Friday, April 29, 2016

I'll Take The Puffer, Hold The Poison

Things are getting pretty interesting at the market this weekend.  We aren't necessarily playing Russian roulette, but it is always exciting to take on a poisonous species like the pufferfish and come out sated and elated...and alive. 

This weekend we decided to try Smooth Back Pufferfish, also known in Florida as Rabbitfish.  Rabbitfish aren't commercially targeted, they are a by-catch product from snapper, grouper and other fisheries. Properly cleaning this species before sale is very important.  The dorsal fins located on the top of the fish and the poisonous sac located in the belly must be removed to prevent the flesh from being contaminated and potentially dangerous.  The bladder and organs are also typically removed before shipment.

Once the poisonous parts are removed for safety, the succulent flesh can be enjoyed sauted, baked, or grilled.  It presents gorgeously on a plate and its flavor is sweet and firm, much similar to that of monkfish, but more tender.  These fish were brought to us from the fishing vessel Honey Bee and harvested out of John's Pass, located in the Gulf of Mexico.  They were a byproduct of the long-line grouper fishery working in the same area.    

We have a limited availability of Rabbitfish this weekend so, if you are game, swing by the market to get a glimpse and taste of this delightful fish.  Its flavor is distinctive, toothsome, and almost worth dying for...but, of course, you have nothing to worry about.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Tasty Shade Of Blue

Hand harvested fish
I received a call last week from a supplier exclaiming about this brilliant blue fish found only in New Zealand that we "just had to try".  They call it blue cod, although it isn't a cod at all but a member of the sandperch family, but nothing new there, colloquial names for fish are often derived from species people are familiar with.  My interest was piqued, but I wondered, how blue are we talking here?  I mean, there's blue and then there's blue.  "You just have to taste it and see it to believe it," he responded coyly.  Well, we are always game for something new, delicious, and sustainable, and since this fish checked all the boxes, we decided to give it a go this week.

The result: the Kiwi aren't exaggerating when they say it's blue and it's delicious.  The fish came in pristine, with glistening bright blue skin, the color of light sapphires.  If fish could blink, I feel like I would have gotten a cheeky wink, as the blue cod were so fresh that their eyes seemed to sparkle with life.  The blue cod's ideal condition can be attributed to the artisans who man the fishing vessels Equinox and Fishheads.  Both vessels harvest the blue cod by trapping it with cages.  This means the fish are brought aboard still alive where they can be handled with care and shipped immediately to preserve the upmost freshness.  Fishing this way also eliminates bycatch and the risk of killing juveniles.

Behind their cerulean exterior lies a succulent white flesh that tastes sweet like shellfish and cooks firm, yet silky, like tautog or triggerfish.  Blue cod feed on the bottom of the ocean, mainly consuming small fish, abalone and other small crustaceans.  It is this diet that gives the fish their sweet, heavenly flavor.  They are harvested around New Zealand's Chatham Island and are endemic to the country, so it's impossible to get them confused with any other species.

I encourage you to stop by the market this week to get a look at these beautiful, one-of-a-kind fish.  Even if you choose to dine on another species, getting a glimpse of these show stoppers is worth the visit.  Blue cod are treasured in New Zealand for their great flavor and beauty, and we are excited to get these sapphires of the sea in our market amongst our local jewels, even if it's
only for a short visit.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Congressional Seafood Gets New Digs

Visiting your seafood suppliers is very important to the process of procuring the best product.  Meeting the people, checking out the facilities and processes, and understanding the supply chain is key to demystifying the cloud of traceability.  So when Congressional Seafood, one of our long time wholesale suppliers, invited us to visit their brand new state-of-the-art warehouse, we jumped at the chance.
Renderings that greet you
 Located in Jessup, MD, Congressional serves a big portion of the Mid-Atlantic, including the D.C. metro area, with an emphasis on quality seafood that is both sustainable and traceable.  They have promoted these philosophies with efforts focused on paving the way for a more transparent supply chain, and are also major advocates for environmental programs such as the Oyster Recovery Project.  

When you first walk into their new facility, you are greeted with exposed brick and beautiful renditions of old school fish market scenes that evoke feelings of nostalgia for the once-open Fulton Fish Market, which has since been uprooted to a warehouse in the Bronx.  The paintings are beautifully done and give visitors the impression that they have just been transported a few hundred miles up the coast to some New Bedford maritime museum, where the history of the seafood industry is about to unfold right around the corner.

Instead, it is the future that greets them in the form of hairnets, boots, gloves, and slickers in a sterile changing room.  Before going onto the production floor, we changed into the industrial garb in order to protect the sanitation of the environment.  The duds aren't for our protection; they are for the protection of the integrity of the warehouse.

