Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Vendor Spotlight: Samuels and Sons Seafood

Recently, members of the Black Restaurant Group (BRG) team were invited to tour the facilities of Samuels and Sons Seafood, which is located in Philadelphia, PA and nestled within a Mike Schmidt homer of the Philadelphia sport's teams complex.  We weren't sure what to expect.  We knew Samuels was a large company servicing many regions, while continuously looking to expand.  We also knew that they offered attentive, hands-on services with excellent quality seafood options.  It's very difficult to accomplish both of these things under one roof, but somehow Samuels is doing it and we were there to find out how.

Upon entering we were greeted with a state of the art test kitchen where a professional chef uses a revolving seafood inventory so large that it would make Poseidon blush.  Here, delicious seafood concoctions are created to educate staff, especially those in sales, so that they are able to intelligently advise the most discerning customers (read here chefs) on what is running strong and how those items may be utilized.

Walking through the giant facility, it was apparent right away that cleanliness is an active priority for the company's staff.  Though thousands of pounds of seafood lay inventoried, only the sweet smell of the ocean wafted through our olfactory senses.  The cutting room floors were spotless and reminded me more of a surgical operating room than a fillet house.
Cutting Room Display Tuna 
So how does Samuels keep an active eye on each client and give each one of its customers the individual attention they command?  Without giving away all their secrets, I can comment on a couple of initiatives I found creative and progressive.  Instead of one person working with an account, Samuels employs teams of sales staff to assist each account.  It isn't just lip service either, each person on the team had a vested interest in taking care of each team member's customer, ensuring that each account had many eyes on its products and services.  It was also refreshing to see sales staff not buckled down behind desks away from the seafood they were selling.  Sales staff was expected to assist in the loading of trucks every morning, getting a first hand view of what their customers were ordering.  In fact, moving boxes of fresh fish was actually the highlight of most of the sales staff's day and, overall, it seemed as if the process of getting the seafood out each day was a united team effort of everyone working in the company.  You got the feeling that even though you have this huge company where everyone had a specific task, it was everyone's concern that the right fish got to the right people.

That's where over a hundred years of success comes from.  The group effort of a well orchestrated team working with a united goal of serving great seafood is why we offer Samuels and Sons Seafood.  Samuels may grow tenfold in the coming years, but it's the attention to detail and the small company hands on service that will keep them rooted in their artisanal ideals and successful principles.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Seasonal Update: Black Sea Bass

The season is on in Massachusetts for one of the tastiest fish in the sea: the elegant Black Sea Bass.  Black Sea Bass are actually cousins to the grouper and their stocks can be separated into two divisions: the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic fisheries.  The Mid-Atlantic stock consists of fish from north of Cape Hatteras, NC all the way to Maine and the fish are usually caught in inshore waters during the summer months.  The South Atlantic stock has a winter fishery that takes place from south Cape Hatteras, NC down to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Massachusetts fishery is a part of the Mid-Atlantic stock which today is considered a rebuilt, sustainable fishery.  Black Sea Bass are considered incredible table fare.  Their flesh is silky white with tender, firm meat that is sweet, yet briny with shellfish undertones.  They feed on crabs, shrimp, small fish and clams and their delectable flesh resonates with a mouth pleasing bouquet of ocean flavor.  Their skin is best served crispy, and if this result is achieved, it can remind one of bacon of the sea.

In Massachusetts the quota is very small, only 263,000 lbs, so fishing will most likely be closed in a couple of weeks.  They are harvested by hook and line and the highly desired bigger fish are usually in the 3 lb range.  Trophy size 5 lb fish are even harder to find.  The males can be distinguished from the females by their enlarged foreheads, and few people know that they are actually hermaphrodites, changing sex at least once during their lifetime.

The Black Sea Bass is an American success story and the Massachusetts fishery produces some of the highest quality and best tasting examples.  You have only a few weeks to get these fish on your dinner table and I highly recommend you take full advantage.  There are few things better than a perfectly seared piece of Black Sea Bass done right with crispy skin.  The beauty is in the simplicity, the flavor is in the fish.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Market Forecast In A Shell

Happy National Oyster Day!  Each year I feel that this glorious day gains more and more traction in the national media and in restaurant goers' collective dining conscious.  Seriously, as if you needed more reasons to eat delicious bi-valves?  Getting caught up in the National Oyster Day celebration is easy to do.  However, we fishmongers must do our due diligence and keep our heads out of the clouds.  It's our duty to bring you both the good and the not so good news, so in the spirit of fairness and all things shellfish, I just wanted to give you a quick market update on what's happening with some shell wearing treats of the sea.

