Tuesday, April 29, 2014

New Zealand Offers A "New" Gigas

Kaipara Oysters
Oyster eaters in the U.S. are very familiar with the Japanese species crassostrea gigas, commonly referred to as the West Coast oyster.  You can find them available in oyster bars and restaurants throughout the States sold under a variety of names such as Hog Island, Naked Roy, Kusshi, and Totten Inlet, grown by different companies in different locations along the Pacific Coast.  These delicious half-shell treats were introduced to our West coast as early as 1920 from Japan and have been growing like weeds ever since.  They dominate the world market, supplying about 75% of the world's oysters, but that doesn't necessarily mean American palettes are familiar with gigas grown outside the U.S. and Canada.

That's all about to change though as I am happy to introduce two new gigas to our oyster repertoire: the Kaipara and Coromandel oysters from New Zealand.

Kaipara oysters are grown in Kaipara Sound located in the northwest region of New Zealand's North Island.  This body of water is New Zealand's largest and most isolated body of water making it the perfect spot to introduce sustainable oyster farms.  Good water produces good oysters, and the second-generation family-run farm uses intertidal growing methods to deliver deep cupped bi-valves with plump meat.  Kaipara Oyster Co. began the process of producing oysters in the 1970's, around the same time gigas were introduced into New Zealand to relieve pressure on native stocks.  Kaiparas are lightly salty, creamy, and finish with citrus notes and cucumber fragrance. 

The second new addition, Coromandel oysters, are grown in the Coromandel Peninsula, also located in the North Island region of New Zealand, and are touted by many oyster aficionados as being the best tasting gigas on earth.  The waters here are pristine and the flavors they impart on oysters are unparalleled.  The meats are buttery and plump and wildly briny for a gigas species.  These oysters finish with hints of melon and cucumber and brighten the palette with a zesty crispness.  

During the summer months there are always closures for East and West Coast oysters in the states due to spawning.  The scenario in New Zealand is the exact opposite; when we are sweating through the heat and racing towards refrigeration, they are donning winter coats and their shellfish are feeding heavily, making for fatty, delicious oysters.  It's always so interesting to me that oysters grown just a few hundred yards away from each other can vary so much in flavor.  Just imagine what a few oceans and thousands of miles can do for variation.  I can't get my head wrapped around the thought but, fortunately, I will be able to let my taste buds do the thinking for me.  I'll let the oysters do the talking for themselves, transporting me to the crisp, pristine waters of a New Zealand winter while the sidewalks melt outside in the D.C. heat.                

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wild Salmon Season

The "official" start of wild salmon season traditionally begins with the opening of the Copper River Run, which begins in May.  However, wild king salmon are beginning to show their beautiful black mouths at high-end markets that can afford them.  Most are coming in from Sitka and Yakutat, both located in the Southeast portion of Alaska.  Though prices are extremely high for big, fresh Chinook salmon right now, you have to understand that the season hasn't really kicked off yet.  So what can we expect from the fishery this year?  Here's a quick projection:

Looking at the overall harvest numbers is a scary thing.  The Pacific wild salmon harvest is forecasted to be down 47% from last year.  Before you start shedding tears and freezing pounds of wild salmon at a time, let's investigate that dooms-day figure.  Most of that drop in harvest is comprised of the pink salmon fishery.  Pinks are projected to decline in catch by 67%, which is down significantly from last year's record number of 226 million pounds, but pinks will most likely continue to make up the bulk of the harvest figures.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts the Coho salmon harvest to be around 4.4 million pounds, which is a relatively promising number.  Washington State is predicting Coho runs (number of salmon returning to spawn) in the Puget Sound area and Columbia River to increase this year, and, generally speaking, Coho runs are predicted to be stronger than previous years.

Sockeye salmon runs in Alaska are looking to increase by 14% from 2013 numbers.  The harvest is forecasted at 34 million pounds.  Even better news is coming from Canada: This year's Fraser River sockeye runs are predicted to be the best ever on record, hopefully offsetting the decline of pink salmon harvested and giving relief to the market.  The B.C. predictions for sockeye look very promising and this year we could really see some relief in prices for the ultra healthy, super tasty sockeye species.

Wild king salmon, Chinooks, are expected to rebound in the Washington Sate harvest, specifically in the Columbia River and Puget Sound.  These fish will be comprised mostly of hatchery fish returns.  This is good news, but, unfortunately, the Alaskan fishery is not looking as optimistic.  The Yukon River will continue to be closed due to lack of returning salmon and there is a troubling report from the Kenai River that a minimum escapement number of fish won't be met even if no fishing occurs.  A minimum escapement is a number of returning salmon set by scientists and researchers needed to pass freely and spawn in order for the following year's return stocks to be successful.  Wild Alaskan king salmon continue to struggle to regain a foothold.

In some regards, in the case of returning sockeye, this year looks very promising in terms of getting affordable, nutritious, wild salmon to market throughout the summer.  On the flip side, don't expect wild Chinook salmon prices to be any less than they were last year, unless you live in the Washington State area.

