Monday, July 23, 2012

A Slight Transition

I have parted company (very amicably) with Louisiana Foods in order to pursue an idea that just refuses to leave my head.  I owe a great debt to Jim Gossen and everyone at Louisiana Foods.  I learned an incredible amount about a great many things, and know that I am the wiser for it all.  Thank you all.  I hope that I opened a few eyes while I was there, and I am very gratified to know that the Louisiana Foods Total Catch Program continues strong- a testament to the commitment made by Jim and all at Louisiana Foods to be responsible stewards of the Gulf of Mexico.

This will be my last post on this blog.  While the blog was an independent project, it was nonetheless done while at Louisiana Foods, and I feel it should remain there.  The same goes for Total Catch wholesales.  This is a very important project, and I urge everyone to support it.

While I am not quite ready to discuss details on anything yet, I am still around, and working feverishly on a few projects.  I hope to be in the position to start some type of retail sales program within a month or two.

Please follow me on twitter ( @inourwaters ) and check the blog- for fish news, updates, information, etc.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

An Interlude on Thai Food and Eating

Note: I beg my readers' pardons, but this post has nothing to do with fish at all.  It was written a while back, and I never could find just what to do with it.  I kind of like it, so it's here.  

Seems like everyone loves Thai food, and this is unabashedly a good thing.  However,there is exceedingly little information in English, and most of what is available is fraught with inaccurate bits.  Thailand’s massive tourism industry (average of 15 million visitors a year to a country with a population of 65 million) has contributed to the confusion.  A lot of the food (and information) commonly available in country to tourists is watered down to a generally accepted standard.  And don’t even get me started on the “cooking schools”- some are stellar- most are not.  
Below are some insights.  Please do not take them to be absolutes or universal truths, but the bits that follow are accurate and have been vetted.

