Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Virginia Oyster On The Road To Recovery

In the 1800s, the Chesapeake Bay contained billions of oysters.  Billions!  The entire Bay could be filtered in less than 3 days, a feat today that today takes more than a year.  Virginia was shipping millions of bi-valves a year to fill oyster bars in New York, Chicago, and Paris, and the great Chesapeake Bay was synonymous globally with fat, delicious oysters.  Then greed led to pollution and over-harvesting, causing the abundant oyster levels to decline.  In 1960 Virginia produced 25 million pounds of oysters.  In 1970 that number fell to 5 million.  By the late 2000s that number was down to less than 250,000, which is less than one percent of production just 40 years ago.

Happily, the tide is turning in favor of the Virginia oyster.  Contemporary initiatives such as The Oyster Recovery Partnership and an increase interest in Virginia oyster farming have caused huge growth in the VA oyster population.  Annual harvest numbers have increased from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 504,000 bushels last year.  That's a big leap in the right direction.

Through selective growing techniques, dedication to artisanship, and intelligent marketing, Virginia oysters are back on the national scene garnering prestige and daily rotation in renowned oyster bars across the country.  No longer looked at as second tier half shell options, oysters from the Chesapeake are gaining favor over their northern and western counterparts due to their sweet, buttery flavors, crab-like richness, and salty finishes.  This renaissance of flavor profile is a testament to the farmers being selective of where and how they farm their oysters.  Oysters get their flavor from the water in which they feed, so selecting areas that are rich in food sources, minerals, and salt can really make a difference in how the oysters taste.

I am not sure if we will ever get the Bay back to where it once was, filtering itself in less than a week.  This recent article, however, gives us hope of a better future, filled with better oysters.  This is a winning formula not only for our oyster bars, but also for the Bay's water and inhabitants as well.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Problem With Summer

Summertime presents a serious Catch-22 for shellfish lovers all across the nation.  The sizzling temperatures make light, crisp shellfish delicacies ideal lunch and dinner options, however this is also the time of the year when the waters are warm and shellfish are at their worst.

Every summer, usually starting in June and July depending on how fast temperatures rise, shellfish varieties everywhere around the country begin their annual spawning rituals.  Warm water temperatures alert clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops that it's time to get down to the business of making more clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops.  When shellfish are spawning their meats weaken and their flavor deteriorates, and often they give off foul to fetid odors.  Sometimes you can't tell if the animal has spawned until you have cooked it or opened its shell.  The shelf life of these products shortens significantly during this period and the "natural courtship" can take a few weeks to pass before the species once again regain their sweet flavors and firm textures.

Some oyster farmers have begun growing oysters with extra chromosomes to help fend off the summer love fest.  These oysters do not spawn and are able to be enjoyed year-round.  Mussels, scallops, and clams, however, have not greatly benefitted from such scientific advances.

So, choosing to eat shellfish during the summer months can be a little like playing Russian roulette.  My advice is to always purchase shellfish from reputable fish markets that specialize in quality seafood, such as Black Salt Fish Market.  Make sure when you purchase shellfish they are live when they are supposed to be, appear moist and intact, and are sold cold.  Scallops can have a stronger fragrance during this time which is natural, but avoid products that are overly aggressive.  You will notice mussel, clam, and oyster meats are thinner and less full, but this is just part of the process.  If you notice off-putting smells when cooking clams or mussels, you usually can find the culprit by investigating each one and discarding the offending "Romeo" without losing your entire batch.  Don't fret too much, eventually fall will come and remind shellfish everywhere to once again fatten to their delicious richness and get back to the task of feeding and filtering.  Summer love isn't always what its cracked up to be but, alas, its a yearly ritual that reminds us that even a mussel needs a little time to itself.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Oysters On The Grill

As summer gets down to its dirty work, it's now officially HOT.  The extremely warm temperatures make cooking inside a bear, so many choose to take the heat out of the kitchen and head for the grilling sanctity of the great outdoors.  For many of us, using the grill means hotdogs, burgers, chicken, or fish.  In the case of seafood, the usual items consist of tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi, and shrimp, but there are other healthy seafood options readily available that do not get the consideration they deserve.  One of those items is oysters.

I know oysterphiles everywhere are rolling their eyes in disgust at the thought of cooking a perfectly delicious raw oyster but hear me out.  Grilled oysters can be a delightful mouthful of flavor and an exciting detour onto a grilling path less traveled.  The best part is that they are simple to prepare and will have your dinner guests marveling at your culinary competence.  You can find many different grilled oyster recipes online, but below is a simple yet tasty one courtesy of Black's Bar and Kitchen.

First, select large size oysters low in salinity with deep cups.  Local oysters fit the bill perfectly.  I, like many, love salty oysters, but before scoffing at buying low salinity oysters remember that cooking oysters brings out their salinity, so there is no need to buy really salty oysters for this preparation.  You can purchase oysters from BlackSalt Fish Market and they will shuck them for you, or you can buy them live and shuck them yourself.  Here's a helpful video if you are of the daring variety.  

