Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Farming The Future

Seafood as a protein source is one of the best choices we have as consumers.  The fats and vitamins found in seafood have been proven to increase brain activity, reduce the risk of heart problems and strokes, and offer the building blocks our bodies need for healthy growth.  These benefits are well known.  So is the fact that many of our wild sources have been either fished to exhaustion or have had their habitats altered to the point where rehabilitation is impossible.  Globally the outlook is not great, but it is brighter than it used to be and is continuing to get better thanks to government involvement and the hard work of activist groups such as the Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Consumer awareness has been heightened on the issues that our wild stocks face and for the most part, concern is warranted.  As stocks rebuild to sustainable levels through careful monitoring our growing population is confronted with a simple fact: The world's population and its demand for seafood are growing too large for the wild seafood stocks to keep up.

Farmed seafood is nothing new.  Aquaculture has been taking place since ancient cultures realized the nutritional and gastronomical benefits of seafood.  The Chinese understood that they could farm carp with their silkworms.  The Romans grew oysters from twigs.  Farming has come a long way and with it new problems have arisen, some we have solved and others we have not.  It is easy to focus on one problem or another, but the reality is we need to farm seafood.  And we need to farm it well.  The industry is not so old that great husbandry habits can not be adapted.

Farms are beginning to operate with the environment's natural rhythms in mind.  New technology has one of the world's largest salmon producers researching poly-cultural methods that could have salmon feeding off algae.  Another salmon producer is looking into closed tank systems that would eliminate escapees and offer fish waste as a terrific, safe fertilizer.  Happening right now, there are salmon farms that produce fish using a pounds-in to pounds-out ratio of 1.1 to 1.  This is far better than anything accomplished with livestock.  Does every salmon farm strive to achieve this level of environmental management?  No.  There are farms who still farm fish in close quarters, treat them with tons of anti-biotics, and use dyes and coloring when it comes to getting that 'salmon' color.  But that does not translate into 'all farmed salmon is crap' or 'salmon farming should be shut down.'   As with any other food choice there are many options out there.

Farmed Arctic Char
There are no sustainable salmon farms as of right now, though I do see that as a reality in the future.  There are however, many other farms that are considered sustainable and their products are available in most markets.  Farmed Arctic char, tilapia, mussels, oysters, clams, barramundi, scallops, red drum, rainbow trout, catfish, abalone, and cobia to name a few, are considered great choices when selecting dinner, depending on where they are farmed.  These products, when sourced from reputable purveyors,  are farmed in ways that do not negatively alter the environment and their stocks are able to be replenished.  These are food sources that should be highlighted.  Take oyster farming for example.  Do you realize that without oyster farming our major bays and estuaries would have been wiped clean decades ago and today children would only learn about oysters at the museum?  Instead farmers have learned to replenish oyster beds each season, to make way for the next generation.   Clam and mussel farms help clean the waters in which they inhabit.  Fish farms that are considered sustainable offer protein to many who would otherwise not be able to afford wild fish.  If there were no char farms, you would  most likely only see char twice a year, for two weeks at a time, and most who've tasted char would consider this a shame.

Farmed fish can not and should not replace wild caught fish.   There is something special about wild fish.  Our cows are farmed, our chickens are farmed, heck, even our buffalo are farmed.  But wild fish, well, a wild fish tastes just as good now as it did hundreds of years ago.  The end of fishing would mean the end of a romance; the end of a connection with the environment that we have cut almost every other tie with, but a connection we can not ever totally sever.  Fishing brings us back to a common place that is foreign in most of our every day life of ipads, processed cheese and concrete.  A place where a hunter meets its prey in no uncertain terms and the struggle is for life.  But we are too hungry.  And we are too many.  The ocean supplies a bounty of nutrition that could support, well, an entire ocean.  Unfortunately for wildlife living in the ocean we live here too and have a growing appetite.  Fortunately for wildlife living in the ocean we are smart enough to understand that in order for everyone to benefit from its bounty we must harvest and grow the possibilities of a future with dinner plates and oceans that are full and balanced.  Hopefully we are good enough to make this happen in a way that allows for wild fish to be caught swimming upstream and farmed fish to be bought with respect and good conscience.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Delicious Little Fish

Red Mullet may not be at the top of your list when scouring the local fish market due to its irregularity, but if you happen to come by this fish in the display, that should certainly change.  Red Mullet, also sold as Rouget, are some of the tastiest fish that swim.  They are usually small in size, around 2-5 pieces make up a pound, but what they lack in size they make up for in flavor.  They are highly prized in the Mediterranean dating back to Roman times when the fish sold for extravagant amounts of money.

