Articles in Fishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:

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

Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin

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

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

Ingredients

About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finally chopped

1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and slivered

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

1 tablespoon mild Spanish or Hungarian paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 pounds “dry” Maine sea scallops

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

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

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

Directions

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

Where to find Maine sea scallops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wandering skrei

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of cod

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

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

Book links

FireAndIce

"Fire and Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking"

By Darra Goldstein

Ten Speed Press, 2015

304 pages

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

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

Population is threatened

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

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

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

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

Preservation is vital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scallop farming starts with a perfect lake

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

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

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

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

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

New fish come to the lake and scallops, too

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

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

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

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

Fishermen work day and night bringing in scallops

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

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

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

Baby scallops are retrieved from the sacks

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

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

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

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

Mostly students work on the scallop harvest

Workers harvest the scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Workers harvest the scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

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

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

Scallops go back to the sea for three more years

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

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

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

The sustainable side of scallop farming

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

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

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

The sustainable side of scallop farming

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

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

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

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

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

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Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock

“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.

The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.

The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide to oysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.

Where to find oysters

Whoever sells you oysters is required to keep the tags documenting their origins on hand. Ask to see it and snap a photo to capture the details. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Whoever sells you oysters is required to keep the tags documenting their origins on hand. Ask to see it and snap a photo to capture the details. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?

By proxy.

“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.

Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.

Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.

Gather the gear

Everything you need to tackle oysters: a dish towel, mignonettes, an oyster knife and a bottle or three of your favorite wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Everything you need to tackle oysters: a dish towel, mignonettes, an oyster knife and a bottle or three of your favorite wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.

Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.

Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.

A note on mignonettes

aret Foster, chef/owner of Portland’s Oyster Social, recommends eating the first oyster of the day unadorned, or with just a sip of wine to chase. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Portland’s Oyster Social, recommends eating the first oyster of the day unadorned, or with just a sip of wine to chase. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.

Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.

And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.

Find the right wine

Sommelier Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines and Jaret Foster of Oyster Social teach a seminar on pairing oysters and wine overlooking the Brooks vineyards in Amity, Oregon. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Sommelier Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines and Jaret Foster of Oyster Social teach a seminar on pairing oysters and wine overlooking the Brooks vineyards in Amity, Oregon. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.

“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.

Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.

The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noir from a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.

Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.

Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”

The art of the shuck

So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.

2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.

3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.

4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.

5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.

That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.

Classic Mignonette Sauce

–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods 

Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters

Ingredients

1 tablespoon course ground black pepper

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/2 cup sparkling wine

Salt to taste

Directions

Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.

Yuzukoshō Vinaigrette

— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social

Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters

Ingredients

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons yuzukoshō (Japanese fermented chili-citrus paste, available at Asian grocers)

2 tablespoons finely diced daikon radish

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a quart jar and just before serving shake well to emulsify; keeps well in the refrigerator for two weeks to a month.

Main photo: Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock   

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For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

At a time when sea stocks are widely under threat, savvy chefs are turning their attention to the gourmet potential offered by freshwater fish. And when the catch is from Lake Garda in this glorious region in the north of Italy, where the scent of Mediterranean citrus meets sweet Alpine meadows, it gives the food-loving traveler even more reason to visit a place whose classical beauty captivated German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe among many others.

Popular holiday destination

Hotel Lido Palace, Riva del Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Hotel Lido Palace, Riva del Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Garda has long been a popular holiday destination for both the families of Verona, many of whom have elegant holiday villas strung out along the shore, and for northern Europeans coming south to seek tranquility in the sun, crystal clear air, and bracing mountain and water pursuits.

It’s a heady, romantic destination with a Grand European Tour history although today’s visitors are less likely to be found sedately sketching castle ruins and more likely to be jogging, playing golf at world-class courses, paragliding, diving, sailing or simply having a zen moment on the shore of Italy’s largest lake.

The food has accents from the three Italian regions that border the lake — the Veneto, Lombardy and Trentino — but the defining ingredients remain lemons, olive oil, wine and fish from the lake.

Fishing on Lake Garda

Char, pike and trout on sale in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Char, pike and trout on sale in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

For centuries, fishing was one of the mainstays of Gardenese life. From a peak of 700 fishermen earning their living from the lake in the 19th century, there are now only about 120. Although fish stocks are plentiful, some diners still need to be persuaded to try an alternative to the variety of fish that arrive from the nearby Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Some small-scale fish farming also occurs: in the Trentino foothills of the Dolomites, the family-run Trota Oro farms trout, char and chub, which they also sell smoked and marinated.

