Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Odd Parrotfish

Parrotfish are found living in and feeding on coral reefs throughout the world.  Their sweet, crab-like flesh is a favorite of many Caribbean and Baja natives, and their spectacular, iridescent colors are why people travel thousands of miles to scuba.  You won't find many examples of the species sold stateside, as warm water fish can sometimes carry toxins just like many other reef dwellers.  However, there is a fishery in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, that harvests toxin-free fish.

Caroline's Parrotfish is harvested in the Sea of Cortez by fishermen on pangas (small boats) using the hook and line method.  This ensures that there is little damage to the surrounding environment and minimal bycatch.

Parrotfish have some unique characteristics that set them apart from others:

  • Parrotfish feed on algae and coral using teeth that are fused into powerful beaks, which is where they get their namesake.  
  • Their color schemes can vary by their age and sex and will change several times throughout their life span.  Male parrotfish are known to have the more vibrant stripes and hues and usually the brighter the colors, the older and more dominant the male.  Not everything is as it seems though.  Like their cousins the wrasse, who's family includes the beloved tautog, parrotfish are hermaphrodites.  Many parrotfish start out as females and later turn into males.  
  • Parrotfish congregate in harems, a situation where one dominant male lives with many females as his mates.  If something happens to the male, then a female will transform into a male to fill the vacancy.  
  • If you were wondering whether or not fish sleep, most do, and the parrotfish is one of them.  When sleeping, the parrotfish will secrete a mucous shield that covers its body for protection.

Feeding on coral and algae gives parrotfish a sweet, shellfish flavor.  It is a unique flavor, one that locals in Baja hold in high esteem.  If you come across responsibly sourced parrotfish in the market, I recommend giving it a try for dinner.  The fillets are white, meaty, and easy to saute or braise.  Just make sure that the species is not threatened and that it comes from cold, safe waters like the Sea of Cortez.  Caroline's Parrotfish from this area is a delicious choice for a Caribbean style dinner.          

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fresh Sable, Farmed

Sablefish, also sold as Black Cod, is revered for its silky, exquisite taste and buttery texture.  Most of the wild harvest is sold to the Asian market for premium prices.  The Alaskan wild sable season makes up the bulk of the fish harvested and usually runs from March to November, but even during these months product is hard to find stateside.  Most sablefish is frozen immediately, and some even gets re-sold to U.S. companies from Asian markets.  This is a premium seafood item, harvested sustainably, and demand currently overwhelms supply.

That could all change very soon, however.  Companies in British Columbia have been experimenting with aqua-raisng sablefish for many years now, and as their technology improves, so does the quality and volume of their production.  Growing sablefish is quickly becoming a sustainable model, especially with the efforts in place from companies like Totem Sea Farm .  Totem is a small, family-run sea farm that produces organically-fed sablefish.  The fish are raised in pristine waters, stocked at very low densities, and their feed is certified organic.  Fish trimmings from herring factories are used to provide the bulk of protein in the feed and no antibiotics, coloring, or hormones are incorporated.  The fish are harvested to order, meaning they are delivered extremely fresh, and there have been no incidences of disease in the breeding stock.  Unlike wild fish that can carry parasites, farm raised sable are parasite free, making them suitable for the sashimi market.  Some parasites found in wild sable can cause the fish to liquefy while cooking. Though there is no danger to humans if consumed, when this happens it can still ruin the texture of the fish, making it inedible.  You can avoid this by eating Totem's raised sablefish.  The flavor and texture of farmed sablefish is very similar to its wild counterpart, and I would prefer fresh Totem sablefish to previously frozen wild.

That being said, I am all for fresh, wild sablefish.  It is sustainable and quite frankly one of the best tasting and easiest to cook fish varieties out there.  Sable can make even the novice cook look like a chef: it's just that good.  That's why there's not enough of it to go around.  That's why you have to pay a premium to get it, even when it's previously frozen.  Fish farming is a good thing when it's done right.  Farming can help take pressure off of wild stocks and lower the price of the plate, making healthy proteins available to a wider demographic of people.  Totem Sea Farm produces great tasting fish in a sustainable manner.  This summer I will definitely be supporting wild fisheries and buying fresh wild sable when offered, but I will also be purchasing fresh, farmed sable.  The goal is always to offer the freshest, tastiest, and most sustainable seafood possible at the best price possible and companies like Totem Sea Farm are only helping us reach that goal.
Black Cod seared over trumpet mushrooms,
braised cabbage, and a tomato, herb butter sauce.

