Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tightening The Budget

Times are tough.  Consumer budgets aren't what they used to be and, believe it or not, when numbers have to get crunched, most of us will cut down spending on our food purchases before we do without more essential things like, say, air conditioning.  Seriously though, most will look at the money they spend on food and find ways to trim their budget, often buying less expensive ingredients and non-brand name products in order to keep a few more dimes in the bank.  This often means cutting out seafood from the diet or at least cutting back on weekly seafood consumption due to the perception that quality seafood is expensive.  This is a very unfortunate misconception because when seafood is missing from the diet so are many health benefits, including essential vitamins and minerals.

Though you may pay a little more for quality seafood as opposed to questionable seafood, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend more than you would on other, less healthy proteins such as beef or chicken.  Maybe you are just looking at the wrong choices.

Often customers walk into a fish market with sticker shock when looking over the prices of popular items like wild king salmon, fresh sablefish, fresh halibut, and high grade tuna.  If you are in the market for these well known choices then yes, there is a possibility you will walk out and feel as though you have to forgo healthy seafood for a lesser animal.  That doesn't have to be the case.  There are less common choices hiding in the ice that offer great flavor and considerable nutritional benefits without emptying your wallet.

If you like tuna and swordfish, try albacore, mahi mahi, cobia, king mackerel or wahoo.  These options offer great flavor and meaty texture and are often a third of the price.  And, of course, they are sustainable.  If you like snapper, try sheepshead, sea trout, tautog, corvina or trigger fish.  These fish have sweet flavors, nice white fillets, and are often more succulent than snapper.

On a tighter budget?  Try sustainably farmed tilapia or trout.  Yes, there are such things as responsibly farmed fish, you just have to shop at a reputable market that can answer all the "tough" questions, such as how and where was this farmed.  Also, don't forget shellfish as a viable option for dinner.  Mussels are one of the healthiest, most sustainable, and least expensive items in the market.  Along with clams, you can often find them for less than five dollars a pound.  Mussels and clams are easier to cook than you might think.  If you have a stove, a pot, some seasoning, and either some fat or broth, you can have a shellfish dinner in minutes, without the use of a microwave or anything else that comes out of a chemically sealed frozen box.

Though there are options I haven't mentioned in the interest of brevity, the opportunities are endless.  The ocean is a vast, living organism teeming with life and possibilities.  Don't limit your palate to just a few names you recognize.  The next time you are in a seafood market, bypass the tunas, salmons, and snappers.  Seek out some of the other species like mackerel, sardines, and merluza.  You might find a new favorite.  Bypassing the seafood counter is not the answer.  Your body deserves better.  Cutting corners doesn't mean cutting out seafood.  When watching your budget, you might find out just how delicious saving on seafood can be.                  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's A Sheepshead?

When you are feeding on crabs, oysters, shrimp, mussels, barnacles, and anything else in the ocean with a hard shell, you're going to need a good set of chompers, and teeth are usually the first thing you notice when glancing at the sheepshead bream.  The sheepshead will certainly not win any beauty contests!  It gets its name from the sheep-like facial features it possesses, namely huge human-like teeth jutting from a gapping jaw.  Though the teeth are vital for crushing tasty shellfish into nutritious meals, the sheepshead has also been known to dine on vegetable matter.

The sheepshead is a relative of the bream family and besides its mouth, can also be easily recognized by the 5 to 6 black stripes running horizontal to its body.  This is how it gets its other name: the convict fish.  Sheepshead can be found hanging around jetties, pilings, and other obstructions, and many have been caught off piers by hobbyist anglers.  They live all along the East Coast of the United States, but most commercial landings occur in North Carolina and Florida.  

The flesh of sheepshead is quite delicious.  You are what you eat and the sheepshead's diet consists mostly of shellfish, so they tend to have a sweet, shellfish flavor and firm, moist flesh.  The white fillets can be easily seared, pan fried, or baked.  They cook very similar to dorade or flounder, with a little more bite and much more flavor.  Once the armor-like scales have been removed, the skin is exceptionally savory.  So why aren't more people eating sheepshead?  Most likely it has to do with the fact that breaking down the whole fish proves to be a difficult task.  The sheepshead's scales are extremely large and durable and their belly cavity can require more care than usual to maneuver safely around.  They also have dangerously sharp gill plates and prickly spines.

The good news is that fish markets and restaurants will do all the hard work for you.  As October approaches, we will see more and more of the sheepshead available.  It's a delicious, underutilized species that I hope will gain some traction in the American seafood conscious, giving other more popular species a break.  Sheepshead are good for you, they taste great, and they are totally sustainable, so who cares if they're ugly?        

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September Is For Shellfish

The summer warmth still lingers during the day, but cool breezes silently creep into our nights making for comfortable strolls and sound sleeping.  September is not only the harbinger of fall, but it also serves notice to seafood lovers that some seasons are ending, and others are just beginning.

On the way out are crabs (both soft shell and hard shell), wild salmon, Pacific halibut, wild sablefish, Alaskan rockfish, domestic mahi, and various species of snapper and grouper.  It's sad to see so many fishing seasons end, but there are some that are opening that we can look forward to enjoying.  These include black bass, striped bass, fluke, cod, swordfish, tautog, dory, and tuna.

More importantly, September is also the beginning of shellfish season.  All summer long we battle with Mother Nature trying to source shellfish of many varieties that are either not spawning or harvested responsibly with great effort and much defeat.  The summer months generate many problems for finding quality scallops, mussels, clams, and oysters, and supply usually decreases during hotter months, causing pricing to inflate for product that isn't necessarily at its peak.

 September is not only our first "R" month but, more importantly, it's the time of the year when cooler temperatures compel bi-valves everywhere to begin fattening up for the winter.  Mussel meats will slowly regain their meaty glory.  Clams and scallops will begin to firm up, once again boasting their brininess and delicate sweetness with crisp bite.  And yes, oysters, oh the oysters, they too will make restitution for the dormancy of their luscious flavor and reward our patience with complex flavors and supple textures.

September is just the beginning for shellfish lovers everywhere.  It's an augury of flavor that foretells the excitement of shells packed with delectable meats and perfect liquor.  So, all you salmon heads out there, don't idle too long reminiscing over the departed sweltering months  Cooler winds and delicious seafood await!