Friday, October 24, 2014

A Very Special Transplant

Virginicas is the species name of the oysters that are native to our East Coast.  They can be found from Prince Edward Island, Canada to the Florida Gulf Coast and have been consumed by humans for over 10,000 years but, the fanfare for their crisp texture and briny punch has never waned.  East coasters are proud of their oysters and most will tell you that there aren't any equals.  West Coasters surely disagree with these sentiments, though most of their oysters are implants from Japan.

Olympia oysters are the only native West Coast species of oyster, but kumamoto and gigas species from Japan dominate production due to their popularity and rapid growth.  Gigas are the most farmed oyster in the world, they are also the largest and fastest growing.  When describing oysters from our Pacific waters you will encounter descriptions such as melon, algae, creaminess, and sweetness.  West Coast oysters grow plump meats with fluted shells and typically don't have the strong saltiness or clean, crisp meats that the East Coast oysters do.  You would be hard pressed to find a West Coast resident who would exchange their tenant oyster's complex, often over the top, algal and melon flavor for an East Coast oyster variety.  So what do you do?

Well the great people over at Hog Island Oyster Farm have solved the riddle of who's got the best oyster.  The answer or, should I say divine result, is a virgincias (east coast) species grown on their Tomales Bay, California farm.  Everyone, meet the ultimate oyster, the Hog Island Atlantic.  This West Coast oyster has East Coast bones.  It's a blissful experience in which East Coast minerality and spirit meet with the saccharine funkiness of the West Coast soul.  Hog Island Atlantic's are a complex blend of both coasts, unique in the oyster world, and an oyster that any aficionado, from either coast, can't help but to relish as a one of a kind.  These transplants elevate merroir from a simple concept to a battle of duality that confuses and surprises the taste buds.  It's an exhilarating bite; theres brine, and algae, and melon, and minerality.  There's East Coast and there's West Coast, together.  Its one of those oysters where you can try one and immediately you want another.  They can leave you a little dumbfounded, as in: What did I actually just taste?  It's like hearing a great song for the first time, it sticks with you and you know, you got to play that track again.

These Atlantic oysters are not readily available.  For some reason the East Coast oysters do not naturally reproduce in West Coast waters, so replanting them can be quite a chore, not to mention costly.  Pearl Dive, Blacks Bar and Kitchen, and BlackSalt are some of the only restaurants on the East Coast that offer Hog Island Atlantic oysters.  Hog Island is very selective of who can sell their oysters, so we consider ourselves very lucky, and you should too.  Whether or not you buy into the East Coast/West Coast beef of who produces the better oyster, I suggest you try the best of both worlds on a half shell.  Its an oyster that ends all arguments with a simple slurp.            

Friday, October 17, 2014

Try The Sea Urchin

I can't imagine how it all went down, but I am forever grateful to reap all the benefits of that intrepid soul who first dined on sea urchin.  It had to have been an epic, ancient moment of extreme hunger and courageous creativity, or a simple dare amongst impulsive youth.  However it happened, consuming the delicate, exquisitely bold uni that urchins produce is in itself an experience of ocean bliss.

Sea urchins produce 5 sets of "roe" called uni.  In actuality these sacs are the gonads and are prized by the Japanese, often offered simply on their own or in composed dishes.  Sea urchins live on the sea floor and feed on small vegetable and animal matter.  They have feet, a mouth and, most notably, dangerous spines that can be hazardous for many unaware divers.  Some sea urchins are poisonous, but the most commonly consumed red, purple, and green varieties are harmless if you are careful when opening them.  In case you were wondering there are, in fact, female and male urchins, but only they can tell the difference!  They reproduce by respectively secreting egg and sperm into the water where they meet to form a new urchin.  
Inside Icelandic Urchin
Icelandic Urchins

So why go through the trouble of cracking a sea urchin open for 5 small orange or yellow sacs?  Because there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the world comparable to a freshly opened live sea urchin roe.  The texture is velvety soft, forgiving, almost like a supple fat that disintegrates on your tongue.  The intensity of flavor grabs your imagination, it's as if you've discovered the complexity of the ocean's secrets in one bite.  There are bursts of brine, metal and algae.  Some have exotic citrus notes that balance orange zest with flower petals, while others deliver briny blasts of seaweed and heavy cream.  Sea urchin offer a surreal bouquet, flavors oysterphiles dream about and wine enthusiasts forge.

