Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Crab Inside Your Oyster

If you ever come across an open oyster with a tiny crab-looking critter dwelling comfortably in it, you should eat it.  Though your first thought may be to chuck the oyster and crab and complain to your server that your oyster treat had been invaded and occupied by an unwanted houseguest, avoid the knee-jerk reaction and just consider yourself lucky, one of the chosen few.  Seriously, you have just received one of those rare gifts of nature that not every oyster provides.

The crab that you find wriggling in your oyster is not your typical blue crab.  It's actually a different species entirely.  It's called an oyster crab, or pea crab, and if you speak Latin it goes by the name Zaops Ostreum.  The oyster crab is a tiny animal that is typically found inhabiting oysters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay area.  They range as far south as Brazil, but you won't find any taking residence in oysters from our northern neighbors.  Massachusetts eat your heart out.  It's most often the female crabs that live inside live oysters, feeding on what the oysters eat, while the males are free-swimming wanderers that fend for themselves.  The crabs stunt the oyster's growth, but beyond that live with the oyster in harmony, making a life and reproducing in the oyster until finding themselves under the blade of someone's oyster knife.

To experienced oyster shuckers and gourmands, these small crabs are more than a novelty, they're an absolute delicacy.  The New York Times was reporting on the merits of their flavor as far back as 1913, though today I do not think that many people living in the Chesapeake Bay area even know of their existence.  That's a hard fact to explain since it's the Bay areas oysters in which the crabs call home.  Their flavor has been described as delicate and shrimp-like.  From my own experience I think they taste sweeter than most shrimp, with grassy, mineral notes and a little bit of sea salt.  They offer a nice crunch and a crazy umami flavor, one you might find in a fine broth that took days to make.

Most of the time oyster crabs are removed from the raw oysters by the shucker or chef before they are served to the guest.  I guess it's the industry's way of "protecting" their guests from "undesired" tenants.  The majority of diners wouldn't be too excited to find a tiny, living creature in their freshly shucked oyster.  Two live animals in one shell is two too many.  It's hard to get the word out that these crabs are really delicious.  It's even harder to get people to eat food that is still moving.  Yes, if you had to, you could save the crabs and cook them, but really that's an unnecessary use of energy.  Cooking does nothing to improve on what nature has already provided in this case.  All I know is that I'll take my local oysters with crab, as many as I can get, and consider myself lucky.  This doesn't mean you will be seeing more restaurants leaving the crabs in the oysters.  But now that you know, and if you are lucky enough, it might be a good idea that the next time you settle in at the oyster bar to give the shucker a heads up, that you'll take any oyster found with a crab in it as a packaged deal.    

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Big Benefit Of Eating A Small Fish

Sure the big guys get all the looks.  You stroll past a fish stand and most often what you notice first are the beautiful hues of big fresh fillets: the red tunas, the bright orange salmon, the glistening swordfish, the creamy halibut or the iridescent stripes on a trophy bass.  With all these heavy hitters and mealtime favorites, it's easy to forget or ignore one of the oceans smallest, tastiest, and healthiest "little guys".  People, pay attention to the sardine.

Maybe it's because they are often sold with the head and bones intact, or it could be that some of you are harboring noxious memories of being force fed canned sardines at an early and impressionable age, but either way there are many who never consider fresh sardines for dinner.  How can such a small, delectable fish be so intimidating?

Fresh sardines are delicious on the grill, and with the warmer winds beginning to blow, you won't find a simpler option to cook in the fish market.  Sardines are delicious without the sauce.  They pack a lot
of healthy oils and cook really quickly on a hot grill.  They are best enjoyed grilled whole, with only the scales and guts removed (BlackSalt will do that for you).  Their flesh is smoky and full of umami, that 5th sense of taste that the Japanese refer to as "pleasant savory taste", and the fillets peel from the bone rather easily once cooked.  Add a little salt, pepper and olive oil, toss 'em on the grill, and 5 minutes later you are transported to a better place in which you can hear the waves crash, feel the sun grow bigger, and your mouth and soul rest, sated and content.

Did I mention that sardines are one of the healthiest seafood options available?  Any concerns you may have with bigger fish options are completely null and void when you are considering sardines.  Sardines contain high amounts of omega-3s, vitamin B12, protein, and selenium, and this list is really only scratching the surface.  Sardines are a perfect food.  Even better, they are sustainable when sourced from fisheries like Spain and Portugal.  Though they once thrived on our own West Coast, the fishery is closing early this year due to low stock numbers.

