Articles in Fishing
If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.
Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.
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As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.
Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.
At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.
And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.
Octopus salad with oil and lemon
“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”
Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.
Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.
Eating invasive fish aids sustainability
Think that the need for invasivores — people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.
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This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.
Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.
Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.
In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.
Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.
Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”
Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.
Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.
Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.
Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.
With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.
Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon
Perhaps no fish has a more fabled and forgotten place in American history than shad, a seasonal springtime fish that can be found up and down the East Coast where freshwater rivers meet the ocean.
An oily fish that lives in saltwater but spawns in fresh water, shad was a staple of the Lenape Native Americans’ diet as well as a fertilizer for their crops. George Washington supplemented his income with an ingenious netting method that captured spawning shad running through the Potomac River in front of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. In addition to selling the fish, he used them to supplement food for those enslaved on his plantation.
Shad gaining favor from East Coast to West
Through the years, Chef Walter Staib has had shad on and off the menu at Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, where he is the executive chef. He has served boneless shad and shad roe, which is pocketed in a lobe and considered a delicacy by aficionados.
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“The problem is that people don’t really know about it — including new, younger chefs. It also has an unusual though delicious taste,” Staib said. “Twenty years ago, I did a lot with shad and had regular customers who started calling when the runs began, wanting to know what we’d have on the menu.”
The chef’s love of the fish prompted him to feature it on his PBS cooking series “A Taste of History.” He said the fish was a favorite throughout the 18th century, including among the founding fathers who gathered at the original City Tavern during the Continental Congress and afterward when the city served as America’s first capital.
Washington’s own relationship with shad was a lifelong one. Legend has it British troops netted the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia to divert the shad run from where Washington’s starving troops were encamped downstream at Valley Forge. The commander in chief’s own taste for shad was legendary, and his steward and cook often sought to procure the earliest fish for his breakfast table — at considerable cost.
In those days, shad was an abundant fish, making the fortunes of many an East Coast river town, notably among them Fishtown, Pa. When overfishing for food and fertilizer reduced stocks, the fish went out of fashion.
Today, the fish is making a comeback, although declining stocks are not all that prevents shad from regaining its place as the quintessential American fish.
“Shad fisheries are rebounding because of regulations that have moved gill nets offshore,” said Joe Lasprogata, vice president of new product development for Samuels & Son Seafood in Philadelphia. Gill nets, which had traditionally been strung across river mouths, prevented shad from spawning and made them easy prey for the striped bass that find them so tasty.
The larger issue, Lasprogata said, is that shad is strongly flavored because of its high oil content and has an unusual bone structure that makes filleting a challenge.
Place the ﬁllets with their thick (head) end facing you and perpendicular to the work surface. Using a sharp ﬁlleting knife, cut into the ﬁllet along one side of the darker red center line starting about 4 inches (10 cm) back and cutting toward the head end. Credit: Steve Legato
Samuels & Son has specialty shad filleters, and its process was featured in the book “The Fishmonger’s Apprentice” by Aliza Green. (See slideshow above for directions on how to fillet shad.) Specialty shad filleters are also a feature of the many shad festivals that still take place during the small window of opportunity to enjoy the fish.
“There is an urban legend that shad can be roasted whole in low heat for a long period of time, and the bones will soften enough to simply eat, but I’ve never tried it,” Lasprogata said.
In Essex, Conn., John Mackuck is one of the few, if not only, remaining shad smokers, using a closely guarded old recipe that starts with a salt, sugar and molasses brine then hot smoking with hickory, apple and cherry woods.
On the West Coast, with most harvested shad used for canning, some Pacific Coast chefs are putting shad on the menu.
“It does not have much of a following here in the Pacific Northwest due to the popularity of salmon,” said chef Thomas Dunklin of Three Degrees in Portland, Ore. “However, I welcome the opportunity to educate my guests about it.
I like the delicacy of it. The roe is amazing served up seared. “
Shad roe and fillets can be sampled at various, mostly East Coast, festivals to which devotees flock. The shad festivals start earlier the further south you go and generally are held by community organizations.
You’ll find a shad bake virtually anywhere the ocean meets fresh water.
