Articles in Fishing

A dish of cured salmon roe, or caviar. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Every morning during the fall in Michigan’s thumb, I watch sport fishermen skimming by in boats outfitted with everything from baited poles to fancy outriggers. They are all after the same thing: salmon. Whether the catch is Atlantic, chinook or coho, it doesn’t much matter as long as they reel one in. Some have a knack for it, some get lucky, some just enjoy a quiet morning on the lake. But I like it most of all when someone brings a fish heavy with roe (or eggs) to my home, because it means we will get two treats out of one catch: caviar and a couple of smoked filets.

 Caviar is a slippery subject in more than one way. On one hand, it is the simplest of food experiences: a delicate hint of fish enveloped in a salty brine that slides down your throat with no effort at all. On the other hand, it is an ingredient that suffers from guilt by association with extravagance.

Prized specimens from the endangered beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea have been illegal for sale in the United States since 2005. Certain lesser grades like sevruga and osetra are available but can be astronomically pricey, at over $4,000 per pound. But fresh eggs from locally caught salmon in the Great Lakes are quite a different matter. Few fishermen bother to save these precious jewels. Fewer still know how simple it is to cure the eggs and prepare fresh caviar. So you can understand why I felt a little giddy when I got my hands on a recent 10-pound catch with two skeins of roe that yielded 2 pounds of beautifully glistening eggs.

The process for transforming the eggs into caviar is deceptively simple and takes about an hour. It involves little more than preparing salt brine and biding your time. Once the eggs are brined to a level that won’t overpower their delicate fish essence, they are ready to serve and share. All that remains is to offer a simple cracker with a smear of sour cream, a mound of cured eggs and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper and chopped chives, or just a stunning spoonful to your grateful guests, and dig in.

A salmon belly full of fresh roe. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

A salmon belly full of fresh roe.
Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Great Lakes Salmon Caviar

Ingredients

Fresh salmon roe (eggs) (see Note)

1 cup of kosher salt

8 cups of cold water

Directions
1. Place the salt and cold water in a large glass or stainless bowl and mix well until salt is dissolved.

2. Gently rinse each egg sac under cool running water to remove as much blood as possible and lower into the salted brine. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. While the eggs are curing, prepare a second bowl fitted with a colander.

4. After 30 minutes, remove the sacs from the refrigerator and place them in the second bowl and colander in a deep sink, reserving the brine.

5. Cover the eggs with hot running tap water (approximately 150 degrees). As the outer membrane is exposed to the heat, it will shrink and begin to pull away from the eggs, making it simple to gentle slough the eggs away from the membrane and into the colander. Within the sac will be threads of more membranes that can be carefully removed by hand.

6. Once the outer membrane is removed and the eggs are separated, continue to refresh the bowl with cool water and stir the eggs, gently rinsing them by hand to remove the smaller white membranes that will float to the surface and may still cling to the eggs. Drain and repeat the rinsing process until the water in the bowl runs clear. This may require several rinses. Remove the colander from the bowl, draining the clear water away from the eggs.

7. Return the eggs to the original salt brine and refrigerate for up to another 30 minutes. Check the eggs at 10-minute intervals, rinsing and tasting the eggs for your desired level of saltiness. Continue to brine if not salty enough. If too salty, replace the brine with fresh water and let the eggs rest. The water will draw out salt until the eggs reach your desired level of brine.

8. Drain the eggs from the brine and store in a clean glass container with tightly fitting lid. Caviar can be served immediately or safely stored in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days.

Note

Salmon roe can be tricky to find if you don’t know a sport fisherman in salmon territory. Try making friends with a fishmonger instead, or check online purveyors.

Top photo: A dish of cured salmon roe, or caviar. Credit: Caroline J. Beck 

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Freshly shucked Blue Point oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez

As we approach the floating dock, Chris Quartuccio cuts the boat’s engine, and the steady hum of the motor is replaced by what sounds like a large pile of broken plates being raked. We’ve reached Blue Island, Quartuccio’s oyster farm out on New York’s Great South Bay, the 29-mile-long body of water sandwiched between Fire Island and Long Island’s South Shore. On the other side of the dock, one of his employees is tumbling oysters, vigorously shaking mesh bags filled with the bivalves before stacking them in an open rack to be lowered back into the bay, where the oysters will continue to grow.

Tumbling heightens what wild oysters would naturally endure as they are tossed around by the tides, rasping off their still-feathery edges to produce the relatively smooth shells that are served up on ice at raw bars. Having spent the day listening to Quartuccio discuss the history of the region’s shellfish industry, however, it’s hard not to see tumbling as a metaphor for the trade and the lives of the people who ply it. Ebb and flow is putting it gently; it’s a saga filled with hope, desperation and Mother Nature’s merciless logic — from boom to bust to boom again, repeat ad infinitum.

