Monday, November 16, 2015

The Bad News Bays

In my last post I waxed poetically about how maybe we were in the middle of the best week of the year, considering that we had both Nantucket Bay scallops and fresh king crab legs available. That week has come and gone and I may have been more on point than I initially thought, because, unfortunately, it doesn't look like we will be having either back in our market any time soon.  Fresh king crabs traditionally have been difficult to find, so their scarcity is nothing new.  What is troubling is that since that glorious week of decadence, I have heard nothing but the disturbing sound of crickets coming from our guy Jeff in Nantucket bay.  The scallops are missing, and that is not something normal, especially for this time of year.

Word is the eel grass is gone and fishermen are working double just trying to produce a pound of scallops. The eel grass is vital habitat for the scallops, no grass, no scallops.  Fishermen are postulating that nitrogen run-off has decimated the beds.  It can't help that water temperatures are much warmer than in recent years.  The combined effect has made scalloping an exercise in futility. Out of the 12 boats that work with Jeff, 3 have already called it quits for the year.  We could have the worst Nantucket Bay scallop season since 1995, a year in which you had a better chance of finding Wonka's golden ticket than procuring a pound of the "sea candy".  

Just because you see tiny scallops labeled as Nantucket Bays, be warned, it doesn't necessarily mean they are.  There are several bay scallops on the market such as Calicos, Peconics and Martha's Vineyard bay scallops.  They are delicious in their own right, but they are not nannys.  I would only purchase the bay scallops from purveyors that you trust to tell you the truth.  Unfortunately, this year the truth is not pleasant.  An item that was already precious has just become that much more scarce.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Best Week Ever?

Nantucket Bay scallop season opened November 1st and, as early as Wednesday November 3rd, we will be seeing our first shipment.  Receiving the ocean candy this early is no small feat considering that our guy Captain Jeff had a waiting list with more names on it than Santa's naughty child roll call.  Coinciding with the start of Nantucket Bay scallop season is the fact that we are in the middle of Alaskan king crab season.  This week BlackSalt will also be welcoming our first, and possibly only, shipment of fresh, never frozen Alaskan king crab on Thursday, November 5th.

Take that in for a moment...boom...  Mind.  Blown.  Two of the most delicious and most seasonal items in the seafood world available in the same week.  For people who love the best food on earth, this week quite possibly may be the nexus of flavor and fortune.

There are many scallops in the market year round such as sea scallops, calico bay scallops, and Chinese bay scallops, but none offer the full flavor, sugary sweetness that Nantucket Bay scallops deliver.  Some say it's the crisp, pristine waters, others say it's the copious eel grass beds, but, whatever it is, there is no denying that something separates "nanny bays" from all other scallops.  Our nanny bays are shucked in the morning and shipped the same day, reaching us full of the flavorful sugar that nature bequeaths.  There is no adulteration of the product and no need for it.  Trying them raw could change your life.

About 99% of the Alaskan king crabs available in the U.S. market are previously frozen.  Freezing causes the crabs to lose their natural sweetness and dulls the complexity of their flavor.  Only during the season are we able to get our hands on fresh, never frozen product, and this window can be quite tiny.  The season opens in October and closes when the quota is met.  This could mean only a couple of weeks of harvest and availability in some scenarios.  The crabs are harvested, cooked, and shipped the same day.  Shelf life is short, making timing extremely important and quality a premium.  This could be our only shipment of the season.

If I were looking for a week to splurge on deliciousness, this would be it.  Grabbing these two items in the same week is like taking your taste buds to the top of Everest.  It's a bit of a hike to get there, but once you've reached the top, the rest of the world rests below you.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Science Of Flavor

Here's a good question to get things going: which tastes better, a saltwater fish you catch and eat on the boat, minutes after it is caught, or one you catch and eat a couple of days later?  The answer is all about flavor, when it happens, when it peaks, and why.

First, let's get some science out of the way.  Every one understands that fish flesh is built differently than terrestrial animal flesh, and a lot of it has to due with the fact that fish don't have to fight gravity in the water.  Saltwater fish, however, load their muscles with free amine oxides and amino acids to counter balance the osmotic pressure of living in the ocean.  Without this balance, they would surely collapse in on themselves, not a pretty picture!  These free amino acids include the tasty compounds inosine monophosphate (IMP), glutamate and glycine.  IMP is a result of the breakdown of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and is what gives many seafood items that savory dashi flavor.  Glutamate is the key flavor of umami, that savory bite that triggers our fifth sense of taste which lies somewhere between savory and heaven.  Glycine is mostly associated with sweetness and is predominately associated with delicious shellfish.

