Tuesday, March 26, 2013

West Coast Hogs

 First planted in 1983 by John Finger and Terry Sawyer, Hog Island Sweetwater Oysters have won
connoisseurs and oyster aficionados over all around the world.  Location is everything when growing oysters and Tomales Bay, California provides the picture perfect place with extreme tides, cold, clean brackish waters, and a healthy flux of tasty nutrients.  The oysters here are extremely tasty, some of the sweetest I have ever tasted.  They offer a perfect brine coupled with hints of cucumber and melon and finish with an algal sweetness.  You can visit the farm and order oysters fresh, right out of the water while catching views of the fading sun twinkling off of the pristine estuary.  Beer, Tomales Bay, great oysters, life really does not get any better than that.  I should know, I had the pleasure of getting out there this spring to meet the guys that deliver us such a great product.  Below are some videos of my visit there, with views of the Bay and some great information provided by Garret, the manager at the farm and a really knowledgeable and friendly oyster guru.

Hog Island Oyster Co. has expanded to offer five different species of oysters, including olympias, flats, virginicas, and gigas.  Right now demand is so high, they are not able to ship to us on the East Coast.  When available, Black Restaurant Group carries the original Hog Island Sweetwaters, Hog Island Atlantics - which are a virginica seed grown in Tomales Bay, a fantastic, complex oyster, - and Hog Island Cliffsides - which are are pacific oysters grown in the flavorful area of Discovery Bay, WA.  Hog Island does not sell their oysters to just anybody commercially, so you won't go finding them in every oyster bar in D.C.  Black Restaurant Group is proud to be one of the few places that the Hog Island Brand Oysters are served and we highly recommend getting yourself a dozen, whether it be here in D.C. at one of our restaurants or out in Tomales Bay on the farm.  Either place,  you are promised one of the freshest, best tasting oysters you'll ever have.

Check out videos : Intro to Hog IslandProductionChat with Garret

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wild Salmon?

It is an exciting time of the year for wild salmon enthusiasts because the season is just beginning and in just a few weeks markets everywhere will be stocked with bright red, fatty fish.  Most people prefer the taste of wild Pacific salmon to that of farmed Atlantic.  Some just prefer the politics of it all.  Farmed salmon has gotten a really bad rap over the years, mostly with due cause, but few people recognize the great strides that the farming industry has taken to correct the problems of production.  I will admit that they are not there yet, but they sure are better than they used to be.  Though I also prefer the sustainability of wild salmon and its flavor, I have to say that there are conscientious Atlantic salmon farms out there that are striving for healthier product that is better for the environment.

California King
I do encounter some people that will not even attempt to taste farmed salmon, claiming that the fish are inferior by-products created not by nature but by laboratories, regardless of how they were farmed.  They want to taste salmon as nature intended.  Well, lets take a minute to really look at our wild salmon and where they are coming from.  I want to point out that a lot of our wild caught salmon actually begin their lives in hatcheries.  That's right.  They are not the result of a struggling pair, dodging man and bear over rough waters, but actually are born out of laboratories created to sustain stocks and fishermen.  Salmon hatcheries have become necessary to maintain fish populations on the West Coast.  98% of California kings are hatchery bred.  Around 38% of all wild salmon caught in Alaska are hatchery fish.  In the hatchery system fish are bred and then released.  They go out into the wild, feed, and return to be harvested for our plates.  Fish are tracked by tags and now they are developing ways of coding salmon on their olotith bones (read ear here) before they even reach the smolt stage.  Because we have ravaged the habitat and stocks of wild salmon, these steps are necessary to sustain the fishery and salmon population.  In reality, these fish begin their life farmed and then are 'wild caught'.  It is a high probability that the next wild salmon you purchase began its life in a laboratory/hatchery.  I understand that this does not make them essentially farmed, but the next time before you degrade everything farmed in defense of 'wild, natural' product, think about the science behind the fins.  Without the science, without the hatcheries, at this point in the game 'wild' salmon would not be possible.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Off the Cuts

We all know and love fish fillets.  We like our dinner portions nice and square, basically in pretty little packages that are pleasing to the eye.  Some of us are a little more daring and will opt for the whole fish.  Cooked this way, on the bone, is one of the more flavorful ways to enjoy fish.  If you don't mind navigating through some bone which can act like dining potholes, you can really score yourself some delicious meat.  Those preparations are familiar to just about everybody and are very pleasing dinner options.

Sword Collar
Now if you are willing to sacrifice the viewing pleasure of cookie cutter portions and striking whole fish preparations, you can get into what I call off-cuts and possibly save yourself some money.  More importantly, these off-cuts offer an intense flavor that your Norman Rockwell fillet just can't match.  I'm talking about collars, bellies and cheeks folks.  If a whole fish was a sports car, these cuts would be the turbo option.  Yeah, she runs good without it, but the turbo boost makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and scream.

If you are looking for more than just a Sunday drive I recommend giving a fish collar a chance.  Collars are typically a cheaper cut of protein.  They usually will have a bone still attached to them that adds a ton of flavor and is easy to remove.  Some of my favorites that we sell at BlackSalt are snapper, rockfish, and tilefish collars.  If you want the ultimate experience I suggest trying a swordfish collar.  There is really nothing like it.  It is oily and rich and bold and nothing like the rest of the fish.  It only needs a little salt and pepper, a quick sear, then 20 minutes in the oven.  Most collars are easy to cook.  Just add some seasoning and roast.  What you end up with is a beautiful cut full of flavor that will have your dinner guests wondering when you had the time for cooking lessons.