The Grifton Shad Festival in Grifton, N.C., has been around since 1970 and is generally held in early April. Lambertville, N.J., has a renowned ShadFest and art show that takes place yearly in late April. The Shad Derby in Windsor, Conn., is usually held in mid-May and has crowned a Shad Derby Queen every year since 1966. In Essex, Conn., the Shad Bake has taken place since 1955, and organizers say they fillet and roast between 300 pounds and 350 pounds of shad yearly. This year’s Shad Bake will be June 7 in the Connecticut river town.
These festivals are a great way to sample shad prepared at the hands of loving experts, but if you hurry can still get your hands on shad fillets or the highly prized roe. Fillet of shad can be had for roughly $15 per pound. Try the recipes below, which feature simple, tasty ways to enjoy this all-American fish.
Shad Roe in Caper Butter
This recipe by Chef Walter Staib of Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern is a simple preparation for shad roe, considered a delicacy for centuries. The method is also demonstrated in this video.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
1 shad roe lobe
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Lemon wedges, as desired, for garnish
1. Season the shad roe with salt and pepper.
2. Melt butter in a large fry pan over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, add roe and gently sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over with care once using a spatula.
3. Cover the pan and let the roe cook in the butter for about 6 or 7 minutes, or until browned on the outside but still tender and a little rare inside.
4. Add the capers, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice and mix.
5. To serve, place roe onto a plate and spoon melted butter sauce over the roe. Sprinkle with parsley, and garnish with lemon wedges.
Shad Scaloppini With Fiddlehead Ferns & Lemon
Because shad is a delicate fish, Chef Walter Staib says he likes to have his greens and all the ingredients for the shad itself ready and waiting. Instead of Fiddlehead ferns you could prepare baby spinach, ramps, or dandelion greens with this dish as well.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
For the fiddleheads:
1 tablespoon salt
8 cups water
1 pound fiddle head ferns, washed and trimmed of any brown spots
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the shad:
Pinch nutmeg, freshly ground
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 pound shad, cut into 8 medallions
½ cup flour
1 egg, beaten well
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 small lemon, peeled and sliced thinly
1 small lime, peeled and sliced thinly
For the fiddleheads:
1. Have a large bowl ready with 1 cup of ice and 3 cups of cold water.
2. Bring the salt and water to a boil in a large pot and add the fiddlehead ferns. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes then remove from the water with a slotted spoon.
3. Add the fiddlehead ferns to the bowl of ice water and allow to sit for 1 minute. Drain and set the ferns aside.
4. Heat a large fry pan over medium-high heat and add the grapeseed oil.
5. Add the fiddlehead ferns and stir well. Cook until they begin to get lightly brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and then spoon on to a platter.
For the shad:
1. Combine the nutmeg, salt and pepper, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce in a shallow, large dish. Marinate fish in the mixture for no more than 5 minutes. Leaving the fish in longer will result in the protein breaking down.
2. Remove fish and discard marinade. Dredge each medallion in flour. Shake excess flour off medallions. Dredge medallions in egg, coating well. Shake off any excess and set aside on a plate.
3. Heat a large fry pan with grapeseed oil and butter over medium-high heat and add the shad medallions. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, then flip and fry on the other side.
4. Remove shad medallions from the pan and layer onto the fiddlehead ferns.
5. Place the lime and lemon slices around the dish for garnish.
Main photo: Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine
Securing sustainable seafood is a convoluted prospect at best. That statement applies whether you are the individual harvesting groundfish from the ocean’s floor, farming shellfish in local estuaries or buying wild salmon at the fish counter.
Buyers have to be “well versed in the adjectives (and colors) needed to ensure they are really buying sustainable seafood,” says Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Geographic have built seafood buying guides called Seafood Watch, FishWatch and Seafood Decision Guide, respectively. These guides employ green, yellow and red visual cues to advise consumers which fish are sustainable choices. Those ratings are based primarily on species population numbers and how pulling those fish from the ocean affects the overall marine ecosystem.
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According to Barton Seaver, a longtime sustainable seafood advocate, seafood buying guides represent a good start. They help eaters choose the types of seafood the oceans can afford to give (those with green ratings and sometimes yellow), as opposed to the ones (red ratings) that may be overfished.