Although he’s only 48, Quartuccio has lived through a few of these cycles already. A native of Sayville, N.Y., he started digging for clams when he was 12. “Back then, clam diggers here were making a lot of money. The better ones lived in the same neighborhoods as the doctors and lawyers. But as more people got into the business, they started putting a lot of pressure on the bay.” To maintain their high incomes, many began to work the winter grounds illegally, targeting areas of the bay that were rich in shellfish but that also served as important spawning zones. By the 1990s, the population of hard-shelled clams was wiped out.

Reviving the real Blue Point oyster

During my visit, Quartuccio takes me to Blue Point, the spit of land for which the renowned oyster is named. In 1908, New York state decreed that in order to be sold as a Blue Point, an oyster had to have spent at least three months in the Great South Bay — though the law is rarely enforced, and it’s not uncommon to see menus with oxymoronic offerings such as Chesapeake or Connecticut Blue Points.

Like clams, oysters here have had a checkered history, periods of great abundance followed by foreseeable — and unforeseeable — decline. “This area was paved with oysters back then,” said Quartuccio, referring to the first third of the 20th century, but things changed after the great hurricane of 1938, dubbed the “Long Island Express.” Killing more than 600 people, the storm destroyed large parts of Fire Island and created numerous inlets into the bay, causing the oyster beds to be silted over.

Later attempts to get the industry going again were foiled by brown tides, the result of excess nitrogen in the water, as well as the appearance of parasitic diseases that — although not a danger to consumers — decimated the oyster population. In 2002, a local fish hatchery manager was quoted in The New York Times as saying the Blue Point oyster had likely reached its end.

Or had it? Predictions of its demise appear to have been premature. Thanks to seeding efforts and laws prohibiting the harvest of the youngest oysters, parts of the bay have become hospitable again. Quartuccio purchased his farm back in 2005 (he owns the dock and leases his prime underwater location from the town of Islip), and his company now sells its delightfully briny, firm-textured Blue Points to a roster of high-end restaurants that includes New York’s Four Seasons, Craft and Momofuku and San Francisco’s Waterbar.

Serving them up ‘Naked’

Despite his success, Quartuccio has learned to avoid putting all his shells in one bucket. In addition to his Blue Points, which he sells under the name “Blue Islands” — to distinguish them from competitors who’ve appropriated the original name for their oysters — he also deals in oysters from other parts of the country. And he’s always looking for the next big thing to promote.

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Chris Quartuccio shucking some of his Blue Island oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez

To make a good living in the industry, he tells me, marketing is key. “If you don’t have the right name, I don’t care how good the oyster is. It’s not gonna sell,” he noted. With his newest item, a diver-harvested oyster from Long Island Sound, it appears he’s hit the jackpot. Christened after Times Square’s most famous tighty-whitey-clad denizen, the “Naked Cowboy” is Blue Island’s best-selling oyster to date. “When customers see the name on menus, they tell their waiters, ‘I want to know what the Naked Cowboy tastes like.’ That happens all the time.”

Although these calculations may seem crass to some, the economic realities of the industry defy the landlocked’s tendency to romanticize a seafaring life. These days, Quartuccio spends more time in the office than out on the water, but when I ask him whether he misses that part of the job, he smiles. “I’ve seen so many sunrises and sunsets. And when I say that, I mean they were long days. When you’re out here, day after day after day, in all kinds of weather — from 100 degrees to watching the ice form on the tips of your fingers … ” he explained, the echo of his Long Island accent hanging in the air for a moment. “I’ve seen enough for a lifetime.”

Top photo: Freshly shucked Blue Point oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez

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Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst

It’s close to 6 in the morning, and the sky is muted and streaked with pink, white and blue stripes. I am on Kachemak Bay in a bright yellow kayak, and the water is as flat as a calm lake. A family of otters — a mother and two young cubs — swims alongside. Snowcapped mountains lie ahead in the distance. This is what dawn feels like in Alaska in the summer. The only problem: Alaska is so far north that the sun never sets this time of year, so kayaking or any other activity is done after a fitful sleep spent trying to keep out the light.

The idea of sunlight 24 hours a day sounds great. But, trust me, around midnight — or 3 a.m. or close to 6 a.m. — when your body is exhausted but your mind is saying, “Let’s go for another kayak ride,” it all begins to feel like a cruel joke.

Sleeping was my biggest problem on a recent trip to Alaska. Actually it was my only problem.

I traveled to a small wilderness lodge called Tutka Bay, located at the head of a seven-mile fjord on Kachemak Bay, off the coast near Homer, Alaska. I was there to do the things I love most: write, cook, exercise and see wildlife.