We entered the production floor and were greeted with a myriad of workers cleaning and putting fish away for the day.  Morning deliveries, including those headed to Jeff Black restaurants, had just gone out the door.  It was nice to see how clean the facility was, top to bottom.  Passing from room to room there was a sanitizing spray coming from the doorway entrances so that you couldn't track in any unwanted hitchhikers.

Each area of seafood is separated from the other.  There is a large state-of-the-art lobster tank filtering hundreds of gallons of "sea water" daily, though most of its inhabitants' stays last less than 48 hours.  There is a room just for tuna, where whole fish are broken down and graded to customers specifications.  There are walls of crabmeat, a shellfish room full with bi-valves of all kinds.  In the fin-fish room boxes sit quietly, concealing their delicious contents.  Upon opening, one is greeted with glistening, pristine fish gleaming as if at this facility it is Christmas.
Lobster tank
Two of the most impressive contraptions we saw were the giant ice machines and the catfish conveyor.  The ice machines' enormity surpasses all my expectations, producing giant mountains of ice to secure temperatures for hundreds of customers' deliveries daily.  I guess if you are going to deliver fresh fish, and take care of it properly, you're going to need a lot of ice.  The catfish conveyor is a filleting system consisting of fish cutters who hand-cut the invasive wild blue catfish as they come down one end of the conveyor and send the fillets and waste separately on two other conveyors, each reaching their proper destinations.  It was awesome to witness how much wild blue catfish Congressional helps take out of our local waters.  Even with this tremendous amount, there's still more work to be done.
The Ice House, there's two of them

We ended our tour with trips to the offices, where both buyers and sellers are closely situated to one another so that information is easily passed between departments.  There is an adequate kitchen set up for testing products, exotic and familiar alike, and an area where chefs and customers can be hosted and well fed.

 We thank the great people at Congressional for hosting us and opening the doors to their beautiful facility for us to get an idea of the hard work that goes into getting our properly chilled and immaculate fish to us.  We are proud to buy seafood from companies like Congressional, who are on the cutting edge of providing seafood in a traceable, safe and sustainable way.

Fresh scallops, Ocean City, MD

Grading tunas; part aesthetics, part science, all expertise

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Scaling, Gutting, The Whole Fish Story

Most seafood purchases consist of a nicely wrapped, pre-portioned, de-boned, ready to cook piece of fish.  It makes sense to buy this way, as it cuts down prep time and leaves the home chef with much less clean up.  But what happens when you decide to buy the whole fish and bring it home, scales and all?  What do you do with a fish you catch when you want to throw it on the grill?  Here's a step-by-step process on how to prepare a whole fish for the grill.  We are going to use a sheepshead as an example due to the fact that it is one of the harder fish to scale because of its armor-like exterior.

So you caught a sheepshead, or some other delicious scaly fish, that you want to prepare at home, whole fish style.  Go ahead, give your best primitive YAWLP! and get the fire going.  Begin by setting up your station.   If you are in the kitchen, it's best to place a perforated pan under the fish or line the sink with an open plastic bag to catch the scales.  Doing this task beach side is even better, as long as you have a fresh water source handy.  Scales go everywhere, and when I say everywhere I mean it.  You could be finding scales weeks later in places you didn't know existed (just ask my wife) and they don't easily go down the drain.  Sometimes doing this task outside makes for a much cleaner kitchen.

You're also going to need a scaler, you can pick these up in most big box stores or local tackle joints, although a heavy duty serrated knife will work in a pinch.  It's also good to have a sharp fillet knife and scissors handy, as well as a trashcan.

Place the fish in the sink or table you are using, holding on tightly to the head with your opposing hand.  With your strong hand, use the scaler, teeth on the fish with a firm force, and work it going against the scales horizontally.  They should "pop" off like little kernels of popcorn.  This works for most scaled fish, but for sheepshead and other larger scaled fish, you actually have to work the scaler vertically, slowly, moving across the fish's body.  Picture going down the fish, row by row, like a farmer pulling weeds.  When working with a sheepshead, it's important to remember that going across the sheepshead's body with the scaler like you would most fish will get you nowhere fast.

Once most of the scales have been removed, rinse the fish and go back over the spots you missed, since there will always be some.  Also, now is a good time to get the underside of the fish.  This task is more tedious as you do not want to puncture the belly, so you have to be a tad more delicate with your movements in this area.  Now flip the fish and repeat, until the fish is clear of scales.  Rinse.