Totem Sablefish will be available at BlackSalt Fish Market all through the spring and summer months.  Wild Alaskan sablefish season opens the second week of March and BlackSalt will be carrying this product throughout the summer months, availability pending.  The season closes the second week of November.      

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Red Is In For Valentine's Day

This year on Valentine's Day guests of BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant will have a very special item available to them that most restaurants and markets will never get a chance to offer.  Carabineros will be offered this holiday in limited amounts to some very lucky guests who are looking to experience one of Europe's most coveted delicacies.  Carabineros are large prawns found in deep water (500m-2,000m deep) along the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea.  Carabineros are renowned for being very large in size and having a robust, exquisite flavor.  In England they are known as "cardinal shrimp" or "scarlet prawn" and, in France, "crevette imperiale."  Carabineros translates to "police" in Spanish, and they are reportedly named after the police uniforms in Spain due to the fact that their shells share the same bright red color.

Like most shrimp, most of a carabineros' meat resides inside the tail, but the savory meat and rich juices contained in their head cavity should not be ignored.  The flavors encapsulated in this large prawn can't be found anywhere else in nature, nor can their unique sweetness and distinct shellfish flavor be duplicated.  This is why in Spain and Europe they are often simply prepared with only sea salt to dress them.

Carabineros will be available in the market and our chef Mike Huff is offering them on the menu for Valentine's Day, but supply will be very limited due to their rarity and cost.  Carabineros are not often available outside of the best markets and restaurants of Europe, so unfortunately I can't say when we will be able to offer them in DC again.  If you are looking for something special this year to get your valentine - an experience rather than a charm - then I have to recommend trying a culinary odyssey that will transcend your idea of shrimp and possibly transport you to another coast and culture, all while promising to have you home without taking a flight.    


Friday, February 7, 2014

Eating The Whole Fish

Most fish market shoppers opt for fillets over whole fish when selecting dinner.  Fillets cook faster, are easier to discern temperature on, and for most people, they are much less intimidating.  But there is a world of textures and flavors that come with consuming the whole fish that fillets just can't match.  Preparing a whole fish will slow down dinner, for sure, but for the better.  It will transport your evening from a simple family dinner into a familial event, removing the walls from the room and placing all who partake on some island far away, filled with roars of laughter and the silence of good food.

Preparing whole fish has its advantages when it comes to retrieving the optimal flavor from your dish.  The skin crisps like fatty bacon.  The chewy tail portions offer firm textures that juxtapose perfectly with the succulent belly meat that evaporates on your palate.  The center cut portions seem moister than regular fillets and deliver all the flavor of the bones.  Then there are the best cuts of fish that you never get to eat if you settle for fillets: the cheeks, head, collars, and the jaw.  These are the prizes of the fisherman and are not to be ignored.  These nooks and crannies of the fish are the most delicious parts and each offers a different texture, flavor, and experience.

So now that you know why to eat the whole fish, here's how.  I normally recommend one pound of whole fish per person eating.  Let's say you have five people, then I would recommend a five pound fish.  It may seem like too much, but remember, you lose anywhere from forty to sixty percent of the fish to bones, guts, and gills.  Fish that I recommend for grilling whole include striped bass, snapper, black bass, grouper, tilefish, sea trout, bluefish, bronzino, and dorade.  These are all round fish and while it is possible to grill flat fish such as fluke and dover sole, in this article we will focus on grilling whole round fish because there are more varieties of this type of fish readily available.

Most respected markets will scale and gut your fish for you.  In case you do not have this option, it is quite easy to scale and gut your own.  To scale your fish, simply purchase a fish scaler or curry comb (a serrated knife works in a pinch) and, starting from the tail, run the blade against the scales.  A good tip is to fill your sink with water and perform this part under water, preventing the scales from landing all over your kitchen.  When that happens you could be finding scales for several weeks in the strangest places, trust me.  Once you have thoroughly removed the scales and after carefully checking the belly and behind the head for hard to reach places, you then want to gut your fish.  You do this by taking a knife or scissors, and starting from the anal vent on the underneath of the fish, slit the belly all the way to the chin being careful not to place the tip of the blade too deep, as you don't want to puncture the stomach cavity.  Snip the gills at the collarbone and throat, and pull the gills out with the viscera and discard.  Inside the belly along the spine are two dark bulbs, these are the kidneys and you will want to remove them also.  If you want to make it easier to take the fillets off after grilling, then it is recommended to remove dorsal and anal fins with a knife or scissors, but this isn't necessary if you are serving it family style and enjoy picking at the meat from the platter.  Depending on the size of the fish, make three to four shallow incisions on the skin at the thickest part of the fish about an inch or so apart, this will help it cook evenly.

