Friday, June 28, 2013

Crab Report With J.M. Clayton

Where it begins
Recently chefs from Black Restaurant Group took a trip with team members from Congressional Seafood up to Cambridge, MD to visit the oldest operating crab house in the world, J.M. Clayton Seafood Company.  That's right, the oldest crab processor in the world is right here in our backyard.  It was eye-opening to be able to take a trip right off the docks into the Choptank River and observe a timeless sight; a Maryland crabber running his trot line seeking out the elusive and world-renowned Chesapeake Blue Crab.

This ancient profession has been in operation for centuries and the equipment hasn't really changed all that much.  All you need is a line, a couple of buoys, some good bait, and a lot of patience and a strong back.  The best crabbers don't miss a beat, or a crab, while running their line and grading for size and quality.  After working the morning and most of the day the crabbers pull their boats right up to the docks at Clayton to sell their catch.  Clayton processes around 30,000 lbs of crab a day, though lately the harvest numbers have been down.  This can explain why MD crab meat prices have not matched lows from last year.  Most people blame the cool water temperatures and the relatively late spring and summer.  The particular crabber we followed only came back with 4 bushels, not enough to supply a busy restaurant's weekend crab meat needs.
Hard at Work

At Clayton the crabs are cooked in massive steamers, holding up to 12 bushels at a time, and then hand picked by employees with impressive speed and amazing preciseness.  The picking room was the lynchpin of the operation.  Mostly women, they picked at record speeds with such accuracy that if you blinked you could miss an entire crab being processed.  Some of the employees had been there for over 50 years, their nimble fingers moving with a dexterity that would prove impossible for persons a quarter of their age.  The meat is separated by jumbo and lump sizes and the claws are cracked separately.  The remaining shell and fat are processed into a "bater" meat, great for adding flavor to a variety of dishes.

The most telling indicator of quality was the sweet, clean flavor of the crabmeat we sampled.  It doesn't get any better than eating crab right out of the water and with Clayton crab meat that is exactly what you are getting.  From water, to dock, to steamer, to picker, to purchase, the chain is unadulterated and totally traceable.  The facility is ancient, but top notch and very clean.  The crabs go directly from the water to the steamer, and then are picked clean by some of the most skilled professionals I have ever witnessed.  What you get when you buy crab meat like this is an industry standard that has stood the test of time.  Maryland crab at its finest.  For more history on J.M. Clayton visit HERE.
Huge Steamers
The Prize!


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

King Salmon Not Showing

The Copper River has shut down the harvest of king salmon.  The Yukon will most likely not open at all this year.  The Kenai River count is one-fifth of what it was last year at this time.  In the Deshka River authorities have spotted 1,683 kings as of Wednesday, as compared with the 20,000 that passed a decade ago during the same period.  It is evident that 2013 will not be a boom year for king (chinook) salmon.

30lb Chinook from Columbia River
Several scientists are offering different reasons for the decline in returning fish.  Some blame the commercial pollack fishery, some blame mother nature and late spring weather, others are pointing to the fish's changing ocean habits.  It may not be all doom and gloom though, if we l
ook at the history of the matter.  According to research extreme fluctuations in populations and returns of several varieties of fish, including salmon, have always existed.  There is sediment evidence in river beds going back 500 years that not every salmon class returned in strong numbers.  There is evidence of several year periods where hundreds of thousands of salmon returned, followed by periods where only tens of thousands of fish returned.  These drastic fluctuations existed before commercial harvesting.

For the Copper River to retain a healthy population, at least 24,000 kings must make it upriver to spawn.  To ensure this happens they have shut down the season.  Other rivers will see early closures or in some cases, will not open at all.  Some rivers may be able to harvest throughout the season without restraint.  It is a little early to begin pointing fingers, especially when verifiable proof does not seem to be evident.  For now, I am inclined to believe that we are part of a cyclic fluctuation.  A robust population is just one aspect of a sustainable population.  Management is another.  So far the Pacific Wild Salmon Industry has lived up to its reputation by doing the right thing and letting the fish go upriver to spawn, business be damned.  Diligence is required if we are to ensure the health of wild fish populations; if we are to err, it is best to err on the side of the fish.  They are much more valuable swimming upriver next year than they are served on our plates this year.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Perfect Protein

CEO of Oceana Andy Sharpless recently published an intriguing, informative seafood book titled The Perfect Protein.  I want to highlight his work and encourage seafood novices and enthusiasts alike to pick up a copy.  The work examines our historical links to the ocean and how our evolution is intertwined with seafood consumption.