Now we gill.  With strong hands, lift the gill flaps so that the gills present themselves in all their bloody glory.  Fresh blood is a great sign, it means fresh fish.  Dig your fingers to the base of the red gills and remove them from the fish.  If you can't quite get in there, feel free to take the scissors and cut them out, using the tips.  After they are removed, you want to slide your finger tips in the area where the gills once were and scrape any remaining residue.  To get a better grip on the fish, you might want to use a towel to hold the back of the fish.  Be careful of the back spines of the fish, they are very sharp and can teach you a valuable lesson very quickly.  Some people cut these spines and fins off before working with the fish to avoid getting stabbed.  I recommend doing what's best for you, and being safe is always better than being sorry.

Onto the guts, our favorite part.  Here is where we are going to find out whether or not you scaled properly on the belly side, because if you didn't, it's going to be difficult to get that knife going.  Turn your fish over so that the belly is facing you.  You will notice a small opening on the bottom of the fish.  This is where we start.  With the tip of the knife, and without going too deep, run the blade up to the collar - you will know when you get there by the presence of two fins.  You don't want to goo too deep.  If you do you will puncture the belly and send all that bile into the flesh of the fish.  It won't ruin the fish if you do this, but it may cause some off flavors in the belly meat.  It's not the end of the world or your meal if this happens.

 Once you've made the incision, squeeze your fingers into the cavity and, starting towards the front of the fish, grip and pull the guts away from the fish.  You are going to want to get your fingers around the base of where they start, so make sure your fingers are right against the top of the collar when you grip.  Try to pull everything out in one motion.  Be on the lookout for roe, as this can be a tasty dinner snack or a really good breakfast when fried.  Roe is usually contained in orangish to yellowish sacks with small, visible veins.  

All that is left is to make sure that you scrape the cavity to rid the fish of any gut remnants with your fingers, then rinse the cavity and fish thoroughly with fresh water.  Score each side of the fish by lightly breaking the skin with your blade.  Season both sides generally with oil and seasonings and feel free to stuff the cavity with lemon, fresh herbs, and garlic.  Get your YAWLP! ready, fishing season is on!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Your Holiday Tradition

Easter is a holiday with deep religious roots. It's a holiday with many important familial traditions, bringing families together in the name of hope, love, and gratitude.  In many families, all of these aspects are celebrated in the same way, over a joyous table of good food.  That's why one of the most popular family traditions is the Easter brunch.  For those of you celebrating this year's holiday with seafood, here are some items you should seek out at the market and restaurant.

Soft shell crabs are beginning to pop up now, coming straight out of Florida.  I understand that some Marylanders will balk at the idea of eating softies from anywhere but their home state, yet I also realize that others crave these harbingers of spring so eagerly that they can't wait until the local stuff gets here in May, and they need their fix today!

West coast halibut and sable seasons just started and we should be seeing fish in by the weekend holiday.  King salmon season really doesn't get revved up until May, but we do have beautiful, sustainable, New Zealand farm raised Ora King salmon in house.  These fish are sushi grade flavor pleasures and can be utilized in numerous dishes.

Crab season is underway domestically and, although it's early, we will have beautiful lumps of domestic crab for all your benedicts.  Crabmeat is a terrific accompaniment to any brunch special and dining on crab this time of year really gets you excited for the pleasant weather and spring to come.

Gulf and fresh shrimp will also be on the menu this weekend.  Look for shrimp po'boys and shrimp and grits as go-tos for all members of the family.  Don't get too caught up in the size of your shrimp because, if you see rock shrimp on the menu, it's a must have.  Rock shrimp are tiny, bitesize shrimp that are as sweet as lobster and give the mouth a pleasurable snap when bitten into.

Yellowtail and red snappers are sweet tasting whitefish with crispy skin and should be considered on any Easter menu.  The small yellowtails are especially delicious.  Striped bass, also known as rockfish, will be all around this weekend.  Prices will be at a low, so I advise picking up some local bass.  I expect these prices to climb dramatically over the next coming weeks, with fish disappearing at the end of April due to seasonal closures.

Other delicacies include Mahi Mahi from South America, Rhode Island fluke and black bass, and Massachusetts golden tilefish.  For those with adventurous hearts, I recommend trying invasive species such as snakehead and blue catfish, or even some spring run bluefish and mackerel.  Whatever your holiday tradition may be, however your family normally celebrates, I am certain food will be involved in some capacity.  I recommend choosing food that's not only good for you and your family, but also good for the environment.  Eating better food is a promise for better days to come, it's a way of spreading the hope of a healthier world.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Serving The Snakehead

It has the face of a fearsome python, but with bigger, sharper teeth.  It swims and is considered a fish, but it can also breathe out of water.  It feeds on frogs, fish, reptiles, crustaceans, and sometimes even small mammals and birds.  Meet the snakehead, coming soon to a fish market near you.