-Rice has of course always played a vital role in Thai culture and food.  More than 4000 varieties are native to the country, and archaeological sites around Ban Chang, in Udon Thani province (which is also the site of one of the oldest Bronze Age cultures found anywhere) suggest that rice has been eaten there for longer than most places- evidence for cultivation dates back several thousand years.  When one wishes to express the desire to eat, one says “gin khao[1]” (“eat rice”).  Similar rice-based expressions exist of course in Mandarin (“che fan”), Cantonese (“sik fan”) and most other cultures where rice plays as dominant a role. 
-Eating in Thailand is a social activity.  Food is best cooked, shared and eaten together.  The more people, the better the meal. 
-Whole fish and birds and large chunks of meat aside, rice actually should form the main component of one’s meal.  The dishes themselves are accompaniments to the rice. 
-When eating in a group, no matter what is ordered, and no matter by whom, everything is meant to be shared.  The food goes in the middle.  A plate of rice (not a bowl) goes at each person’s setting.  One should take a bit at a time from the dishes in the middle and place it on one’s own plate.  Eat with a spoonful of rice. 
-If one’s mouth is burning form too much heat, liquid makes it worse.  Eat a few spoonfuls of unadorned rice instead.  Or one can just keep eating until the plate is empty and attend to the damage later.
-Eating curry on its own is ridiculous and wasteful.  Please, eat with rice.  Same usually, though not always, goes with yam and laap (except when snacking- see below).  
-Thai food is intentionally made too highly flavored- because it will be consumed with rice, which tamps everything down considerably. 
-This is by now an obvious statement, but chopsticks only fill specific roles in Thai food.  When eating brothy noodles in a shop or stall, chopsticks are the usual implements.  Dry noddle dishes like Phat See Yu, Phat Kee Mao and Phat Thai go either way (usually chopsticks on the street, spoon and fork at home).  Aside from that, it isn’t done.  Thais themselves joke about their clumsiness with chopsticks.
-Traditionally, the only utensil at the table might have been a common soup spoon used to transport wet foods from the center bowl to an individual’s setting.  Beyond that, food was eaten with the hands.  Spoons and forks were introduced and popularized in the 19th century and the practice of eating jasmine rice with the hands has more or less disappeared.
 -However, the only logical way to eat sticky rice is with the hands.  There is nothing sadder than watching someone wrestle a wad of sticky rice with a fork and spoon.  Sticky rice is more commonly consumed in the North and Northeast, and rarely (outside of snacks) in the Center or South.  To eat sticky rice:  take a chunk of rice out of the communal receptacle and knead into a ball in your hand.  Tear off a smaller chunk, and knead that into a ball.  Dip the small ball in one of the common dishes and eat.  Or, flatten the small ball of rice, and use as a spoon.
 -One should of course only use the Right hand when taking food from a communal plate (as a Southpaw, this one has always been quite difficult for me). 
-When using a fork and spoon, remember that the spoon is the dominant utensil, and is held by the hand which would normally hold the fork at a Western table.  The fork is held in the ‘knife hand’, and is used to shovel food towards the spoon.  One uses the spoon exclusively to bring the food to one’s mouth (but see below for snacking). There will not be a need for a knife at any Thai table.  If a big piece of meat is on the table, it will be dismembered by hand , spoon, and fork.
-When eating freshly steamed sticky rice, the grains will often stick to the hands.  This is remedied by rubbing the hands with a small piece of fatty gristle plucked from one of the grilled or fried meats or fish. 
-Raw pig’s blood keeps for a surprisingly long time unrefrigerated in tropical heat, so go ahead and try the Gui Tiao Nam Tok.  
-If you like what you are eating, say “aroy” in the Central part of country; “saep” in the Northeast; and “lahm” in the North.  Believe it or not, these are three of the most important words you can know, especially if you find yourself farther away from the Big City.  Sharing food is a fundamental element of Thai politeness and hospitality, and you will make many friends (and amuse lots of folks) by using these words.   Many apologies, but I do not know the Jawi equivalent.
-There are no courses in Thai food.  No matter what is ordered, the food will come out when it is ready, not in any pre-determined order.   
-There are not really desserts at all in Thai food.  Fruit is dessert, almost always.  Sweets are considered snacks (“kanom”) and are eaten throughout the day.  This explains why so many Thai restaurants have the same tired desserts.  The ubiquitous mango and sticky rice is a snack.
-Yes, millions of tourists from all over the globe come to Thailand every year.  And yes, English is something of a lingua franca.   If you are looking for the best food, though, you will need someone who a) speaks Thai; and b) knows where to go.  For example- Khao soi is a Chiang Mai specialty, and there is one restaurant that is considered to be the undisputed khao soi king.  This restaurant certainly does not advertise in English, and they don’t really advertise in Thai either.   
-Yes, it is a stereotype, but politeness is a big deal in Thai culture.  When in doubt, smile.  When angry, smile.  When confused, smile.  Trust me on this.
-The above cannot be stressed enough.
-There are really no breakfast foods in Thailand.  Khao Tom and Jok are commonly eaten in the morning, but they are not necessarily confined to morning.  One is just as likely to find someone eating fried chicken, sticky rice, and Nam Prik (which is one of the best breakfasts to be had in Chiang Mai). 
-When you order PhatThai, Phat See Yuu, or other dry noodle dishes, please remember this:  The dish is not seasoned when it reaches your table.    Thai noodle dishes are not meant to be bland- rather the eater is meant to season to his or her taste.  Seasoning your noodles is essential.  This goes for Thai restaurants in Thailand and America.  Nothing is worse than unadorned Thai noodle dishes.  In Thailand, no table in a noodle shop is complete without the bowls of seasoning (ground dry chilis, sugar, vinegar with or without chilis, and fish sauce with or without chilis).  Even with take-away orders, there will always be several little plastic bags, each bag full of one of the necessary condiments.  Add one or all of these components to the dish to make it yours.  I cannot fathom how anyone could ever like Phat Thai or Phat See Yuu exactly as they are served.   Thai restaurants in America serve the same bland noodle dishes, but without the seasonings.  If you ask, however, they can and will always be provided.  Thais tend to sweeten their Phat Thai to a ridiculous degree.  Very spicy and cloyingly sweet.
-There should be quite a bit of oil on the surface of a curry.  If it is not there, the dish wasn’t made correctly.
-Green papaya salad is considered to be originally a Lao[2] dish (approximately 35% of the country is ethnically Lao- the whole Northeast, a region collectively called Isaan).  In the rest of Thailand, it is called Som Tam, and is made with fresh chilis and fish sauce.  In the Northeast, it is always made with dried chilis and fermented fish- and they call it Tam Som.   Som Tam is spicy and sweet.  Tam Som is exceedingly pungent and fiery hot (and a little sweet).
-Thai food is almost always served warm or around room temperature.  With the exceptions of Khao Tom and Jok, food doesn’t need to be very hot. 
-Traditionally, most food is cooked on a grill or in a wok over charcoal.
-All beef is cooked just about well-done….or eaten raw.  There is very little in between.  Medium rare beef is for western establishments serving steaks (and I would advise against most steaks in Thailand).  When making Thai food in America, it is imperative that the leanest cuts of beef be used, and even then the meat will be too soft.  Cattle in Thailand are skinny, and the meat is ultra lean- almost tough to the western tongue.  The best beef we have found so far in Texas for Thai food is grass-fed Longhorn or Brahman (most cattle in Thailand are also Brahman).   
-Use the clay or wooden mortar for crushing garlic or making salads.  Use the stone for curry pastes and spices. 
-Thai people love to eat sour unripe fruit, especially mango and tamarind.  Eat with a mix of sugar and ground dry chilis (and sometimes fish sauce).  The fruit is meant to be so sour as to make the mouth water and pucker.   
-As for pork, see above about beef. It is quite difficult to find an equivalent taste in the supermarket here- Thai pigs are smaller and fed a much different diet (closer to what pigs in this country were fed decades ago- massive amounts of mixed organic waste).  Best bet here would be pastured pigs or feral hogs up to 50 lbs. dressed.  Pork is occasionally served highly marinated and uncooked as goi muu.    
-Concerning chicken, use smaller, leaner birds.  Not rooster lean exactly- closer to layer lean.  The breast is generally the least desirable part of the chicken.  Hack up thighs and legs for curries and stir-fries.
-Not all Thai food is spicy, though most is highly flavored.  Phat Pong Gali Bu is a marvel of competing flavors, with only very mild heat.  Adding too much chili heat destroys the flavor.
-Thai people never stop eating.  Sweets, noodles, fruits, crunchy bits (chips, pork skin, green fruit, grilled sticky rice cakes), and salads can all be kanom- though anything and everything may serve in a pinch. Salads (think papaya salad or yam) are generally eaten without rice when snacking, and forks seem to be the weapon of choice. 
-Thai apartments rarely have kitchens or kitchen nooks or anything except a fridge (if one is willing to pay the extra rent for it).  No cooking at all may be done in those apartments, which is why the open markets are always so stocked with prepared foods.  This is not street food- it is a meal.  These markets provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and kanom) for the majority of city dwellers.   Most apartments have tiny balconies though, and you would be surprised how much cooking can be done with an electric wok, a rice cooker, and eight square feet.
-Phat Thai , dried squid, fried meatballs, fried fishballs, grilled sausages, roti (not exactly the Indian kind), cut fruit, pickled fruit, salted fruit- these are street foods.
-Fruit plays a huge role in Thai eating.  Lots of fruit, all the time.
-In Thai homes- or at least village homes- meals are eaten on a mat on the floor.  Never wear shoes on the mat, and never walk on the mat (even barefooted).  Don’t point the soles of your feet towards another person.
-When Thai people say “worms” they usually mean “maggots”. 

[1] The Thai alphabet has 44 consonants, 36 vowels, and several tone markers, which makes for great difficulties when transliterating from Thai to English.  The Mandarin Chinese pinyin system is efficient and quite elegant, but unfortunately, no universal equivalent exists for Thai (there is a formally accepted system, but it is not consistently used).  So, all spellings of Thai words in this article are of my own devising according to sound (the Mandarin training takes over sometimes).  Tones are not marked in spellings.

[2] “Laos” is the English word for the country.  Don’t pronounce the “s”.  The common English word for the people, language, and culture of Laos is “Laotian”, which is awkward.  The word used in Laos and Thailand   is “Lao”.  Lao people, Lao food, Lao culture.  Much prettier and more elegant.  

