Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cheap Lobster?

It seems like for the past few summers there have been numerous articles written about how inexpensive lobsters are coming off of the boats; about how lobstermen are not going out because prices are too low and how as a customer you should just be inundated with lobster.  From reading these articles it seems as if lobsters should be hanging from lamp posts during the summer, intimidating small children and creating dangerous hazards for small dogs.  I always run into the problem of guests coming in after reading these articles demanding to see $5 dollar lobsters and claiming that we are ripping them off if the price is any higher.  Before jumping to any conclusions about lobster price points, lets take a look at what is going on during the summer that creates such a volatile market for everyone's favorite crustacean.

There are three major areas where lobsters are fished in the Western Atlantic; Coastal U.S., Coastal Canada, and deep water off-shore areas off of these two countries.  Lobsters are like crabs in the manner in which they grow.  Lobsters go through a molting process where they lose their outer shell by slipping it off, kind of like a wet suit.  A similar process occurs during the summer for blue crabs, and it is during this time that soft shell blue crabs are available.  Lobsters are no different; once the firm exoskeleton is released, the lobster underneath in soft and very vulnerable.  It is during this time that females are able to mate.  It takes a while for the lobster's shell to harden and it only makes sense that it takes a little longer for the lobsters to 'fill out' this new shell with tasty, buttery meat.  That means if you get a lobster when it's shell is still too soft, then you are going to get a lobster that is not full of meat.

Now, the U.S. and Canada both manage their fisheries by controlling the number of fishing licenses and traps that are made available.  However, Canada rotates the areas where hard shell lobsters are found, closing and opening them to maximize the harvest of hardshell lobsters.  The U.S. does not rotate and therefore, during the summer especially, the catch consists of many of these shedder lobsters with less meat and an extremely short life span.  The softer shell weakens the lobsters and makes them much more vulnerable to transportation stresses.  Most of these 'crazy low prices' are attributed to softer shell lobsters that produce less quality and quantity meat.

So when you see these articles, and I bet you will again next summer, remember that great old seafood adage I like to quote so much; you get what you pay for.  Because of the glut of these cheaper, soft lobsters, the hardshell price does come down Some typically, I must stress the word some here.  But I don't remember ever seeing lobsters hanging out on street corners during the summer and I have certainly never purchased a $3 dollar lobster or a $8 lobster roll.  Nor do I see them being given away as door prizes or party favors.  Sometimes writers like to exaggerate or omit facts, who would have thought?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Salmon of the Gods

Imagine a fish that is as round and as big as one of those old gulf gas station signs, with deep, round eyes that are as large as baseballs and seem to stare up into outer space looking for neighbors.  This fish is perfectly round, hot pink on the belly and electric blue on its back, and has iridescent silver spots that reflect the moonlight in the water.  It's dark red lips protrude forth as if it had been feeding on shrimp all day with a serious shellfish allergic reaction.  Sounds like something I conjured from watching too many bad sci-fi movies.  Or better yet, some super fish that haunts divers everywhere and has only been heard of, never seen, living in the deepest recesses of our collective oceanic nightmares.  Well don't let the awkward appearance fool you.  This fish does exist, and as a matter of fact, the opah or 'moonfish' has been a delicacy in Hawaii for centuries.  It is from Hawaii that opah gets its title of 'salmon of the gods', and it is there where its sweet flesh is appreciated as sashimi and other preparations.

Opah are oval shaped, large - sometimes over 150 lbs - solitary fish that swim in temperate waters.  Little is known about the opah's life history, even though it is rather abundant, due to the fact that it is considered a wandering species - often caught as bycatch from tuna and swordfish fisheries.  It is most often taken by longline in Hawaii, but is not a targeted species there either.

Opah flesh can best be described as a cross between swordfish and tuna.  The top loin is the most preferred part of the fish with the belly being very fatty and best sliced as sashimi or seared rare.  The top loin is usually lean, sweet and deep red to deep orange in color.  The belly tends to be a little denser and lighter in color.  In general, this is a fish that is meant for the grill or saute pan.  You don't want to overcook the opah, it can get really dry like swordfish when this happens, so keeping it a medium rare or less is my suggestion.  It goes especially well with fruit preparations like a chutney or salsa.

