Friday, April 27, 2012

How Salmon Are Made

It's spring time and the salmon are running.  This is not news to most of you who crave the delicious flavor of wild salmon.  By now you realize that you can only get really beautiful, fresh wild salmon during the spring and summer months, but exactly why, and more importantly how this happens may be a little clouded.  Let's shed some light on this process of survival and reproduction.

Ivory King Salmon
The major wild salmon runs for us take place during the spring, summer, and fall months on the west coast of the U.S.  Commercial fisheries exist in the states of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and there are also some in Canada.  Wild salmon are anadromous, meaning that they are born in fresh water and then migrate to salt water.  Typically salmon will spend anywhere from 1 to 4 years in salt water until it is time for them to return to the exact stream in which they were born.  This is an amazing feat seeing that they have not revisited this spot since birth and have swam thousands of miles since.  Imagine finding your way back to the hospital in which you were born without a map, smart phone, or GPS after spending several years miles away with only your memory to guide you.  Sound tough?  Well millions of salmon do this every year and they accomplish this feat with their sense of smell.  When salmon are born their natal environment is 'imprinted' on them through their olfactory senses, and this imprint stays with them throughout their entire life.

This scent is activated when water temperatures or other environmental changes trigger salmon to return home to spawn.  Different species or even different 'tribes' (salmon of the same species but birthed in different areas) of salmon return during different times of the year, that is why we have different runs.  There are salmon who return to rivers in waters closer to the ocean and others that go farther up the river.  These differences can exist in salmon of the same species swimming in the same rivers.  Most salmon that are caught for food are caught while they are still in the ocean or early in their journey.  The reason being that a salmon transforms when it begins its long haul to reproduce.  A salmon stops feeding once it enters fresh water.  Their stomachs disintegrate and the empty space is utilized for eggs and sperm.  During this time salmon are feeding off of their fat stores located in their muscle tissue.  The proteins begin to break down and their flesh becomes flabby and tasteless.  You sometimes see this if you have purchased an 'old' salmon.  It does not mean that the fish has been out of the water for an extended amount of time, just that it was caught too far up the river and its meat has begun to breakdown.   A salmon's outward appearance also changes.  Most salmon will display a kype, or a hooked nose.  This kype helps them display dominance over other salmon and fight for females.  Other salmon like pinks and sockeyes develop humped backs.  Sockeyes also turn a really beautiful bright red, and most other salmon species turn colors in some way.

Once in the fresh water, males usually arrive first and battle for the best breeding grounds.  Gravel beds with a slight water flow are the most preferred.  When the females arrive spawning begins, the males can't do it by themselves.  The females initiate the action, naturally, by using their tails to dig redds or nests in the gravel.  So while the males are fighting the females are domesticating their area, hence the term used amongst our own species, 'nesting'.  After the redd is completed the female will release her eggs and the winning male will come to her side to release his sperm or milt, to the victor goes the spoils.  Just about one in every thousand eggs will make it out of the river and into adulthood, so the odds are not great.  The male and female salmon will repeat this process until all of the eggs and milt are relinquished, a female salmon can produce anywhere from two to ten thousand eggs.  Then, after their fight up the river is over and they have paved the way for the next generation, salmon, with all the dignity in the world, die.  Their corpses scatter the riverbanks and become food for many different kinds of animals.  These gallant salmon have only one purpose in life, to get back home and produce baby salmon.

It's amazing to think that a salmon is on its own from birth.  That they are thrown into the world with only their DNA to guide them.  It is a feat of nature that they make it out of freshwater, let alone come back to the very place in which they were hatched in order to make way for the next generation.  Their missions are always upstream; salmon always go against the current.  I admire them for several reasons, their determination and self-reliance is awe inspiring.  I have heard some people lament the fact that salmon work so hard and strain their bodies to such limits, just to die afterward.  I do not agree with this sympathy.  I believe that after spawning every salmon dies 'happy', if there is such a thing.  They live with a clear purpose and die after seeing that purpose fulfilled.  One in a thousand aren't the best odds, but after miles of fighting current and starvation, they're the best a salmon can get.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Maryland Crab Report

