Articles in Fishing
“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.
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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.
Top photo: Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner
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.
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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
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.
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“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
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.
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By Kathy Hunt
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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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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.
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
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
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
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
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?
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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.
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
Anyone who’s ever traveled in the Swiss Alps will know that farming there is nothing new. Wherever you go, you will see doe-eyed, moleskin-brown cows grazing vertiginous, brilliant green, manicured hillsides, their fragrant milk destined for great wheels of hard mountain cheese. But fish farming? It sounds unlikely — a bit like salmon farming in the Yemen — but it’s true.
The story began with the Lötschberg rail tunnel, which enters the Alps at Frutigen in the heart of the Bernese Oberland and emerges the other side at Raron in the Valais.
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The tunnel is the latest example of the Swiss flair for engineering. As often happens when tunneling in the Alps, the project hit a few snags. Chief among these was the water runoff from rain and melting snow, which filters through the limestone layers to the tunnel below. Thanks to the geothermal effect, the water is warmed on its descent through the mountain to a rather comfortable 64 F. To channel it directly into the local river would have played havoc with the wild fish population, accustomed to an icy alpine torrent.
The solution came from engineer Peter Hufschmied, head of site management for the tunnel and a keen angler. Instead of expending energy in cooling down the water before allowing it to run off, why not take advantage of the warmth to raise fish? Simultaneously, they would use any surplus energy to heat greenhouses where tropical plants and fruits would grow. A perfect – and perfectly sustainable — solution.
The Tropenhaus in Frutigen was born, a pilot project was put in place in 2002, and by 2005 the first sturgeon were introduced. The original Swiss caviar, christened Oona (a word with Celtic roots suggesting “unique” or “extraordinary”), was harvested in the winter of 2011-12. Now leading Swiss chefs such as Heiko Nieder at the Dolder Grand in Zürich, Werner Rothen of Restaurant Schöngrün at the Paul Klee Centre in Bern, and Ivo Adam of Restaurant Seven in Ascona on Lake Maggiore can’t get enough of it.
At least 27 different sturgeon species are raised or fished for caviar. From these, the Tropenhaus chose the Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser baerii. It’s a strange and wonderful beast, light gray to brown in color with five rows of bony plates along its back and sides; an elongated, upturned snout; and a kind of four-pronged goatee beard. In captivity, the females of the species will mature at approximately 6 years of age, which makes them an economic proposition for farming. (Wild Siberian sturgeon needs at least 20 years to reach maturity.)
Once mature, the females are stunned and killed, the sac of roe is lifted out and set aside and the fish is deftly filleted. The fillets — firm, dense and devoid of bones — feature on the menus of the two on-site Tropenhaus restaurants and are also sold to restaurants and shops (including select branches of the Swiss retailer Coop, which is also the Tropenhaus’ main shareholder). Some fillets are sold fresh, others are smoked to create a delicacy not unlike smoked eel.
Harvesting roe for caviar a simple process
Considering the mystique surrounding caviar, the process for making it seems simple, at least as demonstrated by caviar-meister Tobias Felix. Clad in a hairnet, overalls, a plastic apron and white boots and equipped with surgical mask and latex gloves, he looks like a cross between an astronaut and a surgeon.
First, taking care not to damage the precious eggs, he gently coaxes and massages them through a wire mesh, leaving behind the membrane that surrounds them. Next, he rinses the eggs in cold water, drains them in a fine-meshed sieve and painstakingly picks out impurities with tweezers. At this stage, the eggs are a dull grayish-black; only when he adds the carefully calculated measure of salt will they take on their characteristic glossy sheen. The newly salted caviar is promptly transferred into custom-made tins, which are sealed hermetically. The entire process takes 15 minutes from start to finish.
For the final step, the tin is embedded in a sleek, black sphere, which in turn is enclosed in a solid chunk of glass resembling an ice cube, made at the Hergiswil glass factory on Lace Lucerne, an ultra-chic piece of packaging that won a coveted Red Dot Design award in 2012.
The likelihood of Swiss caviar coming to a table anywhere near you is probably slim. “The quantities are tiny (production in the first year was around 300 kilograms, 700 pounds) and for the moment we are focusing just on Switzerland,” admits marketing manager Andreas Schmid. But there are ambitious plans afoot: Production is set to increase tenfold, and then they will consider the export market.
Even farmed, Swiss caviar will never be cheap; that’s at least part of its mystique. (Thirty grams or 1 ounce of Oona costs 144 Swiss francs, or $155 U.S.) But now that caviar from wild fish is out of bounds due to a disastrous combination of damming, overfishing, pollution and poaching, farmed caviar is increasingly meeting demand for this prized product. Sturgeon is already raised on fish farms all over the world, from France, Spain and Italy to Russia, China, Canada and the United States.
