Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kings Of Spring

It's subtle, but if you really put your ear to the ground, you may actually be able to hear the soft tip-toeing steps of spring quietly making its way back into our lives.  Ice is beginning to crack under the pressure of a growing warmth and trees are slowly regaining their upright posture.  Heck, even P.E.I. mussels may make an appearance as early as this weekend after spending the last two weeks buried under the freezing avalanche that was February.

The anticipation of sunnier days is so exciting that when I was told that there were a few early spring troll-caught Wild King Salmon available to the highest bidder, well I just couldn't help myself, I had to have them.  When I was told that they were Ivory Kings, I was even more excited.  So, in an effort to assist the ushering in of warmer weather and good vibes, and to get my hands on the earliest batch of Ivory King salmon I have ever seen, I am elated to announce that BlackSalt will be seeing our earliest ever batch of Wild Alaskan Ivory King Salmon.
SPC members the Eliasons represent 4 generations of fishing

Most will have to wait for May to get their hands on Wild King Salmon, which is traditionally when the season gets going, but even then ivory salmon will be hard to find and even harder to acquire.  This early in the season the king salmon are at the pinnacle of their flavor profile.  The salmon are meaty from heavy winter feeding and are far from entering the fresh river waterways in which they will later spawn.  This means their proteins are completely intact and their fat content is at its peak.  Later on in the coming months spawning runs will gradually wear the salmon down physically, muting their flavors and decimating their fat content.  In a sense, these few early fish could be some of the best tasting fish we see all season.

In addition to great flavor, these fish - or should I say fishermen - have great stories.  We have the Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC) to thank for these beautiful, sustainable early king salmon.  The SPC consists of a group of fishermen who work the water one fish at a time using the hook and line method.  This method produces fish that are of the highest quality, mostly due to the extreme care that goes into the harvesting and handling of the fish.  The cooperative is comprised of 550 members, each individually representing a small boat and small operation, but with an aggregate goal of producing the finest product possible.  Supporting these types of fisheries is important because the money goes back to the actual fishermen, instead of supporting the deep pockets of industrial processors.  It's a win for the guest dining on superior seafood and for the communities that produced the fish.          
One fish at a time!

Winter, especially these last few weeks, has sunk its teeth deep into the earth and is reluctant to let go.  I am ready for the melt to begin, but I am not convinced it's time just yet to bury our heavy coats into the back of our closets.  It might be too early to say that spring is here, but it's never too early to eat great fish.  If you want to wait for the rest of the salmon, they will be here in a few months.  I, for one, am ready for better weather and better meals.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Raw Bar Has Frozen Over

It is cold.  Well...that's an understatement.  It's so cold that I am pretty sure that you-know-where has frozen over, and that is not good for our East Coast shellfish.  We haven't seen conditions like these in the Chesapeake Bay area since 1977.  Boats cannot get out on any of the rivers, and oystering and clamming have become impossible.  The Bay is frozen solid between the eastern and western shores and if you look north conditions get much worse.

So what happens to our oysters, clams, and mussels when everything is frozen solid?  Well, to put it simply, production stops.  We will not be seeing much product coming from the Chesapeake Bay area to Prince Edward Island, Canada in the next week.  Shellfish of all varieties are either buried under feet of ice or, even if they are accessible, die in the freezing temperatures above once pulled out of the water.  These temperatures and conditions are making it impossible to source shellfish on the East Coast.

Local oysters will be nearly impossible to get in the next few days, except for some wild product, so don't expect your local oyster bars to have a broad variety.  If you don't see any little neck, top neck, or cherrystone clams at your local raw bar this weekend don't make too much of a fuss.  Clamming operations are at a standstill and will be until some thawing action happens.  More bad news:  Mussels will likely not be on the menu next week.  P.E.I. is frozen over and many harvest locations have become inaccessible due to extreme weather.

