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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

a word on frogs and the many ways they taste good

It is once again time for frogs. In the beginning of March, before the season closes for a couple of months, a brief window exists for the harvesting of wild bullfrogs (Rana catesbiana) in Louisiana. The weather has just warmed up enough for the frogs to shake off their winter stupor, and the crawfish haven't started coming in heavy (the arrival of the crawfish is important because no one wants to mess around with frogs when there's money to be made in crawfish). Before getting to the hows and whys of frog cookery, I hope the reader will permit a brief (and hopefully relevant) explanation of the Louisiana frog fishery...

The overwhelming majority of fisheries in the United States are both large and industrial. Commercial concerns like it this way, as a larger share of the market is guaranteed (if you want fish, and all that is for sale is salmon, you're probably going to buy and eat salmon). State and federal regulatory agencies like it as well, as industrial or fleet fisheries are easier to manage. Unfortunately, this means that our choices of seafood and fisheries products are limited. It also means that a great many products are simply not available commercially, as the time invested seldom brings an adequate reward to the harvester. Artisan fisheries are by and large a thing of the past, except in a few pockets of the US.

The good news is that Louisiana is one of those few spots where small-scale commercial fisheries are still alive, which brings me to frogs.

No one catches frogs anymore as a full-time job. The money is just not there. However, lots of folks do catch frogs when there is little else going on. As I was recently told by my frog guy, "They do it to have a bit of fun and to make ends meet until the main fisheries start up again."

Allow me an explanation of how the frogs are harvested. Two men go out in a small boat, armed with nothing but a spotlight. Frogs are of course nocturnal, which dictates night-time hunting. One man steers the boat close to shore or substrate, and the other man hangs over the front edge of the boat, shining his light at the shore. When a frog is spotted (their eyes shine in the glare of the light), the boat eases over and the spotter grabs the frog by hand. Hand nets may legally be used, but by hand is the preferred method. On an exceedingly good night, a boat might catch 100 lbs. of frogs....and that's live frogs. Dressing the frogs out (heading, skinning, and gutting) takes half the weight. So, two men out all night fishing, and they might end up with 50 lbs. of ready-to-sell product. It takes only a few moments of reckoning to realize that no one is going to get rich on frogs.

The price of domestic frogs is an issue, and one that is rarely examined. Certainly, the price of Louisiana frogs is several times higher, but, given the harvest methods and regulations, this should hardly be surprising.

Now, on to cooking. As I wrote above, we get our frogs in headed, gutted, and skinned. They are, at this point, ready to cook. Though most folks are familiar with only the legs, the rest of the frog is quite useful as well, and really this is the best way to use the frog, both in terms of economy as well as taste. The frogs generally come in two sizes- small (4-9 to the pound) and large (less than 4 to the pound). Both are equally good, though the large frogs have a better meat yield.

I love eating frogs, and my wife and kids eat even more than I do (I suspect that my wife loves them so much because she doesn't have to catch them anymore). At my house, we often make soups, stir-fries, and curries using the whole frog. Simply hack the body up into several pieces, and use like that. Admittedly, using the frog thusly will necessitate picking small bits of meat from the bones with your fingers....which shouldn't bother anyone, considering that, the last time I checked, all animals have bones, and all meat that humans eat comes from animals (until they perfect Soylent green or Mr. Singer has his way). Using the meat like this also has the added benefit of flavor- frog bones make a tasty sauce.

Or, the whole frog may be battered and fried (which turns eating around the bones into a crunchy tasty pleasure), or the frogs may be skewered and grilled, as is commonly done in the north of Thailand (though there they leave both skin and heads on).

Of course, one may use the legs for the 'meat' and the torsos for the sauce (as Mr. Gossen does when making his famous sauce piquante).

Whilst working in France, we fabricated the legs into 'hams', then cooked the torsos, pulled the meat, made a nice garlicky ragout, and served the ragout with the 'hams', which was a noble use of the whole animal.

Finally, you may simply cook the frogs whole in a flavorful broth, then pull the meat and use in any number of recipes (Mr. Grossman at Branchwater Tavern produced spectacular pot pies with pulled frog meat). Don't forget to pick all the torso meat, making sure not to neglect the slips of meat covering the shoulder blades, the 'skirts', and the rib meat. Though there's not much there, the differences in texture and flavor is wonderful and adds a great complexity to any dish...sorting of like using all the bits of meat off a pig's head.