Now Switzerland has joined the ranks.
Top photo: A spoonful of Oona caviar. Credit: Tropenhaus Frutigen
Like most cooks and food lovers, I’ve been eagerly anticipating spring’s bounty. Asparagus, morel mushrooms, ramps and rhubarb all return to markets and my dinner table. So, too, does the East Coast’s favorite sport fish, striped bass.
Found in ocean, rivers and estuaries from Canada to Louisiana, this long, silver, horizontally striped fish has been an American favorite since colonial times. In those days the fish could grow as long as 6 feet and weigh more than 100 pounds. In addition to being a big catch, it was a plentiful one. So great were its numbers that early settlers used striped bass for fertilizer as well as for food.
Unfortunately, popularity does not always translate into prosperity. By enriching their crops with striped bass, the colonists seriously depleted the striped bass population. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to ban this mulching practice to preserve the dwindling fish supply.
Centuries later, in the 1980s, overfishing brought another severe decline. Today, though, thanks to severe fishing restrictions and their strict management, this fish has largely rebounded. Although you won’t see those 100 pounders in markets — they primarily carry small, farmed striped bass — you can enjoy this fish from the wild once again.
Also called striper, greenhead and, in the Chesapeake Bay area, rockfish, striped bass is renowned for its spunky nature. In fact, its scrappiness and the resulting challenge of the catch are part of its great allure.
“This is not a fish for beginners or the faint of heart. It’s a very fast, hard fighting fish, a worthy opponent and delicious,” retired vintner and avid angler Frank Wilmer says. A native of southeastern Pennsylvania, Wilmer reels in striped bass off the surf on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
With a feisty spirit comes a voracious appetite. This fish consumes plankton, shrimp, clams, crabs, eels and medium-sized fish such as menhaden. Its diverse diet undoubtedly contributes to its unique, sweet flavor and firm, moderately fat, moist flesh.
Its appealing texture and taste have earned striped bass many fans. Valley Forge Audubon naturalist Vince Smith considers it one of the best tasting fish. “I think of it as a cross between bluefish and weakfish. It has a dark, fat layer like bluefish, but not the heavy taste,” Smith says.
Striped bass any way you like it
What makes striped bass such a boon to fishermen and cooks is its versatility. After catching and cleaning it, you can prepare it in myriad ways.
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For Smith, grilling is the best method. “I love to cook it on the grill with just a little salt. Leave it skin side down, then flip to finish,” he says.
Frank Wilmer concurs. “My buddies and I prepare striped bass by scaling them, slicing them laterally about 4-5 times on each side, sprinkling them with jerk seasoning and grilling them whole until well done. Never had fish done any better,” he says.
In addition to being grilled, its firm, oily flesh responds beautifully to baking, braising, broiling, deep- and pan-frying, poaching, roasting, sautéing, searing and steaming. The luscious, juicy meat goes well with ingredients such as artichoke, garlic, parsley, potatoes, scallions, shallots, thyme, tomatoes, white wine vinegar and port wine.
Because this fish possesses such a rich, lovely flavor, I tend to keep the preparations simple and the extra ingredients to a minimum. If I’m fortunate enough to have a whole striper, I stuff it with shallots or pearl onions, slices of lemon or orange and fresh thyme. I then roast it for 20 minutes or until done. Fillets I usually grill, sauté, sear or pan-fry. I then splash lemon juice, Tabasco or soy sauce on top and serve them alongside fresh cauliflower, corn, beets or greens.
Along with its vivaciousness, taste and versatility, striped bass has sustainability on its side. Hook-and-line caught striped bass from the U.S. Atlantic is considered a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. The milder, smaller, farmed striped bass also receives this coveted rating.
Among my angler friends optimism remains high for a good striped bass season. I hope they’re correct. For cooks like me who love the full-bodied flavor of the wild fish but rely upon others to catch it, it would be quite disappointing if their predictions turn out to be just another fish tale.
Pan-Seared Striped Bass with Lime-Basil Butter
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Juice of ½ lime
Grated zest of 1 lime
1½ tablespoons fresh basil, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 (4- to 6-ounce) striped bass fillets
Ground black pepper
1. In a small bowl, mix together the butter, juice, zest and basil. Set aside.
2. In a large, nonstick pan, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Season the striped bass fillets with salt and black pepper to taste.
3. Once the oil has heated, place the fillets in the pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the flesh has browned slightly. Turn the fillets over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the other side has browned and the center has turned opaque. During the last 30 seconds of cooking, dot the tops of the fillets with equal amounts of lime-basil butter. Remove the fillets from the pan and serve immediately.
Top photo: Pan-seared striped bass with lime-basil butter Credit: Kathy Hunt