Snakeheads have made headlines over the last year as an invasive species bearing down on our local rivers with nightmarish results.  They have no natural predators and outcompete many native species for prey.  There was recently a rallying call from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Program to "eat more snakehead", their flesh being a delectable mix of firm white meat and fatty, rich flavor.  There was an issue, though: Catching the snakehead proved to be an exhaustive and problematic enterprise.  Most went after the fish with bow and arrow or hook and line, meaning that harvesting the fish commercially was a slow, expensive process.  In turn, the market prices for snakehead were often too high for anyone to take a chance on a non-recognizable species.

That is, until now.  Fishermen targeting another invasive species, the wild blue catfish, have been hauling in snakehead with their catch.  Think of it as two very bad birds with one stone, or in this case I should say hoop net.  Hoop nets are stationary nets set to the bottom of a body of water with bait at the tail end of the net.  The fish swim in but don't swim out.  It's an ancient, but efficient, way to catch fish, especially in Maryland.

With the impending influx of snakehead into the market, prices have decreased by over 50%, making this juicy fiend affordable at the restaurant and dinner table.  Their firm meat can be grilled, sautéed, fried, or baked and it has a tendency not to dry out.  You most likely will want to take the skin off and I recommend a curry, creole or spicy flair to your seasoning.

The name and face of these creatures can be unappealing, but I foresee that once the juicy white meat is presented in fillet form, many will have no reservations considering the toothsome snakehead for dinner.  The world of seafood isn't known for its beauty contests.  That's a main reason why you may be hard pressed to see whole fish displays adorning your local market.  However, many of the most delicious bites come from the ugliest sources.  If you are in the market for some healthy, sustainable, delicious seafood, help out your local waters and give snakehead a try.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Marching In

The river is green in Chicago.  Soon, you'll be able to find loose beads from broken, cheaply made necklaces and empty, oversized decorative beer mugs scattered in the gutters of Boston thoroughfares.  We have already lost an hour, but the days are getting longer.  It must be March.  As our social schedules fill faster than the sun becomes brighter, it's a good time to take a look at what's happening in the seafood biz in the next few weeks.

Wild salmon are already appearing sporadically in the market as folks are getting geared up for the oncoming season, which usually gets going in April and then revs up in May.  What's more exciting is that these early fish aren't as cost prohibitive as they have been in the past, so that could be a sign of good things to come.  That's great news considering that the farmed salmon market is about to take a turn for the worse.  Chile, which is the second largest producer of farmed salmon in the world, took a big hit this year when they lost over 24 million fish due to a toxic algal bloom killing over a quarter of their fish.  This hole in the supply chain will cause farmed salmon prices to continue to rise for the rest of the year, especially spiking in the next few weeks as doom and gloom speculation takes hold and Lent draws to an end.

Maryland crab season opens in just a couple of weeks and I think we could be seeing soft-shell crabs from the southern states even sooner.  The Gulf season is underway and domestic meat is beginning to trickle in.  Expect soft-shell crabs to really get going in May and domestic crab meat to be readily available even sooner.

Both halibut and sable (black cod) seasons open this week on the west coast.  Fish should be hitting eastern markets by the weekend.  Get your forks ready, but don't jump on the first fish you see.  Pricing usually starts out strong but relaxes after the first week or so.  Remember, the seasons are open until November, so you have plenty of time.

Our local striped bass season is open, but will be closing soon.  This is a fish you should be gobbling up pronto.  By the end of April you will have a really hard time finding our beloved wild rockfish in any shape or form until the summer months.  You have been warned.

Domestic mahi season opens in May but, in the meantime, there is some really nice fish coming from Central and South America.  Prices will fluctuate until April/May, but this fish should remain affordable for the next couple of months.

Shad roe runs continue to make their way north, going from state to state.  This season has a few more weeks and recently the sets have been coming out of Georgia and South Carolina.  North Carolina product will be here before you know it.

Be on the lookout for some great warm weather selections such as Spanish mackerel, amberjack, fluke, tilefish, snapper, black bass, albacore, wahoo, john dory, bluefish and triggerfish.  These fish should be hitting the ice as waters warm up and the boats drop lines.  Their availability can be sporadic at times, but each offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy a unique experience.  Eat domestically all summer long and get the most out of what our robust waters have to offer.