It's time now time to grill.  Place your fish on a large platter or casserole dish.  Pour olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice on both sides, turning the fish to coat.  Season the fish with salt and pepper.  A nice trick is to add bread crumbs, herbs such are thyme, oregano, and parsley and coat the outside of the fish, turning it so the oil soaks up the crumbs and herbs.  Let the fish marinate at room temperature for one to two hours.  As the marinade thickens, rub it into the belly and crevices of the fish.  Heat the grill to 350*F and oil the grill rack thoroughly.  When cooking whole fish you generally want to cook it for 10-12 minutes per inch of thickness, two thirds of the time on one side to get a crispy skin, then turning it for the remainder.  Closing the grill top will speed the process, but be sure to keep an eye out for over-cooking if you choose to do this.

Once the fish is ready, remove it from the grill and serve it crispy side up.  I usually like to present the whole fish to the table, like a trophy, and let everyone dig in family style to share in the accomplishment.  Be sure to pick at the prized meats in the face, head, and belly, there are many hidden gems of flavor, so be thorough.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Seafood Business Locked in the Throes of Winter

Here's an insight to what is going on with our native striped bass, aka rockfish, during these cold winter months.  Tim Sughrue posted this and I thought it would be an interesting read for those of you who look at those frozen waters and wonder what's going on underneath.  Tim is a fisheries scientist and works for Congressional Seafood.  

"I drove across the Bay Bridge last Thursday on my way to the fish market, as I have every
day for the last 30 years, and saw a sight I have only seen once in my life, in 1977. The Bay was completely frozen all the way across (Kent Island to Annapolis-5 miles) and as far north as you could see. From the top of the bridge, I could see Pooles Island off the mouth of the Middle River, 20 miles to the north, and the Bay was a huge sheet of continuous white ice all the way up. From there, it is another 20 miles to the top of the Bay at Havre De Grace, where the Susquehanna comes in, the water is fresher (less salt) and the Bay is narrower, lending itself to freezing across more readily. So last Thursday morning, when my truck thermometer said 1 below zero, 20 percent of the largest estuary in the US, the Chesapeake Bay, was frozen all the way across for 40 miles. It was quite a sight.

Cold winters are not all bad. Historically, they have been quite good for rockfish reproduction in the spring. The ice and snow hold back the nutrient runoff. The water temperatures are lower, delaying the first algal blooms until mid-March, exactly when the fish are spawning. Algae, phytoplankton and zooplankton are the primary food source for the rockfish larvae, the life cycle stage between egg and fingerling. The increased food supply for the rockfish larvae results in a higher survivability for that stage, and a much larger year class of fingerling rockfish. God knows we need one. We have had only one dominant year class in the last decade, 2011. The population of the adult jumbo rockfish (migratory) has plummeted. Our resident population in the bay is doing fine. Fishing, both recreational and commercial, should be excellent this summer as the 2011-year class will be of legal size (18 inches). You can expect the federal overseer of the striped bass fishery, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council, to drastically change how the coastal states (Massachusetts to North Carolina) fish for adult striped bass in their waters.

The ice on the Chesapeake Bay makes it extremely difficult for the watermen to get out and work. For the ones who are able to break out, it is also very dangerous. The force generated by large sheets of ice, moving with tide and wind, can bend wheels, break struts, and even crush hulls. Working on the water in the winter is not for the inexperienced.

For the watermen participating in the drift gill net rockfish IFQ now, ice on the Bay means the rock are easier to catch. For the ones who are able to get out, the rockfish are lethargic, and sitting in tight schools right on the bottom. The fishermen find the schools of rock deep in the channel on their depth finders, lay off their nets at the end of a tide, when the water slows. Drift nets only fish the bottom 10 feet of the water column. So if the fish are in 100 feet of water, as they frequently are this time of year, the net only catches fish if they are very close (90-100) to the bottom. Fish have a natural defense against nets. It is called their lateral line system. This is a line you can see that goes right down the middle of the fish lengthwise.  The lateral line has hair follicles in pores that sense changes in the current ahead of the fish. This system allows fish to catch prey and navigate even when they cannot see. But at the end of the tide, there is little current movement and the fish are vulnerable to the nets. When the tide is “running”, the fish can “feel” the change in the current ahead of them and simply swim around or up and over the net. Fishing with a gill net is much like hook and line, if the conditions aren’t right, you are not going to catch much."