Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's A Sheepshead?

When you are feeding on crabs, oysters, shrimp, mussels, barnacles, and anything else in the ocean with a hard shell, you're going to need a good set of chompers, and teeth are usually the first thing you notice when glancing at the sheepshead bream.  The sheepshead will certainly not win any beauty contests!  It gets its name from the sheep-like facial features it possesses, namely huge human-like teeth jutting from a gapping jaw.  Though the teeth are vital for crushing tasty shellfish into nutritious meals, the sheepshead has also been known to dine on vegetable matter.

The sheepshead is a relative of the bream family and besides its mouth, can also be easily recognized by the 5 to 6 black stripes running horizontal to its body.  This is how it gets its other name: the convict fish.  Sheepshead can be found hanging around jetties, pilings, and other obstructions, and many have been caught off piers by hobbyist anglers.  They live all along the East Coast of the United States, but most commercial landings occur in North Carolina and Florida.  

The flesh of sheepshead is quite delicious.  You are what you eat and the sheepshead's diet consists mostly of shellfish, so they tend to have a sweet, shellfish flavor and firm, moist flesh.  The white fillets can be easily seared, pan fried, or baked.  They cook very similar to dorade or flounder, with a little more bite and much more flavor.  Once the armor-like scales have been removed, the skin is exceptionally savory.  So why aren't more people eating sheepshead?  Most likely it has to do with the fact that breaking down the whole fish proves to be a difficult task.  The sheepshead's scales are extremely large and durable and their belly cavity can require more care than usual to maneuver safely around.  They also have dangerously sharp gill plates and prickly spines.

The good news is that fish markets and restaurants will do all the hard work for you.  As October approaches, we will see more and more of the sheepshead available.  It's a delicious, underutilized species that I hope will gain some traction in the American seafood conscious, giving other more popular species a break.  Sheepshead are good for you, they taste great, and they are totally sustainable, so who cares if they're ugly?        

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September Is For Shellfish

The summer warmth still lingers during the day, but cool breezes silently creep into our nights making for comfortable strolls and sound sleeping.  September is not only the harbinger of fall, but it also serves notice to seafood lovers that some seasons are ending, and others are just beginning.

On the way out are crabs (both soft shell and hard shell), wild salmon, Pacific halibut, wild sablefish, Alaskan rockfish, domestic mahi, and various species of snapper and grouper.  It's sad to see so many fishing seasons end, but there are some that are opening that we can look forward to enjoying.  These include black bass, striped bass, fluke, cod, swordfish, tautog, dory, and tuna.

More importantly, September is also the beginning of shellfish season.  All summer long we battle with Mother Nature trying to source shellfish of many varieties that are either not spawning or harvested responsibly with great effort and much defeat.  The summer months generate many problems for finding quality scallops, mussels, clams, and oysters, and supply usually decreases during hotter months, causing pricing to inflate for product that isn't necessarily at its peak.

 September is not only our first "R" month but, more importantly, it's the time of the year when cooler temperatures compel bi-valves everywhere to begin fattening up for the winter.  Mussel meats will slowly regain their meaty glory.  Clams and scallops will begin to firm up, once again boasting their brininess and delicate sweetness with crisp bite.  And yes, oysters, oh the oysters, they too will make restitution for the dormancy of their luscious flavor and reward our patience with complex flavors and supple textures.

September is just the beginning for shellfish lovers everywhere.  It's an augury of flavor that foretells the excitement of shells packed with delectable meats and perfect liquor.  So, all you salmon heads out there, don't idle too long reminiscing over the departed sweltering months  Cooler winds and delicious seafood await!                  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Crabby News

You can ask any waterman crabbing on the Bay this year how the season is going so far and you will undoubtedly get a similar grunt from all of them; it's not good.  I probably didn't have to tell many of you this.  If you happened to purchase steamed crabs this year, a summer tradition in these parts, or be in the market for fresh crabmeat, then you already know exactly what I am talking about.  That is, if you don't go comatose from the sticker shock.

Crab prices this year have been excessively high, which means a lot coming off last year's costly figures.  It's not that watermen are over-harvesting.  Quite the contrary, they just aren't finding crabs.  Earlier I explained why this may be the case and predicted an "off" year for the fishery, but even I thought that the fall would bring price relief as local harvests amped up.  Normally, the fall is when crabs are at their fattest and tastiest, and it also when supply seems to outpace demand.  But even if the local harvest redeems itself for its summer dearth in the next few months, don't expect prices to decrease.

When it rains, it pours.  Murphy's law.  Can't help for losing even when I'm winning.  Any of these can fill in the blank describing the remainder of the crab season.  It's as if Ziggy is writing the script.  What should be a great time of the year to purchase blue crab is just not going to pan out the way we were hoping due to the fact that Venezuela crab meat is going to disappear from the market starting this week and it will not return until November.  Venezuela is a major contributor of crabmeat to the U.S., delivering around 20,000 pounds to Miami airport daily.  Even though BlackSalt doesn't carry Venezuelan crabmeat, when that amount of product is missing from the market, everyone feels the pressure.

