Thursday, July 2, 2015

West Coast Oysters And Salmon Heating Up

Two very popular foods from the West Coast are trending in two very different directions, so here's a road map to explain where your purchases should tread.

Spring sprung the heat right out of the gate for our West Coast brethren, so quickly, in fact, that waters warmed at extraordinary rates.  This bodes well for you sunbathers, but not so much for oysters.  The warm water temperatures cause oysters to spawn, making their meats listless and soft, with "off" flavors.  If this wasn't bad enough, warm temperatures also cause bacteria in the water to become more active, which could lead to illness if the oysters become infected.  Luckily for us though, Washington State has become a lot more proactive in how they deal with warming temperatures and oyster safety.  These days, when temperatures get problematic they simply shut down harvesting.  Precautionary closures are somewhat new to Washington State, but other states have previously adopted these measures to combat foodborne illnesses before they are present.  Other measures, such as laws restricting the methods and time of harvest, have been enacted and enforced to ensure that the harvested oysters are kept at cold temperatures throughout the process from the water column to your plate.  In a nutshell, due to preemptive closures, expect your West Coast oyster varieties to be safe, but severely limited in options during the summer.

You can't mention heating up and the West Coast without mentioning wild salmon.  Whether it be kings, ivories, or sockeyes, you just can't go wrong with wild salmon right now.  The fishing is reaching a fever pitch as fish pour in from areas such as Yakutat and Cook Inlet, Alaska.  I have not seen quality this sound with prices this low in several years.  Right now you can purchase sustainable wild salmon for about the same price as farmed, and you don't have to be standing on the docks in Alaska to do so.  Bristol Bay, one of the largest sockeye runs of the season, is just opening so I expect the trend with sockeyes to continue, with coho salmon season kicking in shortly.  I am not sure, however, how much longer we will see these great deals on kings and especially ivories, so I advise everyone who understands how delicious fatty king salmon can be to get to the market and get their fair share.

As the fishing heats up with the water temperatures, it's time to put the burgers and steaks away and try grilling some healthy seafood.  Summer selections include domestic favorites such as rockfish, bluefish, sable, halibut, tuna, swordfish, wahoo, tilefish, tautog, and of course wild salmon.  Bi-valves may not be at peak, but you know what they say, there are plenty of options in the sea.    

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rock Out For Summer?

Rhode Island Rock, aka Striped Bass
The words "summer rock" can call to mind different things for different people.  Some think of "monumental" summer concerts performed by geriatric legends on their last knee surgery.  Others envision catchy, trending songs with meaningless lyrics that will live on in repeat mode playing somewhere between the fifth and ninth circles of hell.  Or, if you are thinking of your own music tastes (wink wink), you are probably envisioning awesome bands blasting out soul changing lyrics during mind altering weekends with endless stories of how great it all can be.

If you are a Chesapeake Bay fisherman however, when you hear the words summer and rock, your mind most likely drifts off to a place where there's a line in the water and at the end of it there's a big rockfish taking the bait.  Rockfish, or if you are from any state above the Mason Dixon, striped bass, are usually a summer standby for many Chesapeake Bay area natives.  Maryland and Virginia are known as rockfish havens and during the summer season fish are usually landed by the thousands.  During this time of year you typically can't find a menu from D.C. to Ocean City without at least an offering of the tasty bass somewhere on it.  This year is different though, and I thought it might be an important enough issue to at least give some reasoning to the scarcity.

First, the rockfish quota - that is the amount of fish that can legally be taken out of the water - was cut this year by 20% in order to protect the stocks.  It wasn't too long ago that native rockfish were almost fished out, so these measures are necessary, even though you might have to alter your dinner plans.  To dig a little deeper, I spoke with Tim Suhgrue, a biologist and partner of Congressional Seafood, to get a better idea of what was happening on the water.  He explained that during the summer there is a hook and line and a pound net fishery for local rockfish.  The fishermen actually have until the fall and winter respectively to meet their quota.  The fish seem to be on the smaller side right now, so most of the fishermen are waiting until later in the year to target the bass, when they can get bigger fish and bigger prices.

There are a few fishermen still working on the bass, but most have switched to targeting crabs.  Right now blue crabs are on the move, so there is much more profit to be made focusing on the popular shellfish.  The few hook and line fishermen still plying the rockfish don't catch many at a time, so there will be drips and drabs of local rock, but not the glut we have seen in the past.  Another reason fishermen aren't going out is due to the cost of catching the fish.  In the cooler months there's usually bigger fish in the water and they are much easier to handle properly and keep cold sufficiently.  Just imagine how much ice it takes to keep the harvested fish cool during the summer months when temperatures can creep into the triple digits.  Just take a look at your air-condition bill and times it by a thousand to get an idea.

