Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reading Without the Blinders On

Recently the Washington Post released an article raising concerns about the health benefits versus the risks that come with eating seafood.  While I liked the article, there were some ideas in there that I thought might be misleading for many readers.  That being said, I want to use this post as sort of a looking glass to review the article and point out some important facts that might have been lost on some readers.

The title of the article, "Eating Fish is wise, but it's good to know where your seafood comes from", is a mission statement of mine and I can not agree more.  I consider the integrity of purveyors and their ability to trace the origin of every product for each seafood purchase I make for the Black Restaurant Group.  Knowing about each product allows us to educate our customers and assist them on making the right seafood choices for their families.  This is a very important part of buying seafood and will become more so as the veil is lifted from the once secretive commercial seafood business.

The health risks that are associated with aquaculture do have merit.  Some farms, especially from the countries that are highlighted in the article, do have issues and questionable practices of high-density stocking, antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxins.  Most of the United States farmed product is imported, and I believe this to be the reason for concern, since these products in question decorate grocery stores and restaurants throughout the country.  Does this mean I should, as a consumer, not buy imported farmed product?  No.  Does this mean that all farmed product comes with a series of health risks?  No.  I want to emphasize that there are imported farm raised products that do not fall under the category of at-risk seafood.  Such farmed products include Skuna Bay Salmon from B.C., Blue Tilapia from South America, Bronzini from Spain, Char from Iceland, and Head-on prawns from Madagascar. These are just a few items.  They do not make up the majority of imported products, but I wanted to make sure that readers understood that they were out there, available as choices that were not under the suspicious umbrella of at-risk farmed seafood.  It is very important to know where your seafood comes from and trust the people that sell it.

I also want to point out that the article did not do justice in highlighting the growth of our domestic aquaculture industry.  There are many sustainably minded farms cropping up all over, and many of them are very close to the district.  Pompano, Cobia, and Black Bass are being raised in Virginia.  Barramundi are being raised in Massachusetts.  Bronzini and Dorade are being raised in New York.  Shrimp are being raised in Maryland.  Oysters are being farmed with great success throughout the Bay area.  For all the doom and gloom, there are some really terrific and healthy seafood options being grown all around us.  The plus is that all of these farms I mentioned are producing seafood not only with a bottom line in mind; the environment's well-being is just as important during the process as is producing quality product.

Farming seafood is not an at-risk operation, it can't afford to be.  With a growing human population and growing appetite, wild stocks will not be able to keep up.  Aquaculture is a solution to this problem, when done in a responsible manner.  Any doctor will tell you that the nutrition benefits you receive when eating responsibly farmed fish far outweigh benefits from eating any of the other farmed proteins like beef, pork, or chicken.  There are some countries and some farms not doing the right thing and producing product that is inferior, but that is not necessarily the rule.  There is much to be hopeful for because with the facts in hand, consumers have many healthy choices available to them in today's seafood market.  Eating fish and seafood is definitely wise.  Knowing where it comes from and trusting the people who sell it is even wiser.  Farmed does not equal inferior, just as wild does not necessarily equal superior.  Identifying your seafood, as well as understanding your options, is the best recipe for healthy and educated dining.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

What's Your Favorite?

Working in the industry for over 10 years with thousands of different seafood items and hundreds of thousands of different customers, I have been approached with a simple question numerous times over that has not always been easy to answer; What's your favorite seafood?  I love seafood.  It is a passion of mine.  From protecting it to enjoying it on a plate, I have to say in general that my last meal would definitely be seafood focused.  When I get this question though, my first reaction is always; 'well it depends on what's fresh, what's in season.'  I say this because I really do enjoy it all.  If pressed though, and it happens in most cases, my answer would have to be fresh, never frozen, red king crab legs.

Most people never get to enjoy red king crab legs fresh out of Alaska.  The majority of crab gets frozen right away and packed, then shipped all over the world.  The season is very short, being based on quotas, and usually ends abruptly after only a few weeks.  The work is treacherous.  This can easily be discerned by the title of the show The Deadliest Catch, which depicts brave fishermen braving devastating waves and frigid temperatures in order to eek out a living providing alot of crab in a short period of time.

My first taste came in 2008 when the wholesaler I was working for brought in a 50lb case of the fresh never frozen crabs for a high-end customer.  In reality only the higher-end restaurants can afford these rare legs, at the time we were reselling to restaurants for over $30/lb.  It was close to Thanksgiving at the time and I took it upon myself to snag a couple of legs, you know for all the hard holiday work I was doing.  I knew they were rare and I knew that I might not ever get another chance to enjoy them.  What I experienced was seafood heaven.  I am sure most of us have enjoyed a previously frozen crab leg, and for the most part, they are great.  It just does not compare when and if you get to taste one of the few never frozen king crab legs.  The flavor was succulent, ocean sweet.  The richness of butter and salt turned over in my mouth, the meaty texture giving way to an umami unequaled and unrivaled, even when compared to the endangered blue fin tuna toro.  I ended up purchasing 3lbs of the legs, that was all I could afford or I would have gladly taken more.  I have not been able to get my hands on fresh king crab legs since, until now.

With the season coming to a close, I am happy to say that BlackSalt Market has a limited quantity of Fresh Red King Crab Legs flying in tonight straight from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.  It's been four years since I have been able to experience the mouth changing deliciousness of fresh king crab.  There have been many contenders in that time, but when being honest with myself, nothing has been able to replace that flavor that I have been dreaming of ever since.  It's a rare treat.  I know and understand that the price tag is very high.  I also realize that these men who fish for the crab risk their lives to sustainably harvest them and that getting them here fresh is more complicated than one might expect.  I do not expect them to be for everyone, the price is just too high.  But I do know that everyone who tastes them will have a lingering nostalgia that just won't go away, a delightful itch that might never be scratched again.  And possibly a regret that they didn't get more of it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nantucket Bay Scallops

Here's a reminder for all you seafood heads out there clamoring for great product with short windows of availability, Nantucket Bay Scallop season has begun!!!  Nantucket Bay scallops are thought to be the tastiest, sweetest scallops there are and now they are available at BlackSalt Market.  The season begins November 1st and lasts until March 31st or until the temperature drops below freezing.  Usually the latter halts production sometime in December or even earlier.  

To say that quantities are limited and demand is high is an understatement.  Nantucket's are usually one of the most expensive items to be found in the market, especially if they are fresh.  Don't be too discouraged though, they are rich in flavor and usually you do not need a ton to get your fill; a little under a pound usually does the trick for entrees and a quarter of a pound for apps.  Beware though, when you get a taste of these candies you could very easily become addicted.  In my years of running a market and selling seafood I have seen fist fights break out over Nantucket Bays more than once, usually ending with the victor savoring their spoils and flaunting their trophy with a newly forming shiner.  You have to taste them to understand.

Our Nantucket Bay scallops at BlackSalt are coming directly from Mr. Steve Bender, a seasoned fisherman on Nantucket who has been producing scallops and oysters longer than some seafood companies have been in existence.  He harvests, shucks, and ships, ensuring that BlackSalt has the freshest scallops in D.C.  When you are paying a premium for a hot product, isn't it better to get the best? We think so.  Most people like to saute the scallops lightly in butter and salt for no more than 30 seconds, though I highly recommend eating them raw.  Enjoying them 'in the nude' allows you to savor their natural sweetness, a delicate flavor than only nature can produce.  We will have the 'nannys' available every week, as long as temperatures hold out.  My recommendation is enjoying them while they last, you never know which delivery will be the last of the season.