Thursday, April 30, 2015

Don't Call Them Shrimp

According to some, langoustines are the new sign of luxury when it comes to hard to find ingredients.  According to others, there simply isn't a better tasting animal in the sea.  Whether you view them as a gaudy boast of unnecessary spending or an ideal in nature that great chefs aspire to work with, there are two facts about them on which everyone can agree: they are expensive, especially when fresh, and they are unforgettably delicious, especially when fresh.

Langoustines can be sourced from the northeastern Atlantic Ocean region to the western Mediterranean Sea, though almost every discerning chef acknowledges the best, tastiest specimens are found in the icy waters surrounding the Faroe Islands and Norway.  Some want to group langoustines as either lobsters or crayfish, or some want to say they are a Frankenstein mix of the two, but after eating one it's easy to relent they are none of the above.  The notion to compare langoustines to their crawly cousins stems from their outward appearance.  They are long and slender, with a carapace, head, claws, and tail, and are pink to orange in color.  You only eat the tail, discarding the body, leaving lustful diners wanting more.

In the animal kingdom langoustines live more like paupers than rockstars, feeding on crustaceans and worms and making their homes in the mud.  On the white tablecloth restaurants, however, it is a different story.  There they shine with little adornment, usually a simple butter and twist of lemon are all it takes to make these sweetest of delicacies paint the dinner plate with high art and a triumph of flavor.

Most langoustines are trawl-caught and packed frozen, usually treated to maintain shelf life due to their fragile nature.  One reason langoustines remain expensive even when frozen is due to their uncompromising frailty.  They cannot live long out of water, unlike lobsters and crayfish, as they begin to deteriorate rapidly after dying.  This is most noticeable by their color.  Old langoustines will begin to blacken, usually starting at the head, when they are past their prime for consuming.  During the spring and summer months though, fresh and even live langoustines can be sourced, most often from trap or pot caught North Atlantic areas such as Holland and Norway.  This year BlackSalt Fish Market has found a source to bring fresh langoustines to market, just 2 days from harvest.  They will be offered from time to time, but if you definitely want to get your hands on some, a week notice is best.

Langoustine meat is soft and delicate, silk on the tongue, exposing a transcendent fatty sweetness.  When done right, which often means a chef doing little, fresh langoustines offer a chance at dining bliss.  They are an extravagance of cost and flavor, for sure, but one of those meals you can talk about later with a nostalgic twinkle.  A story perhaps, that you could share with friends at the next lobster or crayfish boil.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Crab Inside Your Oyster

If you ever come across an open oyster with a tiny crab-looking critter dwelling comfortably in it, you should eat it.  Though your first thought may be to chuck the oyster and crab and complain to your server that your oyster treat had been invaded and occupied by an unwanted houseguest, avoid the knee-jerk reaction and just consider yourself lucky, one of the chosen few.  Seriously, you have just received one of those rare gifts of nature that not every oyster provides.

The crab that you find wriggling in your oyster is not your typical blue crab.  It's actually a different species entirely.  It's called an oyster crab, or pea crab, and if you speak Latin it goes by the name Zaops Ostreum.  The oyster crab is a tiny animal that is typically found inhabiting oysters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay area.  They range as far south as Brazil, but you won't find any taking residence in oysters from our northern neighbors.  Massachusetts eat your heart out.  It's most often the female crabs that live inside live oysters, feeding on what the oysters eat, while the males are free-swimming wanderers that fend for themselves.  The crabs stunt the oyster's growth, but beyond that live with the oyster in harmony, making a life and reproducing in the oyster until finding themselves under the blade of someone's oyster knife.

To experienced oyster shuckers and gourmands, these small crabs are more than a novelty, they're an absolute delicacy.  The New York Times was reporting on the merits of their flavor as far back as 1913, though today I do not think that many people living in the Chesapeake Bay area even know of their existence.  That's a hard fact to explain since it's the Bay areas oysters in which the crabs call home.  Their flavor has been described as delicate and shrimp-like.  From my own experience I think they taste sweeter than most shrimp, with grassy, mineral notes and a little bit of sea salt.  They offer a nice crunch and a crazy umami flavor, one you might find in a fine broth that took days to make.

Most of the time oyster crabs are removed from the raw oysters by the shucker or chef before they are served to the guest.  I guess it's the industry's way of "protecting" their guests from "undesired" tenants.  The majority of diners wouldn't be too excited to find a tiny, living creature in their freshly shucked oyster.  Two live animals in one shell is two too many.  It's hard to get the word out that these crabs are really delicious.  It's even harder to get people to eat food that is still moving.  Yes, if you had to, you could save the crabs and cook them, but really that's an unnecessary use of energy.  Cooking does nothing to improve on what nature has already provided in this case.  All I know is that I'll take my local oysters with crab, as many as I can get, and consider myself lucky.  This doesn't mean you will be seeing more restaurants leaving the crabs in the oysters.  But now that you know, and if you are lucky enough, it might be a good idea that the next time you settle in at the oyster bar to give the shucker a heads up, that you'll take any oyster found with a crab in it as a packaged deal.    

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Big Benefit Of Eating A Small Fish

Sure the big guys get all the looks.  You stroll past a fish stand and most often what you notice first are the beautiful hues of big fresh fillets: the red tunas, the bright orange salmon, the glistening swordfish, the creamy halibut or the iridescent stripes on a trophy bass.  With all these heavy hitters and mealtime favorites, it's easy to forget or ignore one of the oceans smallest, tastiest, and healthiest "little guys".  People, pay attention to the sardine.