Summer is not lost completely for you rockfish lovers.  Rhode Island is open right now for rockfish, or should I say striped bass, and fishing is good.  Rhode Island is on a quota system, so there is no definite timeline for exactly when the season will close, it can easily happen overnight.  It all just depends on how fast and how much they catch.  Massachusetts' season opens June 25 and Mr. Suhgrue expects that season to last about 3 weeks.  They are also on a quota system and unfortunately their quota has also been cut by 20%, roughly only 700,000 pounds will be caught.  This will barely get us out of July if we are lucky.

The northern fish are usually much larger in size.  Rhode Island fish for instance have to be at least 32 inches or greater in length to keep.  That makes for a pretty thick slice of fish.  I expect rockfish will be offered this summer, though most of it, for the time being, will be from the north.  Unfortunately, I don't expect prices to be in that traditionally low range that we have all come to appreciate and look forward to.  We might have to wait a little longer this year for our local rockfish to come to port, and subsequently, for prices to decrease.  For the next month or so, we may have to make due with that expensive substitute that the yanks call striped bass.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

What's Happening In The Market

It's been a while since I gave a good ole' fashion market update.  I am not sure if you have noticed, but there's a lot going on out there underneath the surface.  The weather is getting right, right for the bite as you could say, and seasons are now crossing over.  With so many options hitting their stride, I figured now was as good as time as any to let you in on what's "in."

The salmon situation is hot, hot, hot.  Kings are coming down in price while sockeye landings are just beginning to come around.  For a few weeks it was only Copper River Sockeyes and the prices, as usual, started off in the upper stratosphere.  Now that the initial gouge is over and other areas begin to open, sockeye prices are coming back down to earthly understanding.  Red kings are flowing out of the rivers, so finding quality fish should not be hard.

An added bonus this year is that ivory king salmon have been readily available for at least for the past two weeks.  These special salmon are deliciously different in flavor, more complex and less "salmony" than other kings.  Last year you couldn't find an ivory.  This year we are having much better luck, making you a very lucky consumer.

Rockfish season is officially open in MD.  Good fish are being landed in the 2-4 lb and 5-8 lb ranges.  Prices should be steady as there was a quota cut this year to protect the stocks, but relief will come as other northern states begin to open their seasons throughout the summer.  This local favorite should be a good buy for the rest of the summer.

Fresh shrimp, especially royal reds from Connecticut, will be available during the summer months.  Fresh white shrimp will be coming out of the Carolinas.  These shrimp tend to be soft, yet crunchy, with a good natural flavor. The royal reds are on another level of sweetness and shouldn't be missed.

Scallop season in Ocean City is going to last at least a few more days, so if you are a connoisseur of everything local, you're summer will not be complete without at least one meal made entirely of these special bi-viavles.  While the Ocean City scallop season is sadly fading, other summer scallop areas are blossoming with beautiful product.  New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts scallops are all on the market and can be found fresh, untreated, if you are in the right market.  Be sure to make friends with your local fishmonger and get the best out of your scallops.

We've got crabs.  At least that's what they are saying in MD right now.  Even though flavor won't peak until the crabs fatten in the fall - and who wants to wait for that - domestic crabmeat and soft-shell crabs are plentiful.  You can find fresh domestic crabmeat from MD, VA, FL, LA and AL this time of year.  Though soft shell availability will wax and wane with the full moon and weather, expect them to be around.  Hard-shells you are best waiting on in order to get the fattest crabs, but again, who wants to do that.

Domestic mahi are running at the moment from FL to NC and quality is at its finest.  You can find freshly caught mahi, skin still iridescent and shining with bright red bloodlines resting in cold showcases at prices way below what their quality commands.

West Coast halibut is in full swing, prices are stable and product is great, especially from day-boat operations.  Not all halibut is created equal, and often higher prices will reflect the properly handled, short trip fish.  Fresh sable is also available, and Sitka Sound wild caught fish are the biggest and best.  During the season it's worth it to pay more for non-frozen fish.

So many seasons are crossing over, there is so much more to report, but in deference to time and attention constraints, here's a short list of other items: golden and grey tilefish from the Carolinas up to Massachusetts are great tasting and great buys.  Our northern neighbors are also producing high quality tautog, tuna, swordfish, Boston mackerel, skate, monkfish, and blue fish.  It's always a sign of summer to come when the blues start showing up.  Also be on the lookout for fresh New Zealand oysters and clams.  It's winter there, so product is actually better during our summer.  All other shellfish besides triploid oysters beware; summer is a time of love, and for shellfish that means spawning.  I recommend buying shellfish the same day you are going to use it to avoid loss.  I almost forgot, lobsters are coming back around.  The Canadian season just opened and prices are going to start coming down immediately.