So eat some frogs and remember that, as always, I've only scratched the surface concerning frogs and their potential in the kitchen. Louisiana frogs will never be a staple item at our tables, but they make a delightful seasonal treat- and a treat which may be traced directly back to the waters of the Atchafalaya basin and the communities that have survived there for hundreds of years. Just try tracing Chinese frogs back to the source.

Mangez les grenouilles, et pas que les cuisses!!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The magnificent Pen Shell

I've been making an attempt to inhale everything there is to read about shellfish in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, and there is not much on the subject without delving into specialized scientific material, which is not as much fun to read as you would think. Little material for the interested layman is what I'm trying to say, and next to nothing about how, when, or possibly where to find live shellfish (oysters aside, of course). All of this has made shellfishing a matter of knowing what could or should be in a certain area, and then finding the critter where the books say it might be, using methods that the books say might or might not work, all the while keeping an eye out for something completely unexpected.

The day after christmas was spent in a good bay. The water had blown out and was staying out. The bay, which is never very deep, was beautifully empty, and there was not enough wind to stir up the few inches of water remaining. Clamming was the game, as the southern quahogs were spitting water everywhere, and it was only a matter of trudging over to a lump and digging the clam up. We were almost at our limits when my clamming partner noticed what appeared to be a long, strange oyster poking just above the surface of the sand, valves open, in three inches of water. I reached down and felt the surface of the shell, and I knew that we'd found a Pen Shell.

The Pen Shell, also called the Sea Wing, Fan Mussel, Jambonneau, Tairagai, and Hoy Jawp, is one of several species of Atrina, and shares characteristics with oysters, scallops, and mussels. They grow to be as long as a foot or more in our waters- none of those pictured above were less than ten inches, and a few were over thirteen. They have the general shape of a mussel, complete with a long byssus, or beard (incidentally, this bysssus was used in the eastern Mediterranean to produce a fabric reportedly finer than silk, called byssa, which was one of the more costly fabrics in history). The shell is black or brown, but if one chips it away, a brilliant metallic inner shell is exposed.

Pen Shells will only be found on sandy or grassy bottoms exposed by very low tides. The good news is that they usually can be found in loose clusters, with two to five animals in a ten square foot radius. As stated before, the Pen Shell lives buried almost up to the tips of its shell. Happily, excavation is quick. Work your hands down the sides of the shell, then slowly pull when you can get a good hold. It would be much easier to use a face mask to find Pen Shells, but I for one have no interest in swimming in the bays during the winter.

Most bi-valves, Pen Shells included, are quite easy to keep alive for several days. Simply fill a cooler with clean seawater that has been strained through a paper towel, and put in the shellfish, starting with clams and heavy creatures on the bottom. Straining the water about once a day is all that is necessary to keep the water barely oxygenated and clean. An added benefit is that shellfish will purge nicely in a day if held this way.

Opening a just-harvested Pen Shell is challenging if one is trying to keep the fragile shells intact. On the other hand, it is easy to remove the meat in one piece if one simply snaps the narrow tip off of the shell. Admittedly, you lose the shell, but otherwise you need to wait for two or three days for the adductor muscle to relax somewhat.
A knife may then be slid between the muscles and the shells. Though you should crack the shell over a bowl to catch any liquid, the majority of the juice that pours out of the shell is water (The Pen Shells valves close imperfectly, allowing in some water all the time). True Pen Shell liquor will be slightly viscous, and the liquor is the last liquid to come out of the shell- don't worry, you will know it when you see it. Upon opening a Pen Shell, one is struck by the very large adductor muscle, which resembles a scallop muscle- though it tastes much better than your average scallop. This muscle is apparently used in Japan for sashimi, and it's the reason I don't care as much for steaming open Pen Shells- you will lose the raw 'scallop'. Don't forget the small disk of meat adjacent to the adductor muscle. When cooked, this little portion looks like jumbo lump crab meat with the the taste of lobster.
Do NOT discard the rest of the organs. They are as edible and tasty as clam and oyster and scallop guts. Due to the size of the Pen Shell, the texture of the guts might not be appealing to all at the table.
However, if minced and used in stuffings, or to thicken sauces or soups, or suitably poached, Pen Shell organs are exquisite. When cleaning the Pen Shells, be sure to carefully inspect all organs, especially the mantle muscle and gonads, for they are known to produce black pearls. We have a small box at home containing 14 pearls we've gathered so far.

Cook Pen Shells in any way suitable for scallops or clams, or let your imagination run wild. Given the number of different textures of meat in the Pen Shell, there is no end to the possibilities. If you are lucky enough to come across them, don't pass up the chance to eat one raw- they have an impeccably clean and sweet flavor. They are certainly one of the best tasting shellfish I have found in our waters.