When the conditions are right, large bodies of water can freeze pretty quickly.  Such cold can freeze the Bay for miles in just a few minutes.  Unfortunately it will take a couple of days to thaw.  When Mother Nature wants to, she can put a big damper on your raw bar selection.  We all, shellfish lovers included, just have to suck it up and wait.  Remember that the oyster farmers are doing their best to harvest what they can, and accomplishing this in weather that would have most of us running for our homes and space heaters.  If you think it's brutal walking the 25 feet from your car to the house, imagine being on the water for hours at a time, where the wind is multiplied by a hundred and the cold just doesn't quit.  So if you find yourself in front of a few bi-valves in the next week, take a moment to appreciate what it took to get them there and be thankful you didn't have to do it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why Seafood Is Sexy

Valentine's Day is next weekend and if you are a truly romantic person you most likely already have the what's and where's planned for your one and only sweetheart.  If you are one of those people who likes to wait, or just doesn't put much thought into the whole ordeal, then you still need to pay some heed and get on the ball.

Flowers are great, but don't have staying power.  Diamonds are beautiful, but you know eventually they can lose their luster, significance or, as often happens, can even get lost themselves.  Dinner, now that's an idea.  When you take your loved one out, or stay in, for dinner, you are creating an experience, a memory.  Staring into each other's eyes over a delightful meal creates a moment shared in time that can't be undone.  Food brings people together.  It's that necessary adhesive that can all at once soothe, enliven, transform, and translate all of life's importance with a single taste.  If you are still with me on this and agree, here's my argument why seafood should be on your Valentine's Day menu.

Seafood represents life and vitality.  The ocean is the source of all life and seafood embodies this idea of magnitude and mystery on the plate like nothing on hooves can.   Instead of the heavy thud meat and poultry leave in your bellies, ocean fare will not weigh the rest of your night down.  Your romantic trysts will not get stuck in the mud with seafood, leaving you free to experience the moments beyond the plate.

You can eat seafood in the raw, undressed and unburdened of the heaviness of preparation.  Open up an oyster and experience the excitement and pulsation of naked flavor.  You can feel the transformation of life and taste how slippery such great moments can be.  Raw fish can dress a plate so seductively that food becomes a show, its contorting essence encapsulating the tension between art and function.  Food can feed more than just our mouths, particularly seafood.  Seafood, especially when eaten crudo, can reveal natural flavors exotic and foreign to our tongues.  Some meals are just to get us to the next one and some are events in our lives.

Though healthy for your body, seafood is often seen as an extravagance reserved for special occasions, especially when dining out.  So it only makes sense that if you are catering to the heart of your loved one, you want to go all out for them. Dining on seafood will make you both feel luxurious and special.

Seafood is sexy.  It's unfamiliar, it's alluring, it's a portal into the great mystery of the deep.  This Valentine's Day, don't be landlocked with the familiar dishes that garnish your plate weekly.  If you are looking for a memory, or at least the excitement of making one, I urge you to set the table with something from the ocean.  Allow the fascinating flavors to erase the boredom from your palate, and the night will follow suit.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Superbowl Super Food

This Sunday's Super Bowl gives many of us a reason to undo our belts, dig into a well cushioned couch and gorge ourselves on fat-filled, high carb, processed foods like there's no such thing as Monday.  It's a guilty pleasure we all share.  Nothing screams football like nacho cheese and messy wings, and even I can't help myself overindulging on what has become an official holiday in many households.  

I must advise you though, spring is right around the corner and the more belly you add to your waist, the harder it is to remove it before the bathing suit weather comes.  This doesn't mean you have to cut out delicious foods for the big party.  Why not try seafood this year as a healthier snack for the big game?

If you think about it, seafood is a major theme of this year's Super Bowl.  Both teams are from cities that boast great seafood.  Boston and Seattle are known to have some of the best and freshest seafood in the U.S., so it only makes sense that seafood can feel right at home at your Super Bowl buffet.  You'll be giving your guests appetizing, yet healthier options without skimping on flavor.

Here are some ideas and options you can find at Black Salt Market:

Black Salt has shrimp three ways; traditional cocktail shrimp, grilled shrimp with a sweet glaze, and Chesapeake Bay spiced peel and eat shrimp.  We also offer a shrimp salad that is great for you dippers out there.  You can also purchase raw shrimp from the market and make your own peel and eat shrimp, fried shrimp, or shrimp skewers.  I prefer mine grilled on skewers with garlic and lime with a sprinkle of parmesan before serving.

Everyone loves bacon wrapped scallops, need I say more?  The preparation is quite simple and when you are using high quality dry scallops from Black Salt the result will be a winner.