I wrote each morning with the guidance of two mentors, cookbook and memoirist Molly O’Neill and poet Carolyn Forche. In the afternoon we learned to cook Alaskan specialties.

Tutka Bay Lodge’s Cooking School, located in a dry-docked converted herring boat, may be the only cooking school in the world without electricity or running water. You’d think it’s impossible to cook without those two basic elements, but using portable butane burner stove tops and a huge water cooler, matched with the talent of chef and lodge owner Kirsten Dixon, the cooking classes were flawless.

Dixon, who has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years and written several cookbooks, has become a kind of ambassador for Alaskan cuisine. She, along with her assistant Christie Maggi, taught us about the history, influences and current state of Alaskan cuisine.

Alaskan cooking school makes local ingredients shine

Yes, there is such a thing as Alaskan cuisine. And no, it’s not (just) moose stew, reindeer burgers and potatoes. We were introduced to sophisticated dishes like king crab beignets, cold smoked salmon with brown sugar brûlée, local oysters with pickled cauliflower and juniper crème fraîche topping, sourdough biscuits with house-made sweetened ricotta, and rhubarb preserves.

“Most people think we are too far off the beaten track to have a cuisine,” Dixon explains. “But there is a vibrant culinary scene here. Young chefs in Anchorage are beginning to pay attention to local foods, farmers markets and native traditions.”

Using ingredients such as seafood (Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut being the most obvious) and foraged foods such as sea asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, seaweed, mushrooms and wild berries, the food you find in much of Alaska is no longer frozen and flown in from the lower 48, but now focuses on local ingredients.

The state of Alaska even offers subsidies to chefs who use local ingredients. “This subsidy helps promote the use of locally grown Alaskan food,” Dixon notes, “and really encourages Alaskan chefs to shop in-state.”

Eating local, shopping local and growing your own food is something Alaskans feel passionate about. During the summer months, many try to grow, preserve and freeze enough fresh food to last them through the long winter.

“The thing about Alaskans is that we have this homesteading mentality,” Dixon says. “We are a can-do people. There is a degree of self-sufficiency and a joy about living close to the land. Alaskans pride themselves in surviving without a Whole Foods.”

With the longest coastline in the U.S. (33,000 miles), the seafood that comes from Alaskan waters is superb. The extreme cold temperature of the water produces some of the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. But it’s salmon that’s king. There are five distinct types of salmon that come from the Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan coast: Chinook, or King, is highly prized and the largest species (weighing in at up to 150 pounds). Coho, or Silver, salmon is smaller with a fine texture. Sockeye is famous for its deep red color and mild flavor. There’s also Chum and Pink salmon.

Virtually every day I was in Alaska I ate salmon — fresh, smoked, pickled, grilled, barbecued and sautéed — and never grew tired of it. Eating fresh Alaskan salmon was like tasting salmon for the first time. It has such a buttery texture and fresh, explosive flavor that it’s nearly unrecognizable.

Alaskan-born Chef Rob Kinnan of Crush Bistro in Anchorage says when he came to the East Coast and tasted farm-raised salmon for the first time he couldn’t believe the fish was related to the salmon he grew up eating in Alaska. “It was like someone leeched all the flavor, texture and nutritional value out of the fish,” he explained. “Cold water means more fat in the fish, which equals more flavor. The fish create fat to insulate themselves in these very cold Alaskan waters.”

Benefits of an all-daylight growing cycle

Although I had a hard time with the 24-hour a day sunlight, it has its advantages for farmers in Alaska. The growing season is short (a mere 100 days) but intense. Crops can soak in the sun all night and day, which means Alaska grows incredible produce: broccoli and cauliflower the size of watermelons; berries and oversized root vegetables; winter-hearty vegetables like kale, rutabagas and potatoes. Because the state was once dominated by glaciers, much of the underlying subsurface is glacial till, silt and sand. This is rich soil.

With such a short season and the cost of shipping food from other places prohibitively expensive, the cooks at Tutka Bay do a lot of canning and preserving. In my few days there I sampled pickled cherries, fennel and cauliflower, not to mention a gorgeous selection of jams, jellies and preserves from local berries and fruit.

“Putting up” seasonal foods dictates a lot of what goes on during an Alaskan summer. Dixon talks about the troubles she has during berry season. It’s not just the bears that want a piece of the action. “There’s this ritual in Alaska that when the berries are ripe — blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries — women go out and pick for days, camping and make a ritual of it. It’s hard to get people to come to work when there’s berries to be picked.”