In those times the larger fish were fought over, but in modern times I have to recommend purchasing the smaller fish for their fine flavor.  Rouget are rich in fat with delicate white meat that resembles great shellfish in flavor.  Cooked whole, they can deliver flavor profiles similar to sweet shrimp, oysters, and good scallops.  The best way to prepare rouget is to cook them whole, whether you are baking, sauteing, or pan-frying.  Once cooked they pair well with onions, lemon, garlic, and either olive oil or pepper oil.  The liver is quite tasty so do not be afraid to cook them in their entirety with only the scales removed.  If you are doing fillets, a gentle saute works best, crisping the skin is always a fan favorite.

When selecting whole fish to purchase look for clear eyes and good color.  When the rouget's color has faded from bright red to pale orange it is usually an indicator that the fish has passed its prime.  The scales should also appear tight and the fish should be firm.  Do not purchase any fish that have faded gills or give off a spoiled odor.  Fresh mullet should have a seaweed smell, like the ocean.  Red mullet from the Mediterranean is the most desired, but North African fish are an acceptable replacement.  Try to avoid red mullet from the warmer waters such as Brazil, these fish tend to have a less palatable flavor, softer flesh, and parasite problems.  Take a chance on these delicious small fish the next time you come across them, they are truly a special item with intense flavor and a great way to change up your seafood routine.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Signs of Spring

Daffodils are blooming, birds are chirping, and the sun is staying out a little longer each day.  If these signs are not enough to let you know that spring is here, well then you can also look to the fish market where signs of spring are beginning to decorate fresh ice displays everywhere.  For us in the Chesapeake region we generally look for the arrival of two famous harbingers of spring to let us know it's time to put our coats away and get out the grills.  Though they haven't quite made their way up the coast to our backyards, Shad and Soft Shell Crabs are here in our fish market, coming from the early runs in the more southern states.

For centuries Shad have been highly prized for their large roe sets.  Shad are anadromous fish, returning each spring to the rivers they were born in to repopulate and make way for the next generation of fish.  The males, sometimes 3 at a time, chase the females upstream in order to fertilize the eggs that she will release.  Shad are found from the Gulf of St.  Lawrence to Florida, but most fish are harvested between Connecticut and Georgia.  The meat tends to be strong in flavor with a high oil content, but the roe is the prize that most fishermen are really after.

When picking out your roe from the market make sure that the sacs are not split and that there are not many blood clots.  The membrane should be easy to discern and the color should range from dark red to red-orange.  Shad roe is much more subtle in flavor than the meat and most of the time it is cooked in bacon fat.  A simple recipe is preparing the roe sack in bacon fat and butter and sauteing it with onions.  Helpful hints include splitting the sack pair apart before cooking, dredging them in flour, and placing a lid on the saute pan due to the fact that the roe sacks have a tendency to burst and splatter.

Soft Shell Crabs are already coming in from Florida. Usually we do not see these Bay favorites until late March and early April, but due to the warm weather, we are treated early this year.  Soft Shell Crabs are actually Blue Crabs harvested during their molting process.  The latin name for blue crab is translated as 'beautiful savory swimmer', and this is no more evident than in the succulent taste of soft shell crabs.  Males molt throughout their lives but females have one important or 'terminal' molt in which they are able to mate.  At this time a male crab fertilizes the female crab and she will store the sperm for future use.  Fishermen or in this case Crabbers, will harvest peeler and buster crabs (crabs about to molt) from estuaries and store them in floating trays with recirculating water.  They will continue to monitor the crabs like watchful mothers waiting for that perfect moment in between molt and hardening shell when the crabs are considered 'soft-shell'.  Once that moment arrives, the crabs are taken from the floating trays and packed to order.  They are separated by size which generally goes from hotel to prime to jumbo to whale, hotels being on the smaller end.

When picking out your soft shell crabs the softness of the crab is of the upmost importance.  You want to avoid paper-shelled crabs, which are crabs that have begun to harden.  You also want to find crabs that appear plump, try to avoid crabs that have been smashed or mishandled.  Remember this is a live and delicate product that is moved much more than it wishes to be, if it is missing a claw it's not the end of the world.

