Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sweet Shrimp Won't Be Home For Christmas

Every year from the cold waters of New England we expect to see those tiny, tasty, and affordable sweet red shrimp decorating markets and menus up and down the East Coast.  Boat loads of the glowing shrimp enter the market flashing their freshness like Christmas tree bulbs and they are so fresh you can eat them raw.  Unfortunately this year we most likely will not have any sweet shrimp to speak of, due to environmental conditions, namely higher ocean temperatures.  The bio-mas is just too low and scientists are worried that a normal season could spell major problems for the shrimp.  In the article posted Here it is explained that the season will not begin until after the holiday, much later than the usual December start.  The quota will be shortened also.  All of these measures are to ensure that the fishery remains sustainable and the shrimp population is given time to recover.  It is very sad in a way, we won't be having those tasty shrimp on our plates anytime soon.  In another way it is a clear sign that we are beginning to understand the importance of protecting our natural resources by implementing harsh restrictions.  Not fifty years ago I believe that these warning signs would have gone ignored.  It gives me hope for all U.S. fisheries when we can collectively decide to sacrifice a season for a species.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mislabeling Continues

I wanted to share an article about mislabeling seafood in the U.S. and to remind everyone that it continues to be an issue.  In the article posted here, MA restaurants continue to have problems with menu descriptions matching actual product.  Do not be fooled however, this is not a Massachusetts issue.  This is a seafood issue, one that affects every restaurant and market in the United States.  I am 100% sure that mislabeling is occurring in more states than one.  I am not trying to say we have an epidemic on our hands, but I am stating that we have a problem that has not disappeared from our dining tables.

Salesmanship and creative labeling are ingrained into the seafood industry.  Many wild fish are migratory and different areas have different names for the same fish.   A striped bass is a rockfish.  A sable is a black cod.  A wreckfish is a stone bass.  A fluke is a flounder and in some cases a flounder is a sole, be it grey or lemon.  As information becomes more transparent and diners are eager to ascertain more and more information about what they put into their bodies, I feel as though the industry has an obligation to deliver to its customers what they demand; the truth.  The fear of many businesses I believe is that some fish just won't sale under their real label because of a negative perception in the community or customer unfamiliarity.  The problem is, if you never give people a chance by telling them the truth and educating them about product, then the sale is going to be lost before it ever hits the table.

There are so many underutilized species out there that are healthy and sustainable.  There should be no reason to disguise them for more popular items.  And if you are disguising inferior product in order to increase your bottom line, well then I hope this article awakens you to the fact that your time in this industry is limited.  If you wish to avoid being duped as a customer, I recommend getting to know the people that sell you seafood.  Build relationships with them by asking questions about product.  Check out their operation, do they buy whole fish?  Do they offer information about their products?  Is their operation clean?  Money is a representation of resource and resources are limited.  Value getting what you pay for, and that makes the truth an invaluable asset.    

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Who's Got Sole

Poinsettias decorate grocery stores everywhere.  Street lamps are joined by wreaths and star shaped ornaments lighting your way home.  There are lines and tents outside shopping malls that seem to stretch on for maddeningly long blocks, filled with anxiety and helplessly blank stares.  Shopping has become a contact sport, and only the prepared survive.  Yep, it's the holiday season, and we are all subject to the season's greetings.  In a quieter corner of the tinsel wrapped world is the fish market, though, we too have our holiday specialities that seem to come around only a few times a year, like homemade cookies and peanut brittle.

Fresh Whole Dover Sole
One of the highlights of the holiday season is the reemergence of the Dover Sole from scarcity during its summer hiatus.  True Dover Sole, and there are many impostors, is shipped from Holland to the U.S. weekly year round.  However, prices usually come down to this stratosphere only during the winter months when catch is good.  Do not expect to get the real thing for any deal though, most dover sole is sold by the pound whole for much more than many of the other species fillets go for.  So why are the prices so high, what's the big deal?  Let's take a snapshot look at the real thing and learn how we can avoid being duped by a west coast alias.

True dover sole, species name solea solea, is in big demand for it's exquisite flavor and delicate texture.  The demand is one reason for its high price, the fact that it is imported from one place is another.  Fresh dover sole is landed by trawlers in the North Sea and is found in waters as deep as 1000 meters.  They are usually harvested around 5 to 8 years of age, but can grow to live up to 45 years.  The flesh has an exceptional density, with tightly packed flakes that are amazingly juicy.  The aroma when cooked can remind you of savory bacon and the flavor has a hazelnut sweetness.  There is a buttery richness and mouthfeel to the fillet, with an ocean depth that dissipates slowly in the taste.  The texture of the dover is unmatched by any of the other inferior flat fish.

So how do we tell that we are getting the real thing, when there are so many selling their soles?  You could just come to BlackSalt where we get the whole fish shipped to us once a week.  Besides that, there are clues that can help you determine which sole you are looking at.  The price is the first indicator that something may be off.  Even frozen dover sole is still pricey.  The way to spot the difference in frozen or fresh sole is to look at the color.  Is it faded?  Is it dry?  If so, then it is most likely previously frozen.  Fresh Dover sole have a beige to brown top side and their eyes face to the right.  The under belly should be glistening, bright white, with no marks or contusions.  The fillets of sole should be noticeably plump for their size and the flake pattern should be woven very tightly.  To translate, the fillets should be firm and hold together well with no breakage, with tiny almost indiscernible flakes that appear as tight as chain metal.  Most dover sole will be sold as whole fish.  There is a fish that is labeled dover sole that is sold in fish markets coming from the west coast.  These are not true dover soles, they are a completely different species and are quite inferior.  I believe they are marketed as dovers to help increase their sales.  Other 'soles' on the market, such as lemon and grey, are actually flounders and are also completely different species.
Notice the fat, white bellies on the underside and rounded head.

Dover sole is an indulgence, an experience.  They epitomize the holiday spirit.  A time for giving, a time for receiving and a time for indulging in the things that make us happy, dover sole is the nicely wrapped, super fun toy for our taste buds.  It's the G.I. Joe and Barbie for all of us grown-ups.  I recommend sauteing yours in butter and preparing it as a whole fish.  Beware of the steals you might see in the market, I would hate for you to end up with the knock-off.  We've all been there, when excitement turns to disappointment because expectations are met with bitter reality.  The holidays are when we leave a little fat on the pork chop to get that good flavor, so make sure if you are indulging in the dover, that it's the true sole.