Fish & Chef is an annual gastronomic festival of cookery shows and gourmet meals held in the early summer and designed to highlight the produce of the region. Michelin-starred hotels and restaurants participate in friendly competition and tickets to the gala dinners are quickly snapped up by enthusiastic locals and visitors alike.

It’s a recognition that increasingly, chefs from both Garda and the rest of Italy and Europe are exploring the exciting possibilities of cooking with environmentally friendly freshwater fish such as rainbow trout, pike, carp, perch, bleak, tench, char and freshwater sardines. If lucky, you may find some rare brown trout, although the fishing is subject to tight restrictions.

Fish & Chef competition

Serving char lightly smoked over cedar wood at the Hotel Regina Adelaide in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Serving char lightly smoked over cedar wood at the Hotel Regina Adelaide in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

At this year’s festival, the sixth, Chef Marco Sacco of the two Michelin-star restaurant Piccolo Lago in Verbena created a stunning arrangement of sushi for the Fish & Chef gala dinner held at the lovely Hotel Regina Adelaide hotel in Garda. And at the Aqualux Hotel, Bardolino, pale, lean chub took a star turn served three ways with cucumber, watercress and crème fraiche at a dinner cooked by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star Restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany.

On a more quotidian level, nearly every trattoria and osteria serves a version of bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil.

Everyman’s version of bigoli con sarde

Bigoli con sarde -- rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Ironically — and sadly — the most iconic product of Lake Garda no longer exists. Garda lemons were once famous throughout Europe for their alleged medicinal properties, acidity, thin skin, intense perfume and flavor, but the variety was lost when the last trees failed to survive a particularly cold winter in the 1980s. Even before then the writing was on the wall for the most northerly growing citrus region in Europe, an improbable industry created by a determination that has been called “a dogged madness.”

Lemons were brought to Garda by monks in the 13th century. They grew well in the Mediterranean-style microclimate and in the 17th century the construction of vast lemon houses orlimonaia” made this the most northern commercial lemon-growing region in Europe. The towering, terraced structures of wooden beams, stone pillars and glass sheets were designed to protect the fruit from winter frosts. Disease, competition from the south, some exceptionally cold weather and the discovery of synthetic citric acid, however, would later destroy the industry.

Lemons of Garda

Lemons growing in the renovated Limonaia del Castel, Limone, Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Lemons growing in the renovated Limonaia del Castel, Limone, Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The original variety of Garda lemon is also virtually extinct, grown only by a few private citrus enthusiasts. Most of the lemons sold in the region come from Sicily and southern Italy or are a modern hybrid, but the tradition of using lemons in conserves and limoncello lives on.

Thanks to the mild microclimate, Lake Garda is also the most northerly region in Europe to produce olive oil. The extra virgin is characteristically delicate and fruity, and is protected by the Garda DOP mark. “Molche,” the residue from olives after they have been pressed, is traditionally used in bread and cakes.

Olive oil cake

Torta di Molche, or olive oil cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Torta di Molche, or olive oil cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

One of the stellar olive oil labels in Garda, indeed in Italy, is the boutique olive oil farm of Ca’ Rainene. The award-winning range includes Garda Orientale, extracted from a blend of indigenous olives — Casaliva, Lecino and Pendolino — grown and pressed on their own land. Medium fruity, with perfectly balanced bitter and pungent components, it has a delicate almond note typical of the Garda cultivars. The farm also produces Drizzar, made solely with olives of that name: Fruity and complex, it is superb with fish, game and vegetables.

The hills north of Verona are the land of Valpolicella, but closer to Garda the classic wine to look out for is Custoza, a full-bodied white wine usually drunk young but that is starting to be appreciated when a little older. Bardolino is a light red wine and Chiaretto, the rosé version. There are 80 types of soil in the region that make for extremely “fresh” wines, perfect as an aperitif or to drink with fish.

The last word should go to Goethe: ” … I wish I could get my friends beside me to enjoy together the scenery that appears before me … the beautiful Lake Garda. …”

I’ll raise a glass of Custoza to that while I work out the Italian for “Gone fishing.”

The shores of Lake Garda

Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Main photo: For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Trout is a versatile and sustainable seafood choice. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

As a seafood lover, writer and cook, I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me how to prepare delicate, flaky fish. This group includes the wildly popular tilapia, as well as flounder, sole and, my personal favorite, trout. Mild yet unusually complex in flavor and easy to cook, trout is the country’s oldest and most successful example of aquaculture. Rich in protein, vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids, it provides numerous delights with each bite.