Dixon laughs at her own story. She points to a group from her kitchen that has just gotten back from a hike around the lodge foraging for fresh herbs and seaweed for the evening’s menu. Tonight we will eat roast Alaskan duck, a salad with foraged herbs and smoked salmon, and an assortment of pickles. After dinner, while it’s still perfectly light, we will walk along the bay, look for seals and otters and watch the brightly lit night sky. And then I will try to get some sleep.

Kachemak Bay. Credit: Mandy Lindeberg / National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Photo Library

Kachemak Bay. Credit: Mandy Lindeberg / National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration

Quick Pickled Cauliflower

Makes 4 to 6 accompaniment servings, depending on the size of the cauliflower head

At Tutka Bay, Chef Kirsten Dixon serves these pickles on top of fresh-shucked raw local oysters and tops them with crème fraîche seasoned with juniper berries.

Ingredients 

2 cups cider vinegar

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon whole allspice

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 cloves garlic

1 head of cauliflower, shaved into thin slices

Directions 

1. Mix all ingredients except cauliflower in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Place cauliflower in a bowl and pour hot liquid on top. Allow mixture to steep for at least an hour. The mixture can then be used, refrigerated for up to a month or canned.

Top photo: Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Fishing in the South Indian chaakaras during monsoon season. Credit: Prasanth Gulfu

The southwest monsoons arrive in Kerala with all their fury by mid-June every year. For the following 2½ months, raging seas, heavy rainstorms and rumbling thunder reign. Monsoon is also the lifeline of the region where food production and harvesting are still deeply seasonal. It is the time of renewal of the life cycle of farming and monsoon fishing.

The strong winds and high waves during monsoon season make it impossible even for fishermen with motorized trawlers to go out into the deep sea. But for the artisanal fishermen in Kerala, the early days of monsoon are the much-awaited time for Chaakara, the mud bank formations that arise along the coast within a few days after the onset of southwest monsoons. Chaakara is a welcome geological occurrence that happens only along Kerala’s coast in India.

Chaakara, or mud bank formation

The violent winds and strong ocean currents created by the monsoon winds stir the bottom of the sea, and fine mud particles are churned up into a thick suspension. The southerly currents that run parallel to the coast at maximum speed drive the entire floating mud slowly towards the shore. A semicircular boundary develops around the suspended mud, which consistently absorbs the wave energy and substantially reduces turbulence. Kerala has an intricate network of interconnected rivers, canals, lakes and inlets including five large lakes linked by canals, fed by more than 40 rivers that extend virtually half the length of the state.

During monsoon rains, clay and silts rich in silica and organic matter are washed down from the mountains and are carried down the rivers to the lakes and then on to the sea. Muddy water attracts a wide variety of fish, shrimp and prawns in abundance, and they surge to the surface from the bottom of the sea where they normally live. The tranquil waters inside the mud bank turns into a bustling fishing harbor.

Kerala’s fisheries and aquaculture resources are rich and diverse, and Kerala accounts for 20% to 25% of the national marine fish production. Fish catches from the state include more than 300 species, such as sardine, mackerel, seer fish, pomfret and prawn.

Artisanal monsoon fishing

Chaakara is the seasonal windfall for artisanal fishermen. Heavy surf and turbulent waters are dangerous for small canoes and catamarans and fishing in the artisanal sector is generally at a standstill during the monsoon. Thousands of fishermen from the surrounding areas rush to the fishing village where Chaakara has surfaced. In this safe and hospitable environment they harvest shoals of fish from their traditional fishing canoes. During the short-lived chaakara season the shore is lined with fishing canoes and catamarans and fishermen landing, sorting and selling a wide variety of fish. A single throw of nets enables them to bring home a miraculous bumper harvest of mackerel, prawns, sardines and others. Seafood processors and exporters buy up the bumper crop and cash in on the abundance. The price of seafood drops to attractive levels.

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Fish caught in a chaakara in South India. Credit: Prasanth Gulfu

The breeding season of the majority of the fish varieties coincides with the south-west monsoon season in Kerala, and it is essential that trawling is stopped during this period because it destroys fish eggs and young fish. The trawling ban is also necessary to ensure the safety of fishermen as the seas turn very rough during the monsoon.

Kerala has pioneered a fisheries management technique, an annual 45-day ban on trawling in the state’s waters during the monsoon season since 1988, for the long-term conservation of marine resources. This ban creates a major boon for artisanal fishermen because they get exclusive rights to fish in the vicinity of mud banks during this period.

The chemistry of chaakara

Chaakara is a unique phenomenon that happens along a stretch of nearly 270 kilometers (160 miles) along the Kerala coastline. At times these mud banks run several kilometers long, taking on the size of a lake. After a few weeks the fluid mud settles at the bottom, dissipating the mud bank. The mud bank formation is erratic and varies from year to year, in location, extent and duration.

