Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 Crab Report Giving Customers The Blues

You can't tell right now, but spring is here and hopefully warm weather is going to follow shortly behind.  For people living in the Chesapeake Bay area spring means one thing: crabs are on the way.  With unmatched resilience and unparalleled, legendary flavor, the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab is emblematic of the Bay.  For Marylanders and Virginians alike, the Blue Crab is the mascot of how wonderful local fare can be and how important it is to be good stewards of the environment.  Before the season officially begins, here's an initial prediction on what 2014 will have in store for all you crab-heads.

Taking a look back at the crab harvest of 2013, one comes away feeling a sense of relief that it's past us and we can move on to greener pastures.  The 2013 harvest was one of the lowest harvests in the past thirty years.  The crabs simply weren't around.  Unfortunately though, I am here to tell you not to get your hopes up for 2014.  I wish I had better news, but with projected winter dredge reports looking poor, coupled with a long, miserable winter and slow starting spring, the 2014 local crab outlook isn't promising any glut.  The winter dredge survey takes place every year and its purpose is to get an estimate of how many crabs are in the Bay, both adult and juvenile populations.  The winter dredge survey has not been published, but right now I am hearing that the results aren't looking very promising.

What's causing the drop in the number of crabs in the Bay?  It's certainly not management efforts.  The Bay Program is doing a great job limiting harvests and restricting both commercial and recreational fisheries.  The abundance of spawning-age blue crabs increased to 147 million in 2013, up from 97 million in 2012.  Harvest percentage in 2013 was at 10%, well below the sustainable threshold set at 34%.  What I am saying is that over-harvesting, i.e. the fishery, is not to blame.

So who or what is to blame for the disappearance of all these crabs?  Could it be the fish?  Each year striped bass spawn up the East Coast, including many in the Chesapeake Bay.  Those fish take up residence in the Bay for 4 years.  Once a bass reaches 8 inches, typically after about a year, he begins dining on blue crabs.  The 2011 class of striped bass was one of the largest classes of bass ever recorded.  Three years later those fish are 18 inches, are living in the Bay, and are devouring blue crab.  It's an all-you-can-catch-you-can-eat situation and anyone who has ever been to a crab feast really can't blame the stripers from gorging themselves on the tasty crustaceans.

Something similar has happened with the red drum population.  Red drum prey heavily on young blue crab and recently there has been an influx of the fish in Bay waters.  In Virginia, the 2012 red drum harvest was at 300,000 fish.  Compare this to 2010 and 2011 when that number was at 3,000.  The drum population is more than 90 times what is was in 2010.  Combine the drum's population explosion  with the striped bass banner year of 2011 and you have a lot of hungry mouths to feed.

New labeling laws, which require restaurants and markets to specify the country of origin of the crabmeat they are selling, are going to increase the demand for domestic crab meat.  I champion the law because I believe in product transparency and I strongly believe consumers have the right to know exactly what they are paying for, especially when it comes to what they are putting into their bodies.  Increased demand coupled with a low production year equals expensive crabmeat.  I project early local crabmeat prices to be very high, especially if the weather does not cooperate.  The soft shell season will begin slowly, and I don't see those prices hitting any record lows.  Expect summer crab prices to be consistently higher than average, very much like last year's production.  So for all you mallet waving, bib donning, crab eaters out there, remember: when you have the world's best tasting crab, you're eventually going to have to pay for it.  


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Other, Other Butterfish

The name "butterfish" gets passed around often in the seafood industry.  It can be used to identify a small species of fish located off of the coasts of North America and Africa that are in the Stromateidae family.  These fish usually average less than a pound in size and are often found whole, either fresh or frozen, in Asian markets.

There is also a family of medusafishes that live off of the coast of Japan that are commonly referred to as butterfish.  These fish are hard to find stateside and you will probably not come across them in a domestic market.

Further escolar, or walu, is sometimes referred to as butterfish.  These fish are in the snake mackerel family and there is some debate as to the legitimacy of the butterfish labeling.  As of now, use of the term is accepted in Hawaii, but be advised this fish contains wax esters that your body can sometimes have issues digesting and it should be eaten in small amounts.

In order to further complicate the matter, I would like to introduce the New Zealand Butterfish, also known as the Greenbone.  This is one butterfish you do want to acquaint yourself with because it is arguably the tastiest of all the so-called "butterfishes."  They are caught in New Zealand along the reefs where brown algae, which they feed on, is abundant.  Kiwis call them Greenbone due to the greenish tint their bones can sometimes display once filleted, but they are also commonly called butterfish due to their moist, succulent flavor.  Their flesh is highly prized in New Zealand and in the U.S. for having a great fat content and rich texture.  The New Zealand Butterfish is only found for a few weeks out of the year in the U.S., so it's not an everyday item in our markets.