So if you are interested in a food this summer that will make you smarter, leaner, stronger, and generally a better form of yourself, try a sardine or three.  BlackSalt Fish Market will be sourcing Portuguese sardines all summer with deliveries coming twice a week.  Leave the big fish for the next person.  Some of the best gifts come if small packages.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Tasty Striped Trumpeter

There's a new edition to the expanding rotation of fresh seafood at BlackSalt Fish Market: the Striped Trumpeter.  Striped Trumpeter are large members of the trumpeter family and are caught off the coasts of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.  They are easily recognizable by their protruding mouths and bold stripes, though the stripes fade as the fish grow larger, especially for fish weighing over 5 pounds.  

During the spring and summer months the fish come closer to shore where they are caught off of rocky bottoms.  They primarily feed on crustaceans, octopus, fish, and squid, so in a world in which you taste like what you eat, trumpeter flesh offers a bouquet of shellfish sweetness with a delicate richness not matched by fish found on our domestic coasts.  These fish are highly prized for their luscious flavor, especially in Tasmania where they are considered the tastiest fish in the sea.  Striped Trumpeter have a good oil content, off-white flesh and a savory flavor.  They are best smoked, sautéed, or grilled due to the firm texture of their meat and most find their flavor accentuated by a good sauvignon blanc.

Due to their high demand, striped trumpeter will not be a mainstay at the market during the spring months, though from time to time we will have them to offer.  Spring brings us quite a selection of fresh options, the trumpeter being one of the more special and hard to find items.  We recommend getting your bite on before the season's end.    

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Shad Woe

In case you have been able to sleep through the morning calls of those pesky, chirpy and somehow cheerful birds that harmonize before even the sun has had its breakfast, it is spring out there and it's happening with or without you.  For you local diners that revel in ancient culinary traditions, that means that the shad are running.  It's roe season and, even though winter outstayed its welcome, the waters have been warming and fish have been migrating for weeks.  So why is there no shad on the menu?  To answer that we have to look at the careful management of a beleaguered species.
Prized Shad Roe

American shad are anadromous fish, and spend most of their life in salt water but return to spawn in the freshwater river in which they hatched.  Most make their first spawning run when they are 4-5 years old and in some cases they die after spawning.  In others, normally in rivers farther north, the fish are able to survive.  The commercial season usually begins in Georgia where fish will be caught as they move up the coast heading for their native rivers.  Often drift nets are used for this enterprise and there are many government restrictions.

Warming water temperatures trigger more shad runs farther north, usually fishery openings occur state by state from Georgia all the way to Maine.  Each state regulates its fishery, setting catch restrictions and quotas and in some cases, such as Maryland, the fishery comes under moratorium completely.  This means that there is no commercial harvest at all due to the fact that there just aren't enough fish.  In Virginia there hasn't been a dedicated "commercial season" since 1994 due to low numbers of fish, but there is a small collection of regulated by-catch fishermen who are allowed reported shad landings while fishing for other targeted species.  North Carolina and Delaware commercial seasons are operational, but other factors like shoaling, when sea floor drifts and needs to be dredged before boats can safely pass through, and lingering winter conditions can impede landings.

Long ago, when Native American tribes had sovereignty over our coastal waterways, shad runs numbered in the millions and their oily flesh and robust roe sacs were prized for their pungent, yet savory flavor.  Population growth, overfishing and industrialization have since decimated these stocks.  In the Chesapeake Bay runs used to be around 17-18 million.  Those numbers were slashed to around 2 million by the 1970s.  The Potomac runs disappeared in the 1950s.  Dams disrupt shad migrations and in some cases such as in Pennsylvania, they have halted runs altogether.

Rebuilding programs have been introduced state-by-state in an attempt to get the shad numbers back into healthy standing.  Restocking efforts and dam breaching efforts have been leading the way.  For states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, it's important to bring back a species that was once so prolific that you couldn't cross a river in spring without stepping on the backs of shad.

For those of you who look to the rich flavor of shad as a reminder that spring is here and that all is right with the world, you may have to come to terms with the fact that, though the shad are running, it isn't quite like it used to be.  It's a resource that, one state at a time, we are trying to put back together.  Neglect and carelessness has gotten us here.  Patience, understanding and commitment will get us back.  There may be lapses between meals in which you will be able to get your fill of shad.  It just makes it that more special when you do get your roe and fillet.  It's spring, all is right with the world, and the shad will return.          

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Bay's Blues Continue

The Chesapeake needs your help.  Whether you pledge your allegiance to the Virginia or Maryland side doesn't matter.  There is a common enemy to both states that is decimating the natural inhabitants of both state's waterways and it's only going to get worse.  Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the wild blue catfish.