Ok, if you are still with me, we are going to jump into the meat of the question to get our answer.  These flavorful amino acids are found in much larger concentrations in fish than they are in land animals.  They are what make saltwater fish tasty and desirable, but they don't reach their peak flavor until the muscles begin to break down.  Directly after a fish is killed, its muscles are still bound together and have yet to disassemble into tasty amino acids.  The muscles will lock into place, a state called rigor mortis, and must be given time to continue to break down and develop into smaller compounds.  Fish flesh ages more rapidly than beef and it usually takes about 24 hours for fish to develop the mouthwatering qualities of IMP and glutamate.  Some fish, such as tuna, actually don't reach peak flavor until days later.  The bigger, oilier fish usually take longer.  If aging fish seems like a foreign concept, don't worry.  Most people think the closer the fish is out of the water the better it tastes, and for the most part they are generally right, but there are instances where a fish can be "too fresh" to enjoy.  Chefs, especially sushi chefs, wrestle with this dance after death at every serving, agonizing over the artful balance of flavor and time.

To give perspective, amino acids in beef break down at a much slower rate, meaning beef usually takes a couple of weeks to reach peak flavor.  Some companies age it even longer to allow more IMP to develop.  If it's all about getting the most flavor out of your catch, it makes the most sense to prepare your haul soon after it has come out of rigor mortis, but not before.  In the case of tuna, you might be better off waiting a couple of days.  Fresh and flavor usually run synonymous around the fish business, but there's a great deal of science happening under the flesh that makes that equation an incredibly difficult one to balance correctly.  I suggest we just leave this problem solving for the professional chefs, while we reap the pleasure of the outcomes.      

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Outstanding In The Field

Outstanding In The Field (OITF) is a traveling feast that organizes farmers, chefs, ranchers, cheese makers, fishermen, winemakers, foragers, and the people they sustain around a communal meal in order to celebrate and better understand the group effort required to produce a quality dinning experience.  OITF has been at it for over 15 years now, visiting all 50 states and organizing more than 600 dinners, each one focusing on a particular farm and locale.

 Recently OITF visited Even Star Farm, where our friend Bret Grohsgal helped host a lucky bunch of diners who had the chance to check out his beautiful farm and then dine in the tranquil landscape.  Black Restaurant Group Chef Mallory Buford and Chef Danny Wells of Takoma Park restaurant favorite, Republic, lead the way in the pop-up kitchen producing savory meals using local ingredients like wild bluefish, War Shore Clams, and a bevy of Bret's most delectable produce.  Local producers such as Chapel Hill Farms, Pipe Dreams Fromage, Black Ankle Vineyards, One Eight Distilling, Denizens, 38 Degree Oysters, Black Rock Orchard, and Locust Grove also pitched in to make the evening under the dimming sun one to relish.  If you missed this event, you can follow up with OITF through their website to find out more information about future events.  If you want to taste more of Bret's produce, you can visit Republic restaurant in Takoma Park, MD, where Danny can take you on a virtual tour of the Chesapeake in just a few delicious plates.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Don't Give Up On Salmon

Recently, a market patron presented me with an idea he received from his doctor: that there was no nutritional value to eating farmed salmon.  Perplexed as to why a doctor would prescribe this nonsense, I was taken aback.  Being a simple fishmonger, it was difficult, nay, impossible to change this gentleman's mind at the time.  I mean, the advice came from a doctor.  Cleary a professional's opinion, one who's spent years understanding the human body and its needs, is going to outweigh the advice from a guy with fish guts on his shoes.

That being said, I thought this blog would be the appropriate forum for a few points on the benefits of eating high-quality farmed salmon, seeing as wild salmon season is shortly coming to an end in the upcoming weeks.  Wild salmon is a terrific choice but, soon, when the season ends, it will only be found frozen in our local markets.  In the case of fresh fish versus frozen, I am always going to advocate for fresh, and when the wild salmon season ends, I recommend trying our fresh farmed salmon.  Here's why.

Farmed salmon is good for you.  Farmed Atlantic Salmon traditionally has more heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids than their wild counterparts.  While farmed salmon also typically contains more saturated fat than wild salmon, that level of saturated fat is still much lower than other land-based protein choices.

Contaminants have historically been an issue with farmed salmon as a result of the salmon's feed.  You can still find these studies circulating the web, and often I have entertained arguments from customers using these outdated studies as "proof".  Look carefully though and you will realize that the majority of the contamination arguments quote studies that were conducted in 2002 or earlier.  Much in the way of feed improvement has happened in the last 13 years.  Salmon aquaculture (that is, farming) has greatly improved the feed recipes, eliminating the high levels of PCB's (Polychlorinate biphenyl, which is the organic pollutant historically associated with salmon farming) and other contaminants.  Today strict rules regulate the levels of contaminants that can be found in fish feed ingredients.  Now organic contaminants in farmed salmon are found at similar levels as those found in wild salmon, both at very low levels.