So why eat opah?  Well to start, it is really good for you.  Opah, like other fatty, cold water fish, is very rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.  It is easily digestible, high in protein, and a great source of B vitamins, selenium, and other minerals.  Since it is a bycatch of the stressed tuna and swordfish fisheries, it is also a wise environmental choice for dinner.  So the next time you are in the market for a grill fish, give tuna, salmon, marlin and swordfish a break.  Take a chance on the beautiful, majestic opah.  It is after all, fish for the gods.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Drakes Bay Update

In December I wrote about Drakes Bay Oysters and how they were losing their lease in California due to the parks service not renewing their agreement.  I have an article link Here updating progress being made in D.C. to overturn the ruling.  It's a family business that's been there for years and it would be a shame if the closure was the last word.  The Lunny family has been running a smart operation for several years from what I have read and I believe we should always support those in the seafood business that care about the quality of the environment as much as they do product.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wrestling the Mussel Myth

It is almost September and we are about to enter the good days of mussel season, they peak usually from September to April.  During this time you can enjoy one of the tastiest and most inexpensive bi-valve available.  This is due to the fact that since the 1970's mussels have gone from dirty bait and bio-foulant to featured item on menus everywhere.  What happened to awaken the world to these tasty morsels is the introduction of myticulture - mussel farming - on a large scale.  The northeast coasts of the U.S. and Canada combined has proven to be a hot spot for growing beautiful, grit free blue mussels and since this discovery mussel consumption has grown tremendously.  About 50 million pounds of mussels a year are sold to U.S. consumers through restaurants and markets, most of them coming from Prince Edward Island, Canada.  With that many mussels passing through U.S. kitchens, you would think that we would have the myths debunked and the problems solved.  In my experience that is not so.  One legend that refuses to die is that mussels that do not open during cooking should be discarded.  This just isn't the truth, not even close.

Its been offered that this myth began with the work of Jane Grigson in 1973.  In her food preparation publication, Fish Book, she asserts that mussels that do not open after cooking should be discarded.  Up until this publication there had not been mention of discarding mussels that would not open after cooking in any of the renowned professional cookbooks of the time.  For some reason or another, this logic stuck, and has been recited by chefs, cooks, and your everyday novices since.  What is happening when you are cooking mussels?

The mussel is made up of two halves (that's why its a bi-valve) and contains mostly ligament and adductor muscles.  They have a tendency to stay open and feed and it's the adductor muscles that allow the mussel to close tightly.  When cooking mussels there are a couple of things that happen to that adductor.  In most scenarios the adductor weakens or disintegrates which releases the mussel and the mussel opens, this is the case for most occasions.  Sometimes the adductor can completely separate from the shell.  In this scenario it is possible for the mussel not to open.  When this happens simply slide a knife through the mussel shell after it has ample time to cook through and separate the two shells.  If preparing mussels and you notice that most of them open with only a few still closed, remove the mussels that are open and finished cooking from the pot and continue to cook the remaining mussels that have not opened.  Usually an extra 90 seconds will do the trick.  Do not let them sit too long, you don't want them to overcook.  This is when the knife method comes in handy.  You just want to make sure that the mussels have fully cooked and you can do this just by looking at the meat.  A cooked mussel will give off a pleasing aroma and the meat will be plump, coagulated, and vibrant looking.  Uncooked mussels will be stringy, un-coagulated, jelly-like, clinging to the shell still, and sometimes give off a foul odor.  Never eat mussels or any shellfish that give off a foul odor.

In some cases mussels open right away, even before thoroughly cooking.  In these cases leave them in the pot for an extra minute or so, until they are done.  Really the best way to inspect your mussels is while they are still alive, before they even hit the pan, actually before you ever get them home.  Avoid mussels that smell bad or release foul odors.  Mussels should smell like the sea.  If a mussel is open, tap the shell.  If it does not close on its on after being 'ruffled' then that mussel is dead and you should not purchase it or attempt to cook it.  Mussels will open up to 'air out', but only live mussels will close when disturbed.  Buy your mussels from respectable fish markets that are clean and that inspect the harvest dates when they receive mussels.  The less days the mussel is out of the water, the better it will taste.