Some seasons there is just too much going on to get it all in one report.  If I were you I would get off the computer and get to the market.  Everything is aligning right now.  Seasons change, fish are on the move, and next week could be too late.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Shrimp Royalty From An Unlikely Place

When you think of U.S. wild caught shrimp, I am willing to bet your mind first takes you to the Gulf States, such as Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas.  Or it could be that you are from the West Coast, so you think of Oregon or Washington.  If you are really into seafood, or just happen to own some real estate there, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia might come to mind.  But how many of you, especially those living outside of Mystic, think of Connecticut as your go-to shrimp locale?  Well, starting this week, D.C. natives might need to start re-thinking where they believe great shrimp are caught.

In my opinion, Connecticut royal red shrimp, also known as Stonington Reds, may be one of the best kept seafood secrets of the last few years.  Unbeknownst to us living in the district, locals in Stonington, CT have been enjoying these gorgeous shrimp for over a decade.  Can't really blame them for not spreading the word though, as it's easy to imagine why they would want to keep such a delicious secret all to themselves.

Species-wise, royal red shrimp are not exactly new to our market.  These kind of shrimp are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, where our previous shipments have come from, and along the Atlantic Coast from Cape Cod, MA to French Guiana in South America.  Traditionally, we have received frozen-at-sea product from Florida, which is delicious in its own right and creates quite a stir when available.  The royal red shrimp fishery began off the coast of Florida in 1962 and, until this point in time, the only royal reds available in the D.C. area were caught in this fishery and shipped frozen.  However, we are now able to source fresh, never frozen product.  Combine that with the fact that they are coming from Connecticut and the season could last as long as 4-6 months, now that's something to tell your friends about.

Royal red shrimp are found in deep, extremely deep waters with depths ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet.  In Florida, you will find royal reds hiding in the dark expanse off of the Continental Shelf, and just like the royal reds from Florida, Connecticut reds are no different.  To harvest Connecticut reds fishermen must haul 12 hours and over a hundred miles to reach the Continental Shelf, where the shrimp can be harvested.  The fishery is a very small one.  Actually, as of 2007 only one boat, The Neptune, bothered fishing for the royal reds out of Stonington, CT.  That's fine by many, as the dearth of fishermen targeting these delicacies keeps them sustainable and primarily local.

The first thing you notice that is different about royal reds is their color.  Most shrimp do not turn an eye-pleasing red color until you cook them, but royal reds are true to their name in the fact that they are a flaming dahlia even before hitting a hot pan.  But you don't taste color, you taste flavor, and that is really where royal reds separate themselves from every other shrimp.  Royal reds are rich, almost like candied shellfish butter.  Think lobster sweetness, without the dense texture, with a succulent, yet crisp finish.  They are more delicate than the typical Gulf shrimp, so be evenhanded when cooking them, paying much attention not to overcook, as this can easily happen.  They don't need much in the way of seasoning, a little butter, salt, and pepper will go a long way.  If you are poaching them, be quick with it and don't leave them on too long.

Fresh shrimp are difficult to get to market because shrimp tend to spoil faster than fish, and most other seafood for that matter.  Shrimp harvested in the depths off of a Continental Shelf are even harder to get fresh.  This fact, coupled with their remarkable flavor, makes getting these fresh Connecticut reds even more special.  Right now there are many of the uninitiated walking the hot streets of Washington D.C., dinning on inferior seafood.  With the help of some good people from the north, and a little duplicity, we can enjoy some of the best shrimp available, while ensuring that a secret remains a secret.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Mahi Are Back

The Mahi Mahi are coming, so get ready.  It’s that time of year again when these beautiful, brightly colored, migratory fish make their long journey from the already hot waters of South America to the cooler, more comfortable climes off the coast of our southern and mid-Atlantic states.  The fishermen are gearing up and for a few weeks we will see some of the freshest, tastiest Mahi Mahi available. 

I understand it’s easy to get lost in the shadows of popular, seasonal powerhouses such as wild salmon and halibut, but this East Coast specialty should not be overlooked, especially considering the savings it gives at the register.  Right now the bite is on, specifically off the coast of North Carolina in areas such as Cape Hatteras and Oregon Inlet.  Fishermen there are landing Mahi caught with rod and reel, day-boat operations, ensuring that fish make it to market not only fresh, but also well handled.  We all benefit from fishing operations such as these.  The fish come to market just hours out of the water and are sustainably managed to boot.