Seaver serves in a dual capacity as director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and as a sustainability fellow at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He argues that issues of economic viability for the fishermen, cultural preservation of fishing communities and the overall health of seafood eaters must also be taken into consideration when assessing seafood sustainability. Pulling these multiple elements of the sustainable seafood picture into focus will require advanced technology.
Seaver, Bowman, Steve Eayrs, a research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Shah Selbe, an aerospace engineer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, can readily point to technologies they believe are changing the sustainable seafood landscape. Their suggestions fall into three categories: making fishermen more efficient at harvesting fish in a sustainable fashion; cracking down on illegal fishing; and providing eaters with a reliable means of tracing where the fish on their plate came from and how it arrived there.
Technology No. 1: Precision Fishing
Smart Catch Technologies is a company co-located in Newport, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif., that creates products to support sustainable commercial fishing. Seaver pointed to the company’s CatchCam and SmartNet products because they enable “precision fishing,” a scheme under which non-target fish are released from nets before they are hauled ashore, thereby reducing both bycatch and waste.
Technology No. 2: Revamped Bottom Trawling Gear
Bottom trawling is the practice of towing a funnel-shaped net anchored open by two “doors” that have continuous or occasional contact with the ocean floor. Trawls catch shellfish and groundfish found near the seabed, and they have long been criticized for entrapping everything in their path, including sponges, corals and non-target species. Eayrs cites a recent study conducted by his institute showing that changes in the trawling gear — in how the doors are constructed to minimize contact with the floor and changes both in the size of the net holes and the materials from which they are constructed — reduce seabed impact by as much as 95% and yield a 12% reduction in fuel consumption with little or no variation in the targeted cod catch. If eaters are educated enough to be able to accept the premise that the fish was caught legally using the best available science, “then they can buy their cod with confidence,” Eayrs said.
Technology No. 3: GPS-Enabled Selective Trawling
According to Bowman, establishing a trawling footprint — clearly articulating which parts of the ocean floor can or can’t be open to trawling — and having fishermen (and enforcement agencies) use GPS technology to make sure fishermen do not drop their nets within a set distance from protected areas, is a use of technological application that holds the most promise for helping to feed the planet’s 9 billion people. “But it will also likely raise the most controversy on what the ocean can continue to give up for the sake of human consumption,” Bowman said.
Technology No. 4: Cheap Open Source Gear Helps to Decrease Illegal Fishing
In his recent lecture at the New England Aquarium, Selbe outlined FishNET, a project that focuses on developing integrated, low-cost technology solutions that help improve the ability to observe and collate data about illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). This suite of technologies comprises a Web-based data collection server, off-the-shelf drone and cellphone equipment, and cheap, open-source monitoring devices that together capture and analyze official and crowdsourced data on fishing vessels and exploited areas.
Technology No. 5: Sophisticated Satellite-Enabled Poaching and Dumping Surveillance
Seaver points to companies such as Windward and SkyTruth to illustrate the role of satellites in vessel tracking and how these efforts can help with all IUU issues and enable better fisheries management.
Technology No. 6: Bar Codes for Near Real-Time Seafood Supply Chain Tracking
Norpac Fisheries Export is a successful processing and distribution business that has developed and implemented traceability software to track fish from catch to retailer. Through the use of bar codes and back-end software, this system lets sellers and buyers know where their fish are at any point in the process, letting them pinpoint procedural inefficiencies and keeping illegally caught fish out of the chain. Seaver also points to the emerging field of DNA bar coding as a possible evolution. “Whoever invents a hand-held tissue sampler that can accurately ID a species on the spot will win big!” he said.
Technology No. 7: Sustainable Seafood Matchmaking
Colorado-based FishChoice Inc. has built an online matchmaking service for buyers and suppliers of sustainable seafood. According to Seaver, this service opens up the chance to distribute and purchase sustainably sourced products and streamlines recommendations and certifications from the NGO community. “The service … provides education and the opportunity to conduct the transaction right there,” Seaver said.