Shrimp season is in full swing in Texas.  It's been about 3 weeks of fishing now, and landings look to be solid.  As the freezer boats come in, we should see prices for domestic shrimp decrease for the September, October, November months.  Fresh North Carolina shrimp quality has been off the charts and availability has been very strong.  Prices for NC white shrimp have been the lowest in the last 3 years.  Weekly landings of CT Red Shrimp have been sporadic due to catch, but I expect these delicious rubies to be around for a few more weeks.

Lobster prices seem to be on the rise.  Canadian availability is almost nonexistent and Maine is shipping about 60,000 lobsters a week to China.  China's growing middle class is developing a growing appetite for "bugs" and this demand is causing prices to soar.  Summer lobster prices are usually pretty reasonable, but this year has seen some big increases.  Don't expect this trend to change until Canada gets back on line.

Most predicted this year's scallop harvest to be much better than years past.  Most thought the big harvest would give much needed relief to the exorbitant prices we have seen over the last two years on quality domestic scallops.  Sorry, we were wrong.  The U.S. landings are up around 8%, but the sizes of the scallops are smaller than projected.  Couple this with two major global scallop players, namely Japan and Peru, having very poor harvests, and what you have is a global market thirsting for good scallops.  Japanese harvest is down 25% and Peruvian is down about 50%.  The global deficit is placing a strain on our supply, and the outlook for the rest of the year looks expensive.

I noted earlier that West Coast Oyster production was taking a hit due to extremely warm water temperatures, but all is not lost.  We have had some excellent New Hampshire Oysters coming in that are summer gems and fall is right around the corner.  If we can make it through the month of August, then we are home free as far as mussels, clams, and oysters go.  They all will begin feeding again and the wonderful flavors we associate with delectable shellfish will once again be just a raw bar away.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Bluefin In Our Market

For many years we made the decision as a company not to sell one of the tastiest, most exquisite seafood options in the world due to its sustainability status.  Anyone who has bothered to pay attention to seafood news, even if only peripherally, in the last ten years will tell you that there are issues with eating Bluefin tuna.  Even if you have never picked up a color coded card of seafood sustainability, the chances are if asked to name a seafood option that is not sustainable, Bluefin will most likely be the first fish name to cross your lips.  The fish has made headlines, and not in a good way.  Yes it is delicious.  Yes it is overfished.  So why are we offering it this summer?

It has nothing to do with lust or greed, or some deal we made with the devil.  The landscape of the Bluefin fishery has changed, and this isn't some secret that only we are privy to, like some clandestine password that gets you into the hottest of seafood sources.  The information below is out there for all to see and has been but, unfortunately, good news on the subject often gets overlooked in the headlines.  I'll let you in on the basics of the deal, so that you can decide for yourself if Bluefin is an option you and your dinner companions can stomach.

First, there are 3 different Bluefin tuna populations; Northern, Southern, and Pacific, each with different issues posing varying degrees of problems.  In this blog we will be discussing Northern Bluefin only.  Northern Bluefin, also known as Atlantic Bluefin, can be further divided into two groups: Western and Eastern.  Though the two stocks intermingle, we will be focusing on the Western stock which is caught off the coast of North America and is primarily fished by Canada, Japan, and the U.S.

Bluefin tuna are a highly migratory species, so it takes the effort of many nations and agencies to oversee and report the results of the fishery.  In the U.S., the Western stock is managed by the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division, which sets regulations.  These limits are based on conservation and management recommendations from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).  From 1972 to 1992 the Atlantic stock declined steadily and as of 2002 the spawning stock biomass (number of fish in the ocean at an age in which they are able to spawn) was at about 25 to 30 percent of the 1970 level. However, ICCAT started a rebuilding program in 1998 and the spawning stock biomass has increased by 70 percent since.  According to the 2014 assessment, Western Atlantic Bluefin tuna are no longer subject to overfishing.

Let's back up for a moment.  The Western Atlantic fishery we currently and solely purchase from is a U.S.-regulated fishery that occurs in U.S. waters by domestic fishermen who use either hook and line gear or harpoon to selectively harvest fish.  There is no by-catch and all tuna caught get reported.  Overfishing is not occurring.  The species remains overfished, however, according to NOAA and part of the reason for this is that NOAA is taking into consideration the mixing of the Eastern and Western stocks.  I must stress here though that, although the stock remains overfished, fishermen are able to harvest fish at low levels and still continue to ensure that the stock is able to rebuild and replenish itself to a sustainable level.  Thus, the species can be overfished without overfishing taking place.  Harvest is taking place at safe, conservative, healthy levels.  