When buying seafood marketed as "butterfish," it's always good to verify exactly which species you are purchasing.  It can really make a difference for your dinner because each fish marketed as such is very different in flavor and texture.  If you are lucky enough to find the New Zealand Greenbone, then I recommend taking it home for dinner.  It may change your mind on what makes a fish a true butterfish and exactly which species deserves that crown.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wild Issues With Wild Fish

It happens from time to time and you can't really avoid it.  You purchase a beautiful piece of fish.  It looks really fresh and your mind starts working on all the ways you plan to cook it.  But once you get it into the kitchen, what starts to happen just isn't right.  The fish actually starts melting in the pan, liquefying into an inedible glop.  You are heartbroken and angry and can't help but feeling like you've been duped.  You have every right to feel this way and you should definitely return to the market where you purchased the seafood and ask for your money back.  But, remember, its not the market that has fooled you, it's actually the fish.

Some fish are infected with the parasite kudoa, also called soft spot, which causes fish to liquefy post-mortem.  It is nearly undetectable in some fish, that is, until you cook it, so you can't really blame your fishmonger for selling it.  The parasites' presence has nothing to do with freshness, nor is it harmful to humans if digested.  It happens often in black cod, tuna, salmon, halibut, and can sometimes happen in other species such as mahi, hake, sole, and flounder.  Usually when this happens at the restaurant level the infected fish is set aside and returned the next day.  The case can be that one fish is infected out of ten, with that fish being returned while the other nine are perfectly fine to prepare.  When it happens at the consumer level, especially in cases where the person is unfamiliar with the parasite, markets can receive some very angry phone calls.  I understand the disappointment, but the real culprit in these cases is most often a hidden defect and not a careless fishmonger.

Chalky Halibut
Some fish have similar issues that are a little easier to identify.  Take "chalky" halibut for instance.  Do not purchase halibut whose flesh appears off white, bleached, and chalky.  When halibut struggles on the line when being caught, lactic acid builds up and causes the meat to be watery and bland.  It is not harmful to humans, but it is not the most pleasurable texture either.  Tuna can experience a similar fate if the fish is not handled properly when caught.  If tuna do not reach a cool temperature in a short period of time, the muscle can start to burn.  The fish literally begins to cook itself from the inside out.  Affected tuna loins will appear gray or white at the top part of the triangular loin.  It is safe to eat, but the flavor is often sub par.

Harvesting, buying, and preparing wild seafood is not as formulated as other mass produced proteins like chicken, beef, or pork.  There are things that can happen to the animals, whether due to human neglect or a natural occurrence, that can't always be identified before the proteins make it to your plate.  When you purchase wild proteins, take into consideration that you are purchasing an animal that has lived a life of fighting and struggling against the dangers and elements of nature, not a life of being hand-fed in a controlled environment.  I recommend buying your seafood from reputable places and developing good relationships with your fishmongers.  From time to time there might be something that goes wrong with your wild seafood purchase and, in those cases, the store should always refund your money.  Just remember though, depending on what the case is, it's not always a sign of a negligent fish market when something goes wrong.  Sometimes no matter how hard the supplier has tried, Mother Nature will prove that when buying wild, there are no guarantees.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Goldspotted Sand Bass

Southern California and Baja California are areas known for their excellent saltwater delicacies, especially their distinctive sea bass populations.  There are four sea bass species found in these waters at depths ranging from 100-500 feet deep.  These include Goldspotted Sand Bass, Spotted Sand Bass, Parrot Sand Bass, and Barred Sand Bass, all of which are members of the Serranidae Family.  Unfortunately we don't see much, if any, of these species sold in our restaurants or available fresh in seafood markets on the East Coast. Though tat's unfortunate for us, for experienced anglers and diners on the West Coast, it's a deliciously kept secret.

Fortunately, BlackSalt has been able to procure at least one of the species, Goldspotted Sand Bass, for the weekend dining enjoyment of our East Coast guests.  The Goldspotted Sand Bass is renowned for having delicious, supple, moist flesh that is often compared to our native Black Bass and Red Snapper.  The filets are a pinkish hue with a good fat content and it is best to leave the skin on when cooking due to its fine flavor when crisped.  These fish are harvested from the cold, salt waters of Baja California by day-boat fishermen on small boats called pangas.  The operation is very small in scale as fish are harvested daily by hook and line with little by-catch.  This ensures that we are getting properly handled fish as soon as it is harvested, as fresh as possible.

If you want to try some fresh West Coast bass without having to buy a plane ticket, the Goldspotted Sand Bass at BlackSalt is a good place to start.  The secret is out of Baja now and the Goldspot is in - or, should I say, on the menu!