ways to enjoy this all-American fish.

Shad Roe in Caper Butter

This recipe by Chef Walter Staib of Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern is a simple preparation for shad roe, considered a delicacy for centuries. The method is also demonstrated in this video.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

1 shad roe lobe

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons capers

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Lemon wedges, as desired, for garnish

Directions

1. Season the shad roe with salt and pepper.

2. Melt butter in a large fry pan over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, add roe and gently sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over with care once using a spatula.

3. Cover the pan and let the roe cook in the butter for about 6 or 7 minutes, or until browned on the outside but still tender and a little rare inside.

4. Add the capers, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice and mix.

5. To serve, place roe onto a plate and spoon melted butter sauce over the roe. Sprinkle with parsley, and garnish with lemon wedges.

Shad Scaloppini With Fiddlehead Ferns & Lemon

Because shad is a delicate fish, Chef Walter Staib says he likes to have his greens and all the ingredients for the shad itself ready and waiting. Instead of Fiddlehead ferns you could prepare baby spinach, ramps, or dandelion greens with this dish as well.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the fiddleheads:

1 tablespoon salt

8 cups water

1 pound fiddle head ferns, washed and trimmed of any brown spots

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the shad:

Pinch nutmeg, freshly ground

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 pound shad, cut into 8 medallions

½ cup flour

1 egg, beaten well

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small lemon, peeled and sliced thinly

1 small lime, peeled and sliced thinly

Directions 

For the fiddleheads:

1. Have a large bowl ready with 1 cup of ice and 3 cups of cold water.

2. Bring the salt and water to a boil in a large pot and add the fiddlehead ferns. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes then remove from the water with a slotted spoon.

3. Add the fiddlehead ferns to the bowl of ice water and allow to sit for 1 minute. Drain and set the ferns aside.

4. Heat a large fry pan over medium-high heat and add the grapeseed oil.

5. Add the fiddlehead ferns and stir well. Cook until they begin to get lightly brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and then spoon on to a platter.

For the shad:

1. Combine the nutmeg, salt and pepper, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce in a shallow, large dish. Marinate fish in the mixture for no more than 5 minutes. Leaving the fish in longer will result in the protein breaking down.

2. Remove fish and discard marinade. Dredge each medallion in flour. Shake excess flour off medallions. Dredge medallions in egg, coating well. Shake off any excess and set aside on a plate.

3. Heat a large fry pan with grapeseed oil and butter over medium-high heat and add the shad medallions. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, then flip and fry on the other side.

4. Remove shad medallions from the pan and layer onto the fiddlehead ferns.

5. Place the lime and lemon slices around the dish for garnish.

Main photo: Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

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San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Harney Sushi

Securing sustainable seafood is a convoluted prospect at best. That statement applies whether you are the individual harvesting groundfish from the ocean’s floor, farming shellfish in local estuaries or buying wild salmon at the fish counter.

Buyers have to be “well versed in the adjectives (and colors) needed to ensure they are really buying sustainable seafood,” says Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Geographic have built seafood buying guides called Seafood Watch, FishWatch and Seafood Decision Guide, respectively. These guides employ green, yellow and red visual cues to advise consumers which fish are sustainable choices. Those ratings are based primarily on species population numbers and how pulling those fish from the ocean affects the overall marine ecosystem.

According to Barton Seaver, a longtime sustainable seafood advocate, seafood buying guides represent a good start. They help eaters choose the types of seafood the oceans can afford to give (those with green ratings and sometimes yellow), as opposed to the ones (red ratings) that may be overfished.

Seaver serves in a dual capacity as director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and as a sustainability fellow at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He argues that issues of economic viability for the fishermen, cultural preservation of fishing communities and the overall health of seafood eaters must also be taken into consideration when assessing seafood sustainability. Pulling these multiple elements of the sustainable seafood picture into focus will require advanced technology.

Seaver, Bowman, Steve Eayrs, a research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Shah Selbe, an aerospace engineer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, can readily point to technologies they believe are changing the sustainable seafood landscape. Their suggestions fall into three categories: making fishermen more efficient at harvesting fish in a sustainable fashion; cracking down on illegal fishing; and providing eaters with a reliable means of tracing where the fish on their plate came from and how it arrived there.

