Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Exception(al) Farmed Shrimp

I know, I know, we have gone over this before.  Beware of farmed shrimp.  Avoid the chemicals and cesspools that come with farmed shrimp and just buy wild shrimp.  I have written about this topic and sent high praise to BlackSalt's wild shrimp selection, while expounding vehemently on the disgusting conditions and product that most shrimp farming nations stock American grocery store shelves with.  But, and there is always a but, in the seafood industry there are always exceptions to the rule.  Not all wild fish populations are in trouble.  Not all fish farms are bad.  Cod in Iceland is in different standing than cod in Canada.  And, yes, not all shrimp are farmed equal.  If only buying seafood was as simple as a stoplight; red is stop, yellow is slow down, and green is go.  Unfortunately it is not.  I am here to help, though, and offer some light on a farmed shrimp that you can get behind and feel comfortable enjoying.  Meet the Madagascar prawn.

Now available at Blacks Bar and Kitchen and BlackSalt Fish Market is the farm raised Madagascar prawn.  It is big, tasty, and quite possibly one of the best eating shrimp available.  The prawns are grown in a sustainable manner in an area spread out over 700 hectares.  The Unima group, which produces the prawn (also known as gambas), are in collaboration with the WWF ensuring that the neighboring mangroves and habitat are preserved and that the shrimp farming operations work in harmony with the surrounding environment.  The shrimp are stocked 5 to 10 shrimp per square meter, which is a very low density comparatively, and are never fed meal that has medicinal or genetically modified additives.  Most of the shrimp's diet is provided by the natural environment, thus the shrimp are slower growing, developing naturally.  This difference is exalted in their exquisite flavor and superb texture.

Due to their uniform quality, superior flavor, and delightful texture,  Madagascar gambas have received France's Label Rouge, the only shrimp farm to do so.  The 'stress free' farming creates a natural tasting shrimp.  Unima's strict specifications are observed throughout the entire process, from broodstock, hatchery, to growth, harvest, and eventually shipping, the production is controlled with attention to detail and commitment to quality.  I mostly advocate buying only wild shrimp.  Madagascar prawns are the exception.  Their exceptional taste and quality is the exception to the rule and the reason why we are excited to get them in our kitchens and on your plate.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Face Only a Chef Could Love

Pucker Up!
Here's a brief introduction to a annual fall character that shows up in markets decked out in it's very own Halloween face, a mask that would make most gory costume designers very jealous.  Meet the beautifully ugly tautog, otherwise known as blackfish.  Tautog is what the Native Americans of Narraganset deemed to call this tasty fish and I can only imagine that the translation into English has something to do with disfigurement and deliciousness.

Tautog are found from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, but most of the commercial production that we see is from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Tautogs are cousins to the Hog Snapper, and join them as founding members of the ugly club, otherwise known as the wrasse family.  They tend to have protruding lips that when gaped reveal jagged, overgrown, monstrous teeth, giving the fish a Hitchcock-ian death grin.  The skin is black (it is also known commonly as blackfish) and they usually average around 2 to 4 pounds.  Though some 20 pounders have been caught, the 'tog' is slow growing, usually maturing around 3 to 4 years with the oldest recorded fish being around 35 years of age.  They do not really migrate and usually are found in inter-coastal waters less than 60 feet deep.  Tautog usually feed during the daylight hours and take cover at night, usually wedging themselves between rocks where they will lie as quiet as a mummy until morning.
Happy Halloween!

Other names for tautog include blackfish, white chin, and poor man's lobster.  This last moniker is given due to the sweet tasting flesh of the fish.  Tautogs feed mostly on mussels, it is their food of choice.  Really who can blame them, I love the bi-valves for their sweet flavor.  It is this distinctive sweet flavor that in turn gives tautog it's great tasting meat.  The texture of tautog is firm, dense, and has a great meatiness to it.

Tautog might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you are shopping for dinner, but it should start to enter your weekly rotation of proteins.  It is simple to cook, usually pan saute works best, and it is really great in stews and chowders during the cold weather months.  Don't be turned off by the gruesome looks, tautog is as tasty as it is ugly.  Picking up tautog at the market could be as exciting as picking out your Halloween costume; both look like Wes Craven designs, while one looks great on you,  the other looks great on your dinner plate.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Curing Salmon Quandaries

Any good, native New Yorker will be able to tell you the difference between lox, gravlax, nova, and smoked salmon.  But for those of us outside the big city, determining which is which can be a little confusing.  Most of the time we just get frustrated and use one term to embody them all.  While this is an easy way out, it just isn't correct, and can lead you to purchasing something saltier than what you had in mind, or a product milder than what you crave.  If you are like some people I know, the inability to decipher the difference between the varieties by nomenclature on menus can lead to skipping the dish altogether.  That is the true tragedy, because there really is no breakfast food that can compare to some excellently cured salmon placed on a toasted bagel with rich, homemade cream cheese.  I discovered this treat during my stay in N.Y. City and even mentioning it now conjures up memories my saliva glands are sulking over.  To avoid this dire fate, lets define and differentiate between what you might come across at the market and restaurant.  Keep these terms in mind while shopping and dining and you are sure to get exactly what you were craving.