Technology No. 8: Storied Sushi
Owners of San Diego-based Harney Sushi have developed edible quick response codes (QR) — made of rice paper and edible ink — that customers can scan with their cellphones before eating any fish served to them. The codes link back to NOAA’s FishWatch database. “By demanding this kind of detail, we help send a message to suppliers that they need to know and verify their seafood sourcing,” Seaver said.
Main photo: San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi, so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Courtesy of Harney Sushi
Whenever I think about fresh fish I always picture that old MAD magazine column “Silly Answers to Stupid Questions.” The female customer asks at the fish store, “Is that fish fresh?” And the fishmonger answers, “No, it’s very well-mannered.” Seriously though, the question was fair because it does come down to the fishmonger knowing best.
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Today’s fishmongers offer a variety of filleted fish, making our lives easier. But this convenience sometimes means customers get lower-quality fish than they did when they bought it unfilleted. Judging whether a fish is fresh is not such an easy thing. It’s not hard for the fishmongers because when they buy it they have access to the fresh-caught fish and knowledge of fish that the consumer does not have.
They often know the fishermen or fish brokers. They have the opportunity to smell and handle the whole fish. Good fishmongers know where the fish was caught and who caught it and they know which areas of the ocean and seas have the right kind of nutrients for particular fish. Not all fishmongers know this, but the good ones do.
Consumers are at a great disadvantage. They cannot even see the whole fish because it often arrives at the fish store from a central processing facility. The fillets are cut into perfect and identical pieces with little to distinguish them from one another.
A fish name doesn’t tell you everything
Furthermore, the fish often have names that have nothing to do with their species. When you buy black cod you’re not buying cod. When you buy Chilean sea bass you’re not buying sea bass. In the first case, black cod is sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), which tastes nothing like cod and is the only species in the Anoplopoma genus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved “sablefish” as the only acceptable market name and considered “black cod” a regional name not to be used for statement of identity purposes. In the second case, Chilean sea bass is an invented marketing name for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), a deep-dwelling Antarctic Ocean fish.
Only one sure way to test whether it’s fresh fish
The standard techniques for judging whether a fish is fresh — using your senses of sight, smell and touch — often won’t help the average consumer. Along with not having access to whole fish, customers also often find the fish store does not know where the fish was caught and when. When was the last time a supermarket fishmonger answered, “The fish was caught seven days ago off the Alaska coast?” I can answer that — never.
A consumer’s senses also are useless when the fish sometimes has been doused in sodium benzoate that can disguise a poor quality filleted fish.
There is only one way to determine the freshness of filleted fish, and that is through taste. Since this is not convenient when shopping, customers must trust the fishmonger the first time and then repeat their business if they like his or her fish. If the fish you buy at a particular store is consistently good, then that is your guide for fresh fish. Fresh fish should not taste “fishy,” and the store should not smell “fishy.” It should smell like the briny ocean.
Where the quality fishmongers are
Top quality fish will taste good, unadorned with sauces, while lesser quality fish will taste insipid and generic and — in a telltale sign of non-freshness — fishy. Choose the freshest fish before choosing the recipe. I usually find top quality fishmongers in ethnic areas where fish cookery is important to that particular culture, such as Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Caribbean neighborhoods.
Lastly, don’t be a boob and ask, “Is this fish fresh?” What do you think they’ll answer?
Main photo: Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Every morning during the fall in Michigan’s thumb, I watch sport fishermen skimming by in boats outfitted with everything from baited poles to fancy outriggers. They are all after the same thing: salmon. Whether the catch is Atlantic, chinook or coho, it doesn’t much matter as long as they reel one in. Some have a knack for it, some get lucky, some just enjoy a quiet morning on the lake. But I like it most of all when someone brings a fish heavy with roe (or eggs) to my home, because it means we will get two treats out of one catch: caviar and a couple of smoked filets.
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Prized specimens from the endangered beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea have been illegal for sale in the United States since 2005. Certain lesser grades like sevruga and osetra are available but can be astronomically pricey, at over $4,000 per pound. But fresh eggs from locally caught salmon in the Great Lakes are quite a different matter. Few fishermen bother to save these precious jewels. Fewer still know how simple it is to cure the eggs and prepare fresh caviar. So you can understand why I felt a little giddy when I got my hands on a recent 10-pound catch with two skeins of roe that yielded 2 pounds of beautifully glistening eggs.