It's always a good thing to consume mussels on a regular basis.  They offer families an inexpensive seafood protein that is quite often overlooked when deciding between all the more popular seafood options.  Remember that mussels are high in iron, vitamin B12, selenium, and contain good sterols.  Another myth for another time is that mussels are high in cholesterol.  This of course, is not true either. Sometimes myths and legends become so ingrained into our collective psyche that the truth gets lost and mussels get thrown out.  Hopefully this helps keep some good mussels in your bowl and out of your trashcan.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Finding the Right Shrimp has Jumbo Importance

Walking through the fresh markets and grocery store isles, shrimp are easy to spot in their multiple varieties.  They come in many forms, from frozen jumbo, frozen cooked, pre-fried, butterflied, popcorn, cocktail, previously frozen and sometimes if you are in the right place at the right time, fresh never frozen.  The price ranges are even more difficult to sort through.  You can find deals for as low as $2.99/lb to staggering prices of $29.99/lb and beyond.  Here is where you should tread lightly.  Prices usually reflect quality, so before you condemn your local fishmonger for gouging and reference the fact that your local grocery store is selling shrimp for a third of his cost, it might be best to take a look at what you are actually paying for.

Shrimp are becoming more and more popular for U.S. consumers as a seafood choice because it is an item that they can afford and recognize.  As a seafood choice, shrimp ranks at the top of all seafood sold in the U.S.  But not all shrimp are created equal.  Most of the imported stuff that you can find 'deals' on is farm raised and comes from India, Vietnam, or China.  Taking a look at the conditions of some of these overseas farms, you might want to reconsider what kind of deal you are getting when you purchase imported farmed shrimp.

Lets begin as if we are going to prepare one these shrimp ponds for harvest.  To prepare an area for becoming a shrimp pond you have to first spread urea and superphosphate to encourage plankton growth.  Next, the pond must be filled with brackish water, in many cases the source of this water can be questionable to say the least.  Sometimes it's a nearby creek, sometimes it's from an area that is laden with industrial pollution.  Your solution is going to be the closest available water source, not necessarily the fittest.  After the water level is where it needs to be, diesel fuel is usually poured into the pond to kill off insect larvae.  The water is then treated with a piscicide, basically an aquatic poison that eliminates the shrimps natural competitors.  Congratulations, your shrimp are now ready to be grown, but don't forget to continue the addition of pesticides, piscicides, and of course antibiotics during the grow-out process.  Antibiotics are necessary to keep your shrimp alive long enough to harvest.  Especially dangerous, some of the chemicals that are used to grow shrimp have been linked to Parkinson's disease, dermatitis, and cancer.  Most companies will claim that their shrimp are chemical and antibiotic free, but it has become a common habit to halt the addition of chemicals weeks before harvest so that they will not show in tests that are required after harvest.

After 6 months your shrimp are ready to be harvested.  Now the pond will be drained and the shrimp will be stuck in the mud at the bottom, in the chemical soup that you have slowly created over the past few months.  Here is where you will pay slave wages to poor young personnel to collect the squirming shrimp.  Not through just yet, before the shrimp are processed and shipped they usually are soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate - a suspected neurotoxicant - to prevent the shrimp from drying out.  In some cases borax and caustic soda are used for color retention.  This is your popcorn shrimp.  This is where your affordable farmed shrimp, the all you can eat shrimp, the endless shrimp - these are the conditions in which they are grown and harvested.

There are options though.  Usually wild shrimp from domestic waters are the best.  Fresh wild shrimp are even better, the less processed your shrimp are, the better.  Maine shrimp, fresh NC shrimp, Texas shrimp, Oregon pinks, Florida Rock shrimp are just a few options.  Your are most likely going to have to pay a little more for these options.  When choosing shrimp, or any seafood for that matter, you will in most cases get what you pay for.  There are many different products out there at many different price points.  Just remember that what you get in that deal, your body might be paying for it.