Friday, October 24, 2014

A Very Special Transplant

Virginicas is the species name of the oysters that are native to our East Coast.  They can be found from Prince Edward Island, Canada to the Florida Gulf Coast and have been consumed by humans for over 10,000 years but, the fanfare for their crisp texture and briny punch has never waned.  East coasters are proud of their oysters and most will tell you that there aren't any equals.  West Coasters surely disagree with these sentiments, though most of their oysters are implants from Japan.

Olympia oysters are the only native West Coast species of oyster, but kumamoto and gigas species from Japan dominate production due to their popularity and rapid growth.  Gigas are the most farmed oyster in the world, they are also the largest and fastest growing.  When describing oysters from our Pacific waters you will encounter descriptions such as melon, algae, creaminess, and sweetness.  West Coast oysters grow plump meats with fluted shells and typically don't have the strong saltiness or clean, crisp meats that the East Coast oysters do.  You would be hard pressed to find a West Coast resident who would exchange their tenant oyster's complex, often over the top, algal and melon flavor for an East Coast oyster variety.  So what do you do?

Well the great people over at Hog Island Oyster Farm have solved the riddle of who's got the best oyster.  The answer or, should I say divine result, is a virgincias (east coast) species grown on their Tomales Bay, California farm.  Everyone, meet the ultimate oyster, the Hog Island Atlantic.  This West Coast oyster has East Coast bones.  It's a blissful experience in which East Coast minerality and spirit meet with the saccharine funkiness of the West Coast soul.  Hog Island Atlantic's are a complex blend of both coasts, unique in the oyster world, and an oyster that any aficionado, from either coast, can't help but to relish as a one of a kind.  These transplants elevate merroir from a simple concept to a battle of duality that confuses and surprises the taste buds.  It's an exhilarating bite; theres brine, and algae, and melon, and minerality.  There's East Coast and there's West Coast, together.  Its one of those oysters where you can try one and immediately you want another.  They can leave you a little dumbfounded, as in: What did I actually just taste?  It's like hearing a great song for the first time, it sticks with you and you know, you got to play that track again.

These Atlantic oysters are not readily available.  For some reason the East Coast oysters do not naturally reproduce in West Coast waters, so replanting them can be quite a chore, not to mention costly.  Pearl Dive, Blacks Bar and Kitchen, and BlackSalt are some of the only restaurants on the East Coast that offer Hog Island Atlantic oysters.  Hog Island is very selective of who can sell their oysters, so we consider ourselves very lucky, and you should too.  Whether or not you buy into the East Coast/West Coast beef of who produces the better oyster, I suggest you try the best of both worlds on a half shell.  Its an oyster that ends all arguments with a simple slurp.            

Friday, October 17, 2014

Try The Sea Urchin

I can't imagine how it all went down, but I am forever grateful to reap all the benefits of that intrepid soul who first dined on sea urchin.  It had to have been an epic, ancient moment of extreme hunger and courageous creativity, or a simple dare amongst impulsive youth.  However it happened, consuming the delicate, exquisitely bold uni that urchins produce is in itself an experience of ocean bliss.

Sea urchins produce 5 sets of "roe" called uni.  In actuality these sacs are the gonads and are prized by the Japanese, often offered simply on their own or in composed dishes.  Sea urchins live on the sea floor and feed on small vegetable and animal matter.  They have feet, a mouth and, most notably, dangerous spines that can be hazardous for many unaware divers.  Some sea urchins are poisonous, but the most commonly consumed red, purple, and green varieties are harmless if you are careful when opening them.  In case you were wondering there are, in fact, female and male urchins, but only they can tell the difference!  They reproduce by respectively secreting egg and sperm into the water where they meet to form a new urchin.  
Inside Icelandic Urchin
Icelandic Urchins

So why go through the trouble of cracking a sea urchin open for 5 small orange or yellow sacs?  Because there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the world comparable to a freshly opened live sea urchin roe.  The texture is velvety soft, forgiving, almost like a supple fat that disintegrates on your tongue.  The intensity of flavor grabs your imagination, it's as if you've discovered the complexity of the ocean's secrets in one bite.  There are bursts of brine, metal and algae.  Some have exotic citrus notes that balance orange zest with flower petals, while others deliver briny blasts of seaweed and heavy cream.  Sea urchin offer a surreal bouquet, flavors oysterphiles dream about and wine enthusiasts forge.

