Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wild Arctic Char

Farmed Arctic char is available year round and is a delectable seafood option for those who prefer a milder, subtler salmon-like flavor on their dinner plate.  The appearance of Wild Nunavut char, on the other hand, is a special occasion that happens only twice a year and its rarity in the market is an indicator of how precious its rich and delicate flavor is.  Wild Nunavut char are harvested by the Nunavut people at the top of the world: understandably, a location that proves to be a logistical nightmare. There are only two seasons during the year when this treasured fish is available and each lasts about two weeks.  The first is a spring run that usually goes for 2-3 weeks from July to August.  The second is a fall run that usually goes for 2-3 weeks from August to September.  For those of you keeping count, that’s a summer that lasts for about 3 weeks at a high temperature of 45 degrees F.  That’s living close to the North Pole for you, at least you can save money on air conditioning.

Nunavut is the largest and newest territory in Canada, officially separating from the Northwest Territories in 1999.  It is also the northernmost permanently populated place in the world.  There have been traces of Viking Exploration found there that predate anything found on Greenland.  The Inuit toil in a very harsh climate and ancient environment and we are rewarded by their labors a few weeks out of the year with carefully handled, pristine Wild Arctic Char.

The natives harvest the fish much the same way as it has been harvested for thousands of years.  They establish gill and weir nets at the water’s edge and patiently wait for the fish to come.  This passive way of fishing minimally disrupts the surrounding environment and by-catch is almost non-existent, making for a very sustainable way to harvest the fish.  After harvest, the fish are gathered and processed at water’s edge and then shipped out to our markets.  This entire process occurs all within 48 hours.  The result is a fresh product that is harvested in a way that does not harm the environment, is good for you, and is a very delicious, high quality protein. 

I am not sure what is most exciting about Wild Nunavut Char.  The fact that we get to look into a bit of history on our dinner plate, enjoying a fish caught in an ancient way in an unspoiled body of water with wonderful natural flavors tasting the same way it has for centuries.   On the other hand, maybe it’s because we can support an entire community that shares its way of life and sustenance with us, even though most of us will never be able to visit such a remote area of the world.  The fact that these fishermen are harvesting the right way should also be acknowledged.  They are stewards of their environment because they know it is by the grace of the waters and land that they inhabit that they are fed.  They understand the natural processes of the environment they live in and they do not exploit them.  Instead, they harvest in harmony with their environment, which is a secret undoubtedly passed down from many generations of surviving in such a harsh area, a secret we are continually trying to grasp.  If you get a chance to try wild Nunavut char, I recommend you do so.   Its flavor is exquisite, unique in nature.  Its an experience from an incomparable fish, from an incomprehensible area.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Virginia Oyster On The Road To Recovery

In the 1800s, the Chesapeake Bay contained billions of oysters.  Billions!  The entire Bay could be filtered in less than 3 days, a feat today that today takes more than a year.  Virginia was shipping millions of bi-valves a year to fill oyster bars in New York, Chicago, and Paris, and the great Chesapeake Bay was synonymous globally with fat, delicious oysters.  Then greed led to pollution and over-harvesting, causing the abundant oyster levels to decline.  In 1960 Virginia produced 25 million pounds of oysters.  In 1970 that number fell to 5 million.  By the late 2000s that number was down to less than 250,000, which is less than one percent of production just 40 years ago.

Happily, the tide is turning in favor of the Virginia oyster.  Contemporary initiatives such as The Oyster Recovery Partnership and an increase interest in Virginia oyster farming have caused huge growth in the VA oyster population.  Annual harvest numbers have increased from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 504,000 bushels last year.  That's a big leap in the right direction.

Through selective growing techniques, dedication to artisanship, and intelligent marketing, Virginia oysters are back on the national scene garnering prestige and daily rotation in renowned oyster bars across the country.  No longer looked at as second tier half shell options, oysters from the Chesapeake are gaining favor over their northern and western counterparts due to their sweet, buttery flavors, crab-like richness, and salty finishes.  This renaissance of flavor profile is a testament to the farmers being selective of where and how they farm their oysters.  Oysters get their flavor from the water in which they feed, so selecting areas that are rich in food sources, minerals, and salt can really make a difference in how the oysters taste.

I am not sure if we will ever get the Bay back to where it once was, filtering itself in less than a week.  This recent article, however, gives us hope of a better future, filled with better oysters.  This is a winning formula not only for our oyster bars, but also for the Bay's water and inhabitants as well.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Problem With Summer

Summertime presents a serious Catch-22 for shellfish lovers all across the nation.  The sizzling temperatures make light, crisp shellfish delicacies ideal lunch and dinner options, however this is also the time of the year when the waters are warm and shellfish are at their worst.