Salmon Belly
Belly meat is just as flavorful as collars and just as ignored by most shoppers.  Salmon belly specifically is a delicious cut that offers a silky texture packed full of flavor.  A simple sear will get the job done, normally less than a minute on high heat will do the trick.  You want to leave it a little rare, trust me it's better that way.  Or if you are pan frying you can do no better than cod, hake, or haddock belly cuts.  They cook so tender and make the best fish'n chips.  Most people see the belly as an unfortunate appendage attached to a beautiful center cut, some useless scrap not worth the cooking oil.  I completely disagree.  The belly is where the fat is and the fat is where the flavor is.  It's also where the vitamins are.

Cheeks, well let's put it this way, when I am sharing a whole fish with friends, the cheeks usually go to the guest of honor.  Sometimes there is no such designated person and when this situation occurs there is usually a small scuffle and the cheeks will go to the fastest fork.  The cheeks on a fish are meaty bites that can best be described as everything flavorful and good about that fish packed into a exquisite morsel that delivers a surprise complexity of savoriness.  The secret about cheeks is slowly getting out and combined with their relative scarcity (only two per fish), they are not the 'steals' they used to be.  However, if you happen to be at BlackSalt when the market has halibut, opah, monk, skate, or really any cheeks, you should be inclined to try them.  Look at it this way, you're getting the filet mignon without buying the cow!
Rockfish Collar

So the next time you are shopping at the market for dinner, ask about what collars might be available.  Buy a belly cut and do some quick searing or pan frying.  Take some cheeks, live a little.  There's a lot of flavor out there and it isn't all wrapped in pretty packages.  Sometimes you have to dig around some bone or opt for a thin belly cut to discover everything delicious a fish has to offer.  Life's too short to waste good food and willing taste buds.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Spring Forward

For fish and fish lovers March is an exciting time.  Wild Salmon, Halibut, and Sablefish seasons begin on the West Coast.  Striped bass, Crab, Golden Tile, Fluke, Mahi, and just about every other commercially viable species on the East Coast comes into season and/or begins spawning.  Coming out of the doldrums of winter, this spring variety is a welcome sight.

Shad Roe
The first harbinger of spring is of course the shad.  Making its way up the coast in primal fashion, shad return to the same rivers they have been coming to for thousands of years, in order to propagate and replenish their species.  It's interesting to note that for ages people have looked to the shad runs for hope of spring.  They were seen as the light out of the darkness of winter.  Today we have the groundhog and year-round fruit, so the situation is not quite as dire, but it's still nice to see the fish run like they have for a thousand years and be reminded of pre-Google times.  Shad, especially the American/white shad, are prized for their roe sacs.  Old timers will tell you they are best fried up in bacon fat and served with potatoes.  Newcomers beware though, shad meat and roe carry with them strong flavors of the wild and are not for the light-hearted.

On the West Coast wild salmon, halibut, and sablefish (black cod) will be available soon.  Halibut and Sable seasons open up March 22nd, but don't be expecting these highly prized fish to be steals.  The halibut quota has been cut once again due to poor showings in stocking densities and there is more demand for sable overseas than ever.  Halibut are prized as the king of all flatfish, the meat is lush, thick, and mildly flavored.  Sable, or black cod as it is known commercially, is in high demand for its oily, rich meat and excellent flavor.

Golden Tilefish
Wild salmon runs will be starting in May, namely the Copper River salmon will begin around May 15th.  This river is world renown for producing beautiful, tasty salmon and also for being one of the first rivers to open.  California rivers also open at the beginning of May so I expect to see the big beautiful fish available by the middle of the month.  Usually it is the kings that show first, then later on sockeye and coho varieties.  Most of the keta get canned or are used for salmon roe.  The forecast for wild salmon season looks promising right now, but it's still a waiting game.  We should keep in mind that over a hundred years ago we had wild salmon available on both of our coasts.  Over-fishing and industrialization wiped them out commercially on the East Coast, so it is as important as ever to protect the last remaining wild stocks on the west coast.

Striped bass, aka rockfish, are just waiting to make a mad rush out of the ocean and into the Bay for spawning.  Rockfish are a migratory species that return every March to fresh water in order to spawn.   With Maryland closed until June, Virginia will be supplying the catch for most of the time until Delaware has a small opening towards the end of March.

Coming soon!
Don't tell anyone but I heard a crazy rumor the other day.  As of March 1st I got offered my first soft shell crab out of Florida!  That is way too early, as the price indicated, for me, but it is nice to know that the season is on its way.  Soft shell crabs are blue crabs that have molted and can be eaten entirely after cleaning.  Usually the season moves northward as the waters warm and really hits its stride in May when local areas open.  Right now it is still very difficult to get fresh domestic blue crab meat due to the fact that in most areas the crabs are still hibernating.  Usually Maryland begins producing meat in early April, so look forward to fresh domestic crab meat and soft shell crabs to hit markets very soon.

Fluke being unloaded in RI
Other lesser known species to hit stands in the coming months are fluke and golden tile.  Fluke are a member of the flounder family and are being caught in Virginia.  They are one of the tastier flat fish and can also be eaten raw when fresh.  The Virginia season usually lasts till the end of April.  Golden and gray tilefish are caught in deeper waters off of the East Coast.  They range from Florida to Maine and in the spring they are usually caught off of North Carolina, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.  The flesh of tilefish is succulent, shellfish sweet, and very meaty.  As spring gets sprung also be on the lookout for domestic mahi, mackerel, tautog, black bass and a variety of snappers from Florida.  In the mean time, look for the shad to lead you out of your snowy coma.
Black Bass right off the boat