To compound woes, Gulf crabmeat production is going to take a plunge as the delayed shrimp season finally gets underway.  The shrimp season is awfully late this year, one of the main reasons why domestic shrimp prices are also a headache for many consumers, and unfortunately the two operations do not coexist peacefully.  Most gulf crabbers will pull their pots from the water in fear that shrimp trawlers will snare their wares.

So, to the rescue comes our local blue crab, the most sought-after of all blue crabs.  The good news is that there will be great, fatty crabs this fall from our native waters.  The bad news is that both Venezuelan and Gulf crabmeat will become scarcer, laying the burden directly on the backs of both our local watermen and local blue crab.  You can argue that Chesapeake Bay crab is the best tasting crab out there and that all other crabs are inferior.  You can't, however, argue that we need other sources of crab for a healthy and wallet friendly market.  As you might find out in the next few months, sometimes its difficult to have your crab and eat it too.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Introducing A New Species

There are five main species of oysters made regularly available in oyster bars and markets throughout the United States.  You may not recognize the species names, but any oyster eating novice will recognize some of their trade names: Belon (Ostrea Edulis), Olympia (Ostrea Conchaphila), Kumamoto (Crassostrea Sikamea), Wellfleet (Crassostrea Virginica), and Hood Canal (Crassostrea Gigas).  The only actual species native to the U.S. are the Virginica and Olympia, the rest were implants from foreign shores, but today all are staples in any self-respecting oyster palace.  So it is very rare when a "new" species of oyster reaches these shores and is made available for purchase, but that is just what is happening at BlackSalt Market for a limited time and I can honestly say I haven't been this excited to taste an oyster in quite a while.

Let me introduce the rare and unique Ostrea Chilensis, also known in New Zealand as the Tio Point or Bluff Oyster.  Tio Point oysters are a Chilensis species oyster grown fully submerged in the pristine Marlborough Sounds located northeast of New Zealand's South Island.  The Tio Point is a flat oyster and is closely related to the European Flat oyster, or as we recognize it, the Belon.  They can only be found growing wild in Chile and New Zealand and are highly prized in both countries as choice delicacies.

Tio Points are produced by Kono, a Maori owned business, and are grown sub-tidally using the rope method in the clean, nutrient-rich waters of the scarcely populated Marlborough Islands.  These growing methods allow for the oysters to grow cleanly, uninterrupted and with easy access to flavor boosting nutrients.  The resulting oyster has a plump, firm meat, with zesty aromas, metallic brine, and a slightly sweet, steely crisp.  The Tio finishes long and strong and leaves the mouth with an exotic burst of flavor unparalleled at the oyster bar.  It may not be for the uninitiated oyster slurper but, if you're a veteran the experience to taste a Tio Point could create a whole new base line of oyster excellence.

Tio is the Maori word for "oyster" and Tio Point Oysters exemplify what quality oysters can be and why we are so attracted to them.  It's an experience, a flavor, a moment of meeting nature in an unadulterated bite.  Tio Point oysters won't be an item that we will be able to bring in often, as the costs prohibit this, but they are special enough to at least try once.  Every oyster tells a story.  The subtleties of flavor betray in a moment what took nature years to develop.  Harsh winters and long summers spill out in crisp meats, flaked with steel resolve and electric brine.  The Tio Point is a story unlike any you have heard before and for a short while your mouth can listen in on its memoir.            

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

National Oyster Day

August 5th is National Oyster Day and I am calling on all of you experienced and novice ostreaphiles alike to come out and feast on nature's most delectable bi-valve.  Oysters are celebrated for their fascinating, incomparable flavor, but did you know that getting your fill of oysters actually helps clean the Chesapeake Bay and other natural estuaries?  Thanks to agencies such as the Oyster Recovery Program, the more oysters that are eaten, the more oysters get planted for the following year.  The Oyster Recovery Program builds reefs out of recycled oyster shells for new oysters on which to grow, just like they would naturally in the wild, and the more oysters you eat, the more incentive farmers have to increase their crop for next year.  This equals more oysters in the water, making for cleaner water for all species.

Oysters are a vital part of our estuaries and the natural environment.  They can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.  Clean water is very important for the growth and development of other plant and animal species such as eelgrass, bluefish, crabs, rockfish, trout, and bass.  Oysters have been consumed and adored by man for over 10,000 years, but just in the past 200 years pollution and over-harvesting has decimated North American oyster populations.  We have depleted natural oyster beds to a point in which it is critical to focus a concerted effort to replenishing our waters with the life saving and life giving shellfish.   There is no better way to do this than to eat more oysters!  