It is important to note that less than 60 years ago salmon runs were so plentiful that you couldn't cross some rivers without stepping on a salmon.  Shifting baselines have caused us to lower our expectations of what is "acceptable" when it comes to returning salmon figures.  Our point of reference for what a healthy stock looks like has drastically changed, reflecting the depletion of salmon stocks becoming the norm.  I hope that we continue to encourage and support strong salmon runs by limiting harvests, resurrecting destroyed habitat, and controlling by-catch.  Restoring our wild salmon stocks should always be a point of concern and every new season should remind us of how wonderful this resource is and how      important it is to protect it.                

Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Mackerel

The Easter Holiday is here and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at an old saying and talk about its origins.  Today the term "Holy Mackerel" is meant to describe a feeling of surprise, but its origins are a bit more dubious.

It dates back over two hundred years ago when Catholics were known for gobbling up fish on Fridays, especially during the lent season.  Mackerel was an inexpensive, strong flavored fish favored by poorer Catholics, and so the term "mackerel snapper" was allegedly adopted to poke fun at Catholics and their ritualistic consumption of the fish during the holiday.  Snapper was a derisive term that also meant biter or eater, so putting them together you get mackerel eater.  Holy mackerel developed from this line of thought as a 'softer' euphemism for saying the blasphemous "Holy Mary", much like today when people substitute "gosh darnit" for the more corrosive, similar sounding blasphemous term.    

That's one theory.  Another theory is that the name mackerel is not so innocuous, especially in the French and Dutch languages.  In these languages the name mackerel is closely related to the word for pimp and is often used slangily to describe someone who peddles in the flesh trade.  Old folk lore suggests that male mackerels were responsible for leading the female mackerels to the shore, setting them up for harvest by old school fishermen.  This "shoaling mackerel" theory has since been scientifically rebuked, but one can't help but wonder if the term "holy mackerel" is a tongue-in-cheek euphemism that is not as innocent as one might think.

Either way, this holiday season is always a busy one for seafood vendors.  Historically it was mostly just for "good Catholics", but with all the information available to consumers today about the benefits of eating seafood, you can expect there to be lines at the market counter.  Maybe the religious institutions were on to something way back then.  Today there are so many seafood varieties offered, no one has to be confined to eating only mackerel.   However, when you do get a chance to taste fresh, succulent mackerel, with its moist flesh and delectable flavor, it just might make you want to shout "Holy Mackerel Batman", putting the term in its best light.      

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lake Fish May Be Tardy To Passover

Every year around the Passover Holiday there is an increased demand for fresh water fish like carp, walleye, and whitefish.  Usually, those fish tend to be on the affordable side and readily available.  This year, however, is shaping up to be a little different.  Winter has been a grueling affair for 2014 and even though it seems long gone, its effects are beginning to disrupt seafood supplies, Great Lakes fish included.

Severe ice has prevented fishermen from getting to dormant walleye pike and whitefish up in the Great Lakes region.  In some cases the ice is 4 to 5 feet deep, making it impossible to fill the large holiday orders that are surely accumulating.  The fish are usually harvested by either gill net or trap net but, according to sources at Presteve Foods, fresh fish landings across the board will be delayed at least a few weeks.

We have managed to find a few pounds of fresh walleye pike from Lake Eerie, but supply is so tight that we were only able to secure about half of what we have ordered. Whitefish has been even more difficult.  We have not been able to find anything other than frozen whole fish and the word from our suppliers is that this will not make it in for the weekend when most are preparing their meals.  On top of the short supply, this year we are facing prices 25% to 50% higher than years past.  With demand not waning, you can bet on paying more for your fresh water fish this year, probably more than you ever have.

With all the doom and gloom surrounding lake fish, carp remains a bright spot.  Supply is lower than usual this time of year, but we have been able to secure fresh fillets that are only incrementally more expensive than in previous years.  Carp is caught locally in lakes and rivers and right now we are getting product out of Virginia.  Be careful when cleaning carp, as anyone who's ever filleted one will tell you, just when you think you have it de-boned, there always seems to be another layer hiding in the flesh.

The holidays always seem to be chaotic when it comes to procuring fresh seafood, and this dreadful winter has intensified the madness.  There is always a race to find product to supply the demand, and often uncertainty rules until the midnight hour.  One thing a good market won't do is cut corners to make a deal.  With the seafood "arms" race in full effect, be sure to procure your holiday seafood from someone you trust, such as BlackSalt Fish Market.  Prices are skyrocketing and product is tight.  Be forewarned, however, that these are the conditions in which mislabeling and selling frozen fish for fresh becomes too enticing for some markets to avoid.      

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nantucket Bay Scallop Season Extended

This year's winter has lingered on far past anyone's desire.  It has been brutal at times, snow falling in waves, and many fisheries have felt the pain.  We did receive some good news this week, besides the warm temperatures.  The powers that be have decided to extend the Nantucket Bay Scallop season for a couple of more weeks to allow fisherman time to fill their tags.  The harsh winter conditions impeded production this year.  There were times when we went weeks without the product, so this extension will allow customers everywhere to enjoy the best tasting scallops in the world for just a little while longer than expected.  There are not many tags out there, so don't expect bay scallops to be overflowing market stands, but it is nice to know we might get a few more shots at these delicious, precious orbs of sweetness in 2014.