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Ridiculously Small Bean Clam

A few years ago, I was on a trip to the beach with my wife and son (B wasn't around yet) and two of my oldest friends their daughter and son.  The kids being little creatures, they were pretty much confined to the edge of the tidal zone-  that few feet the waves lick, and occasionally cover, but where they never stay for long.  It being summer, life abounded in this patch of beach, and the most populous animal by far were tiny bean clams.  Millions of them.  As the kids gathered massive piles of them, Andy mentioned that he and Kristie had eaten very similar clams whilst in Spain.  I was intrigued, but that was that.  I ate them for the first time only last year, and since then I have been more than a little upset that I had ignored this wonderful food for so long.

In their live state- notice the stubby siphons
Of all the shellfish we have here, Donax variabilis, or bean clams (otherwise known as coquinas) are by far the easiest to harvest.  They live in tidally exposed areas of sandy beaches, where they huddle closely together in vast numbers.  They live only a few centimeters under the sand, and they are easy to spot. If you have ever found yourself on a Texas beach any time from late spring to late summer during an ebbing or flowing of the tide, you have seen them in the millions.  They look like little very polished triangular pebbles, though on closer inspection the hinge, foot, and siphons are typically clam-like.  Each is brilliantly colored and patterned, and no two match.  Color ranges from pink to brown to green to blue to orange...and everything in between.  Sometimes there are two competing colors.  Some bean clams have vertical stripes, some have horizontal stripes, and yes, some are plaid (hence the species handle variabilis). Happily, all sizes and colors taste good.

Members of the genus Donax occur all over the world, and are eaten over most of their range.  The French call them olives or haricots de mer.  The Italians call them tellina or arsella, while they are coquinas in Spain and hoy siap in Thailand.  They are eaten in all of those places.  According to Alan Davidson, some Italians claim that no other clam is capable of making as good a soup.  Bean clams are delicacies in those regions in which they occur- and rightly so.  Why do we not claim this humble clam as a delicacy of our own?

Commercial harvesting is simply not an option at this time.  Like so many other wonderful foods from the Gulf of Mexico, if you want to eat it, you must get it for yourself.  All you need to do is obtain a saltwater recreational fishing license and follow the rules (incidentally, I don't care for the broad term "recreational"- we fish for the table).  There is no limit specifically on the bean clam, but in general, a person may take up to 25 lbs. of clams a day (all it says is clams, and since the bean clam is a clam, I am going with the clam rule).   If there are between 200-300 clams to the pound (and I have never remembered to weigh them live to verify this), then 25 pounds is approximately is about 5000-7500 clams!

It would seem that taking that many clams at a time could in no way be a responsible (or possible) thing to do.  Normally when foraging for shellfish, I follow the rule of 3- take at most every third specimen of a particular species that I see.  Last week, I took my limit two days in a row, each day in less than 15 minutes and I estimate that I took maybe one one-hundredth of one percent of what we saw.  I mean that as literally as one may mean an estimate.  The numbers are staggering.  When they are thick, one can walk in a few inches of water for hundreds of feet thinking that the beach is covered in pebbles, not sand.  Those pebbles are bean clams.  And greater numbers are found a few feet off shore.

Bean clams are easy to spot on the beach, even if they are not lying exposed.  In the tidal zone, after the waves wash, look for millions of tiny holes or dents in the sand- each hole is maybe a centimeter across.  The holes will be tightly packed, and sometimes they are almost indistinguishable from each other.  Dig into the sand and you will find the coquinas a couple of centimeters below the surface (this is another advantage we have over the poor creature- its siphons are quite short, so it must stay very close to the surface to survive).  They dig very quickly in short bursts, but only in short bursts, so they will be just covered under the sand.  Sometimes colonies can be found by watching those "pebbles" on the beach dig themselves back in after a wave has exposed them.

The easiest harvest method involves simply an empty crawfish or oyster sack, two hands, and some waves.  If you don't have a crawfish or oyster sack, then any fine-mesh large sack will do.  A shovel could be used in place of hands, but hands are faster.  Open the sack, and then start dumping handfuls of the sand into the bag.  When the bag is full, tie it, and put it in the surf for a few seconds.  Let the waves run through, and when the bag is lifted out, all of the sand has gone, and the clams remain.  If you plan to be at the beach all day, harvest the clams as early in the morning as you can.  After you have your limit, tie the bag tightly, fasten it to some kind of frame (lashed together PVC, driftwood, etc) in the surf, so that the bag is always covered with water, but off of the bottom if at all possible.  Leave the bag there all day, then when you go home, your bean clams will be at least partially depurated (they tend to be a bit sandy- more on that later).

Now, on to cooking and eating.  In California about a century ago, a fishery developed for the bean clam they have over there.  The processors were not interested in the meat (remember these are tiny animals), but rather in the juice.  There are few clams that possess a sweeter nectar than the humble bean clam.  The liquid is opaque and cream-colored, slightly more viscous than common clam liquid.  It is uncommonly sweet.  In a very large pot, steam about 5 pounds of clams with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Pour off the resulting broth through a coffee filter.  Your first batch is done.   From the 50 pounds I gathered this weekend, I got right around a gallon of pure liquid.  Amazing in soups, sauces, chowders, anything.  According to Euell Gibbons, when camping at the beach, hot bean clam nectar is better than coffee to get the morning started correctly.

It has to be said at this point that a very simple way to enjoy them is to cook them whole with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, then eat the broth with rice or pasta, fishing out the larger of the bean clams for further eating.  I admit, that is amazingly good.