One theory about the abundance of marine life close to the shore is that the muddy waters at the bottom of the sea contain less oxygen, so fishes and prawns that live at the bottom of the sea swim up to the surface to catch a breath. Veteran fishermen have a different take. They believe the rich nutrients from the mountains carried down by the rivers and backwaters attract fishes to the calm area formed in the sea.

Whatever the reason, it’s the perfect time to take advantage and make dishes served up by the monsoon’s bounty.

Prawn Cutlets

The following recipe is adapted from “The Essential Kerala Cookbook” by Vijayan Kannampilly

Ingredients

1 pound medium-sized prawns

¼ cup rice flour

Salt to taste

3 to 4 green chili peppers thinly sliced (less for milder taste)

1½ inch piece of fresh ginger grated

⅓ cup thinly chopped shallots

¼ cup curry leaves, thinly chopped

2 cups of oil, preferably coconut oil

Directions

1. Shell and remove heads of the prawns. Devein them and wash well. Place the prawns in a pan along with ½ cup of water and cook till tender. Remove from the stove, drain any remaining water and cool.

2. Grind or mince the prawns in a food processor. Add rice flour, salt, green chilies, ginger, shallots and curry leaves, and mix well. Divide the mixture into small 1-inch round balls and shape into round cutlets.

3. Meanwhile heat the oil in a frying pan to 350 F. Deep-fry the cutlets till both sides are golden brown. Serve hot.

Top photo: Fishing in the South Indian chaakaras during monsoon season. Credit: Prasanth Gulfu

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Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

“So where’s your sushi from?” I asked politely, still sweating the effects of Fukushima on fish from the Pacific Ocean.

“From Japan,” said the waiter.

Well, duh, what should I have expected? We were in a Japanese restaurant.

For more than a year now, scientists studying the effects of the March 2011 deadly earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disastrous breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have suspected that the plant may still be leaking. Levels of radioactivity in the waters and fish around the plant have not been declining, as would be expected. Recently, amid reports of surging radiation levels, Japan finally owned up: The plant has probably been leaking for the past two years, acknowledged Japan’s chief nuclear regulator.

So should we, sitting comfortably across the Pacific, be worried about consuming Pacific fish?

Nicholas Fisher, a State University of New York at Stony Brook professor, has been studying radioactivity and metals in marine life for more than three decades. He’s part of the research team examining Fukushima’s effects on the seas.

Last year he reported small amounts of Fukushima’s cesium in Pacific bluefin tuna caught off California’s coast in summer 2011. Those tuna had spent their early days during that momentous spring off Japan’s Pacific shores, then migrated across the ocean, as some species do.

Last month he published another study saying the amounts of cesium are nothing to worry about. “The biological effects of any contaminant are generally dependent on the dose received,” he wrote. And the dosages of cesium in those 2011 tuna and attendant risks are extremely low, he said — too low to detect any damage and declining in fish caught in 2012. In fact, he’s more concerned about mercury in tuna than radioactivity.

Fisher compares the dosage of cesium you’d get from eating a 200-gram portion of that tuna to the naturally occurring radioactive potassium in one banana: The banana would give you a dose 20 times higher. When’s the last time you had a CT scan? That dosage is at least 1,000 times more — depending on the scan, up to 10,000 times more — than the amount an average American seafood consumer would get eating that contaminated tuna for an entire year, he said.

But what about the fish being exported from Japan?

Seafood from Japan monitored

To its credit, Japan lowered its levels of acceptable cesium in the wake of the disaster from 500 to 100 becquerels per kilogram. The U.S. limit is 1,200 becquerels per kilogram, and the Canadian limit is 1,000 becquerels per kilogram. Japan has been testing fish and posting results on the Internet. Some clear patterns are emerging:

– Some freshwater fish (landlocked salmon, for example) have higher levels of cesium, which is not surprising. Cesium mimics sodium and potassium. both of which are abundant and naturally occurring in the sea, meaning they would displace cesium uptake.

– And some of the ocean’s bottom feeders are showing levels above limits, which again is not surprising. Contaminants are getting trapped in sediments near the Fukushima nuclear plant, experts say, providing a continuous source of food for marine life that feed along the bottom near the shoreline.

The fish that feed in this area include many familiar species: cod, haddock, grouper, bass, halibut, flounder, sole, snapper, shellfish, monkfish, turbot, sturgeon, shark, eel and greenling, which was once a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Last February, a greenling caught near the plant registered the highest level of contamination yet, which is 7,400 times the amount of radioactive cesium that Japan deems acceptable.

Meanwhile, Japan is working to keep contaminated fish off the market. Immediately after the incident, its fishermen voluntarily agreed to a ban on most commercial fishing off Fukushima prefecture. (The ban did not include fishing for skipjack tuna and some mackerel, all caught far enough offshore that it didn’t seem to worry the decision makers. They’ve been inspecting samples of those species, they say.)