The market can poach or smoke portions of salmon for your party.  A poached salmon platter can really make a beautiful focal point of your party spread.  Our house cured salmon is also a good bet with tons of flavor.  I would serve it with creme fraiche or cream cheese, mini bagels, chopped onion, and sliced tomato.

Who doesn't love a great crab dip?  Using seasonings like Worcestershire, Old Bay, garlic and onion, great crab dips are a cinch to make, especially when using fresh domestic crab meat.  You can also purchase crab cakes from the market or make your own using your family's recipe.  Blue crab soup on a cold day of football is also a great option.  The market also offers snow crab legs, king crab legs, and stone crab claws when available.  Your guests will know you went all out when the crab appears.

Want to really impress without cooking a thing?  Make tuna tartar using number #1 grade tuna from our market.  Just dice the tuna, add some avocado, sesame oil, wasabi, and tamari or soy sauce.  Rice crackers usually make the perfect vehicle for the perfect bite.

Oysters and Clams
You can dress up your party with oysters and clams on the half shell, or if you want to stick with warm food you can always stuff them.  Oysters Rockefeller is a simple and incredibly delicious dish to make, especially when you have Black Salt prep them for you.  Steaming or stuffing clams is a cost effective way to offer your guests a healthy alternative to all things fried.  Then again, if you just have to use that new fryer, you can do much worse than frying oysters and clams.

Fried calamari?  Anyone?  You bet you can put me down for that.  There are also great recipes online for stuffing squid tubes with treats ranging from chorizo to spinach.

You can also prepare fish stews using tile fish, monk fish, cod, hake, black bass, mussels, clams, shrimp and rockfish, making magic in the crockpot without breaking a sweat.

Black Salt will have available items such as smoked trout salad, shrimp spring rolls, shrimp remoulade, smoked salmon salad, tuna tapenade, salmon cakes, fish cakes, crab cakes and an array of soups and sauces that are perfect for whatever your dish may call for.  Just because the Super Bowl seems like a good reason to binge on bad food, it doesn't mean you have to.  Build a better buffet for your party with great seafood, your guests and their collective waistlines will thank you.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Hidden Loss Of Sustainability

If you have purchased Halibut recently, or with some frequency over the past five years, you know that the price tag for the popular fish has increased dramatically.  Many customers are looking for answers, and rightfully so.  Halibut has been touted as a sustainable "best choice" for over a decade and the fishery is considered one of the best managed in the nation.  So if we are being good stewards of the fishery then why is there such a scarcity?

Ten years ago the Alaskan halibut quota was 74 million pounds.  Recently the quota was slashed to 27 million pounds, and by all accounts will continue shrinking in the near future.  Is this dramatic drop in biomass and, subsequently, quota, a result of poor management?  No, not necessarily.

There is a major threat to halibut out at sea and it has big wallets and big interests behind it.  This devouring monster is the factory trawler.  Factory trawlers are commercial fishing vessels that operate by dragging monstrous nets and snaring everything in their path.  Pillager of species worldwide, enormous trawlers have been responsible for the decimation of many ground fish species including cod from our eastern shores.  Most trawlers operating in the Bering Sea are catching pollock for fast food icons such as McDonalds.  Pollock is a ground fish that makes it's living as the standard component of fish sandwiches offered by fast food restaurants worldwide.  Though McDonalds and other chains can boast that the pollock fishery is sustainable, it comes at a cost.  Factory trawlers fishing for pollock and other lucrative species in the Bering Sea are responsible for killing six million pounds of halibut as bycatch every year.  Most of these fish will simply be thrown overboard as garbage.  Thirteen out of every fourteen halibut caught as by catch in another fishery will be discarded at sea.  Not only are trawlers responsible for robbing the Bering Sea of its halibut, they are also stealing fish from dinner plates.  How can this operation be considered a sustainable one?  

If history tells us anything, its that an insatiable greed coupled with gross neglect and backed by an unconscientious bankroll will always win out.  That is, until the fish are gone.  That's really always been the bottom line.  We get to a point were the catch is no longer profitable and only then does the social conscious swoop in to put the pieces back together.  The next time you are enjoying your sustainable and fast fish sandwich, keep in mind that, although it may seem quite affordable, halibut are paying the price.  The cost of sustainability has possibly never been this high.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Cost Of A Trophy

Quotas have once again been cut for the Chesapeake Bay's iconic striped bass, known colloquially, with love, as rockfish.  The harvest quota will be reduced by 20% for the 2015 fishing year according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council.  The cut comes in the wake of the latest biomass assessment completed by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2014, which showed that, due to a declining population, measures needed to be taken in order to protect the healthy stock.