The process for transforming the eggs into caviar is deceptively simple and takes about an hour. It involves little more than preparing salt brine and biding your time. Once the eggs are brined to a level that won’t overpower their delicate fish essence, they are ready to serve and share. All that remains is to offer a simple cracker with a smear of sour cream, a mound of cured eggs and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper and chopped chives, or just a stunning spoonful to your grateful guests, and dig in.
Great Lakes Salmon Caviar
Fresh salmon roe (eggs) (see Note)
1 cup of kosher salt
8 cups of cold water
1. Place the salt and cold water in a large glass or stainless bowl and mix well until salt is dissolved.
2. Gently rinse each egg sac under cool running water to remove as much blood as possible and lower into the salted brine. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. While the eggs are curing, prepare a second bowl fitted with a colander.
4. After 30 minutes, remove the sacs from the refrigerator and place them in the second bowl and colander in a deep sink, reserving the brine.
5. Cover the eggs with hot running tap water (approximately 150 degrees). As the outer membrane is exposed to the heat, it will shrink and begin to pull away from the eggs, making it simple to gentle slough the eggs away from the membrane and into the colander. Within the sac will be threads of more membranes that can be carefully removed by hand.
6. Once the outer membrane is removed and the eggs are separated, continue to refresh the bowl with cool water and stir the eggs, gently rinsing them by hand to remove the smaller white membranes that will float to the surface and may still cling to the eggs. Drain and repeat the rinsing process until the water in the bowl runs clear. This may require several rinses. Remove the colander from the bowl, draining the clear water away from the eggs.
7. Return the eggs to the original salt brine and refrigerate for up to another 30 minutes. Check the eggs at 10-minute intervals, rinsing and tasting the eggs for your desired level of saltiness. Continue to brine if not salty enough. If too salty, replace the brine with fresh water and let the eggs rest. The water will draw out salt until the eggs reach your desired level of brine.
8. Drain the eggs from the brine and store in a clean glass container with tightly fitting lid. Caviar can be served immediately or safely stored in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days.
Salmon roe can be tricky to find if you don’t know a sport fisherman in salmon territory. Try making friends with a fishmonger instead, or check online purveyors.
Top photo: A dish of cured salmon roe, or caviar. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
As we approach the floating dock, Chris Quartuccio cuts the boat’s engine, and the steady hum of the motor is replaced by what sounds like a large pile of broken plates being raked. We’ve reached Blue Island, Quartuccio’s oyster farm out on New York’s Great South Bay, the 29-mile-long body of water sandwiched between Fire Island and Long Island’s South Shore. On the other side of the dock, one of his employees is tumbling oysters, vigorously shaking mesh bags filled with the bivalves before stacking them in an open rack to be lowered back into the bay, where the oysters will continue to grow.
Tumbling heightens what wild oysters would naturally endure as they are tossed around by the tides, rasping off their still-feathery edges to produce the relatively smooth shells that are served up on ice at raw bars. Having spent the day listening to Quartuccio discuss the history of the region’s shellfish industry, however, it’s hard not to see tumbling as a metaphor for the trade and the lives of the people who ply it. Ebb and flow is putting it gently; it’s a saga filled with hope, desperation and Mother Nature’s merciless logic — from boom to bust to boom again, repeat ad infinitum.
Although he’s only 48, Quartuccio has lived through a few of these cycles already. A native of Sayville, N.Y., he started digging for clams when he was 12. “Back then, clam diggers here were making a lot of money. The better ones lived in the same neighborhoods as the doctors and lawyers. But as more people got into the business, they started putting a lot of pressure on the bay.” To maintain their high incomes, many began to work the winter grounds illegally, targeting areas of the bay that were rich in shellfish but that also served as important spawning zones. By the 1990s, the population of hard-shelled clams was wiped out.