There is meat, though no one would be so patient as to pick through thousands of tiny clam shells to pick bits of meat weighing a few grams each.  It was only this last time around that I finally devised a decent system for extracting meats.  Forewarning- it's a bit tedious, though not nearly as much as the alternative.

to the right, a leaf of parsely; to the left about 20-30 clams
After the first extraction of liquid, you will need two large pots- the bigger the better.  Ideally, each pot will be big enough to hold all of the shells and enough water to cover by at least eight inches.  You will also need a large skimmer or sieve.  It needs to be as large as possible, while still small enough to fit into and strain the contents of the pots you've chosen. Also, and crucially: the skimmer must be able to nest in the top of the pots, no bigger, no smaller. A very generous amount of salt makes the whole deal a bit easier, but is not absolutely necessary.
each green dot is the gut of a clam
Fill one pot no more than half fulls with the clams.  Cover by half with water and bring to a strong boil.  Continue to cook at a brisk boil for about 10 minutes.  Do not worry about the meats toughening- beans clam meats are about the most forgiving shellfish meats, because even when very much overcooked, they are so small that they are still a bit soft.  Place the skimmer over the empty pot and pour through quickly but carefully- a lot of the meats will be floating in the water, and you want to wash all loose meats out, while keeping all shell in the bottom of the pot. Place the collected meats into a bowl. Pour the resultant broth into another container and put aside (this may be boiled down by half later with good results). Fill the empty pot with water.  If you are using salt, add and dissolve enough to make a potato float (the salt helps keep the more buoyant meats afloat at or near the surface).  Pour the water over the clams in the other pot.  Place the skimmer over the mouth of the empty pot.  Agitate the clams from the bottom of the pot, rubbing the clams through your hands, as if rubbing the skins off roasted peanuts.  Stir briskly, and then pour the broth again into the empty pot, being careful as before to pour quickly enough to trap all floating meats, but not so quickly to as to empty the shells into the skimmer.  If you successful with this, you should get close to a cup of meats with each pour...however don't count on being successful for awhile.  In all, it takes up to 10 repetitions to get the majority of the meats out.  Stop collecting when you've had enough, NOT when you have all the meats- you will never  get all the meat.

When you're done, soak the meats for at least a day in the clam liquid.  This will help work out any remaining sand (and they tend to sandiness if you don't pay attention).   After they have soaked, strain the liquid again through a coffee filter, and store.  The meats might have a little bit of sand still, but not too bad.  They are quite sweet, with a light and clean flavor which makes me think 'chlorophyll' every time I taste them.

The meats are great in chowder of course.  If you have extra clam or oyster shells around, they make great stuffing.  They also make good stuffing for small chickens or quail.  With a bit of egg, they are fritters.  With a bit more egg, you have hoy tawd.  Use them in pasta sauces.  Pickle them.  Salt and smoke them.  A colleague suggested ceviche, and I slapped myself for not thinking of it first.

You will probably not feel up to preparing them very often, but once a year or two, go down to the beach and get some bean clams.  They are, after all, delicacies.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Why Bycatch?