The health benefits of consuming seafood over other land-based proteins is scientifically drawn out to a point where I believe that you can't help but change your eating habits after reading this book.  The book also goes to great links to explain how we have wasted and continue to degrade the bounty the ocean has to offer.  Anecdotal stories are dovetailed with tragic realities that bring the reader full circle, from boom to bust, of how our relationship with the ocean has changed from unknown abyss to seafood buffet.  He leaves hope for the future though. If we can realize that with good stewardship we can balance our growing hunger harmoniously with wild fish and shellfish stocks, there will be no need to starve the ocean.  He offers a simple solution for harvesting conscientiously and intelligently: "It is apparent in fishery data around the world.  It just requires three commonsense principles of good ocean management: 1. Protect the habitats that foster ocean life.  2. Reduce the scourge of bycatch.  3. Set quotas based on science, not the fishing industry's bottom line."   

The idea is simple enough, now if the world's Nations would just catch on and implement I believe that the global goal of a healthy, productive ocean is attainable.  Reading this book will force you to think about seafood not as dietary supplement, but as an ancient necessity that has shaped who we are and how far we have come.  We are linked to the ocean by more than our stomachs.  It is a life-blood, an indispensable, renewable, resilient resource for so many of the world's species, including our own.  Our place in the food chain does not give us the right to break or alter that chain.  We must learn to become good stewards, responsible links in the chain, because the continued destruction of the ocean and its inhabitants only hastens our own collapse.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why Are Salmon Prices Rising

Farmed Salmon prices are nearly 50% higher this year than last.  Right now the high costs are holding steady and show no signs of receding.  Fortunately the wild salmon season is open in the Pacific, so there are healthy, alternative options for salmon lovers, but wild fish prices are consistently higher than farmed salmon.  So why are farmed prices so out of whack this year?  This ARTICLE from the UK can shed some light on the subject.

Though the article addresses UK grocers, the same issues affect U.S. stores and supplies.  Feed prices have risen and the costs of producing salmon have never been higher.  Colder waters have crippled both Norwegian and Canadian production, causing a lack of fish ready for harvest.  Canadian farms have also battled ISA and other outbreaks and many fish have been culled.  Chilean production has been dealing with similar issues, forcing global production into a bit of a hole.  I talk to many suppliers and all say the same thing: "I have never seen salmon prices this high and I have no clue when the prices will break."  With so many wild options available, it does not seem to be too big of an issue at the moment.  Wild fish are usually better for you and are a sustainable option.  But if things do not get better soon, it could be a difficult fall and winter for Atlantic salmon enthusiasts.  Quality farmed salmon will be available, I'm just not sure at what price.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Cleaning Soft Shell Crabs

Where to Start
I was recently talking to a seafood novice about soft shell crabs - about how wonderful they are and how easy they are to cook, "just fry 'em up" was their motto - and a question came up whose answer I had always taken for granted.  They asked me after some thought, "well, how do you actually clean them?"  Working with crabs for over 10 years, I have put in many hours of 'cleaning' soft shells that it never occurred to me that it wasn't so commonplace outside the seafood world.

Some seafood markets will clean the soft shells for you, BlackSalt always offers it's guests the option for no extra charge, and what you get when this happens is a prepped soft shell crab missing a few parts and ready for the pan.  Now, if you are a do-it-yourself type and want to learn how to clean soft shells, here's a quick how-to that will allow you to purchase soft shells live and clean them at home.


Take off the eyes and mouth
First thing you are going to need is a pair of scissors.  Place the soft shell in your hand upright.  Cut off the face with a thin snip being sure not to take off too much.  You just want to take the eyes and mouth off.  Take the tips of the scissors and puncture the bubble that appears in the hole that is left from the cut you just made.  You want to puncture this bubble so it does not burst when you are cooking, sending an undesirable splatter in your pan.  Next, you want to lift the carapace at the points on either side.  Underneath you will find what many call the 'dead fins'.  These could potentially cause you trouble if ingested, they are not tasty, so they must be removed from both sides of the crab.  Holding the scissors flat against the body, trim the translucent looking fins.  They will resemble translucent feathers and rest on top of the body - desirable meat - of the crab.  They are located under the points of the crab, which jut out on either side.  Finally, flip your crab over and cut off the apron flap.  This will either be shaped like a broad triangle (female) or a golf tee (male).  Pull the flap up from the body and snip it off.

Burst the bubble
That's it, your crab is ready to be seasoned and cooked.  It's really not a difficult process and only takes a few seconds.  The incredible thing is that most of the crab is usable and there is little waste.  The next time you are shopping for softies, try taking them home and holding your own tutorial with your guests.  It will add a little excitement to your party and put you all a little closer to your food.  I find food always taste better the more you know about it and the more you actually handle it.  

Remove the 'dead fins'

Take off the apron

Ready to cook!