Reviving the real Blue Point oyster
During my visit, Quartuccio takes me to Blue Point, the spit of land for which the renowned oyster is named. In 1908, New York state decreed that in order to be sold as a Blue Point, an oyster had to have spent at least three months in the Great South Bay — though the law is rarely enforced, and it’s not uncommon to see menus with oxymoronic offerings such as Chesapeake or Connecticut Blue Points.
Like clams, oysters here have had a checkered history, periods of great abundance followed by foreseeable — and unforeseeable — decline. “This area was paved with oysters back then,” said Quartuccio, referring to the first third of the 20th century, but things changed after the great hurricane of 1938, dubbed the “Long Island Express.” Killing more than 600 people, the storm destroyed large parts of Fire Island and created numerous inlets into the bay, causing the oyster beds to be silted over.
Later attempts to get the industry going again were foiled by brown tides, the result of excess nitrogen in the water, as well as the appearance of parasitic diseases that — although not a danger to consumers — decimated the oyster population. In 2002, a local fish hatchery manager was quoted in The New York Times as saying the Blue Point oyster had likely reached its end.
Or had it? Predictions of its demise appear to have been premature. Thanks to seeding efforts and laws prohibiting the harvest of the youngest oysters, parts of the bay have become hospitable again. Quartuccio purchased his farm back in 2005 (he owns the dock and leases his prime underwater location from the town of Islip), and his company now sells its delightfully briny, firm-textured Blue Points to a roster of high-end restaurants that includes New York’s Four Seasons, Craft and Momofuku and San Francisco’s Waterbar.
Serving them up ‘Naked’
Despite his success, Quartuccio has learned to avoid putting all his shells in one bucket. In addition to his Blue Points, which he sells under the name “Blue Islands” — to distinguish them from competitors who’ve appropriated the original name for their oysters — he also deals in oysters from other parts of the country. And he’s always looking for the next big thing to promote.
To make a good living in the industry, he tells me, marketing is key. “If you don’t have the right name, I don’t care how good the oyster is. It’s not gonna sell,” he noted. With his newest item, a diver-harvested oyster from Long Island Sound, it appears he’s hit the jackpot. Christened after Times Square’s most famous tighty-whitey-clad denizen, the “Naked Cowboy” is Blue Island’s best-selling oyster to date. “When customers see the name on menus, they tell their waiters, ‘I want to know what the Naked Cowboy tastes like.’ That happens all the time.”
Although these calculations may seem crass to some, the economic realities of the industry defy the landlocked’s tendency to romanticize a seafaring life. These days, Quartuccio spends more time in the office than out on the water, but when I ask him whether he misses that part of the job, he smiles. “I’ve seen so many sunrises and sunsets. And when I say that, I mean they were long days. When you’re out here, day after day after day, in all kinds of weather — from 100 degrees to watching the ice form on the tips of your fingers … ” he explained, the echo of his Long Island accent hanging in the air for a moment. “I’ve seen enough for a lifetime.”
Top photo: Freshly shucked Blue Point oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez
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.
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Sleeping was my biggest problem on a recent trip to Alaska. Actually it was my only problem.
I traveled to a small wilderness lodge called Tutka Bay, located at the head of a seven-mile fjord on Kachemak Bay, off the coast near Homer, Alaska. I was there to do the things I love most: write, cook, exercise and see wildlife.
I wrote each morning with the guidance of two mentors, cookbook and memoirist Molly O’Neill and poet Carolyn Forche. In the afternoon we learned to cook Alaskan specialties.
Tutka Bay Lodge’s Cooking School, located in a dry-docked converted herring boat, may be the only cooking school in the world without electricity or running water. You’d think it’s impossible to cook without those two basic elements, but using portable butane burner stove tops and a huge water cooler, matched with the talent of chef and lodge owner Kirsten Dixon, the cooking classes were flawless.
Dixon, who has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years and written several cookbooks, has become a kind of ambassador for Alaskan cuisine. She, along with her assistant Christie Maggi, taught us about the history, influences and current state of Alaskan cuisine.