     I started running fish from the Texas coast almost 5 years ago.  Before that, the Gulf of Mexico was really just a place on the map, one that I had visited a few times in my life but without ever taking away any enduring memories.  I had no particular reason to get involved with fish- I have never had any family in the fishing trades, nor did I come from a hunting and fishing family, nor did I grow up near the coast.  To say that five years ago I knew very little about the seafood of the Gulf of Mexico would be over-generous.  Once, before I starting dealing fish, as I was turning over the idea in my head, I found myself in the retail store of a dock in Freeport.  In a brown tote, covered with wet oyster sacks, was a mass of live crabs.  I couldn't believe my luck!  Those crabs looked very similar to those used in Thailand for, among other things, phat pong gali bpu.  I had found curry crabs!  It was a couple of weeks before I read enough to realize that they were Callinectes sapidus- common blue crabs- one of the most traditional of Gulf seafoods, and one of the most valuable.  I realized I had much learning to do. 
     If I am being completely honest, I would have to confess that I decided to try my hand with fish not because of a far-sighted mission, but because, after 5 years out of the country, I was....lost, and beginning to suspect that Thomas Wolfe had been right all along (he was, of course).
      I moved to Austin in 1995 to attend UT in pursuance of a degree in Mandarin Chinese.  A couple of years later I switched to English and History, intending to become a high school teacher.  This was not to be.  I started cooking, ostensibly to pay school bills, but really because I had a hunch that I really didn't want to teach high school.  I finally quite university (though I did graduate several years later).  After a few years working in kitchens in Austin, I moved to France, where I got a position though a chef I had worked for in Austin.  I stayed in Aix en Provence for little more than a year, though I walked off the job after 9 months.  France and French food left me a bit cold.
     Then, after a couple of months back in Texas, I moved to Thailand.   My move was the result of a situation that does not bear mentioning here.  Suffice to say that I wound up in Chiang Mai.  After more than three years spent there, I had come to realize that what we ate back home was a mere sliver of the entire spectrum of edibility.  If it grows in Thailand and can be rendered safe to eat, someone is enjoying it.  While there wasn't much seafood (we lived in the North always, and I never once saw the famous beaches), the available freshwater fish more than compensated.  It was there that I first learned to love tilapia, which had been introduced into Thai rivers a half century before in order to provide a cheap, readily-available source of protein.   It was there also that I came to appreciate freshwater crustaceans as well- especially the freshwater prawns farmed in tiny ponds near Chiang Rai and the little wild ghost shrimp, typically eaten alive in the famous goong dtan.  River snails, rice field snails, land crabs, eels, carp, snakehead, several types of catfish, as well as more than a dozen other fish species-  these made up our 'seafood'. Of course, the bounty didn't stop at the water's edge. 
     I returned to the US after several years' absence and found that my whole approach to food had radically changed.  It wasn't that I had made a study of it- rather, to put it simply, I learned how to eat in Thailand.
     Orginally, I went after the 'bycatch' and exotic species because those were the only fish I could make something on without dealing in large volumes.  After all, it was only me, some Igloos, and the pickup (which had replaced the original Honda Odyssey).  300 lbs. of Almaco Jacks meant I would make at least a little money that day.  300 lbs. of Red Snapper meant that I would barely break even.  After a few years, bycatch had become my calling card.
     But why bycatch?  Why other species? Bycatch and alternative species simply for their own sake is missing the point. Why are we eating and promoting the eating of bycatch and alternative species?  Is it just for the sake of something new?  Is it just to test the boundaries?  For me, the answer is simple.  The fishery resources of the Gulf are finite, but fished and managed rationally, the Gulf can provide us and future generations with large and dependable supplies of highly nutritious protein. Rational management and rational fishing means elimination of waste from bycatch and high-grading.  It means well-regulated multi-species fisheries.  It means small allowable catches of some species, and larger quotas of those fish which are most resilient to fishing pressure.  It means responsible methods of harvest.  It also means rational use of the animals landed, a subject I briefly touched on in the last post.
     All management and stewardship means nothing, however, if no one wants to eat the fish. Most easily harvested fish can be eaten, and most of those edible species can withstand some fishing pressure (provided, of course that the management is in place and effective).  The trick is to get regulatory agencies on board, and the fishermen catching and the public buying at the same time.  Some progress has been made, but much work remains.  What follows is a few words about bycatch and why it is important.      
     Please do not misunderstand-  I love new foods, and I love to eat all kinds of fish, but that alone is not enough to go after new species.  After all, I am positive that dolphin would taste good, and I would hypothetically, completely divorced from all context, eat dolphin. But in the world we inhabit, I have never had it, and won't be eating it. We need to eat rationally and always aware that the fish on our plates actually came from somewhere after all.  
     Before discussing bycatch, one unique Gulf fishery deserves mention.  It is the largest single fishery by weight in the Gulf of Mexico: Menhaden (Brevoortia patronus). Not directly consumed by humans anymore, menhaden (AKA pogy, shad) are members of the herring family and are bony and oily (sometimes upwards of 22%) like all herrings.   Their oiliness means they are an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids (a great many menhaden end up in those fancy omega-3 supplements).  They are harvested in mind-numbing quantities and processed into fishmeal and fish oil and fish-related products. The 2010 harvest amounted to 837,298,035 lbs......which was a decrease from previous years. Continual harvests of that size are a really bad thing- menhaden happen to fulfill a few pretty vital links in the whole Gulf ecosystem and food chains.  Two centuries ago, the Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) was considered an excellent eating fish, and Menhaden roe is traditionally preserved along the middle Eastern Seaboard.  Menhaden meat also shows promise as a surimi analog.  Seems like a far more rational approach would be much reduced harvests, at higher prices, with the catches going to nourishing humans directly. 
     On to bycatch:  When used in fisheries circles, the term 'bycatch' refers to one of two things.  The first is the most obvious- animals other than the targeted species, caught as a result of relatively indiscriminate fishing methods.  Most fisheries contend with these kind of bycatch issues to some extent, but any method using dragged nets is about the most indiscriminate, following by any gear that is very large (longlines stretching tens of miles or massive seine net operations).  The most high-profile bycatch of this sort in the Gulf of Mexico is Red Snapper juveniles caught in offshore shrimp nets.
     The second meaning of the term 'bycatch' has to do with discards of targeted species for reasons of size and market value.  It has not, for some reason, become as important to the general fish-buying public- though for hook and line fisheries, it is a far more important class of bycatch. Commercial Snapper fishermen are prohibited by law, for example, from keeping snapper under a certain size.  With modern gear, fish are brought to the surface of the water so quickly and efficiently that their swim bladders must be punctured before returning to the water, or else they will list to one side on the surface of the water, waiting to become someone's lunch. So using an approved tool, the fisherman punctures the swim bladder....but if the fishing is good (and it usually is), then there's a lot of fish to have to deal with, and it is entirely possible that the process will not get done right on each (or even most) animals.  Even if the fish are punctured correctly, they are still usually disoriented while going back down to the sea floor where they reside- in other words, they are just waiting to be someone's lunch.  Sometimes wounds from imperfect bladder puncturing become infected, and the fish eventually just lies around, waiting to, you guessed it, become someone's lunch. This is a bad thing because little fish haven't had a chance to reproduce, and fisheries management is predicated upon fish surviving to spawn at least once.  If the fish don't get to reproduce, then the whole management scheme stops working, and catches will quickly outpace the ability of stocks to rebuild themselves. 
     Still keeping with Snapper, while little fish are thrown back because they are illegal, large fish are also thrown back because they tend to bring a much lower market price.  This type of bycatch should more accurately be described as 'high-grading'. Captains fishing Red Snapper (as well as any grouper and any tilefish) in the Gulf of Mexico may only catch a fixed number of pounds in a year.  If, for example, a quota holder has been allotted 75,000 lbs. by the federal government, then he may catch only that much in a year. The fisherman must get as much as he can for each pound because he can't just keep going back out, loading the boat up, and making money on volume.  The quota system is partially designed to render the fish more valuable per pound and eliminate the volume gluts.  Captains would be happy to keep big fish, if they could sell them for the right price.  Because after all, a Red Snapper is a Red Snapper. Unfortunately, past fishing practices and subsequent public perceptions have made selling big Snappers a bit difficult.  For several decades, the average Red Snapper landed at American docks yielded more or less 'plate-sized portions' (meaning a 6-8 ounce fillet, which would be cut from a fish that weighed around two to three pounds).  This was not a result of high-grading, but because the stocks had been so overfished for so long that there were relatively few larger fish.  Consumers, whether chefs or the general public, were (and still are) mostly unaware of this because the market came to accommodate the catch. Over the course of more than a generation, fish buyers came to expect that small size as 'normal'.  The problem with all that was that Red Snappers live several decades (40 years or more), and will weigh as much as 14 pounds by age 8.  It has been suggested that these larger fish should be returned to the water at all costs, as they are the big breeding sows.  This is a tempting way to look at the problem, but it turns out that those sows have the same issues as little fish when returned to water.  A high mortality rate, especially in a commercial fishery, must be expected.
     With all of this in mind, we come to a far more nuanced and accurate picture of fisheries and bycatch, one where the bycatch question becomes suddenly more urgent.  What to do?
     The answer for bycatch of targeted species, i.e. Red Snapper, is relatively straightforward, at least on paper.  All fish should be retained, no matter how big or small.  In order to prevent over-harvesting of small or large fish, boats could be required to move a given number of miles from one fishing area if a rough percentage (say 5%) of the catch coming up is either under or over a certain size.  This sounds complicated, but it has been implemented in, for example, Iceland (in a multi-species fishery).  Closer vessel monitoring would have to be achieved, but this really seems a small price to pay for sustainable fisheries.  After all, you can't buy meat in this country unless it has been slaughtered in a USDA-inspected facility.
     For bycatch consisting of non-targeted species, the answers tend to be the same, at least in broad strokes.  Everything should be kept.  Everything should be landed.  Finding outlets for the species is more or less challenging, depending on the fishery and method of harvest.  For hook and line fisheries (almost all finfish), the bycatch species caught tend to be relatively easy to market.  Difficulties exist for those animals with odd skin or odd bone structure or odd meat color, but nothing substantial.  Close to 100% of this bycatch is directly edible.
    Trawl bycatch (specifically shrimp in the Gulf) is a different matter, and one requiring a suite of complicated solutions.  Given that more than 65 species make up white shrimp bycatch, and probably twice that number make up offshore shrimp bycatch, finding markets and outlets is quite a task.  Most white shrimp (inshore) bycatch is directly edible, and the majority of offshore bycatch is also. Oily fish, white fish, flatfish, crustaceans, shellfish, gastropods, cephalopods, jellyfish-  all of these are found in abundance in Gulf shrimp nets.  For those species for which no markets may be found, uses still exist.  Norwegian regulations, for example, require trawlers to retain the whole catch. Bycatch that is not directly edible by humans is bought by the government at guaranteed prices (low, but rational) for use in fish meal and fish oil production.  I am aware of arguments against such government involvement, but those arguments generally don't make sense to me.  Government exists for exactly this kind of situation- rational use of common resources.  The water, the coastline, the fish-  they belong to all of us after all.  
     It is a decade-long project to achieve anything like this, and management agencies do not generally like these kinds of ideas, as regulations and enforcement become increasingly complicated.  But it can all be accomplished.  There are too many people walking around on this earth for us all to eat boneless white fish our entire lives.  We either stop eating seafood, or we get ourselves used to eating seafood rationally.  Let’s learn to eat the total catch.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