Right away most of the public wants to point a finger at commercial fishermen as the source of the blame, but taking a deeper look into the issue may prove that there are alternative agencies at work.  Believe it or not, recreational, not commercial, fishing is responsible for 70% of the rockfish mortality.  The average harvest for the commercial fishery over the last 4 years has been around 7 million pounds.  In 2006 alone the recreational fishery accounted for 31 million pounds of fish.  As recently as 2012 the recreational fishery took 19 million pounds of fish out of the water.  These figures do not even account for the loss of fish that are released by recreational fishermen but do not survive.  This is called release mortality.  It is widely accepted  by scientists that for every pound of fish caught and kept by recreational fishermen, another pound is killed when released.  Recreational release mortality figures are much higher than commercial, which begs the question: which fishery is more wasteful?

The recreational fishery brings in more money than the commercial fishery and financially supports local communities and employees a lot of people.  I understand the service it provides, but really looking into these numbers, is it wise to remove the fish from our plates to protect the fish on our walls?  Why should the commercial sector suffer quota cuts when the recreational fishery is responsible for the majority of the harvest and loss?  I hope that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council takes all these factors into consideration when setting commercial and recreational quotas to ensure that enjoying rockfish for dinner will not be a costly and infrequent endeavor for Chesapeake Bay area residents.      

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Fisherman Behind The Winter Candy

The realization hits that winter is finally buckling down as nature straps on her grey suit and the TV weathermen toss around frightening phrases like "winter blast" and "polar vortex."  The world is in its dormancy and outside activities have become non-existent; well, at least for some of us.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on whose porch you are sitting on, there is work to be done in the bleak, weather-beaten days of winter.

The short days between November and March mark the season for some of Nature's best candy: Nantucket Bay scallops.  This year BRG restaurants look to Captain Jeff Henderson of the fishing vessel Miss Alice and his small team of 15 boats to brave the bitter cold and supply us with some of the freshest, plumpest, most consistent bay scallops I have ever seen.  It's not easy getting after it predawn on days in which you can see the steam come off the ocean and your coffee freezes after only minutes of neglect but, like most Nantucket fishermen, it's a labor of pride and tradition that has been driving Captain Jeff for decades.  

The fishery can be a tricky one.  Bay scallops are harvested by fishermen in small boats using hand dredges and are landed live.  Once the open decked boats are back at the docks, the haul of live scallops is taken to a "shucking shanty" where veteran shuckers deftly open each scallop with three quick turns of the knife, the best of whom can open over a thousand in a day.  If the air temperature is lower than 28 degrees before 10 am, fishermen are not allowed to harvest due to the fact that the scallops will die immediately.  This includes the undersized juveniles, which will typically be cast back into the water in order to grow, so the rule is enforced strictly to protect the stock.  Some winters fishing ends over a month early due to the Bay freezing over completely.  Although the season ends in March, it's easy to understand why that doesn't necessarily mean that we will have Nantucket Bay scallops throughout the season.  This scarcity only increases the lust after the beautiful, delicious scallops.
Shucking Time

What separates Captain Jeff's bay scallops from the competition is the size and freshness of his catch.  His team knows the nooks and crannies of the Bay and is excellent at finding where the largest and sweetest scallops are hiding.  When working with Jeff, you know that your scallops are shucked the same day as they are shipped.  That means on one day boats are going out dredging and the next day I am unwrapping a sealed Fed-Ex box of delectable scallops that were filtering water less than 24 hours before.  Sometimes the meats come in still twitching.  Glistening with sugared sweetness, the succulent Bay scallops seem to burst out of the bag with fresh ocean aroma and it's not abnormal for our chefs to have a moment of weakness and try a few raw, right out of the box.  All in the name of quality control, of course.

It's a testament to the artisanal quality of Captain Jeff's work that his scallops are best served and appreciated eaten raw.  They do not require any intrusive sauces or clunky spices.  Save that for lesser products.  If anything, I would recommend just a bit of sea salt.  The rest, leave up to Jeff's knack for finding the best scallops in the Bay and your lucky taste buds.      


Captain Jeff after a good haul