Fall and winter are some of the best months to enjoy a sea urchin.  Right now BlackSalt Fish Market is carrying live green urchin from Iceland and live Pacific urchin from California.  The Pacific urchin are bigger than the Icelandic, with the Icelandic being more subtle in flavor.  The staff there will be happy to open the urchin for you so that the uni inside is easily accessible.  If you are not up for the ultimate experience of consuming uni in the raw, you can use the extravagant flavors to add an ocean kiss to many dishes such as soups, pastas, and sauces.  On the outside sea urchins appear dangerous,impenetrable, and daunting.  Open one up and you unlock the splendor of the ocean.
CA Urchin out of shell

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Other Sheepshead

Recently I posted about the excellent eating qualities of the East Coast sheepshead.  In order to avoid claims that I have an East Coast bias, today I would like to introduce the West Coast sheepshead, also known as the California sheepshead.

The California sheepshead is caught in inshore waters from Monterey Bay, California to Baja California, with most being landed in waters 150 feet or less.  They like to hunt by day and rest at night, feeding on urchin, shrimp, and other hard shelled crustaceans.  Though they share the same name as our East Coast delicacy, the two species are not related.  The California sheepshead more closely resembles our native tautog in flavor and other attributes.  Tautog and West Coast sheepshead are both wrasse, they both feed on crustaceans, they both have vicious looking teeth, and they both change sexes in their lifetime.

All California sheepshead begin their life as females with their coloring being pinkish red.  Later in life between the ages of 4 and 13 years, the fish undergo a sex change in which the females become males and lose their light coloring and develop black skin with a red stripe and white face.  These newly minted males can live up to 50 years of age and weigh up to 30 pounds, though 5 to 10 pound fish are most common.

California sheepshead are caught by rod and reel with little by-catch and minimal ill affects to the surrounding environment.  Since they feed on shellfish, their flavor is very succulent, almost like lobster, with firm flakes and a silky texture.  You are going pay a little more for the West Coast version of sheepshead, most of that is attributed to its high demand and first class plane ticket, but the chance to taste this delectable traveller is certainly worth it.  Most markets will carry male fish since they are bigger and if you get a glimpse of the whole fish you won't help but notice it's striking color schemes.  The intense disparity between the black and red is almost phantom-like and the snarling mouth full of disjointed teeth can give unsuspecting quite a jolt.  Just in time for Halloween!  Don't be wary of the great tasting meat though, once you get past it's arresting appearance, the California sheepshead makes for a gratifying dinner option.

Friday, October 3, 2014

October Is A Great Month

October is National Seafood Month and there are many reasons you should get out of your meat coma and try seafood for dinner.  During the month of October many seafood species begin schooling and moving towards their winter habitats.  This makes them easier to catch and more affordable.  Translation: you will be seeing top quality product of some of your favorite varieties at affordable prices.

Species like swordfish, tuna, rockfish, mahi, and fluke are becoming more visible and therefore easier to land:

  • Swordfish and tuna are on their way south and big fish just a few days out of the water are being offered at high-end markets.  
  • Rockfish are being caught in New York from now until November and during this time there are also smaller fish being offered from our backyard in Maryland.  Soon the Chesapeake will open for the winter fishery and you will see big monsters available from our local waters.  
  • From now until spring, mahi season will be in full effect in Central America.  There are day-boat operations established in this area that provide incredible fillets with gorgeous bloodlines and succulent meat.  
  • Fluke season is officially on in the North Atlantic and soon the Carolina and Virginia seasons will be rocking.  Typically fluke from these areas are pound netted, meaning the fish are harvested in a live state and extra care is taken to ensure sashimi quality fish. 