from fish lips to fried fins

These days one sees offal and variety meats with some consistency on local menus, and this is a good thing, for surely the whole animal should be used. Admittedly, the choice of offal is still relatively limited and consumption is viewed as exotic, but in general, the direction is the right one. Eating of offal and variety meats in the US had been dying out in the last generation or two- beyond the very occasional liver and onions, organs and offal were certainly not a part of the landscape growing up in my house (though mine was the first generation not to be familiar with offal). Happily, though, we have seen something of an 'entrail Renaissance' in the past decade. European cuisine, with a stronger emphasis on offal has, in various guises in various places, helped to legitimize off-cuts, especially in light of the American 'discovery' of authentic European traditions in the past few decades. The American restaurant patron is also a different creature from 20 years ago, and not only is prepared for, but strongly expects certain ingredients, cuts, and preparations. Again, this the right direction.

Nonetheless, this renaissance is largely limited to feathered and furred animals. The boneless fillet is still the standard in the fish business. Chefs pride themselves on their wide selection of fish, but, with very few exceptions, the plate presented to the diner will contain a boneless fillet or steak of fish. More and more restaurants have whole fish on their menus, and this is also a good thing, but the fish body is nothing more than a vehicle for those same fillets.

Why is this? To begin with, we are not a fish eating country. Even coastal areas in the US tend to be less fish-focused than similar cities elsewhere in the world, and inland areas have only in recent years found dependable sources of fresh seafood. As a result, not only patrons but chefs as well tend to be much less comfortable with fish than with meat. I write this not as an accusation, but as a statement of fact, and I believe that most chefs would agree with the assessment. So relative unfamiliarity with fish in general would pretty much guarantee the same for fish offal and by-cuts.

So what parts does a fish have, and which of them taste good? The only parts for which I have found no culinary use whatsoever are the gills and scales. I have found, after much reading, research, and tasting of evil concoctions, that the rest are good eating, in some way or another. Folks around the world already know this, and it's time we all realized it too. After all, it is a much more rational use of a wild resource.....

What follows below is an introduction. Each part is given brief treatment here- this post is intended to be the first in a series on the issue, exploring in some depth the possibilities of offal and by-cuts. Future posts will explore one cut or part in detail, with culinary uses in other cuisines, histories, facts, preparation, and broad recipes. Look for a new post weekly.

In this series of posts, you will find references to a good number of very familiar fish. This is no accident. Snapper, grouper, tuna, drum- all are commodities, and so cuts from these species will be more readily available. I have intentionally stuck to more well known species.

FISH LIPS- Not all fish are large enough nor equipped with the right lips for cooking. Chinese connoisseurs claim that groupers and some sciaenids (croakers) produce the best lips and it is difficult to argue the point, given the shape of the lips and the size that some of those fish attain. Certainly our common black drum produces nice lips, especially if the fish is over 10 pounds. Regardless of species, the lips are either brined and dried or used fresh. Fried, they make an interesting addition to any soup, though they are just as good on their own, or with a nice salad. Lips may be presented with the bones in, or as picked meat.

EYEBALLS- I really enjoy eyeballs from small fish, when they are fried. However, I have never cared much for the eye from any animal more than a few pounds, neither finned nor furred nor feathered. The taste is good, but the texture is just not for me. Fish weighing one pound or less produce superior eyeballs, both in terms of taste and texture. Especially good are those from whole fish that have been salted and fried (I learned this through several years of copious consumption of pla dtu).

FINS- Fried very crisp, the fins from certain fish make very good snacks. Flounder fins are of course the most well-known, but small grunts work just as well. Caudal fins make good eating even from bigger fish (up to two pounds).

CHEEKS- This is an easy one, and certainly the most common 'off-cut'- Halibut and Toothfish cheeks are almost commodities now, and groundfish cheeks have been the 'fishermen's cut' for a very long time indeed. Some fish have more pronounced cheeks than others, but most fish weighing at least 10 pounds will have nice cheeks. Cheeks from slightly smaller fish (4-10 lbs.) are more work and almost as rewarding. Anything smaller than that would be best dealt with using the entire head (of which more follows below).

COLLARS- Depending on the fish and the market form, one will eat either collar or throat. Both have parts in common, and essentially refer to the same cut.
THROATS- These are one of the easiest cuts to prepare. Simply grill, fry, roast, or steam (if you fry or grill the throats, please see the comment above concerning fins). There is one central bone which is easy to pick out.