Japan uses a testing program

Today, a few of those restrictions have been lifted. You can now buy Fukushima octopus and snow crab, for example. And the country relies on a testing program that’s managed by the prefectures and depends on the fisherman’s voluntary compliance.  The prefectures regularly test samples for cesium, which builds up in muscle (and irregularly test for strontium, which accumulates in bone), at least weekly,  often daily, explained a spokesman for Japan’s embassy in Canada. If a fish contains cesium above limits, the fisherman is responsible for keeping that species off the market. That responsibility means they must not sell any fish of that species in that day’s catch.

If a species from a particular area continues to show contamination, the central government can step in and ban fishing for that species in that area of the prefecture, as it has done in several instances. Then, if testing over multiple places within that area shows results consistently below limits, the feds can lift the ban.

Take Japan’s Pacific cod. Today, it’s banned in Fukushima and neighboring Ibaraki prefecture but can still be snagged elsewhere and sold. At one point, it was prohibited in three other prefectures because its contamination levels were above limits, but the ban’s no longer in force. Do fish know prefectural boundaries?

Global efforts to track contamination

In North America, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its Canadian counterparts no longer single out imports from Japan for inspection like they did after the incident but they do still monitor radiation in all foods, spokespeople said. The FDA has also issued an order authorizing agents to seize certain foods from certain prefectures that Japan’s central government has already banned from exporting due to high contamination levels. Recently, the American Medical Assn. passed a resolution urging the FDA to monitor seafood carefully, and a group of physician organizations instrumental in that resolution, led by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Erica Frank, are calling on U.S. and Canadian authorities to be vigilant.

So could Pacific cod that had been feeding in those contaminated sediments make it to your faraway platter? Possibly, assuming it swam a few miles from Fukushima and through a few loopholes. If you indulged on a little sushi, would there be enough cesium to do harm?

Fisher’s now starting to study the levels of radioactivity in those coastal bottom feeders along with the possibility of radiation in other migratory species.

Being a worrywart, I ordered the mushrooms. But should I have asked where they came from? Sure enough, fungi feast on cesium, too.

Top photo: Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

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Salmon. Credit: G215/iStockphoto

For most Alaskans, summer means experiencing 24 hours of daylight each day and time for spotting bears. For many folks in the rest of the United States, Alaskan summers mean the return of wild salmon. Fattened for their trip up their birth rivers to spawn after roughly one to five years in the ocean, these oily, nutrient-rich fish are a delicacy in the Lower 48, often costing well over $10 per pound.

Smoked, grilled, baked or canned, Alaska’s wild salmon have a strong, distinct flavor. Those people who claim they can’t tell the difference from farmed salmon have probably been fed an inferior species — commonly, salmon marketed as Atlantic salmon is farmed.

When you’re purchasing your salmon, you should know what you’re getting. The following is a primer on the five types of Pacific salmon. The first three — king, red and silver — are considered the best and are therefore the most expensive. Many Alaskans view pink and chum, while certainly edible, as inferior to the former three, but that is generally because of the abundance of the former three, rather than a lack of quality of the latter two.

King (Chinook): These are the granddaddies of salmon and one of the most prized catches. The largest of the Pacific wild salmon, kings are valued for their rich flavor and firm texture as well as their massive size (they usually do not weight less than 30 pounds; the record weight is 97 pounds). Kings from the Yukon are particularly prized because they are rumored to be fattier, thanks to cold temperatures and a long migration. Kings are excellent smoked, but also taste great grilled, baked, poached or any other way you can think to cook them up.

Red (Sockeye): Another highly valued Pacific salmon, reds are not as large as kings but have a rich, deep color and a high oil content. Flavorful and beautiful, red salmon present well on the plate and their density makes them a favorite for sushi. This fish also pairs well with other strong flavors.

Silver (Coho): Silver salmon are another favored wild salmon. Aggressive and fast, these smaller fish (averaging 10 pounds) congregate at the mouths of rivers to wait for appropriate weather or high tide. They are popular with sport fishermen, and their meat is also prized. Silver salmon’s flesh is more orange than red, and it has a mild flavor, with the firm flesh that is typical of the top three types of Alaska wild salmon. It is a favorite for grilling and canning.

Pink (Humpy): Pale in color and light in texture, the pink salmon has a low fat content compared to kings, reds and silvers. It is the smallest of the five Pacific salmon, averaging 3 to 5 pounds, and the most abundant, so it is easily caught and processed. Pinks are usually canned and sold in Europe and the South, and big blocks of the meat are also shipped to China. (Alaskans are notoriously snobby about their salmon and tend to stick to the three more popular varieties.) Pinks are an excellent source of protein.