Salmon farming practices are getting better.  In the late 90's and early 2000's salmon farming came under intense fire for polluting their surrounding environments and harming the local wild populations of fish.  Efforts were made and there has been much success in fighting these issues.  Farms like Skuna Bay in British Columbia have reduced stocking densities, which has assisted with lowering the outbreak of disease, without the use of antibiotics.  Farms only stock sterile fish and pen technology has reduced the chance of escapees.  Many salmon farms practice crop rotation, moving open pens so that surrounding ocean environments can replenish and recover naturally.  It should also be noted that all reputable salmon farms such as Northern Harvest and True North have eliminated the use of dyes, hormones, and antibiotics in the farming process.  Land based salmon farming is in its infancy, but I predict by 2018 you will begin seeing fish reared on land being available to the domestic market.

Salmon, farmed and wild, is a healthy option when it comes to the question of what to eat.  The nutritional benefits of eating farmed salmon are numerous.  They contain healthy fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins that are not found at such high levels in other proteins.  I am no doctor, so I recommend you do the research and figure out what is best for you and your diet.  However, when quoting a study, it's just like purchasing the egg salad on special: it's best to check the date.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Blob

Halloween is over a month away, but October is just around the corner, so if you are like me, that's enough just cause to start talking scary things.  Creatures that are spawned from the depths of dark minds like Stephen King can keep you up at night, but truly, nothing is more frightening than real "monsters", and what's taking place in the Pacific Ocean off of our West Coast right now could warrant it's own feature film.

They call it the blob.  It's an ever-changing surface ridge that is comprised of unusually warm water resulting from a rare weather pattern that occurred two years ago.  It spreads 1,000 miles in each direction and runs about 300 feet deep.  The blob negatively affects the ocean's natural water circulation by not allowing nutrient rich colder water to reach the surface and, correspondingly, limits the amount of much needed oxygen available.  This changes the composition of the water and retards the growth and proliferation of the keystone food chain link, phytoplankton.  Phytoplankton is a necessary microscopic food source that supports many vital ocean species.  Without phytoplankton the entire food web is threatened.    

The blob is striking real fear into marine biologists, fishermen, and oyster farmers alike.  It is thought to be a contributing factor to the devastating drought occurring in California and the cause of the damaging algal blooms that have shut down many West Coast oyster farms this summer.  It is believed that the blob is here to stay and that increasing water temperatures are an immediate threat to hundreds of species in both traditionally warm and cold water regions.  The blob of the movies was a slow stalker, an immutable force that slowly swallowed whole anything and anyone that got near it.  The real blob is much more subtle, but if it continues to hang around, it could prove to be a more significant problem.      

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Try Them Raw

On my recent excursion to Japan, I came across some things that stuck with me.  The grand scale of the Tsukiji market awed me, while the solitude and peacefulness of the temples and culture humbled me.  The food, especially the beef and seafood, inspired me, so much so, that I wanted dearly to bring some items and ideas back with me, to implement them into our market.

One of the best things I ate while in Japan was raw shrimp.  The sushi piece completely changed my mind about what shrimp could be.  My American palate was accustomed to shrimp many ways, but even the character Bubba from the movie Forrest Gump left off raw preparation in his exhaustive account.  I had to bring these flavors back with me, to share them with our market and our customers.

Though I was served live shrimp that were prepared in front of me in Japan, I don't think the majority of our at home chefs and dinner guests on this side of the Pacific are quite ready for the execution of the plate so to speak.  So, I looked for the closest product I could find that would give everyone an opportunity to experience the exquisite flavor of great shrimp, without moving the needle on their gag reflexes.  What I found was the New Caledonian Blue Prawn.

New Caledonian Shrimp are a rare blue shrimp that are native to Latin America, but grown by SOPAC off of the coast of New Caledonia.   For those of you who are not familiar with the world of Oceania, the French island of New Caledonia is located between Australia and Tahiti.  I understand that many of you will immediately turn your nose up to farmed shrimp, but these are not your typical farmed shrimp.  New Caledonian Shrimp are grown without the use of antibiotics and pesticides in a preserved ocean environment.  Production is very small, with a focus on sustainability and quality.  The shrimp are not readily available in the U.S., and much of the production goes to Japan for the sashimi market.  The French product has been awarded many accolades for its elevated flavor and quality.  

We choose to offer New Caledonian Shrimp because their flavor is unparalleled.  It is a frozen product, so it is easy to have on hand for our guests, and when eaten raw I feel as though it can transport one to that eye-opening, whimsical world that only great food can unlock.  When enjoyed raw, they have a creamy mouthfeel without losing the integrity of their firm texture.  It's a paradox of bite, I know, but somehow they are forgiving and substantial at the same time.  The sweetness of their flavor is unlike any cooked shrimp, which is our reason for sourcing this product and insisting that you try it raw.  These shrimp have a clean balance of sugar and brine and a simple twist of lime or sprinkle of salt can elevate them from a mere experience to cosmic event.  We can't force you to step out of your shrimp comfort zone - that step you will have to take yourself.  We can promise you though, if you do, an ethereal world awaits.  One that will open the eyes of your palate, excite the emotions of your appetite, and change what you think of when you think of shrimp.