Maybe it's because they are often sold with the head and bones intact, or it could be that some of you are harboring noxious memories of being force fed canned sardines at an early and impressionable age, but either way there are many who never consider fresh sardines for dinner.  How can such a small, delectable fish be so intimidating?

Fresh sardines are delicious on the grill, and with the warmer winds beginning to blow, you won't find a simpler option to cook in the fish market.  Sardines are delicious without the sauce.  They pack a lot
of healthy oils and cook really quickly on a hot grill.  They are best enjoyed grilled whole, with only the scales and guts removed (BlackSalt will do that for you).  Their flesh is smoky and full of umami, that 5th sense of taste that the Japanese refer to as "pleasant savory taste", and the fillets peel from the bone rather easily once cooked.  Add a little salt, pepper and olive oil, toss 'em on the grill, and 5 minutes later you are transported to a better place in which you can hear the waves crash, feel the sun grow bigger, and your mouth and soul rest, sated and content.

Did I mention that sardines are one of the healthiest seafood options available?  Any concerns you may have with bigger fish options are completely null and void when you are considering sardines.  Sardines contain high amounts of omega-3s, vitamin B12, protein, and selenium, and this list is really only scratching the surface.  Sardines are a perfect food.  Even better, they are sustainable when sourced from fisheries like Spain and Portugal.  Though they once thrived on our own West Coast, the fishery is closing early this year due to low stock numbers.

So if you are interested in a food this summer that will make you smarter, leaner, stronger, and generally a better form of yourself, try a sardine or three.  BlackSalt Fish Market will be sourcing Portuguese sardines all summer with deliveries coming twice a week.  Leave the big fish for the next person.  Some of the best gifts come if small packages.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Tasty Striped Trumpeter

There's a new edition to the expanding rotation of fresh seafood at BlackSalt Fish Market: the Striped Trumpeter.  Striped Trumpeter are large members of the trumpeter family and are caught off the coasts of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.  They are easily recognizable by their protruding mouths and bold stripes, though the stripes fade as the fish grow larger, especially for fish weighing over 5 pounds.  

During the spring and summer months the fish come closer to shore where they are caught off of rocky bottoms.  They primarily feed on crustaceans, octopus, fish, and squid, so in a world in which you taste like what you eat, trumpeter flesh offers a bouquet of shellfish sweetness with a delicate richness not matched by fish found on our domestic coasts.  These fish are highly prized for their luscious flavor, especially in Tasmania where they are considered the tastiest fish in the sea.  Striped Trumpeter have a good oil content, off-white flesh and a savory flavor.  They are best smoked, sautéed, or grilled due to the firm texture of their meat and most find their flavor accentuated by a good sauvignon blanc.

Due to their high demand, striped trumpeter will not be a mainstay at the market during the spring months, though from time to time we will have them to offer.  Spring brings us quite a selection of fresh options, the trumpeter being one of the more special and hard to find items.  We recommend getting your bite on before the season's end.    

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Shad Woe

In case you have been able to sleep through the morning calls of those pesky, chirpy and somehow cheerful birds that harmonize before even the sun has had its breakfast, it is spring out there and it's happening with or without you.  For you local diners that revel in ancient culinary traditions, that means that the shad are running.  It's roe season and, even though winter outstayed its welcome, the waters have been warming and fish have been migrating for weeks.  So why is there no shad on the menu?  To answer that we have to look at the careful management of a beleaguered species.
Prized Shad Roe

American shad are anadromous fish, and spend most of their life in salt water but return to spawn in the freshwater river in which they hatched.  Most make their first spawning run when they are 4-5 years old and in some cases they die after spawning.  In others, normally in rivers farther north, the fish are able to survive.  The commercial season usually begins in Georgia where fish will be caught as they move up the coast heading for their native rivers.  Often drift nets are used for this enterprise and there are many government restrictions.

Warming water temperatures trigger more shad runs farther north, usually fishery openings occur state by state from Georgia all the way to Maine.  Each state regulates its fishery, setting catch restrictions and quotas and in some cases, such as Maryland, the fishery comes under moratorium completely.  This means that there is no commercial harvest at all due to the fact that there just aren't enough fish.  In Virginia there hasn't been a dedicated "commercial season" since 1994 due to low numbers of fish, but there is a small collection of regulated by-catch fishermen who are allowed reported shad landings while fishing for other targeted species.  North Carolina and Delaware commercial seasons are operational, but other factors like shoaling, when sea floor drifts and needs to be dredged before boats can safely pass through, and lingering winter conditions can impede landings.

Long ago, when Native American tribes had sovereignty over our coastal waterways, shad runs numbered in the millions and their oily flesh and robust roe sacs were prized for their pungent, yet savory flavor.  Population growth, overfishing and industrialization have since decimated these stocks.  In the Chesapeake Bay runs used to be around 17-18 million.  Those numbers were slashed to around 2 million by the 1970s.  The Potomac runs disappeared in the 1950s.  Dams disrupt shad migrations and in some cases such as in Pennsylvania, they have halted runs altogether.

Rebuilding programs have been introduced state-by-state in an attempt to get the shad numbers back into healthy standing.  Restocking efforts and dam breaching efforts have been leading the way.  For states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, it's important to bring back a species that was once so prolific that you couldn't cross a river in spring without stepping on the backs of shad.

For those of you who look to the rich flavor of shad as a reminder that spring is here and that all is right with the world, you may have to come to terms with the fact that, though the shad are running, it isn't quite like it used to be.  It's a resource that, one state at a time, we are trying to put back together.  Neglect and carelessness has gotten us here.  Patience, understanding and commitment will get us back.  There may be lapses between meals in which you will be able to get your fill of shad.  It just makes it that more special when you do get your roe and fillet.  It's spring, all is right with the world, and the shad will return.