Every summer, usually starting in June and July depending on how fast temperatures rise, shellfish varieties everywhere around the country begin their annual spawning rituals.  Warm water temperatures alert clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops that it's time to get down to the business of making more clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops.  When shellfish are spawning their meats weaken and their flavor deteriorates, and often they give off foul to fetid odors.  Sometimes you can't tell if the animal has spawned until you have cooked it or opened its shell.  The shelf life of these products shortens significantly during this period and the "natural courtship" can take a few weeks to pass before the species once again regain their sweet flavors and firm textures.

Some oyster farmers have begun growing oysters with extra chromosomes to help fend off the summer love fest.  These oysters do not spawn and are able to be enjoyed year-round.  Mussels, scallops, and clams, however, have not greatly benefitted from such scientific advances.

So, choosing to eat shellfish during the summer months can be a little like playing Russian roulette.  My advice is to always purchase shellfish from reputable fish markets that specialize in quality seafood, such as Black Salt Fish Market.  Make sure when you purchase shellfish they are live when they are supposed to be, appear moist and intact, and are sold cold.  Scallops can have a stronger fragrance during this time which is natural, but avoid products that are overly aggressive.  You will notice mussel, clam, and oyster meats are thinner and less full, but this is just part of the process.  If you notice off-putting smells when cooking clams or mussels, you usually can find the culprit by investigating each one and discarding the offending "Romeo" without losing your entire batch.  Don't fret too much, eventually fall will come and remind shellfish everywhere to once again fatten to their delicious richness and get back to the task of feeding and filtering.  Summer love isn't always what its cracked up to be but, alas, its a yearly ritual that reminds us that even a mussel needs a little time to itself.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Oysters On The Grill

As summer gets down to its dirty work, it's now officially HOT.  The extremely warm temperatures make cooking inside a bear, so many choose to take the heat out of the kitchen and head for the grilling sanctity of the great outdoors.  For many of us, using the grill means hotdogs, burgers, chicken, or fish.  In the case of seafood, the usual items consist of tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi, and shrimp, but there are other healthy seafood options readily available that do not get the consideration they deserve.  One of those items is oysters.

I know oysterphiles everywhere are rolling their eyes in disgust at the thought of cooking a perfectly delicious raw oyster but hear me out.  Grilled oysters can be a delightful mouthful of flavor and an exciting detour onto a grilling path less traveled.  The best part is that they are simple to prepare and will have your dinner guests marveling at your culinary competence.  You can find many different grilled oyster recipes online, but below is a simple yet tasty one courtesy of Black's Bar and Kitchen.

First, select large size oysters low in salinity with deep cups.  Local oysters fit the bill perfectly.  I, like many, love salty oysters, but before scoffing at buying low salinity oysters remember that cooking oysters brings out their salinity, so there is no need to buy really salty oysters for this preparation.  You can purchase oysters from BlackSalt Fish Market and they will shuck them for you, or you can buy them live and shuck them yourself.  Here's a helpful video if you are of the daring variety.  

Next, you want to begin your preparation.  Pull butter from the fridge and let it sit to soften at room temperature.  You can go ahead and light the grill now or wait, either way you want it hot before putting the oysters on.  

In a sauce pan, sweat finely chopped garlic and shallots in oil.  Right before they begin to brown toss into the pan 2 tsp each of smoked paprika, chili powder, cumin, brown sugar, 1tsp lime zest, 1 tblsp parsley.  You can alter the amounts to taste, I usually eyeball everything any way.  It always helps if you taste as you go along.  You want to create a paste with this mixture.  After it sits for a couple of minutes on medium heat you want to transfer your spice paste to the softened butter.  You are essentially creating a compound butter.  Whip the butter and spice paste together until the mixture is fully incorporated.  You can use a mixer, fork, or spatula to achieve this.  Note, it's much easier when the butter is soft, so you might want to pull it out of the fridge rather early.  

Now all you have to do is place a dollop of your compound butter on each shucked oyster and then transfer each oyster to the hot grill, shell side down of course.  The oysters will cook in 3 to 5 minutes, depending on your preference.  Those of you who want your oysters a little under and still soft and viscous I recommend 2-3 minutes.  For those of you looking for a firmer mouthfeel experience, I recommend 5 minutes or more.  The oysters will be extremely hot, so remove them with tongs and let them cool for a few minutes before serving.  Adding toasted seasoned breadcrumbs or crumbled cornbread once the oysters come off the grill is a nice touch and adds an appetizing finishing crunch.  

That's it.  It's really that simple.  Grilling oysters is a great way to mix it up and get rid of the monotony that outdoor cooking can become.  I recommend varieties such Barren Islands, Chincoteagues, Warshores, Broadwaters, Chesapeake Golds, and Sewansecotts to grill.  You can call ahead to BlackSalt Fish Market to make sure that they are on hand for you to purchase.  Happy grilling!