The blue catfish was introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in Virginia during the 1970's as a recreational fishing option and has since expanded into the Potomac River.  Populations of these catfish have not only flourished but, just recently, exploded.  These bottom dwellers are responsible for eating juvenile and adult rockfish, blue crabs, menhaden, shad, herring, white and yellow perch, and many more important species.  During the spring spawning season, a blue cat's diet consists mainly of fish eggs, so for two months out of the year the blue cat decimates other species by gobbling them up before they even have a chance to hatch.  Right now fishermen searching for rockfish are pulling up nothing but catfish.  In the James River alone, blue cats account for 80% of the biomass, a good indicator that they have devoured everything else in the river.  Wild blue catfish are now found in every tributary in the Chesapeake Bay, leading some scientist to assert that the blue cat invasion could be the greatest threat the Bay has ever faced.

There is a way you can help to change this and, luckily for us, the catfish is it's own enemy.  The next time you are in the mood for seafood, give catfish a try.  Blue catfish are actually quite delicious and, due to their abundance, they are extremely affordable.  Blue catfish is often sold in fillet form, skin and bones removed, and the white flesh is great for sautéing and baking.  A little oil in the pan, salt and pepper on the fish, 3-5 minutes a side on medium high heat and 10 minutes later you have a healthy meal.  Even more satisfying than it's mild, briny flavor is the fact that you have helped save the bay while dining on this savory, troublesome critter.  I usually put brown sugar and cayenne on my catfish or I enjoy it fried po' boy style.  Either way, every time it meets a plate we are one step closer to improving conditions in the Bay with as little effort as picking up a fork.  Eat local, eat sustainable, eat the blue catfish.

Here's a recipe courtesy of BlackSalt chefs:

Cornmeal Crusted Pan Fried Maryland Catfish w/Smoked Veal Sausage and Seafood Gumbo – serves 4-6 ppl

Roux –The single most important step in this process. ALL the flavor is born here.
1lb AP Flour
1lb Bacon Fat, Beef Fat or Clarified Butter

In a heavy bottomed pot at least 8qts in size add fat, then flour and begin to toast flour. Once it smells like biscuit dough transfer the pot to a 350 degree oven for an hour or so. Stirring the roux every 20 minutes until a deep rust or brick color is achieved; it will smell similar to burnt popcorn.  I baby my roux often because the closer you get to over-cooked the deeper the flavor you develop.

Salt + Pepper season and taste as you go
1 T Tomato Paste
1lb Smoked Veal Sausage Small Diced (We make our own but any smoked veal or beef sausage will do)
6 Jalapenos seeded and small diced
4 Anaheim Chiles seeded and small diced
3 Spanish Onions seeded and small diced
1 Head of Celery small diced (Reserve leafs and mince)
12 cloves of Garlic fine minced
1 T Dry Mustard
1 T Cayenne
1 T Red Chili Flake
4 Fresh Bay Leaf, 1 Bunch Thyme tied together with butchers twine
1 Bottle Green Hot Sauce of your choice
2 Bottles of Light Bodied Beer (Your favorite porch drinkin beer)
3 T Gumbo File
4 Qts Beef Stock
1lb Crab Meat
1lb Crawfish Tail Meat
Fresh Lemon Juice
1 Bunch Scallion Sliced

Once the roux is finished you need to start assembly right away. Add the tomato paste to the roux and brown lightly. Add sausage, vegetables, dry spices (but not the file yet), bay leaf and thyme and sweat in the roux over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes until the vegetables soften slightly. Begin to whisk in one bottle of the beer and add the green hot sauce. The mixture will thicken rapidly at this point you can begin adding the beef stock in 1 quart increments. Stir the mixture constantly until it comes to a boil then turn down to a very low simmer. Continue simmering slowly for 1 hour skimming the mixture of any scum that forms. Add crab meat and crawfish and heat through. Lemon juice and more hot sauce to taste.

Wild Maryland Blue Catifish

2 lb Wild Blue Catfish cut into 5-ounce portions
1 Cup Buttermilk
2 Cups Fine Ground Yellow Corn Meal
1 Pinch Cayenne
1 Pinch Ground White Pepper
Fine Sea Salt for Seasoning
Canola Oil for Frying

Pre-Heat your cast iron skillet over medium heat with a ½ inch oil. Season cornmeal with cayenne and white pepper.  Pat catfish dry season on all sides with salt and lightly coat in buttermilk, then cover with the cornmeal mixture shaking off excess. When the oil reaches 350 degrees gently lay the catfish in the pan frying on each side for 2 ½ to 3 minutes. Drain on a cooling rack.