Meanwhile, wild king salmon is at the tail end of its summer run and fish are beginning to make their way up river. But be careful: Though prices are at seasonal lows, fish this time of year can be devoid of much of their fatty stores and the flavor can be muted and flesh dry.  Sockeye and coho prices are also at a bargain and these species always present better on the plate than king.  All considered, you have a few weeks left to get your fill of inexpensive wild salmon.

October is also the month when shellfish end their summer vacations and begin feeding again, producing the fatty, sweet flavors that we all have come to crave.  Clams, oysters, scallops, and mussels are paying attention to the chilling waters that foretell winter and have once again began gorging themselves for our benefit.  This is also the best time of year to eat crabs.  Blue crabs are looking to fatten up for the winter, resulting in the fattest, tastiest crabs of the year.  You can look for plumper meats, more pronounced flavors, and a sweeter bite for all of your favorite shellfish.

October is National Seafood Month for more reasons than empty publicity.  October to many seafood species is like May for many types of flowers, a time to bloom.  If I were you I would more seriously consider the bass over the ribeye or the mussels over the cheese sticks the next time I dined out.  Enjoy more seafood during this month.  Heck it might even crossover to the next month, and the month after that.  Some trends are better for you than others.  


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tightening The Budget

Times are tough.  Consumer budgets aren't what they used to be and, believe it or not, when numbers have to get crunched, most of us will cut down spending on our food purchases before we do without more essential things like, say, air conditioning.  Seriously though, most will look at the money they spend on food and find ways to trim their budget, often buying less expensive ingredients and non-brand name products in order to keep a few more dimes in the bank.  This often means cutting out seafood from the diet or at least cutting back on weekly seafood consumption due to the perception that quality seafood is expensive.  This is a very unfortunate misconception because when seafood is missing from the diet so are many health benefits, including essential vitamins and minerals.

Though you may pay a little more for quality seafood as opposed to questionable seafood, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend more than you would on other, less healthy proteins such as beef or chicken.  Maybe you are just looking at the wrong choices.

Often customers walk into a fish market with sticker shock when looking over the prices of popular items like wild king salmon, fresh sablefish, fresh halibut, and high grade tuna.  If you are in the market for these well known choices then yes, there is a possibility you will walk out and feel as though you have to forgo healthy seafood for a lesser animal.  That doesn't have to be the case.  There are less common choices hiding in the ice that offer great flavor and considerable nutritional benefits without emptying your wallet.

If you like tuna and swordfish, try albacore, mahi mahi, cobia, king mackerel or wahoo.  These options offer great flavor and meaty texture and are often a third of the price.  And, of course, they are sustainable.  If you like snapper, try sheepshead, sea trout, tautog, corvina or trigger fish.  These fish have sweet flavors, nice white fillets, and are often more succulent than snapper.

On a tighter budget?  Try sustainably farmed tilapia or trout.  Yes, there are such things as responsibly farmed fish, you just have to shop at a reputable market that can answer all the "tough" questions, such as how and where was this farmed.  Also, don't forget shellfish as a viable option for dinner.  Mussels are one of the healthiest, most sustainable, and least expensive items in the market.  Along with clams, you can often find them for less than five dollars a pound.  Mussels and clams are easier to cook than you might think.  If you have a stove, a pot, some seasoning, and either some fat or broth, you can have a shellfish dinner in minutes, without the use of a microwave or anything else that comes out of a chemically sealed frozen box.