Next, you want to begin your preparation.  Pull butter from the fridge and let it sit to soften at room temperature.  You can go ahead and light the grill now or wait, either way you want it hot before putting the oysters on.  

In a sauce pan, sweat finely chopped garlic and shallots in oil.  Right before they begin to brown toss into the pan 2 tsp each of smoked paprika, chili powder, cumin, brown sugar, 1tsp lime zest, 1 tblsp parsley.  You can alter the amounts to taste, I usually eyeball everything any way.  It always helps if you taste as you go along.  You want to create a paste with this mixture.  After it sits for a couple of minutes on medium heat you want to transfer your spice paste to the softened butter.  You are essentially creating a compound butter.  Whip the butter and spice paste together until the mixture is fully incorporated.  You can use a mixer, fork, or spatula to achieve this.  Note, it's much easier when the butter is soft, so you might want to pull it out of the fridge rather early.  

Now all you have to do is place a dollop of your compound butter on each shucked oyster and then transfer each oyster to the hot grill, shell side down of course.  The oysters will cook in 3 to 5 minutes, depending on your preference.  Those of you who want your oysters a little under and still soft and viscous I recommend 2-3 minutes.  For those of you looking for a firmer mouthfeel experience, I recommend 5 minutes or more.  The oysters will be extremely hot, so remove them with tongs and let them cool for a few minutes before serving.  Adding toasted seasoned breadcrumbs or crumbled cornbread once the oysters come off the grill is a nice touch and adds an appetizing finishing crunch.  

That's it.  It's really that simple.  Grilling oysters is a great way to mix it up and get rid of the monotony that outdoor cooking can become.  I recommend varieties such Barren Islands, Chincoteagues, Warshores, Broadwaters, Chesapeake Golds, and Sewansecotts to grill.  You can call ahead to BlackSalt Fish Market to make sure that they are on hand for you to purchase.  Happy grilling!  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Going Beyond The Tuna Casserole

My wife grew up eating (and loving) tuna noodle casserole.  It was a staple in her house and to this day she looks upon the dish with a dreamy nostalgia often credited to excellent past dining experiences.  I on the other hand probably ate my weight in tuna salad sandwiches every month from the years of 17 to 23.  I looked at them as the ultimate superfood, protein packed and lean.  Both dishes share one main component: canned albacore tuna.  It's no surprise then that for most of us when we think of albacore tuna we think about canned tuna.  We think of sandwiches, casseroles, spreads, quick meals, utilitarian nutrition and not much else.  Albacore has its place and it's not really considered by many to be worthy of white tablecloth establishments.  I beg to differ.
Not your mom's usual albacore

Going beyond the can, fresh albacore tuna can offer diners a unique and flavorful tuna experience.  Albacore, also known as "the real white tuna", are caught in waters throughout the world and are a highly migratory species.  The best albacore are caught in the waters along our Pacific Coast, the Southern Atlantic Ocean, and Hawaii.  When buying albacore at the local fish market, look for gleaming, moist, pinkish-to-white flesh with no odor.  Avoid fillets with brown discoloring, odor, or dried, hardened flesh around the edges of the fillet.  Albacore flesh, when fresh, offers a citrus-sweetness and a light, subtle creaminess that other tuna species can't match.  Bigger tuna species like big eye and yellowfin can be much more metallic tasting and strong flavored, but albacore does not have these off-putting qualities.  You can purchase sushi quality albacore and prepare it in the same manner as you would other sushi quality tunas.  In fact, I recommend eating albacore raw or slightly seared, leaving the inside rare in order to take advantage of the delicious, delicately rich oils found in the succulent flesh.  It's an easy fish to dry out, so it's in your best interest to buy high quality fish and to use a light touch when preparing.

Albacore dishes have recently been popping up at our Republic, Pearl Dive, Blacks Bar, and BlackSalt locations.  The season picks up in the spring and carries on throughout the fall, usually when the fattiest and most delicious fish are caught.  It's a sustainable species and one that I think is very underutilized, and, frankly, under-appreciated.  When fresh, its flavor rivals any of the more recognized tunas and I believe that it does, in fact, have a place at the table of the finest restaurants.  The next time you are at the market, I highly recommend that you think outside of the can.            

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why I Don't Sell Shark

Sharks get a bad wrap.  Despite living on this earth for millions of years and being one of the most elegant, almost supernatural, creatures in the ocean, they also provide a very important role in the marine food web as apex predators.  Unfortunately for them though, their fins are considered a delicacy in some cultures.  Couple this with the sad fact that many recreational fishermen see it as a right of passage into manhood to snag a shark on their "boys" outing and it's easy to understand why several species of sharks are considered overfished or even worse, endangered.  We need to take action very soon on to protect many species of shark.  Their plight is not unlike the favorable swordfish, whose stocks were at all time lows only twenty years ago.  In the 1990's chefs got behind "Give Swordfish A Break", a movement to halt the overfishing of swordfish in domestic waters, and everyone else followed suit.  Since then, the moratorium has been lifted and domestic swordfish stocks have blossomed.  Today U.S. swordfish is considered a sustainable option at the dinner table.