Whether you prefer the cold, crisp, salty meats of Canada; the clam-like, briny, coppery, firm meats of New England; the buttery, crab-like meats of the South; or the algal, melon-sweet, plump meats of the West - there is definitely an oyster out there to suit your tastes.  This week you can try your hand at East Coast and West Coast varieties at BlackSalt Fish Market, Republic of Takoma Park, Blacks Bar and Kitchen, and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.  BlackSalt Fish Market is even offering a New Zealand oyster that is considered a delicacy amongst connoisseurs, a rare find on this side of the planet.  So come and celebrate the oyster on National Oyster Day by eating a few dozen.  If you are like me, you might want to extend the holiday and make it National Oyster Month.  The Bay would thank you for it.    

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wild Arctic Char

Farmed Arctic char is available year round and is a delectable seafood option for those who prefer a milder, subtler salmon-like flavor on their dinner plate.  The appearance of Wild Nunavut char, on the other hand, is a special occasion that happens only twice a year and its rarity in the market is an indicator of how precious its rich and delicate flavor is.  Wild Nunavut char are harvested by the Nunavut people at the top of the world: understandably, a location that proves to be a logistical nightmare. There are only two seasons during the year when this treasured fish is available and each lasts about two weeks.  The first is a spring run that usually goes for 2-3 weeks from July to August.  The second is a fall run that usually goes for 2-3 weeks from August to September.  For those of you keeping count, that’s a summer that lasts for about 3 weeks at a high temperature of 45 degrees F.  That’s living close to the North Pole for you, at least you can save money on air conditioning.

Nunavut is the largest and newest territory in Canada, officially separating from the Northwest Territories in 1999.  It is also the northernmost permanently populated place in the world.  There have been traces of Viking Exploration found there that predate anything found on Greenland.  The Inuit toil in a very harsh climate and ancient environment and we are rewarded by their labors a few weeks out of the year with carefully handled, pristine Wild Arctic Char.

The natives harvest the fish much the same way as it has been harvested for thousands of years.  They establish gill and weir nets at the water’s edge and patiently wait for the fish to come.  This passive way of fishing minimally disrupts the surrounding environment and by-catch is almost non-existent, making for a very sustainable way to harvest the fish.  After harvest, the fish are gathered and processed at water’s edge and then shipped out to our markets.  This entire process occurs all within 48 hours.  The result is a fresh product that is harvested in a way that does not harm the environment, is good for you, and is a very delicious, high quality protein. 

I am not sure what is most exciting about Wild Nunavut Char.  The fact that we get to look into a bit of history on our dinner plate, enjoying a fish caught in an ancient way in an unspoiled body of water with wonderful natural flavors tasting the same way it has for centuries.   On the other hand, maybe it’s because we can support an entire community that shares its way of life and sustenance with us, even though most of us will never be able to visit such a remote area of the world.  The fact that these fishermen are harvesting the right way should also be acknowledged.  They are stewards of their environment because they know it is by the grace of the waters and land that they inhabit that they are fed.  They understand the natural processes of the environment they live in and they do not exploit them.  Instead, they harvest in harmony with their environment, which is a secret undoubtedly passed down from many generations of surviving in such a harsh area, a secret we are continually trying to grasp.  If you get a chance to try wild Nunavut char, I recommend you do so.   Its flavor is exquisite, unique in nature.  Its an experience from an incomparable fish, from an incomprehensible area.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Virginia Oyster On The Road To Recovery

In the 1800s, the Chesapeake Bay contained billions of oysters.  Billions!  The entire Bay could be filtered in less than 3 days, a feat today that today takes more than a year.  Virginia was shipping millions of bi-valves a year to fill oyster bars in New York, Chicago, and Paris, and the great Chesapeake Bay was synonymous globally with fat, delicious oysters.  Then greed led to pollution and over-harvesting, causing the abundant oyster levels to decline.  In 1960 Virginia produced 25 million pounds of oysters.  In 1970 that number fell to 5 million.  By the late 2000s that number was down to less than 250,000, which is less than one percent of production just 40 years ago.

Happily, the tide is turning in favor of the Virginia oyster.  Contemporary initiatives such as The Oyster Recovery Partnership and an increase interest in Virginia oyster farming have caused huge growth in the VA oyster population.  Annual harvest numbers have increased from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 504,000 bushels last year.  That's a big leap in the right direction.

Through selective growing techniques, dedication to artisanship, and intelligent marketing, Virginia oysters are back on the national scene garnering prestige and daily rotation in renowned oyster bars across the country.  No longer looked at as second tier half shell options, oysters from the Chesapeake are gaining favor over their northern and western counterparts due to their sweet, buttery flavors, crab-like richness, and salty finishes.  This renaissance of flavor profile is a testament to the farmers being selective of where and how they farm their oysters.  Oysters get their flavor from the water in which they feed, so selecting areas that are rich in food sources, minerals, and salt can really make a difference in how the oysters taste.

I am not sure if we will ever get the Bay back to where it once was, filtering itself in less than a week.  This recent article, however, gives us hope of a better future, filled with better oysters.  This is a winning formula not only for our oyster bars, but also for the Bay's water and inhabitants as well.