A relative of salmon, trout ranges in color from silvery green to coppery brown and with orange-red, brown or black spots scattered over its skin. Influenced by diet and habitat, its delicate flesh runs from cream to red in color. In terms of size, it grows up to 50 pounds in the wild. Farm-raised trout weigh between 8 and 16 ounces.

Common trout species

Sarah J. Dippold holding a rainbow trout. Credit: Copyright Jim Dippold

Sarah J. Dippold holding a rainbow trout. Credit: Copyright Jim Dippold

Several species of trout exist. If you are or happen to know or are related to serious trout anglers, as I am, you may have access to brown and sea trout. Although the same species, brown trout reside in rivers while sea trout spend time in oceans. They both possess copper skin and pale pink flesh.

Then there is steelhead. Sometimes confused with salmon, this species has reddish flesh and a flavor reminiscent of salmon. Highly versatile, it can stand in for salmon in recipes. Classified as a sport fish, wild steelhead cannot be sold in markets. What you see in your fishmonger’s case or on restaurant menus is a product of aquaculture.

The most recognizable species may be the beautiful, multicolored rainbow trout. Adorned with a hot pink or coral stripe running from head to tail on both sides and a smattering of black spots, this striking fish ranges in body color from yellow to blue-green. When caught in the wild, rainbow trout have a pronounced nutty taste. The farm-raised version is milder in flavor and has creamy white to pink flesh.

Another name that may sound familiar is brook or speckled trout. Considered by many to be the best-tasting trout, this fish isn’t actually a trout. Instead it’s a type of char.

Tips for buying trout

Trout can be purchased from markets either as a whole fish or in fillets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Trout can be purchased from markets either as a whole fish or in fillets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

At markets, trout is sold whole and as fillets. When shopping for this fish, you should look for shiny skin, bright eyes, moist flesh and a fresh, clean smell. Whole trout should have a layer of transparent slime over it; the more slime, the better and fresher the fish will be.

Whole trout tends to have more flavor than boned fillets. The only downside is that you may have to take out the tiny pin bones. However, you can always ask the fishmonger to do this for you.

Rainbow trout may be marketed as golden trout. Occasionally it gets mislabeled as steelhead. Just remember that steelhead has a bolder coloring than rainbow trout.

How to cook trout

Pan searing is a simple choice for preparing trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Pan searing is a simple choice for preparing trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

When cooking trout, my go-to methods are pan searing, grilling or smoking. In the case of pan searing, I heat a smidgen of olive oil in a nonstick frying pan. Once the oil is hot, I place the fillets skin-side down in the pan. As soon as their edges turn ivory in color and flake when probed with a fork, about 2 to 3 minutes, I gently turn over the fish and allow the fillets to cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. That’s all it takes to pan sear trout.

A fast-cooking fish, trout also does well when baked, broiled, poached or steamed. No matter which cooking method I choose, I leave the skin on the trout. It will hold the meat together as the fish cooks.

Flavor pairings for trout

Trout has a nutty flavor that pairs well with many foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Trout has a nutty flavor that pairs well with many foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Trout’s nutty taste marries with myriad foods. Apples, carrots, celery, oranges, scallions, shallots and tomatoes partner well, as do mint, tarragon and thyme. It is also enlivened by a splash of cider, lemon juice or wine or a sprinkling of crumbled bacon or sliced olives. Almonds, pecans, pine nuts and walnuts make delicious coatings for this fish. Even so, I often prepare trout in a simple manner: With a mere sprinkle of salt and pepper and drizzle of olive oil or lemon juice, the fish will shine.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates U.S. farm-raised rainbow trout as an “eco-best” seafood choice because it is raised in an environmentally sound manner. Low in mercury, it can be safely consumed at least four times per month.

Cerignola-topped Trout

Cerignola-topped Trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Cerignola-topped Trout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 6 minutes

Total time: 11 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt, to taste

Ground black pepper, to taste

4 (6-ounce) trout fillets

Handful of Cerignola olives, roughly chopped

Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (optional)

Directions

1. Heat the olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. As the oil is heating, season the trout fillets with salt and pepper.

2. Lay the trout skin-side down in the hot pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the borders begin to turn ivory in color and the fish flakes when probed with a fork. Gently turn over the fillets and allow the fish to cook on the other side for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Place the fillets on plates. Cover the tops with equal amounts of chopped olives. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the olives, if desired. Serve hot.

Main photo: Trout is a versatile and sustainable seafood choice. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

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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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