So why can't we get behind sharks?  It's not like the meat is some irresistible delicacy favored by the masses.  The flesh is sweet, but the flavor is not on par with the likes of other seafood options such as halibut, snapper, or salmon.  Is there some fear imbedded deep into the fabric of our culture, put there thousands of years ago when man first ventured into the water, that sets the tone for our relationship with the graceful killers as a simple equation: it's either us or them?  Must we overcome our fear, overcome sharks really, by slaughtering them by the millions every year?  It's not an exaggeration ; about 11,000 sharks are killed every hour.  I understand there are many other hunted animals out there, such as dolphins and seals, that are PR friendly and easier to support (they definitely make better cuddly toys and logos for tee-shirts), but realistically shark populations are in much more danger.

Sharks are responsible for about 1 human death per year in the U.S.  In that same year:

  • Bees will kill 54 people    
  • Lightning will kill 90 people
  • Cows will kill 22 people
  • Deer will kill 130 people
  • Dogs will kill 31 people
  • Horses will kill 20 people
  • We will kill about 15,500 of each other

Sharks need a break from the dinner table and trophy photo op.  Commercial and recreational fishing needs to get better about leaving them alone and releasing them safely when hooked.  We all need to realize that maybe instead of fearing sharks, we should try respecting them.  They've been around a lot longer than we have.  They serve a purpose in this world and I don't think its in the form of a fillet at the local fish market.  There are arguably more likable, friendlier species to protect, but I don't think there are any that are more important.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ugly Oysters With Beautiful Flavor

Barren Island Oyster Company, affectionately referred to as BIO by adoring fans, has released a new oyster to accompany its namesake, Barren Island Oysters.  World, meet the Ugly Oyster.  Owner of BIO Tim Devine gets very excited when talking about the Uglies and I think it's because they go against the industry cookie-cutter standard of what an oyster should look like.  This is very much in line with how Tim thinks.  Knowing him personally, I can honestly say there is not a moment of the day when he is not trying something new on the farm in order to produce a better oyster.  Right now he is working with incorporating ultraviolet rays in order to make oysters safer to eat without compromising flavor.  Genius!

Ugly oysters will be harvested from Tim's water leases located around Barren Island which is located in Hoopers Island, MD.  The area is very close to where the Barren Island Oysters are harvested, so the the flavor profiles are very similar.  Ugly oysters are very balanced, with a buttery southern oyster sweetness, light traces of brine, and a tickle of mineral citrus that hints at limestone but goes no further.  The reason they are called Ugly is due to their outward appearance.  In today's oyster race where competitors manicure away trying to cultivate oysters that are identical in size and shape, Uglies take a page out of nature's playbook and offer a smorgasbord of different patterns, more akin to the natural order of things.  Though there is a bit of shaping (the Uglies get tumbled three times in their lifespan) it is minimal when compared to other oysters, including Barren Islands.  When ordering your Uglies you can expect a mishmash pattern on the plate and a delicious performance on your palate.      

Black Restaurant Group (BRG) appreciates honest hard work and people dedicated to their craft.  So we are excited to say that we are now offering Ugly Oysters as our official Happy Hour oyster selection at our BlackSalt, Blacks Bar, Pearl Dive and Republic locations.  Happy Hour constitutes those few hours of the day when the headaches of long workdays dissolve in the gluttonous consumption of icy cold oysters and mistakes are washed away with delicious beverages, all at friendly prices.  It's that time period that can really salvage a day or get a night started.  So drop by any BRG establishment during Happy Hour and you will be sure to be greeted by a gracious smile, a cold beverage, and a heavenly, unique Ugly Oyster.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Mercury Warnings Get Makeover

Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the FDA, recently told the Associated Press that the government is planning an update to its guidelines about seafood consumption by pregnant women considering seafood mercury levels.  The subject of mercury levels in seafood still remains a hotly debated topic for both expecting mothers as well as the general public.  However, much of the data we reference today come from studies that occurred over 50 years ago in specific areas.

There is still much ignorance on the science behind the dangers of trace levels of mercury in seafood proteins, especially considering that there are often also traces of selenium in the same proteins.  Selenium has been proven to bind to mercury molecules, which enables the body to expel the harmful pollutants.  There is much hope within the seafood industry that the FDA's new advisory will bring updated, more science-based assessments of seafood to light, including the benefits of selenium, omega-3s, and vitamins found in seafood as well as the harmful effects that seafood deficiencies can have on developing children and adults alike.  

If you would like to read further on the matter you can click here.  I hope the forthcoming FDA announcement provides a more balanced view of seafood consumption and sheds light on a misunderstood and often over-dramatized issue.