Cleaning soft shells is a cinch, I usually use scissors.  Just lift up the flaps on either side of the crab and remove the gills.  Next, cut off the face and pop any bubbles that appear, as these may burst during cooking.  Lastly, turn over the crab and remove the apron, the flap that is distinguishable on the bottom of the crab.  You should be able to figure out quickly if it is a male crab or female crab that you are working with, the shape of their respective aprons reveals everything you need to know.  Now that you have cleaned your crabs I have to recommend flouring them and frying 'em up in fat that has a good burning point, such as vegetable oil.  Grilling and sauteing also works well and in the Chesapeake Bay area I am sure that more cooking advice is a neighbor away.  Enjoy the the great weather and happy hunting in the fish market.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Sharpest Clam In The Bunch

When shopping for clams it is easy to get overwhelmed with the many varieties presented before you, from cockles to manilas to littlenecks to quahogs, there are always options.  There is one clam though that is sharper than the rest and though it is not always available on the East Coast, even when it is, it often gets overlooked.  That mysterious, oddly shaped clam - the razor clam - can intimidate most with it's sharp edges and long tubular shape.  It is easy to understand why this might happen, it looks nothing like it's brethren clams.  Usually you will see a siphon peeking out and retreating back into it's shell once touched.  When your food moves it can scare off the most adventurous of home-chefs.  But don't let that lively razor clam scare you from a great meal, you could just be missing out on your new favorite clam.

Razor clams are harvested from shores on both the East and West Coasts.  They are located at low tide by tiny holes dotting the shoreline.   Razors have a tendency to vanish quickly when disturbed, so if you are digging with your shovel or clam gun, be sure to get on those holes as quickly and quietly as possible.  The great thing about getting them in a market is that someone has already done the hard work for you.

Cooking Razors is not as complicated as you might think.  You can prepare them at home the same way you would regular clams and mussels.  A very simple way is to steam them in oil, butter, and white wine.  It only takes a few minutes for them to open up and they offer much more meat than a littleneck or mussel.   Razors are very tasty clams; they are meaty, delicate, and full of that sweet clam and ocean flavor that people crave - you just get more of it!  If you are looking to clean them and prepare them fried there are many websites offering instructions, such as the video site at the bottom.  In Spain Razors are a delicacy and are often grilled on La Plancha.  So the next time you are in the market for clams do not overlook these tasty, hard to find delights.  They just might become your new favorite clam.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

West Coast Halibut Forecast

International Pacific Halibut Commission confirms 18 per cent cut in overall quota for 2012

West Coast Halibut season is looming as March begins and fish lovers everywhere are eagerly anticipating this delicious fish to hit our market stand not only fresh, but also affordable.  Who can help them? Halibut is the table favorite for many families and home chefs and it has been out of season for some time; the season ended in November.  Halibut offers a beautiful thick white flesh that gives way to a great textural chew and its flavor is mild, reminiscent of starch and sunflower oil.  It is a very versatile fish in the way that it is able to stand up to many recipes and cooking applications and always seems to be a crowd pleaser.  Hold on though, there could be some surprises this season and going forward for this top predator fish.  

The International Pacific Halibut Commission has cut the Halibut quota for this year by 18% this year from last year.  (Remember that the quota was cut last year from the year before, meaning that from two years ago there will be even more of a dent in the landed quota.)  This means as the season opens and closes less fish will be caught and, with lack of supply, we can be sure that prices will increase on the already expensive fish.  Reportedly, the Alaskan Halibut fishery is cutting back quota due to the fact that there are not enough large fish in the water.  Larger fish create more offspring, think by the millions, so in order for there to be a healthy amount of fish in the water, there must be some older fish.  

The Alaskan Halibut fishery is considered to be in great standing with many third party sustainable seafood rankings, mostly because the fishery is based on individual quotas and implements by-catch regulations.  The cut quota is a result of a well-managed fishery and so are higher prices and healthy fish stocks.  We have to manage ourselves and leave fish in the water not only for our children but also for the sake of our environment.  We may have to enjoy halibut a little less frequently this summer due to pricing, but I am sure we will appreciate it more knowing that each bite is guilt free and that we are being good stewards of such an important resource.