Chum (Dog): The least desirable of the five Pacific salmon, chum have the lowest market value and are often sold to foreign markets. Though they are not as firm and rich as king, red or silver salmon, chum are nonetheless an excellent source of protein and have enough oil to be versatile in cooking.

In fact, many believe that chum have a bad rap. At the least, chum are clearly better than farmed salmon. If caught in the ocean and processed well, chum can make a tasty, lightly-flavored dish. Chum’s roe (eggs) are also the most valuable of all the Pacific salmon, and they are often caught for the roe alone. These fish are also marketed as “silverbright.”

Top photo: Salmon. Credit: G215/iStockphoto

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A fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. Credit: Greenpeace

Trader Joe’s has rocketed from 15th to third place on Greenpeace’s 2013 sustainable seafood scorecard based largely on the retailer’s decision to sharply reduce its sale of red-listed items and establish tougher standards for the seafood it purchases, whether wild or farmed.

Just a few years ago, Greenpeace was in a pitched battle with the Monrovia, Calif.,-based specialty retailer, which it had labeled “Traitor Joe’s” because of its sale of red-listed seafood such as Chilean sea bass and orange roughy.  The environmental group dropped its campaign in 2010 after Trader Joe’s promised it would have a fully sustainable seafood department by 2013.  Seafood ends up on the red list for a variety of reasons, including poor stock health, by-catch issues or habitat destruction.

With its move into Greenpeace’s “green zone,” where it joins industry leaders Whole Foods and Safeway, Trader Joe’s has achieved the “biggest jump in the history of the report,” said Casson Trenor, Greenpeace senior markets campaigner.

“No doubt the performance of this seminal dark horse has left more than a few of its competitors blinking in amazement and choking on its dust,” stated Greenpeace’s seventh annual Carting Away the Oceans Report, released May 29, 2013.

Trader Joe’s is also taking a leading role in important industrywide initiatives such as the campaign to protect the Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons of the Bering Sea, which are among the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, according to Trenor. He said Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Wegmans and Supervalu have thrown their support behind development of a science-based plan for protecting the deep sea canyons, which are also home for a large Alaskan pollock fishing fleet.

Asked how the retailer felt about its positive report card, Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said she could not comment on the seafood sustainability issue beyond a March 14, 2011, statement posted on the company website.

Report card: Trader Joe’s still has work to do

Though the overall news was positive, Trader Joe’s has not yet made good on its pledge to eliminate all unsustainable seafood items from its inventory by this year, according to Greenpeace. 

The report said Trader Joe’s was still selling at least four red-listed items: Alaska pollock, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic sea scallops and tropical shrimp. And, the report said, the retailer  still needs to do a lot better job of labeling its seafood so customers know what they’re buying and where it came from.

“The reality is they didn’t make good on their promise, but they sure did a lot of things well,” Trenor said, acknowledging mixed feelings about Trader Joe’s high marks given its continued red-list sales and lack of transparency. “In the end, we had to appraise it for the reality.”

Did “Traitor Joe’s” make a difference? “There’s no doubt that the Greenpeace-led campaign against Trader Joe’s to get them to change in 2009 and 2010 made them very uncomfortable,” Trenor said. “But at the end of the day, it was an outpouring of support from Trader Joe’s customers themselves that catalyzed this change within the company.”

Another piece of positive news tucked in the May 29 report: Wal-Mart has announced it will offer consumers canned skipjack tuna that has been caught without the use of fish-aggregating devices. The fish-aggregating device-free canned skipjack tuna will be sold under the Ocean Natural brand in more than 3,000 Wal-Mart stores across the U.S.

“Until this happened, American consumers operating on a budget had to make a choice between their wallet and protecting the planet,” Trenor said. “It’s a huge change.”

Top photo: A fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. Credit: Greenpeace

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Amok trey. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Long before I cooked Asian snakehead, or channa, I had heard all the tales about this notorious fish. Dubbed “Fishzilla” and “Frankenfish,” the predatory, freshwater creature consumes not only plankton and insects but also other fish, amphibians and small mammals. Hence the snappy monikers.

As an air breather, it can survive out of water for several days. It also can migrate over land, wreaking havoc on wildlife in its path. With a large, protruding mouth that contains canine-like teeth and a predilection for using them, it is, by all accounts, one tough fish.

In America, the snakehead has become a cause for concern. A non-indigenous predator lacking any natural enemies, it could decimate native fish species and permanently alter our aquatic ecosystems. Because of this concern, most states have outlawed the sale of it. Even so, thanks to live fish markets and anglers surreptitiously stocking their local waters, snakehead keeps turning up in U.S. lakes, ponds, canals and reservoirs.

