Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rock Out For Summer?

Rhode Island Rock, aka Striped Bass
The words "summer rock" can call to mind different things for different people.  Some think of "monumental" summer concerts performed by geriatric legends on their last knee surgery.  Others envision catchy, trending songs with meaningless lyrics that will live on in repeat mode playing somewhere between the fifth and ninth circles of hell.  Or, if you are thinking of your own music tastes (wink wink), you are probably envisioning awesome bands blasting out soul changing lyrics during mind altering weekends with endless stories of how great it all can be.

If you are a Chesapeake Bay fisherman however, when you hear the words summer and rock, your mind most likely drifts off to a place where there's a line in the water and at the end of it there's a big rockfish taking the bait.  Rockfish, or if you are from any state above the Mason Dixon, striped bass, are usually a summer standby for many Chesapeake Bay area natives.  Maryland and Virginia are known as rockfish havens and during the summer season fish are usually landed by the thousands.  During this time of year you typically can't find a menu from D.C. to Ocean City without at least an offering of the tasty bass somewhere on it.  This year is different though, and I thought it might be an important enough issue to at least give some reasoning to the scarcity.

First, the rockfish quota - that is the amount of fish that can legally be taken out of the water - was cut this year by 20% in order to protect the stocks.  It wasn't too long ago that native rockfish were almost fished out, so these measures are necessary, even though you might have to alter your dinner plans.  To dig a little deeper, I spoke with Tim Suhgrue, a biologist and partner of Congressional Seafood, to get a better idea of what was happening on the water.  He explained that during the summer there is a hook and line and a pound net fishery for local rockfish.  The fishermen actually have until the fall and winter respectively to meet their quota.  The fish seem to be on the smaller side right now, so most of the fishermen are waiting until later in the year to target the bass, when they can get bigger fish and bigger prices.

There are a few fishermen still working on the bass, but most have switched to targeting crabs.  Right now blue crabs are on the move, so there is much more profit to be made focusing on the popular shellfish.  The few hook and line fishermen still plying the rockfish don't catch many at a time, so there will be drips and drabs of local rock, but not the glut we have seen in the past.  Another reason fishermen aren't going out is due to the cost of catching the fish.  In the cooler months there's usually bigger fish in the water and they are much easier to handle properly and keep cold sufficiently.  Just imagine how much ice it takes to keep the harvested fish cool during the summer months when temperatures can creep into the triple digits.  Just take a look at your air-condition bill and times it by a thousand to get an idea.

Summer is not lost completely for you rockfish lovers.  Rhode Island is open right now for rockfish, or should I say striped bass, and fishing is good.  Rhode Island is on a quota system, so there is no definite timeline for exactly when the season will close, it can easily happen overnight.  It all just depends on how fast and how much they catch.  Massachusetts' season opens June 25 and Mr. Suhgrue expects that season to last about 3 weeks.  They are also on a quota system and unfortunately their quota has also been cut by 20%, roughly only 700,000 pounds will be caught.  This will barely get us out of July if we are lucky.

The northern fish are usually much larger in size.  Rhode Island fish for instance have to be at least 32 inches or greater in length to keep.  That makes for a pretty thick slice of fish.  I expect rockfish will be offered this summer, though most of it, for the time being, will be from the north.  Unfortunately, I don't expect prices to be in that traditionally low range that we have all come to appreciate and look forward to.  We might have to wait a little longer this year for our local rockfish to come to port, and subsequently, for prices to decrease.  For the next month or so, we may have to make due with that expensive substitute that the yanks call striped bass.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

What's Happening In The Market

It's been a while since I gave a good ole' fashion market update.  I am not sure if you have noticed, but there's a lot going on out there underneath the surface.  The weather is getting right, right for the bite as you could say, and seasons are now crossing over.  With so many options hitting their stride, I figured now was as good as time as any to let you in on what's "in."

The salmon situation is hot, hot, hot.  Kings are coming down in price while sockeye landings are just beginning to come around.  For a few weeks it was only Copper River Sockeyes and the prices, as usual, started off in the upper stratosphere.  Now that the initial gouge is over and other areas begin to open, sockeye prices are coming back down to earthly understanding.  Red kings are flowing out of the rivers, so finding quality fish should not be hard.

An added bonus this year is that ivory king salmon have been readily available for at least for the past two weeks.  These special salmon are deliciously different in flavor, more complex and less "salmony" than other kings.  Last year you couldn't find an ivory.  This year we are having much better luck, making you a very lucky consumer.

Rockfish season is officially open in MD.  Good fish are being landed in the 2-4 lb and 5-8 lb ranges.  Prices should be steady as there was a quota cut this year to protect the stocks, but relief will come as other northern states begin to open their seasons throughout the summer.  This local favorite should be a good buy for the rest of the summer.

Fresh shrimp, especially royal reds from Connecticut, will be available during the summer months.  Fresh white shrimp will be coming out of the Carolinas.  These shrimp tend to be soft, yet crunchy, with a good natural flavor. The royal reds are on another level of sweetness and shouldn't be missed.

Scallop season in Ocean City is going to last at least a few more days, so if you are a connoisseur of everything local, you're summer will not be complete without at least one meal made entirely of these special bi-viavles.  While the Ocean City scallop season is sadly fading, other summer scallop areas are blossoming with beautiful product.  New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts scallops are all on the market and can be found fresh, untreated, if you are in the right market.  Be sure to make friends with your local fishmonger and get the best out of your scallops.