Technology No. 1: Precision Fishing

Smart Catch Technologies is a company co-located in Newport, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif., that creates products to support sustainable commercial fishing. Seaver pointed to the company’s CatchCam and SmartNet products because they enable “precision fishing,” a scheme under which non-target fish are released from nets before they are hauled ashore, thereby reducing both bycatch and waste.

Technology No. 2: Revamped Bottom Trawling Gear

Bottom trawling is the practice of towing a funnel-shaped net anchored open by two “doors” that have continuous or occasional contact with the ocean floor. Trawls catch shellfish and groundfish found near the seabed, and they have long been criticized for entrapping everything in their path, including sponges, corals and non-target species. Eayrs cites a recent study conducted by his institute showing that changes in the trawling gear — in how the doors are constructed to minimize contact with the floor and changes both in the size of the net holes and the materials from which they are constructed — reduce seabed impact by as much as 95% and yield a 12% reduction in fuel consumption with little or no variation in the targeted cod catch. If eaters are educated enough to be able to accept the premise that the fish was caught legally using the best available science, “then they can buy their cod with confidence,” Eayrs said.

Technology No. 3: GPS-Enabled Selective Trawling

According to Bowman, establishing a trawling footprint — clearly articulating which parts of the ocean floor can or can’t be open to trawling — and having fishermen (and enforcement agencies) use GPS technology to make sure fishermen do not drop their nets within a set distance from protected areas, is a use of technological application that holds the most promise for helping to feed the planet’s 9 billion people. “But it will also likely raise the most controversy on what the ocean can continue to give up for the sake of human consumption,” Bowman said.

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Engineer Shah Selbe, center, recently gave a presentation at the New England Aquarium about his work to use low-cost drones and open-source software to help monitor protected areas of the ocean for illegal fishing activities. Credit: New England Aquarium

Technology No. 4: Cheap Open Source Gear Helps to Decrease Illegal Fishing

In his recent lecture at the New England Aquarium, Selbe outlined FishNET, a project that focuses on developing integrated, low-cost technology solutions that help improve the ability to observe and collate data about illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). This suite of technologies comprises a Web-based data collection server, off-the-shelf drone and cellphone equipment, and cheap, open-source monitoring devices that together capture and analyze official and crowdsourced data on fishing vessels and exploited areas.

Technology No. 5: Sophisticated Satellite-Enabled Poaching and Dumping Surveillance

Seaver points to companies such as Windward and SkyTruth to illustrate the role of satellites in vessel tracking and how these efforts can help with all IUU issues and enable better fisheries management.

Technology No. 6: Bar Codes for Near Real-Time Seafood Supply Chain Tracking

Norpac Fisheries Export is a successful processing and distribution business that has developed and implemented traceability software to track fish from catch to retailer. Through the use of bar codes and back-end software, this system lets sellers and buyers know where their fish are at any point in the process, letting them pinpoint procedural inefficiencies and keeping illegally caught fish out of the chain. Seaver also points to the emerging field of DNA bar coding as a possible evolution. “Whoever invents a hand-held tissue sampler that can accurately ID a species on the spot will win big!” he said.

Technology No. 7: Sustainable Seafood Matchmaking

Colorado-based FishChoice Inc. has built an online matchmaking service for buyers and suppliers of sustainable seafood. According to Seaver, this service opens up the chance to distribute and purchase sustainably sourced products and streamlines recommendations and certifications from the NGO community. “The service … provides education and the opportunity to conduct the transaction right there,” Seaver said.

Technology No. 8: Storied Sushi

Owners of San Diego-based Harney Sushi have developed edible quick response codes (QR) — made of rice paper and edible ink — that customers can scan with their cellphones before eating any fish served to them. The codes link back to NOAA’s FishWatch database. “By demanding this kind of detail, we help send a message to suppliers that they need to know and verify their seafood sourcing,” Seaver said.

Main photo: San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi, so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Courtesy of Harney Sushi

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