Articles in Fishing

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.”

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A sign at the Tutka Bay lodge. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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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Mackerel and a poisonniere by Nancy Jenkins

I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.

Of course I snatched them up and brought them home to try a favorite Elizabeth David recipe (from “French Provincial Cooking”), one she says comes from the Breton coast, near where my fish were caught.

In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.

If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!

Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.

Soused Mackerel

Ingredients

1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

1½ cups water

Zest of an organic lemon

Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon sugar

3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Pinch of sea salt

3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs

Directions

1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.

2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.

But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.

Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper

Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”

Makes 2 main course servings, or 4  first-course servings

Ingredients

For the fish:

2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound

6 cups water

1½ cups dry white wine

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped

1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 branch celery, coarsely chopped

Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped

For the sauce:

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste

2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)

¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

For the fish:

1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.

2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.

4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.

For the sauce:

You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.

1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.

2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.

3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.

Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe's store. Credit: Greenpeace

I’m a Trader Joe’s groupie. So I was thrilled when my Hawaiian-shirt-clad friends announced that they would be purchasing all their seafood from sustainable sources by the end of 2012. The Monrovia, Calif.,-based retailer had been a target of a Greenpeace “Traitor Joe’s” campaign for its ocean-unfriendly policies, including the sale of a variety of endangered fish. With that pledge, Trader Joe’s joined the good guys.

But four months past the deadline, my glee has changed to frustration over Trader Joe’s unwillingness to say whether it has indeed gone sustainable. The retailer’s only statement on the subject, a customer update posted on its website March 27, does not address the deadline at all. Instead it lays out a number of steps it has taken in “support of our seafood goal of shifting to sustainable sources.”

Trader Joe’s says it will do the following: Stop selling swordfish caught in Southeast Asia, only sell canned yellowfin and albacore tuna caught using approved sustainable methods, set up new standards for suppliers of farmed shrimp and keep genetically engineered salmon off its shelves.  The store has also stopped selling endangered Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper. Those are all steps in the right direction. (May 30 update: Trader Joe’s, Greenpeace bury hatchet, sort of)

Trader Joe’s mum on meeting deadline

But can I go to Trader Joe’s today and pick up fish fillets for dinner without worrying about whether I am contributing to the degradation of the ocean?

Apparently not. When asked whether Trader Joe’s had met its December deadline, company spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki was mum. “Beyond the statement, there is nothing else we can say at this time,” she says.

Why the mystery? Everyone understands a missed deadline, particularly when it involves something as complex as seafood sustainability, global supply chains and the economics of food. But refusing to discuss the matter makes it look like Trader Joe’s is hiding something.

Casson Trenor, a senior seafood campaigner at Greenpeace, acknowledges Trader Joe’s is making “tremendous progress” toward saving the oceans. But he says the company’s reluctance to provide more information about its seafood sourcing policies has made it nearly impossible to determine whether the retailer is actually living up to its promises.

Casson Trenor. Credit: Greenpeace

Casson Trenor. Credit: Greenpeace

For example, he says the store is still selling items such as farmed salmon and dredged scallops that Greenpeace and other groups do not consider sustainable. Are they simply clearing out old inventory? Or are they flouting their own goals and hoping others won’t notice?

There are a lot of things to love about Trader Joe’s if you’re a foodie on a budget, a time-strapped cook (who knew broccoli slaw could taste so good?) or an aficionado of cheap wine. But unfortunately, transparency isn’t one of them. Trenor explains that a key part of Trader Joe’s success is its ability to create tasty, easy-to-use foods — such as spicy fish fillets — that aren’t available anywhere else. To prevent those products from being copied, the retailer has resisted pressure to reveal its sourcing or its suppliers.

“Trader Joe’s is all about magic and illusion,” Trenor says. “It delivers an experience that it doesn’t have to compete for because no one else can produce that product. Why would it give itself away?”

Verifying the sustainability of a seafood product requires two key pieces of information: where it was caught or farmed and how it was caught or farmed, explains Victoria Galitzine of FishWise, a Santa Cruz, Calif., organization working with the seafood industry to develop sustainable business practices. As a first step, she recommends checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has an app and pocket-sized cards with lists of ocean-friendly seafood and fish to avoid.

Trader Joe’s says it is in the process of enhancing its package labeling to include information on species’ Latin names; origin; and catch or production method. But until that happens, I will need to ask my friendly sales clerk whether that frozen yellowfin tuna from Fiji was caught using a long-line or purse seine equipped with a “fish aggregating device, or FAD.” If the answer is yes to the FAD, it’s on the red list and off my grill.

“Asking questions demonstrates to the retailers that its customers care about the environmental performance of its seafood and eventually those messages will trickle up the chain of command to the decision-makers who can affect significant change,” Galitzine says.

I can also support retailers who are clearly ocean-friendly. In mid-May, Greenpeace will publish its annual Seafood Sustainability Scorecard ranking grocery stores by their sustainable seafood practices. Last year, the top scores went to Safeway and Whole Foods while Trader Joe’s ranked 15 out of 20.

Trenor wouldn’t say whether Trader Joe’s will be getting a better grade this year. However, if Greenpeace finds a large gap between Trader Joe’s promises and its delivery, he is not ruling out a revival of its “Traitor Joe’s” campaign.

“Trader Joe’s did make a promise to Greenpeace and other groups and that’s why we suspended our campaign,” he says. “The time is up. The question now is did they actually do what they said they were going to do?”

Top photo: A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe’s store. Credit: Greenpeace

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