We've got crabs.  At least that's what they are saying in MD right now.  Even though flavor won't peak until the crabs fatten in the fall - and who wants to wait for that - domestic crabmeat and soft-shell crabs are plentiful.  You can find fresh domestic crabmeat from MD, VA, FL, LA and AL this time of year.  Though soft shell availability will wax and wane with the full moon and weather, expect them to be around.  Hard-shells you are best waiting on in order to get the fattest crabs, but again, who wants to do that.

Domestic mahi are running at the moment from FL to NC and quality is at its finest.  You can find freshly caught mahi, skin still iridescent and shining with bright red bloodlines resting in cold showcases at prices way below what their quality commands.

West Coast halibut is in full swing, prices are stable and product is great, especially from day-boat operations.  Not all halibut is created equal, and often higher prices will reflect the properly handled, short trip fish.  Fresh sable is also available, and Sitka Sound wild caught fish are the biggest and best.  During the season it's worth it to pay more for non-frozen fish.

So many seasons are crossing over, there is so much more to report, but in deference to time and attention constraints, here's a short list of other items: golden and grey tilefish from the Carolinas up to Massachusetts are great tasting and great buys.  Our northern neighbors are also producing high quality tautog, tuna, swordfish, Boston mackerel, skate, monkfish, and blue fish.  It's always a sign of summer to come when the blues start showing up.  Also be on the lookout for fresh New Zealand oysters and clams.  It's winter there, so product is actually better during our summer.  All other shellfish besides triploid oysters beware; summer is a time of love, and for shellfish that means spawning.  I recommend buying shellfish the same day you are going to use it to avoid loss.  I almost forgot, lobsters are coming back around.  The Canadian season just opened and prices are going to start coming down immediately.

Some seasons there is just too much going on to get it all in one report.  If I were you I would get off the computer and get to the market.  Everything is aligning right now.  Seasons change, fish are on the move, and next week could be too late.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Shrimp Royalty From An Unlikely Place

When you think of U.S. wild caught shrimp, I am willing to bet your mind first takes you to the Gulf States, such as Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas.  Or it could be that you are from the West Coast, so you think of Oregon or Washington.  If you are really into seafood, or just happen to own some real estate there, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia might come to mind.  But how many of you, especially those living outside of Mystic, think of Connecticut as your go-to shrimp locale?  Well, starting this week, D.C. natives might need to start re-thinking where they believe great shrimp are caught.

In my opinion, Connecticut royal red shrimp, also known as Stonington Reds, may be one of the best kept seafood secrets of the last few years.  Unbeknownst to us living in the district, locals in Stonington, CT have been enjoying these gorgeous shrimp for over a decade.  Can't really blame them for not spreading the word though, as it's easy to imagine why they would want to keep such a delicious secret all to themselves.

Species-wise, royal red shrimp are not exactly new to our market.  These kind of shrimp are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, where our previous shipments have come from, and along the Atlantic Coast from Cape Cod, MA to French Guiana in South America.  Traditionally, we have received frozen-at-sea product from Florida, which is delicious in its own right and creates quite a stir when available.  The royal red shrimp fishery began off the coast of Florida in 1962 and, until this point in time, the only royal reds available in the D.C. area were caught in this fishery and shipped frozen.  However, we are now able to source fresh, never frozen product.  Combine that with the fact that they are coming from Connecticut and the season could last as long as 4-6 months, now that's something to tell your friends about.

Royal red shrimp are found in deep, extremely deep waters with depths ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet.  In Florida, you will find royal reds hiding in the dark expanse off of the Continental Shelf, and just like the royal reds from Florida, Connecticut reds are no different.  To harvest Connecticut reds fishermen must haul 12 hours and over a hundred miles to reach the Continental Shelf, where the shrimp can be harvested.  The fishery is a very small one.  Actually, as of 2007 only one boat, The Neptune, bothered fishing for the royal reds out of Stonington, CT.  That's fine by many, as the dearth of fishermen targeting these delicacies keeps them sustainable and primarily local.

The first thing you notice that is different about royal reds is their color.  Most shrimp do not turn an eye-pleasing red color until you cook them, but royal reds are true to their name in the fact that they are a flaming dahlia even before hitting a hot pan.  But you don't taste color, you taste flavor, and that is really where royal reds separate themselves from every other shrimp.  Royal reds are rich, almost like candied shellfish butter.  Think lobster sweetness, without the dense texture, with a succulent, yet crisp finish.  They are more delicate than the typical Gulf shrimp, so be evenhanded when cooking them, paying much attention not to overcook, as this can easily happen.  They don't need much in the way of seasoning, a little butter, salt, and pepper will go a long way.  If you are poaching them, be quick with it and don't leave them on too long.

Fresh shrimp are difficult to get to market because shrimp tend to spoil faster than fish, and most other seafood for that matter.  Shrimp harvested in the depths off of a Continental Shelf are even harder to get fresh.  This fact, coupled with their remarkable flavor, makes getting these fresh Connecticut reds even more special.  Right now there are many of the uninitiated walking the hot streets of Washington D.C., dinning on inferior seafood.  With the help of some good people from the north, and a little duplicity, we can enjoy some of the best shrimp available, while ensuring that a secret remains a secret.