Mahi means “strong” in Hawaiian, which is very appropriate since they are incredible swimmers with the ability to make trips that are thousands of miles long.  Each summer for a short window they migrate to our East Coast waters to spawn.  Mahi are a very fecund species, reaching sexual maturity after only a few months and then spawn several times every few weeks after that.  This enables the species to thrive even under intense fishing pressure. 

Mahi meat is firm with large flakes, having a texture similar to that of chicken thighs.  Bite in and you’ll experience a succulent mouth feel, moist, with citrus notes like that of clementine, but starchy.  With the fish coming in this fresh, you can use the fillets for ceviche or crudo.  The meatiness of the fillets make Mahi perfect for these applications.  It also performs great on the grill and can hold up to savory or sweet marinades.

Don’t wait too long to get your Mahi on, though, as the season usually ends abruptly, most often so quickly that it feels like the fish headed for deeper water overnight.  Expect the fish to be around for a couple more weeks, but after that it’s over until the fall.  One more thing: Mahi have also gone by the name “dolphin fish.”  Have no worry though, you can eat in good conscience: they’re all fish and not a bit dolphin.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Maryland: Crab Cakes And Football...And Scallops?

If you are from the MD area, the name Ocean City conjures up images of sandy beaches, cold beverages, and probably some hazy memories of youthful stupor.  It most likely doesn't at all say fresh, gourmet scallops, but since you are probably past the age of overindulging in the nectar of the gods, it might be time you looked to the local summer stomping ground as the source of your next great meal.  For a short time during the next month, some of the freshest, finest quality scallops will be coming out of Ocean City Maryland.

Okay, so the scallops are not harvested from beaches of bathing beauties with rigs working between boogie boarders and popsicle vendors, but they are harvested pretty close.  These local bivalves are actually wild harvested in an area called "Elephant's Trunk" which is located 45 miles due east of Ocean City.  Catching them is up to Captain Derrick of the 45 foot fishing vessel "Second To None".  To accomplish this he drags a 12 foot turtle dredge on the sea floor in water that is about 200 to 300 feet deep.  He does this for about 30 minutes, then dumps his load on board and shucks and ices the product right away.  Each scallop is plump and meaty and there are about 13 shucked scallops in a pound.  He may do another one or two 30 minute run before he is done for the day.  The scallops are unloaded in West Ocean City, MD and make it to the market less than 24 hours out of the water.  If you are still doing the math, that's fresh, dry scallops on your plate in less than 36 hours.  I am not sure you could catch them yourself and have them ready for dinner in that amount of time.

These scallops will be one of the freshest local ingredients you will get your hands on this summer.  They are unadulterated, completely dry, completely fresh and are some of the sweetest meats you will ever taste out of the ocean.  As with all good things, though, these scallops will be limited.  The season is set by quota and each vessel can only harvest 600 lbs a trip.  Most likely the total quota will be met by the end of this month or early June.  If you are at a restaurant and they are offered on the menu, order them.  You might be surprised by what's been hiding in plain sight.  You think you know a place like Ocean City, and then you find out that, behind all the heart stopping fried baskets and soggy hotdogs, a very delicious resource has gone ignored.  Well, at least, unheralded.  Maryland does crab like no one else, and if you didn't know now you do, scallops too.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Lobster Prices

I want to remind everyone to call their mother this Sunday, as if you didn't remember, it's Mother's Day once again.  Mother's Day in the seafood industry means a lot of lobster sales.  For some reason moms love the delicious crustacean.  Maybe it's the sweet, buttery meat.  Maybe it's because lobster has become so popular that pricing has made this hot item a special occasion food.  Either way, I want to warn you before you even get to the market for fresh lobster: cold water, hard shell lobsters will not be cheap this weekend.

Here's why.

The Canadian lobster season, which was supposed to open April 30th, has been delayed due to ice and severely cold water.  That's right, that winter that just wouldn't go away still haunts us, all the way into May.  It was so brutal up north that the water temperatures have yet to recover, stunting lobster landings.  This means that the initial start of what many call "lobster season" during the spring and summer months will be slow to start.  Expect prices to reflect this dearth in the marketplace, with live lobsters and freshly cooked lobster meat prices up nearly 30% over last year's numbers.

This is unfortunate news, especially for this special weekend.  Supply just won't meet demand.  Moms are special people, the best in the world, and while lobster season is slow to start, Mother Nature has provided some other delicious spring goodies such as king salmon, black cod, halibut, domestic blue crab, and fresh Carolina shrimp.  Did I mention nothing says "I love you mom" like a delicious Maryland Blue Crab Cake?