Serve gumbo and catfish with plain or dirty white rice, sliced scallions, celery leafs, remoulade, lemon slices and of course plenty of hot sauce and beer.


Friday, March 20, 2015

The Boston Seafood Show

Members of the BRG team visited the Boston Seafood Show this past weekend courtesy of the great team at Congressional Seafood.  The expanse and variety of products was breathtaking.  Traversing the isles and isles of seafood booths proved a daunting task.  So was finding non-frozen product.

One of Samuels and Son's Display
Importers from around the world were showing their wares, some interesting, some bizarre, but taken as a whole it was eye-opening to understand the great machination that is the seafood business.   Most booths were offering glimpses of frozen-at-sea product of the highest quality.  Products caught by huge vessels and processed by big companies gave one the feeling of smallness, as a pebble cast out into the vast ocean.  BRG deals mostly in fresh, domestic product, and it is even more evident now than before that sadly, these items are but a tiny portion of the global seafood economy.

There were some great highlights of the show, such as the spectacular Samuels and Son seafood display.  Samuels is based out of Philadelphia and was there promoting fresh products with descriptions of where and how their products are sourced.  The terrific team from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources was also present to promote MD seafood, and there were also representatives from Carl's Choice Scallops, Sewansecott Oysters, Barren Island Oysters, Australis Aquaculture, Little River Crab Company, Shooting Point Oysters, Cherrystone Aqua farms, Town Dock Seafood, Chincoteague Aqua Farm, and American Mussel Harvesters, amongst other domestic purveyors.

Another highlight of the trip came in the form of an invitation from Boston Swordfish and Tuna to check out their facilities located on the waterfront.  It was inspiring to see domestically caught tuna and swordfish splayed out for grading.  The fish were of high quality, but the group at Boston Sword still makes sure that this fact is verified with each load.  We also got a glimpse of the largest lobster tank in Boston, and possibly the east coast.  It reminded me of an Olympic sized pool, but with lobsters instead of people doing the laps.  The scallop room was also a treat, or should I say "untreat(ed)" due to the fact that Boston Sword specializes in truly dry scallops caught domestically and sorted by size every day.  As much seafood as they process, the facility was exceptionally clean and smelled like the ocean - a very important fact when considering a seafood purveyor.

We are grateful to Congressional Seafood for inviting us to the Boston Seafood Show.  It was a chance to meet some great purveyors and get a glimpse of the grand scale on which the industry operates.  It's easy to fathom how big business can outgrow the ocean.  There's a lot of product out there and, like I said, at BRG we are just a small pebble.  Hopefully, though, just as a small pebble can make millions of ripples when cast into the water, we hope our model of supporting domestic, fresh, and sustainable seafood resonates in a swelling market.    

Grading Floor at Boston Sword
Opah Looking for a home
Lobster Tank
More Lobster!

Dry Scallops

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fisheries Report Continued Progress

The 2013 Report on the Status of U.S. Fisheries conducted by NOAA Fisheries presents a bright future for wild U.S. fisheries management.  The report highlights the continued progress of ending overfishing and rebuilding the nations oceanic resources.  In 2013, seven fish stocks were removed from the overfishing list and two stocks were rebuilt, bringing the new total of rebuilt stocks to 34 since 2000 and still growing.

These are no small feats.  It wasn't so long ago that U.S. fish stocks were in peril, many to the point of what was thought of as "no return."  Overfishing was occurring at a staggering pace, emptying our natural resources from our surrounding bodies of water and additionally devastating many regional and local communities.  Luckily tides have since turned and through science-based management we have a good shot at reversing the once drastic state of our fisheries.  It's a simple formula: sustainably manage our fish stocks or lose everything.

Sustainable management includes ending overfishing by setting quotas and fishing guidelines, managing current fisheries, and tracking new fisheries.  It's a group effort that includes several cooperating bodies: NOAA Fisheries, Regional Fishery Management Councils, commercial and recreational fishermen, and, importantly, you the consumer.  With a concerted effort, U.S. fisheries management can be a beacon for the world, an example of how resources can be properly managed, protected, and enjoyed in a sustainable way.  The 2014 full report has not yet been posted, but you can look at the map provided here to see the progress of rebuilt stocks during 2014.  It's an exciting time to support domestic seafood.  Reports on the healthy qualities of getting more seafood in your diet abound.  Recent guidelines from the FDA have been updated to encourage more seafood consumption.  Nowhere in the world is more effort being exerted into making the country's seafood not only a healthy option for its diners, but a sustainable one as well.