Just a few years ago the Maryland blue crab population was on the verge of collapse.  Doomsayers were running through the streets in response to another seafood population claimed victim by the greedy human appetite.  The government responded by tightening restrictions and cutting some seasons.  Many watermen and citizens made some tough economic decisions, sacrificing their heritage and way of life and today the news is out that the crab population is higher than it has been in 19 years.  Juvenile crabs and total crab population is up, way up, and it sounds like the story of the blue crab will have a happy ending.  This of course assumes that we can continue to restrain ourselves from partaking in the free-for-all fishing that has plagued so many other fisheries.  The outlook for many ocean dwelling species is not as bright as the blue crab, but we can look to this situation as an example of what is possible when we all - government, fishermen, and the common people - work together to protect our resources.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Hamachi, Hiramasa, Kona Kampachi, Kanpachi, Buri - to any sushi and sashimi bar regular these terms may look familiar and in some cases interchangeable.  To someone who is not a patron of such establishments this looks like gibberish from some bad samurai movie.  Here is where I ask you to stay with me, because 'going out for sushi' is a growing trend and you want to be sure that you know what's going on before you get sucked into the beautiful, strange world of sushi bar nomenclature.

Lets begin with the fact that these are all names of fish and all of them are in the Jack family.  Many sushi bars will feature one or more of these varieties and sell them under the name Yellowtail or Japanese Yellowtail.  I often come across customers and sushi bars that assume that these are all the same species of fish and that they can all be used interchangeably.  This however is incorrect.  To get to the bottom of this issue you have to look at their scientific names and separate them that way.

Hamachi - Seriola quinqueradiata - Japanese Amberjack
Hiramasa - Seriola lalandi - Yellowtail Amberjack
Kona Kampachi - Seriola rivoliana - Almaco Jack - also goes by Hirenaga-kanpachi
Kanpachi - Seriola dumerili - Greater Amberjack
Buri - Seriola quinqueradiata - Japanese Amberjack

Now that we have that in place, we can look at each individual fish and what it has to offer us in the raw.
Hamachi is generally referred to as Yellowtail, but distinctions need to be made from their cousin, the yellowtail amberjack, which is actually hiramasa.  Hamachi refers to a farmed fish at a certain stage in its growth process, usually about 1ft in length and 1-2 years of age.   Hamachi are usually pen-raised in the seas of south Japan and are processed and shipped out from there to restaurants all over the world.  Hamachi flesh is really buttery and firm.  These farm raised fish tend to be sweet in flavor, but much richer than their wild counterparts.

Hiramasa is the true yellowtail amberjack, but it is a little harder to find on menus in the U.S.  The name hiramasa is generally used to differentiate the farmed raised version from the wild yellowtail amberjack.  Most hiramasa are farmed in Australia where the fish are raised from eggs (unlike hamachi which are taken from the wild at a young age) on a diet of feed pellets and are kept out at sea until they reach a marketable size.  Known in Australia as hiramasa kingfish, hiramasa tend to be milder in flavor than hamachi and much less oily.  The texture is a firm flake and the fish pairs really well with scallion and citrus.

Kona Kampachi on ice
Kona Kampachi is actually the brand name of a fish raised sustainably in Hawaii.  Kona Blue, the company that produces kona kampachi,  raises almaco jacks from eggs hatched in a laboratory and feeds the fish a sustainable zooplankton mixture.  These fish are harvested to sell and are a great option at the sushi bar.  The fish are parasite free, have no traces of mercury or PCB's, and are high in Omega 3's.  The flavor is crisp, succulent, and very clean.

Kanpachi is a greater amberjack and is usually even harder to find in most U.S. markets as sashimi grade.  They are wild caught and must be taken at an early age to reduce the chances of parasites.  Kanpachi can be caught in Pacific, Atlantic, and Mediterranean waters, though the fish is most prized during its early stages of growth.  During the infant stage kanpachi have a figure eight in the middle of their heads, which is where the name kanpachi derives, meaning "center eight."  The flesh is firm, with light oils and is very tasty.

Buri are actually wild 'hamachi' or Japanese amberjack and the name is meant to describe a fish that is over 3 years old, though sometimes it can just be meant to describe wild amberjack at any age.  During the winter they are highly prized for their high fat content and are at the peak of their flavor profile.  Buri are hard to come across in most U.S. sushi bars, but if you happen to come across this delicious fish during the winter months, do not pass up the chance.  The meat is firm, very distinctive and complex, with high fat and light oil.