INTESTINES- Squeezing intestines is never a pleasant task, though cleaning fish intestines is certainly better than cleaning hog gut. After initial preparation and soaking in salt water, the intestines are ready. Chop them for use in stuffings, soups or stir-fries, or deep-fry.

SPINAL MARROW- We are obviously talking about marrow from a fish at least 15 lbs. While spinal marrow may be harvested from all fish, the task is overly tedious when dealing with small fish. From a blackfin or yellowfin tuna weighing at least 25 lbs., the spines break easily, and provide enough marrow to make the exercise profitable. Not all large fish produce tasty marrow, but tunas and their relations are consistently good, as are most jacks and other pelagic species. Excellent almost beyond description when exceedingly fresh and raw, and damn good roasted or poached.

RIBS- This is another cut that may only be had from a limited number of fish. Probably the most famous fish ribs are those from the humble Buffalo, a filter-feeding freshwater fish allied to the carp. Buffalo ribs have fanatic followers in some parts of the South and Southeast. The ribs are rather elongated, and the meat is thick at that point of the fish. Eat them separated into individual ribs and deep-fried. I have also found that decent-sized to large warsaw groupers yield very nice ribs (see the first post on this blog for more on that). Cobias produce possibly the tastiest ribs, and the fish doesn't have to be very large for good rib chops.

SWIM BLADDER- This is the thick-walled white sack which is found against the ribs in the upper reaches of the gut cavity- fish use them in order to remain neutrally buoyant. This is also what you are eating if you order fish maw soup at a Chinese restaurant. Use them fresh by frying them first and adding them for a unique taste and texture in soups or salads (they taste and feel eerily similar to the bit of skin right on top of a chicken drumstick, the little piece with meat firmly attached). Or, brine and sun dry them. They do not taste fishy at all when fresh, and barely fishy when dried.

LIVERS- Most fish livers deserve praise...while others are best regarded at arm's length. Find out for yourself. Triggerfish livers in particular are very good. Good fish liver may be treated exactly as chicken livers, though bear in mind the liver is a tiny bit more watery. Use them to finish rustic sauces for fish, or even as part of the protein in a mayonnaise.

OTHER ENTRAILS - two little words: tai pla. easy to make, easy to use, smells like death, tastes like heaven.

SKIN- Scaled skin is fried crisp and well salted. That is pretty much all that is needed (except for maybe an aioli). They make pretty good wrappers for containing all sorts of stuffings as well.

GALL BLADDER- Just like a pig, though the size of most fish makes gathering enough bile problematic. However, a large enough fish (10 lbs. and up) will yield enough bile for a small amount of sauce (which is more than enough- as they used to say, "a little dab will do you"). More on the wonders of gall bladder bile later...

HEADS- Some fish heads are best in soup (snapper, grouper, whitefish), while others seem intended for the grill (think tunas, mackerels, cobia). However, what about a more complex dish, where a head (or heads) was the focus of the dish (I am thinking of the Scottish Krappin Heid here)? Stuffed fish heads are the future.

BACKBONES If the fish butcher is competent, there will not be much meat left on the backbone (unless we're talking salmon, of course). However, properly treated, the dressed and cooked frames make an agreeable snack to be picked at by everyone at the table. I would suggest lightly battering the frames prior to frying.

fertilizer- When all edible possibilities have been exhausted, and you are left with nothing but gills, scales, and picked-over bones, then bury with dignity those remains. Might as well let the worms and ants have their shot too.

Look for the first installment- "Swim Bladders"- in the next few days.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

....finally, the Beardfish

I have had the good luck to eat, buy, sell, and trade a great number of Gulf species, and I am as a firm rule familiar with them all. Some fish, though, manage to slip through the cracks, as it were, and I never seem to get around to learning as much as I should about them. I came across such a fish today. It is a strange looking creature whose physical features proclaim loudly that it is a deepwater groundfish. I have seen them many times, and have enjoyed them at the table all too often (strange fish don't always sell, and when one is a self-employed fishmonger, one tends to eat the unsold inventory). They are unique in every way, from appearance to taste- though these very same unique traits call to mind other, more familiar, fruits of the sea. But first, an introduction:

Meet Polymixia lowei, commonly known simply as the Beardfish. No other common names exist (in print) in English. Colloquially on the Texas coast they are known alternately as 'barrel grouper', 'driftfish', 'black driftfish', 'ditchfish', or 'black ditchfish'. And therein lies the root of my nomenclature problem. All of the aforementioned common names apply more properly to other species in the families Nomeidae and Centrolophidae- aka the Barrelfishes, Ruffs, Driftfishes, and Medusafishes. For the better part of three years I was unable to give this fish a proper name- until today, when I finally found it, hidden in the middle of Volume I of Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico (page 693). Obviously, my search was sparked by the arrival of a few specimens, and given the quality and quantity, I deemed further investigation necessary.

Beardfish (another example of a bad name for a good fish) are rather solitary bottom (benthic) fish which live in depths of several hundred to more than 1500 feet. Given this, it would not be wrong to assume that these fish are brought to market almost exclusively by boats deepwater longlining for grouper and tilefish. Their solitary nature prevents them from being targeted, so over-exploitation by hook and line (the only type of grouper gear legal in the Gulf) is not so much an issue. In fact, they are rarely enough taken that a grouper boat might only catch a few in several trips, and those few caught are discarded or used for bait (and they make poor bait). I have no problem with their use as bait, but discarding them is ridiculous, especially as the quality of the meat surely has market potential, even with wildly inconsistent catches. All of this is to say that they are a pretty good choice if you are looking to eat fish rationally. On to the description-

The eyes are large, and the chin features two prominent barbels, or whiskers- hence the name. The Beardfish also has a curiously blunted snout, pronounced underbite, and seemingly toothed lips. All of this together makes Polymixia lowei one odd fish. The family (Polymixiidae) is made up of a few other species of beardfish, and the family as a whole has no close relations. Due to some supposed superficial resemblances, they were formerly sometimes placed within the Berycid family (the most well-known member of which is the Alfonsino). However, the classification has fallen by the side, and now Polymixiformes are considered to be an independent family.