Our Bluefin tuna is caught by guys like Captain Tyler Mccallister of the FV Cynthia C.  We know where the fish are coming from and we know who's catching them and how they are doing it.  The fish are reported.  The stock may be overfished, but the rebuilding plan is working and in this particular fishery overfishing is not the result.  Fish can be taken out of the water while a species is restored to a healthy and sustainable population.  Our market will sell Atlantic Bluefin tuna on a regular basis for the first time ever this year.  We will do it with a good conscience.  We buy a specific fish from a specific fishery.  It's a science, environmental, and dinning based decision.  It's a way to support a domestic fishery doing the right thing.  It's also a way for people to show that they can responsibly enjoy the best tasting tuna available without sacrificing the integrity of the species or their ethics.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Spring Season Bust: Having Nunavut

The warming temperatures continue to affect the world's fisheries and no species is impervious, including those caught at the top of the world.  July is summer for most of us, but for the Nunavut people living within eyesight of the Arctic Circle, July brings spring and the coveted Wild Nunavut Char.  There is usually a "spring" run which lasts a few weeks in July and August, and a "fall" harvest that follows during the months of August through September.  If you are keeping track, that means summer only lasts a few weeks, hardly enough time to catch a decent tan. 

This year will be different for you wild char lovers however, due to the fact that the fish showed early, too early, unfortunately, for commercial harvesters to catch their quota.  The inside information I am receiving is that the spring run has come and gone with only a portion of the quota captured.  The Nunavut Char will not be making it to many dinner tables, at least not for their spring appearance.  The fish were on the move early this year and I believe much of that can be attributed to warmer water temperatures.  The char, like many other species including shellfish, rely on weather and water temperatures to dictate when they migrate and spawn.  

It's premature to guess when the char will begin their journey back for the fall season, though I would bet that commercial interests will be more attentive this time around.  Nunavut Char is a very special resource and it offers a very unique flavor that is incomparable.  Hopefully the fish return in a "timely" fashion for all of us to reap the benefits.  Until then, we have to wait an entire summer season until we get our wild char.  Luckily for us though, it's a Nunavut summer.

Friday, July 10, 2015

New Hampshire Oysters

There are a few New England States that come to mind when you think of delicious oysters: Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to name a few.  In fact, these states have helped make New England oysters famous for their crisp brine and wicked good meats.  It's time to add another selection to the list of states from our North East brethren; a new comer, late bloomer you could say.  Ladies and gentlemen, lets welcome New Hampshire to the oyster bar.
Courtesy NHPR

Right now it's probably better known as being the "Granite State."  In the future, however, New Hampshire may be regaled as the "Oyster State" for being one of the East Coast's better oyster appellations, with selections rivaling the popularity of Wellfleet and Blue Point.  New Hampshire has only recently begun offering oysters commercially, the first coming on line in 2005 with a production of about 20,000 oysters.  Today there are about 12 leases along the coast and of these, only 6 are currently producing enough product to harvest commercially.

As far as getting the oysters out of the state and into a spot in the rotation at reputable oyster bars along the coast, we have Taylor Lobster Company to thank.  Taylor Lobster Company is owned by Bret Taylor and has roots in the lobstering industry dating back to 1945.  Though established in the lobstering business, Taylor is responsible for distributing about 86% of the entire New Hampshire oyster production.  Last year production from the entire state only amounted to about 100,000 oysters, which is about as much as an established farm produces in a week.  This makes New Hampshire oysters a rarity and typically Taylor doesn't sell the precious bi-valves to more than one establishment per state.  There just isn't enough inventory yet to go around.

Available varieties include Moose Cove, Wagon Hill, Fat Dog and Little Grizzlies, all out of Great Bay, New Hampshire.  Moose Coves are grown by Jay Baker and tend to have a sweet, melon finish. Wagon Hill oysters get their name from a historic wagon located on a hill near the University of New Hampshire.  The Fat Dog label affectionately references the owner's "fat Labrador Retriever."  Ray Grizzle, a professor of Aquaculture at the University of New Hampshire, owns Little Grizzlies whose namesake is evident.
Courtesy NHPR

Though limited in production, these oysters are not limited in flavor.  Each variety differs, as we all know that locations separated by only a few meters can offer incredibly different merroirs, but there are some common characteristics you can expect from New Hampshire oysters.  Typically they range in size from 2 1/2 inches to 3 1/2 inches and the shells are light colored, deep and very strong.  The meats are plump and full, with an al dente texture in the fall months.  Winter comes quickly in New Hampshire and often the water will freeze over, halting production very early in the season.  Each oyster variety differs in salinity level, but all are well balanced with an above average brine.  Flavor subtleties can range from sweet to clam-like to melon to seaweed, but you are just going to have to taste them all yourself to pick your favorite.

Now you know that if you are lucky enough to see NH listed as the origin of an oyster during your next visit at your local bi-valve hangout, it's not a misprint.  You should also be mindful that these oysters are not easy to come across and you would be unwise to pass up the chance to taste such a distinctive, gratifying bite.  New Hampshire oysters are officially on the scene.  Consider yourself warned, New England!  There's a new guy on the block and he is tasty.

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.