Now that we have the jacks straight you are ready to walk into any sushi joint and spit some insider knowledge that will have your dining mates thinking that you have a P.H.D. in raw fish.  You might even impress the chef, but be careful, some of these names change when you get into the different regions of Japan and different dialects.  Anyhow, at least you will be able to identify which fish you are  enjoying and call out any establishment that glosses over what they are selling.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Is that White Salmon?

During the spring and summer months the West Coast blesses us with great fish.  One of the more exciting items is the Wild Salmon run.  By June fish stands everywhere will be decorated with bright fleshed Kings, Sockeyes, and Cohos.  The kings go for the big bucks because, well they are the kings.  They have a higher fat content than the other two species and also have delicious, strong flavors that scream for the grill.  If you are lucky you might happen to stumble upon an odd looking salmon labeled 'Ivory King Salmon'.  No, your eyes are not deceiving you, this salmon is white.  And don't be afraid, it didn't happen in some laboratory and it's not the marketing scheme of some greedy Seattle company.

Ivory or white fleshed salmon occurs naturally and affects about 1 in every 20 fish.  There have been many theories as to how this phenomenon happens, some stories about how their diets are different or that they are a completely different species.  Well those theories just don't hold their water, so to speak.  The 'ivory gene' only occurs in the king/chinook species.  They are the same fish as the red kings, swimming in the same waters and feeding on the same diet.  The difference between an Ivory and Red King is that the ivory salmon makes use of an enzyme that breaks down carotene.  Carotene is what makes red salmon red, this is true for shrimp and flamingos too.  Carotene is stored in the flesh of the 'normal' salmon instead of being broken down, unlike the white fleshed ivories.  This difference separates the whites from the reds and to my knowledge there is no way of telling whether you have a white or red on the line until you cut into the fish and see the flesh.

Years ago ivories were discarded and sold for much less than their brothers, the reds.  This was mostly due to the fact that people like to hold on to familiarity and resist change as much as possible.   Salmon is orange and that's just the way it is.  Today, unfortunately for us in the know, ivory salmon are held in high regard for their distinctive buttery-rich flavor and silky texture.  They will usually cost a little more because they are not as abundant, and they are really good.  They tend to be milder in that 'salmon' flavor than a typical king, but there is a nuttiness to their flavor that is just not duplicated in any other fish.  If you happen upon an ivory salmon on the fish stand I urge you to give it a try.  It is not a 'freak'!  Just another hidden jewel in the ocean's treasure chest.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oysters; a Summer Food?

Back, way back, in the days of the late 1700's to the days of the early 1900's the general public protected themselves from eating 'bad' oysters by developing this highly scientific method that seemed to be tried and true.  This 'method' was actually an adage and went something like this; "only eat oysters in months ending with an "R", or months that contain an "R"", depending on where you heard it.   Well, though this adage still has its merits, science and transportation have made it possible for us to enjoy these bi-valves on the half-shell year round, even in the face of many who still cling to the 'old school' ways.  You may or may not be surprised to discover that some beliefs are just too darn hard to let go of.  But, if you want to step into the year 2012, I will let you in on some secret and not so secret information as to how it is possible to eat a raw oyster in the month of July when flowers wilt in the shade and air conditions everywhere quit their day job.

Let's begin with why this adage was necessary in the first place.  During summer months water temperatures rise and different things are going on with oysters and the waters that they inhabit.  We will get to the frisky oysters later, but for now lets focus on their surroundings.    As temperatures rise there is a bacteria found naturally in the water called vibrio vulnificus.  Actually this bacteria is always found in water, usually in the mud and sediment on the bottom, and becomes more active when water temperatures rise.  On the West Coast its cousin, vibrio parahaemolyticus, is also active during the warmer summer months and is often associated with muddy bottoms.  These bacteria can cause a slew of problems most often associated with food poisoning when ingested from eating raw oysters.  As bad as this all sounds, the oyster industry and different State legislation have worked together with scientists and farmers and figured out ways of keeping people out of hospitals and oysters available in raw bars.