Frankenfish key source of protein in Cambodia

While it may be viewed as an invasive menace in the U.S., in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, snakehead is considered an essential part of everyday diets. 

In fact, Cambodians rely upon this fish as a primary source of protein.

In Southeast Asia, the snakehead’s toughness serves as a selling point. Because it lives in shallow, murky waters, eats virtually anything and grows quickly, it is a boon to struggling fish farmers looking for a hardy, low-cost, fast-yield crop.

The fact that it can get by for several days outside of water is gift to both farmers and consumers. Because of this unique feature, snakehead maintains its freshness in the worst of transportation and market conditions. While visiting outdoor markets in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Cho Minh City, Vietnam, I was stunned to see 1- to 2-foot-long live snakeheads sitting out in crates and on unrefrigerated metal trays. In spite of the less-than-ideal storage conditions, they looked as healthy as if they’d been pottering about in water-filled tanks.

What do cooks in Southeast Asia do with all these rugged fish? They feature them in soups and stews as well as in poached, sautéed, grilled and fried dishes. The snakehead’s moderately high oil content means it also responds well to smoking and drying.

In Cambodia, snakehead stars in a traditional curry dish known as amok trey. Amok refers to the technique of steaming fish, chicken or tofu in woven banana leaf baskets. In amok trey, the fish is steamed alongside a mixture of coconut milk, fish sauce, eggs and the Khmer flavor paste known as kroeung. Served inside a hollowed-out coconut, the final dish is juicy, fragrant and flavorful.

I got a chance to prepare amok trey with snakehead at the Tara Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap. The fish with which I worked had originated in the nearby Tonle Sap Lake. The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap contains roughly 200 fish species and accounts for 75% of the country’s inland fish production. Snakehead is one of the most popular and economically important species in this lake.

Asian snakeheads, aka Frankenfish. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Asian snakeheads, aka Frankenfish. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Because I was starting my amok trey with a whole snakehead, I had to clean and then fillet the fish first. To accomplish this, I followed the same technique I would use with any round fish. After a minimal amount of effort, I ended up with two beautiful, white, firm-fleshed fillets.

Although I would slice the fish into thin strips for amok trey, the snakehead fillets could just as easily be pan-seared or grilled. I could then serve them with a grind of black pepper, dab of salted butter or splash of lemon juice. While mild in flavor, this fish needs little adornment to shine.

Back in New York City, I can continue cook with snakehead fish. In spite of a 2002 federal prohibition on the transportation and sale of live snakehead, Asian seafood markets around the city continue to carry this fish. Plus, if recent reports prove true, snakehead has moved into a neighborhood near mine, into the urban fisherman’s oasis of Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Anglers there have been instructed not to release this fish back into the lake.

In spite of snakehead’s growing presence in the U.S., I substitute striped bass or another firm, white-fleshed fish when making amok trey at home. However, should a snakehead happen to slither onto my doorstep, it would star in one tasty and authentic Cambodian meal.

Angkor-Style Striped Bass (Amok Trey)

Taken from my first cookbook, “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013), this recipe features striped bass instead of the traditional snakehead fish. My version of amok trey does, however, use the distinctly Cambodia flavoring kroeung. You’ll find galangal root and morinda or noni leaves in the produce section of Asian markets and jars of galangal root in the Asian section of most supermarkets.

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the kroeung:

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass

1 tablespoon minced galangal root

1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

For the fish:

¾ cup well-shaken canned coconut milk, plus more for serving

1 morinda or noni leaf, chopped

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

2 large eggs, whisked

½ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces striped bass fillets, skinned and thinly sliced

½ small red bell pepper, thinly sliced

3 to 4 cups steamed rice, for serving

Directions

1. Fill a large, wide pot with 1½ inches of water. Place a steamer basket in the pot and bring the water to a boil.

2. Using a mortar and pestle, pulverize the garlic, lemongrass, galangal root, ginger, salt and turmeric until you have a thick paste. You’ll have about ⅓ cup. Spoon 2½ tablespoons of kroeung into a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate the rest for future use.

3. Add the coconut milk, morinda leaf, fish sauce, sugar, eggs, salt and black pepper to the 2½ tablespoons of kroueng. Mix the ingredients together until well combined. Add the fish and stir gently to coat.

4. Spoon the mixture into 6 to 8 small, oven-safe ramekins, filling each about two-thirds full. Place them in the steamer basket, cover and allow the fish to steam for roughly 15 minutes. When finished, the fish will feel firm and appear white and cooked through.

5. Carefully remove the ramekins from the steamer. Garnish the top of each with slices of red pepper and a drizzle of coconut milk. Serve hot with steamed rice.

Top photo: Amok trey. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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