You might notice a few other odd things about the Beardfish, including the large bit of meat extending over the large 'forehead' (see picture). Though that bit cannot be cut out easily (large bones prevent it), it means that the heads are excellent ingredients for the grill or a soup. The fish cuts like most other fish, with large familiar shaped fillets.
Note also the very black belly. Never fear, this is nothing unusual- the lining enveloping the the entrails is in some fish white, others tan, and still others jet black. The lining may easily be trimmed or pulled away, or may be left and peeled after cooking. The position of some bones in the beardfish is unusual, but should be no cause for alarm, as the bones in question are large and easily extracted.

As visually unique as the Beardfish is, its flesh is more unusual still. The meat smells exactly like very fresh whiting (gulf whiting, that is), with a color to match, though at times tending almost towards a slight green hue.....though I must emphasize slight. Upon cooking, the flesh turns a beautiful clean white color.

It is in the eating that the strange nature of Beardfish flesh becomes most apparent. The meat is quite moist with a nice large flake and a taste which calls to mind crustaceans. The flakes, upon chewing, have a texture that is oddly close to crab backfin meat- so much so that I bet a substitution would pass hardly noticed.

The beardfish is known in French as 'Poisson Chèvre', meaning 'goatfish', which, to cause maximum confusion, is also a name for various species of mullet. As far as I can tell, the Spanish name is 'Cola de Maguey', or 'cactus tail' (though I have no idea why that name would have been chosen to describe the Beardfish). Beardfish in Japan are called Ginmedai, where they are not as highly esteemed as they should be, though they are known as good fish to dry, smoke, grill, and eat raw. Speaking personally, I know what will be on our table this weekend.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

on the subject of the Blue Runner, a humble and unadorned fish

The blue runner (Caranx crysos), also called the hardtail, is pretty much the ultimate hook and line trash fish. Caught by fishermen targeting red and vermilion snappers, blue runners on occasion shoal up and are caught in large numbers, but no commercial fisherman wants this, because blue runners (if they can be sold at all) usually go for next to nothing at the dock. They are, as I have been told countless times, bait, not food.

Yet I have talked to folks from India to Turkey to Thailand to Guatemala to Morocco to England who praise the blue runner and its closely related kin, Caranx tille and Caranx caballus. Blue runners are small, with flesh that looks like albacore tuna more than anything else. In taste, they are more like a strong mackerel or even a herring.
It is definitely what folks would call a 'fishy' fish, and certainly could never pass for white fish. Unfortunately, due to its high oil content, assertive taste, and prominent bloodline, it can't really fill in for amberjack, mahi, tuna, or any of the other 'steak' fish. Does this mean, though, that there is no place at the table, so to speak, for the blue runner? Certainly not.

These days, there is a growing appreciation of more assertive and unfamiliar flavors, not just in fish but all foodstuffs, which is really just a return to the tastes of a few generations before. This is a positive development, because there are frankly too many people stomping around on the earth for any nutritional foodstuff to be branded as unpalatable or taboo. On the other hand, no foodstuff should be considered sacred- we would all do a lot better eating differently. But I digress somewhat. There is also a growing understanding of the need to make certain choices in consumption. When choosing a fish, more and more (though not enough) people pay attention to the origin, species, and sustainability. Again, another positive development. Bearing all this in mind, we come back to the blue runner. Let's take a different look at this.

The runner is, like I said, mackerel-y. With the current vogue for preserving (through pickling, curing, brining, smoking, canning, etc) both in restaurants and home kitchens, the runner seems perfect. Not only tasty, but frugal as well. Basically anything done to oily fish can be done, with some modifications to the blue runner, and always with good results. Fishiness aside, it is also great fresh.

On the sustainability side, blue runners are very abundant in the Gulf. They grow and mature fast, and reach maximum fecundity quickly as well. They are prodigious and continuous spawners, which means they reproduce all year, which would of course help them to withstand fishing pressures. On top of that, plankton apparently forms a large part of the diet of adult runners, which places them on a lower trophic level, which is also a good thing (lower level fish are considered more sustainable wild harvest choices).

Now that we've established the possibility that blue runners are worthy for the table, allow me to share a few ways in which they taste pretty good. I like strong fish flavors, my wife is an absolute connoisseur, and our kids have happily acquired the taste as well, so for us, the blue runner is a natural fit. We use it scaled and steaked in curries of course, sometimes we'll poach the whole fish then pick the meat for blue runner salad.

The other weekend, a bunch of runners had come in, and I took a bunch home. We spent the better part of the weekend preparing fish. My wife poached fillets (bloodline in) along with green chiles, whole shallot, garlic, and green Thai eggplants. The whole mix was then pounded in a mortar until all was pureed, then garnished with boiled eggs.
Called soop mah-kheua, the dish is usually prepared with pla dtu, a salted and dried Indian Mackerel.
My wife pronounced the blue runner substitution perfect. We cut some fresh runner into strips, marinated them briefly in soy sauce, then sun-dried them for the better part of the day. The strips (which at this point resembled dried beef) were then grilled over a hot fire.
We also salted fillets (adding to the salt some flavors from our backyard- galanga, makrut leaf, lemongrass, and turmeric), let them sit in the sun for a day, then brined them over night in lime juice, water, and coriander. The next day we smoked the fillets for about 2 hours. I had filleted a couple of fish for the kids (which were grilled), and so decided to marinate the bloodlines in soy sauce with garlic and sesame. They were then grilled, with considerable success. All of this we gorged on that night with sticky rice and a ridiculously pungent sauce my wife made with shrimp paste.

Later on, we canned a bit in olive oil, and have been enjoying the results ever since, as we have the roes, which were smoked, then crumbled to add to sauces and salads.

The point of all this that the blue runner deserves it place. Any fish this versatile merits some respect. But don't take my word for it. I recently had the opportunity to provide some of these fish to Justin Yu for one of his dinners, and his preparation (involving curing and brining) truly made the runner a noble fish. The fellows at Feast have always like the blue runner, and still buy it every time it is available. Just a few moments ago, a co-worker from south India came up to me and, patting his belly, waxed poetic about the blue runner he ate this weekend. The next time you see some (whether in the water or on ice), try them out. No matter which way you look at it, they are a good choice.