On the East Coast, especially around the Chesapeake, starting in May timetables are set by the government as to when oysters can be harvested.  This means that by the middle of the summer oysters must be taken out of the water no later than 8 a.m. and then quickly cooled off for up to 24 hours in walk-in coolers at temperatures below 50 degrees.  These cooler temperatures stop the proliferation of vibrio.   The trucks that transport these oysters must also be kept at this cooler temperature and if the company transporting the oysters is unable to do so, they are not allowed to sell oysters.  On the West Coast, waters are tested every 14 days for pollutants and bacteria.  Barring the 2006 scare, this system is pretty reliable.  Companies are also developing ways in which they can actually track the temperature changes when an oyster is transported (like the coors light cans, only with oysters).  Stickers are placed on the boxes that will actually change color if they reach above 50 degrees.  If the oysters are received in a box where the sticker color has changed, they will be returned.  Another thing we do at BlackSalt is try to buy oysters that are raised in deeper waters, especially West Coast varieties.  Vibrio is found in the muddy bottoms, so if you can source oysters that are grown in deep water columns that are many feet off of the bottom, you can further protect yourself from the chance of purchasing contaminated product.

Spring time is a time of renewal and that is usually the time that Mother Nature starts urging many animal species to get out and go make babies.  Oysters are no different, so as water temperatures change for the warmer, oysters are triggered to get their grooves on.  This time of the year is called spawning season and what it does to the meat is that oysters are so busy spending all of their energy producing offspring that their proteins and fats are burned, making the meat flabby, listless, and far less satisfying.  So it is easy to understand why oysters were shunned during the 'non "R"' months;  oysters needed time to recover and spawn and they just were not as tasty.

This could be July or January.
It shouldn't be any surprise that we have found a way around that too, seeing how wonderful cold oysters can be served on a hot day with a chilled beverage.  A typical, naturally occurring oyster is considered to be Diploid, meaning that it has two sets of chromosomes, and during spawning the egg and sperm each contribute one chromosome to produce a natural diploid oyster.  Through a non-chemical process some oysters have been genetically modified to be what we call Triploid.  Triploid oysters essentially are non-sexual.  They usually will have two sets of one chromosome and one set of another.  They never think about making babies, they just think about eating, making them a good choice for a raw bar year round.  Many hatcheries are now producing triploids on a major scale, especially on the West Coast, and slowly these oysters are making their way to the East Coast as well.  So during summer months instead of playing roulette with diploids you can safely eat a non-spawning triploid and get your fix of quite possibly nature's perfect food.

I am not going to lie, oysters are usually better during their peak seasons; early spring and even better, late fall and early winter.  But, and I can not speak for you, for me, now that I have been spoiled, I could not imagine a world where I had to go without enjoying raw oysters for four months out of the year.  Thankfully because of refrigeration, science, and thoughtful farmers, I won't have to live without tasty oysters during the summer months.  As with anything else, you should only source your seafood products from people who are doing the right thing, which translates; from sources that are checking products diligently and who are familiar with their purveyors.  In today's world a better adage might be ; "When it comes to eating oysters, there's no time like the present."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Eating Guidelines

I wanted to share with you an intriguing article from the Washington Post National Website that I read this morning.

When selling seafood to the public you come across customers that have questions that range from the superficial to the in-depth and customers that have set opinions on many varying issues.  One such issue that is raised just about every day, often with formed opinions that are beyond approach, is the issue of dietary recommendation.  Usually I will recite certain studies - two of which are mentioned in the attached article - that highlight the benefits of eating fish and how they outweigh the negatives.  What most often happens is that whatever pre-conceived notions a person walks into the market with, they leave still clinging to those notions.  This can be attributed to something that they read or heard weeks, months, or even years ago.  Information is always changing though, especially when it comes to the world of seafood.  We are constantly finding out new aberrations of what goes for the truth.  Stocks are constantly rebuilding or declining, aquaculture practices are getting better or worse, fishing methods are improving;  what I am getting at is that the science of seafood and our knowledge of it works just like the ocean -  there are ebbs and flows.  Each part of industry must be reconsidered every so often with some frequency, just like our opinions.  There are rules and guidelines that you can trust, but remember, they are always written with a pencil with a big eraser.

Now I am in no way advocating that you can not trust any information and that you should just throw away you Monterey Bay seafood lists or delete your sustainable fish apps.  What I am saying is that when it comes down to it, fish and seafood is good for you.  It is a great natural protein that has proven health benefits.  It is far simpler to prepare at home than most people think and once you source a responsible market, like BlackSalt, the possibilities of improving your diet and spicing up your routine are exciting.  Enjoy seafood and enjoy it often.