Cured Salmon from BlackSalt Fish Market
The term lox derives from the German and Scandinavian term for salmon, laks.  The process of making lox was popularized during the early 19th century and was used mostly with wild fish, as they were abundant during that time.  Unfortunately, wild salmon are not as price accessible now as they were then, so a farmed substitute is not only acceptable, it is the norm.  The lox technique involves curing the salmon in a heavy brine mixture.  There is no smoke used at all in the process.  Some people add citrus notes to the salt mixture and the average curing time can vary from 2 to 5 days, depending on how 'cured' you like your fish.  The resulting flavor is usually saltier and stronger than most of the other options.  Most people use lox nowadays as a general term for all cured fish, but real lox are never smoked.
Gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word meaning 'from the grave'.  This is not due to the fact that the dish was only served during a burial, but because once cured the salmon would be buried in the ground near the ocean where the high tide reaches the shore.   Today the salmon is not buried in the ground, I just don't think the FDA would support this, but rather buried in the fridge in a traditional Scandinavian mixture that usually includes dill, sugar, salt, and chopped herbs.  Here's where it gets a little confusing; today most of the commercially sold gravlax gets a light smoke after curing.  Traditionally the light smoke is not used and the salmon is prepared with only the herb/salt mixture.  Either way, gravlax is usually distinguished by the presence of some remaining herbs in the package, though during the typical process the fish is rinsed after curing.

Nova or nova lox gets it name from the wild Nova Scotia salmon that used to inhabit the waters in the Canadian maritimes.  Now farmed salmon is used to make nova lox, but the process is still the same.  When making nova lox a wet brine mixture is used and the fish is usually cured for up to 5 days.  After curing, the fish is rinsed and then cold smoked for 10-15 hours.  The flavor is milder than lox, less salty, and lightly smoky.

Smoked salmon can be either cold or hot smoked.  Usually cold smoked salmon is sliced thin and used as a breakfast food.  This is the product that you will find packaged in most markets labeled smoked salmon.  Hot smoked salmon is much denser and less moist and is usually accompanied with a creamy sauce.  Hot smoked salmon is also the typical product used to make cakes, dips, and salads.  Either way, smoked salmon is never cured.  The resulting flavors are smoky and reminiscent of whatever wood is used, usually cherry, hickory, or oak.

Ok, so there you go, you are now ready to hit the markets and restaurants armed with the knowledge that will ensure that you are purchasing exactly the item you are looking for.  Whether it be Katz's deli or your local fish market, you can have confidence when you ask for lox, nova, gravlax, or smoked salmon that you know what you are going to get.  Also, this information can also make you look like a true connoisseur of the finer things at your next cocktail event.

Friday, October 5, 2012

October; Ghouls, Ghosts, and Fish

It's October now and one of my favorite holidays looms in the near future.  Well, not really a holiday, more like a widely supported day of mischief and good candy.  However you celebrate Halloween, the 31st always seems to deliver some sort of intrigue and electricity that just isn't found during any of the other calendar months.  Personally I love the feeling that's in the air.  Fall is officially here, leaves are changing, and soon the streets will be filled with the laughter of wayward princesses and little ghoulish phantasms racing down the street on sugar highs, an energy only matched by the spooky feeling of the days slowly belonging more to the night.  October is also an important month in the fish industry.  It's the U.S. National Seafood Month!!  That's right, save your candy day for the 31st and spend the first 30 days of October feeding on delicious healthy seafood.  Maybe your penance of nutritious seafood will off-set the imbalance of junk food you will consume in the one day of devilish feasting.  Either way, eating seafood is a habit that could serve your skeleton well every month, not just in October.

Speaking of Jack O' Lanterns, Lantern Bay Scallops are back in production.  The true bay scallops (at least from my perspective ) the Nantucket Bays, will not be in production until November.  Right now though, Peru is producing a deliciously sweet bay scallop that is both sustainable and affordable.  (They are usually half the price of Nantucket Bay Scallops)  Peru has adopted the Japanese lantern style of harvesting bay scallops.  The scallops are suspended off of the ocean floor by lantern style cages and filter feed until they are at harvestable size.  The waters in Samanco Bay are plankton rich, creating bay scallops with a sweetness that is best suited for sushi and ceviche, though no one will think twice if you through them in the frying pan.  There is no damage done to the ocean floor, no anti-foulants used, and no by-catch.  These scallops are totally sustainable and totally kid friendly.  So this October when the majority of your children's delight comes wrapped in chocolate and causes cavities, these bite sized candies can be a beneficial alternative that provide healthy vitamins and protein.  Who says you have to tell them?  Oh, and yes, this is one candy treat that you can have for dinner!