Alaskan cooking school makes local ingredients shine
Yes, there is such a thing as Alaskan cuisine. And no, it’s not (just) moose stew, reindeer burgers and potatoes. We were introduced to sophisticated dishes like king crab beignets, cold smoked salmon with brown sugar brûlée, local oysters with pickled cauliflower and juniper crème fraîche topping, sourdough biscuits with house-made sweetened ricotta, and rhubarb preserves.
“Most people think we are too far off the beaten track to have a cuisine,” Dixon explains. “But there is a vibrant culinary scene here. Young chefs in Anchorage are beginning to pay attention to local foods, farmers markets and native traditions.”
Using ingredients such as seafood (Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut being the most obvious) and foraged foods such as sea asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, seaweed, mushrooms and wild berries, the food you find in much of Alaska is no longer frozen and flown in from the lower 48, but now focuses on local ingredients.
The state of Alaska even offers subsidies to chefs who use local ingredients. “This subsidy helps promote the use of locally grown Alaskan food,” Dixon notes, “and really encourages Alaskan chefs to shop in-state.”
Eating local, shopping local and growing your own food is something Alaskans feel passionate about. During the summer months, many try to grow, preserve and freeze enough fresh food to last them through the long winter.
“The thing about Alaskans is that we have this homesteading mentality,” Dixon says. “We are a can-do people. There is a degree of self-sufficiency and a joy about living close to the land. Alaskans pride themselves in surviving without a Whole Foods.”
With the longest coastline in the U.S. (33,000 miles), the seafood that comes from Alaskan waters is superb. The extreme cold temperature of the water produces some of the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. But it’s salmon that’s king. There are five distinct types of salmon that come from the Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan coast: Chinook, or King, is highly prized and the largest species (weighing in at up to 150 pounds). Coho, or Silver, salmon is smaller with a fine texture. Sockeye is famous for its deep red color and mild flavor. There’s also Chum and Pink salmon.
Virtually every day I was in Alaska I ate salmon — fresh, smoked, pickled, grilled, barbecued and sautéed — and never grew tired of it. Eating fresh Alaskan salmon was like tasting salmon for the first time. It has such a buttery texture and fresh, explosive flavor that it’s nearly unrecognizable.
Alaskan-born Chef Rob Kinnan of Crush Bistro in Anchorage says when he came to the East Coast and tasted farm-raised salmon for the first time he couldn’t believe the fish was related to the salmon he grew up eating in Alaska. “It was like someone leeched all the flavor, texture and nutritional value out of the fish,” he explained. “Cold water means more fat in the fish, which equals more flavor. The fish create fat to insulate themselves in these very cold Alaskan waters.”
Benefits of an all-daylight growing cycle
Although I had a hard time with the 24-hour a day sunlight, it has its advantages for farmers in Alaska. The growing season is short (a mere 100 days) but intense. Crops can soak in the sun all night and day, which means Alaska grows incredible produce: broccoli and cauliflower the size of watermelons; berries and oversized root vegetables; winter-hearty vegetables like kale, rutabagas and potatoes. Because the state was once dominated by glaciers, much of the underlying subsurface is glacial till, silt and sand. This is rich soil.
With such a short season and the cost of shipping food from other places prohibitively expensive, the cooks at Tutka Bay do a lot of canning and preserving. In my few days there I sampled pickled cherries, fennel and cauliflower, not to mention a gorgeous selection of jams, jellies and preserves from local berries and fruit.
“Putting up” seasonal foods dictates a lot of what goes on during an Alaskan summer. Dixon talks about the troubles she has during berry season. It’s not just the bears that want a piece of the action. “There’s this ritual in Alaska that when the berries are ripe — blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries — women go out and pick for days, camping and make a ritual of it. It’s hard to get people to come to work when there’s berries to be picked.”
Dixon laughs at her own story. She points to a group from her kitchen that has just gotten back from a hike around the lodge foraging for fresh herbs and seaweed for the evening’s menu. Tonight we will eat roast Alaskan duck, a salad with foraged herbs and smoked salmon, and an assortment of pickles. After dinner, while it’s still perfectly light, we will walk along the bay, look for seals and otters and watch the brightly lit night sky. And then I will try to get some sleep.
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.
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
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