Fall and winter are some of the best months to enjoy a sea urchin.  Right now BlackSalt Fish Market is carrying live green urchin from Iceland and live Pacific urchin from California.  The Pacific urchin are bigger than the Icelandic, with the Icelandic being more subtle in flavor.  The staff there will be happy to open the urchin for you so that the uni inside is easily accessible.  If you are not up for the ultimate experience of consuming uni in the raw, you can use the extravagant flavors to add an ocean kiss to many dishes such as soups, pastas, and sauces.  On the outside sea urchins appear dangerous,impenetrable, and daunting.  Open one up and you unlock the splendor of the ocean.
CA Urchin out of shell

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Other Sheepshead

Recently I posted about the excellent eating qualities of the East Coast sheepshead.  In order to avoid claims that I have an East Coast bias, today I would like to introduce the West Coast sheepshead, also known as the California sheepshead.

The California sheepshead is caught in inshore waters from Monterey Bay, California to Baja California, with most being landed in waters 150 feet or less.  They like to hunt by day and rest at night, feeding on urchin, shrimp, and other hard shelled crustaceans.  Though they share the same name as our East Coast delicacy, the two species are not related.  The California sheepshead more closely resembles our native tautog in flavor and other attributes.  Tautog and West Coast sheepshead are both wrasse, they both feed on crustaceans, they both have vicious looking teeth, and they both change sexes in their lifetime.

All California sheepshead begin their life as females with their coloring being pinkish red.  Later in life between the ages of 4 and 13 years, the fish undergo a sex change in which the females become males and lose their light coloring and develop black skin with a red stripe and white face.  These newly minted males can live up to 50 years of age and weigh up to 30 pounds, though 5 to 10 pound fish are most common.

California sheepshead are caught by rod and reel with little by-catch and minimal ill affects to the surrounding environment.  Since they feed on shellfish, their flavor is very succulent, almost like lobster, with firm flakes and a silky texture.  You are going pay a little more for the West Coast version of sheepshead, most of that is attributed to its high demand and first class plane ticket, but the chance to taste this delectable traveller is certainly worth it.  Most markets will carry male fish since they are bigger and if you get a glimpse of the whole fish you won't help but notice it's striking color schemes.  The intense disparity between the black and red is almost phantom-like and the snarling mouth full of disjointed teeth can give unsuspecting quite a jolt.  Just in time for Halloween!  Don't be wary of the great tasting meat though, once you get past it's arresting appearance, the California sheepshead makes for a gratifying dinner option.

Friday, October 3, 2014

October Is A Great Month

October is National Seafood Month and there are many reasons you should get out of your meat coma and try seafood for dinner.  During the month of October many seafood species begin schooling and moving towards their winter habitats.  This makes them easier to catch and more affordable.  Translation: you will be seeing top quality product of some of your favorite varieties at affordable prices.

Species like swordfish, tuna, rockfish, mahi, and fluke are becoming more visible and therefore easier to land:

  • Swordfish and tuna are on their way south and big fish just a few days out of the water are being offered at high-end markets.  
  • Rockfish are being caught in New York from now until November and during this time there are also smaller fish being offered from our backyard in Maryland.  Soon the Chesapeake will open for the winter fishery and you will see big monsters available from our local waters.  
  • From now until spring, mahi season will be in full effect in Central America.  There are day-boat operations established in this area that provide incredible fillets with gorgeous bloodlines and succulent meat.  
  • Fluke season is officially on in the North Atlantic and soon the Carolina and Virginia seasons will be rocking.  Typically fluke from these areas are pound netted, meaning the fish are harvested in a live state and extra care is taken to ensure sashimi quality fish. 

Meanwhile, wild king salmon is at the tail end of its summer run and fish are beginning to make their way up river. But be careful: Though prices are at seasonal lows, fish this time of year can be devoid of much of their fatty stores and the flavor can be muted and flesh dry.  Sockeye and coho prices are also at a bargain and these species always present better on the plate than king.  All considered, you have a few weeks left to get your fill of inexpensive wild salmon.

October is also the month when shellfish end their summer vacations and begin feeding again, producing the fatty, sweet flavors that we all have come to crave.  Clams, oysters, scallops, and mussels are paying attention to the chilling waters that foretell winter and have once again began gorging themselves for our benefit.  This is also the best time of year to eat crabs.  Blue crabs are looking to fatten up for the winter, resulting in the fattest, tastiest crabs of the year.  You can look for plumper meats, more pronounced flavors, and a sweeter bite for all of your favorite shellfish.

October is National Seafood Month for more reasons than empty publicity.  October to many seafood species is like May for many types of flowers, a time to bloom.  If I were you I would more seriously consider the bass over the ribeye or the mussels over the cheese sticks the next time I dined out.  Enjoy more seafood during this month.  Heck it might even crossover to the next month, and the month after that.  Some trends are better for you than others.