Though there are options I haven't mentioned in the interest of brevity, the opportunities are endless.  The ocean is a vast, living organism teeming with life and possibilities.  Don't limit your palate to just a few names you recognize.  The next time you are in a seafood market, bypass the tunas, salmons, and snappers.  Seek out some of the other species like mackerel, sardines, and merluza.  You might find a new favorite.  Bypassing the seafood counter is not the answer.  Your body deserves better.  Cutting corners doesn't mean cutting out seafood.  When watching your budget, you might find out just how delicious saving on seafood can be.                  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's A Sheepshead?

When you are feeding on crabs, oysters, shrimp, mussels, barnacles, and anything else in the ocean with a hard shell, you're going to need a good set of chompers, and teeth are usually the first thing you notice when glancing at the sheepshead bream.  The sheepshead will certainly not win any beauty contests!  It gets its name from the sheep-like facial features it possesses, namely huge human-like teeth jutting from a gapping jaw.  Though the teeth are vital for crushing tasty shellfish into nutritious meals, the sheepshead has also been known to dine on vegetable matter.

The sheepshead is a relative of the bream family and besides its mouth, can also be easily recognized by the 5 to 6 black stripes running horizontal to its body.  This is how it gets its other name: the convict fish.  Sheepshead can be found hanging around jetties, pilings, and other obstructions, and many have been caught off piers by hobbyist anglers.  They live all along the East Coast of the United States, but most commercial landings occur in North Carolina and Florida.  

The flesh of sheepshead is quite delicious.  You are what you eat and the sheepshead's diet consists mostly of shellfish, so they tend to have a sweet, shellfish flavor and firm, moist flesh.  The white fillets can be easily seared, pan fried, or baked.  They cook very similar to dorade or flounder, with a little more bite and much more flavor.  Once the armor-like scales have been removed, the skin is exceptionally savory.  So why aren't more people eating sheepshead?  Most likely it has to do with the fact that breaking down the whole fish proves to be a difficult task.  The sheepshead's scales are extremely large and durable and their belly cavity can require more care than usual to maneuver safely around.  They also have dangerously sharp gill plates and prickly spines.

The good news is that fish markets and restaurants will do all the hard work for you.  As October approaches, we will see more and more of the sheepshead available.  It's a delicious, underutilized species that I hope will gain some traction in the American seafood conscious, giving other more popular species a break.  Sheepshead are good for you, they taste great, and they are totally sustainable, so who cares if they're ugly?        

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September Is For Shellfish

The summer warmth still lingers during the day, but cool breezes silently creep into our nights making for comfortable strolls and sound sleeping.  September is not only the harbinger of fall, but it also serves notice to seafood lovers that some seasons are ending, and others are just beginning.

On the way out are crabs (both soft shell and hard shell), wild salmon, Pacific halibut, wild sablefish, Alaskan rockfish, domestic mahi, and various species of snapper and grouper.  It's sad to see so many fishing seasons end, but there are some that are opening that we can look forward to enjoying.  These include black bass, striped bass, fluke, cod, swordfish, tautog, dory, and tuna.

More importantly, September is also the beginning of shellfish season.  All summer long we battle with Mother Nature trying to source shellfish of many varieties that are either not spawning or harvested responsibly with great effort and much defeat.  The summer months generate many problems for finding quality scallops, mussels, clams, and oysters, and supply usually decreases during hotter months, causing pricing to inflate for product that isn't necessarily at its peak.

 September is not only our first "R" month but, more importantly, it's the time of the year when cooler temperatures compel bi-valves everywhere to begin fattening up for the winter.  Mussel meats will slowly regain their meaty glory.  Clams and scallops will begin to firm up, once again boasting their brininess and delicate sweetness with crisp bite.  And yes, oysters, oh the oysters, they too will make restitution for the dormancy of their luscious flavor and reward our patience with complex flavors and supple textures.

September is just the beginning for shellfish lovers everywhere.  It's an augury of flavor that foretells the excitement of shells packed with delectable meats and perfect liquor.  So, all you salmon heads out there, don't idle too long reminiscing over the departed sweltering months  Cooler winds and delicious seafood await!