March 23, 2011
There’s a hilarious skit in the IFC show Portlandia that pokes fun at the current preoccupation in certain circles with knowing exactly where one’s food comes from. A couple (played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) give their waitress the third degree about not only the diet and living conditions of Colin, the chicken they are considering ordering, but its social life on the farm and the sincerity of the farmer’s motives.
It’s been especially difficult for concerned eaters to get this kind of dossier on their wild-caught seafood. (Imagine: “He enjoyed exploring shipwrecks and the sound of migrating whales. He was on a squid and crustacean diet.”) Short of meeting the fishing boats as they return with their catch, you’re unlikely to know much about who was responsible for bringing your fish to the table. But a step in that direction was recently taken.
In September 2010, Maine-based Hannaford Supermarkets started selling fresh swordfish caught by Linda Greenlaw, captain of the Hannah Boden, and her crew. Greenlaw was featured in Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm (and portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the 2000 film adaptation). She has also written her own bestsellers and appears in the Discovery Channel show Swords: Life on the Line. She might be the most famous American commercial fisherman since Slade Gorton, whose Gloucester, Massachusetts, cod business evolved into the iconic frozen fish stick brand.
I first heard about the Greenlaw-branded fish in a slightly outdated copy of Down East, a regional Maine magazine, that had been passed around my office, so the North Atlantic swordfish season—which runs from roughly September to November—is already over. But the product was reportedly so popular that I imagine it will be back this year.
The fish wasn’t packaged, but a sign by the fish display at the supermarket chain’s 176 outlets advertised, “A fresh catch from Linda Greenlaw, captain of the Hannah Boden.” According to an article in the Portland Press Herald, the chain sold its first 34,000 pounds in just a week, far more quickly than usual. Browne Trading Company also sold and distributed the Hannah Boden fish to restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Beverly Hills. Celebrity chef meets celebrity sea captain.
Wait, I can sense you thinking, aren’t we supposed to avoid swordfish because it’s overfished? Apparently not anymore, at least in the North Atlantic. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch currently lists domestic swordfish as a “Best Choice,” although imported swordfish is still a no-no. A campaign to educate the public about the depleted swordfish stocks in the late 1990s was so successful, it seems, that the fisheries have had a chance to fully recover. Part of the point of the Hannaford effort was to get the word out about their rebound.
Of course, mercury is still an issue with swordfish, so it’s not advisable to eat a lot of it—young children and women who are nursing, pregnant, or may someday become pregnant should avoid it altogether because of the danger to developing nervous systems. And if people go crazy eating swordfish again, we’ll be back where we started.
August 31, 2010
The National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall last week hosted the “Real Cost Cafe,” an interactive performance about sustainable seafood. The child-friendly program originated at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, and was adapted by Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater. Three segments assessed the environmental issues at stake for a different kind of fish, ultimately tallying the fish’s “real cost” to marine ecosystems and to human health.
I knew little about the subject prior to seeing the performance, but Rachel Crayfish and Bubba (the show’s hosts, who were dressed in chef’s hats and fishing gear) taught me about the sustainability issues at stake for some of the United States’ favorite seafood: orange roughy, shrimp and salmon.
What is “sustainable” seafood? NMNH fish biologist Carole Baldwin—who has written a cookbook titled One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish—sustainable seafood includes fish and shellfish harvested in a way that doesn’t threaten the future of the particular species. The four primary factors that pose such a threat are “bycatch” (marine life that gets caught in fishing equipment by accident), overfishing, habitat loss and pollution.
Orange Roughy: This white fish, also known as the “slimehead,” matures remarkably late in life, around age 20. These fish can live as long as 100 years, so you might be eating a fish that’s older than your grandmother! Unfortunately, many young orange roughy that are caught have not yet had a chance to reproduce, making the species particularly susceptible to overfishing. According to the handy Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card Bubba handed out at the performance, orange roughy is on the list of fish to avoid. This is not only due to overfishing, but also the harmful contaminants such as mercury these fish can contain. Pacific halibut is a much safer choice, and has a fairly comparable taste, at least according to our pals Rachel and Bubba.
Shrimp: One shrimp looks just like the next to me, but apparently not all are created equal when it comes to sustainability. The shrimp industry is one big contributor to the bycatch problem, often throwing away two pounds of unwanted marine species for every pound of shrimp caught. Shrimp farms are less affected by bycatch than the wild-caught shrimp industry is, but building shrimp farms often requires the destruction of rich marine ecosystems like mangrove forests. What’s the lesser of the evils? Rachel and Bubba say that the United States and Canada have fairly strict regulations for shrimp farms that limit environmental destruction. U.S. or Canada-farmed shrimp make the “green” list for the best seafood choices on my Seafood Watch card.
Salmon: I was already aware that eating farmed salmon was a no-no, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. As it turns out, farmed salmon can have higher levels of contaminants in their systems due to their diets. Furthermore, to my surprise, several different species are often sold as salmon, and some are better for you than others. Alaska wild salmon seems to be the most sustainable option, with Washington wild salmon coming in second.
Sometimes, says Rachel Crayfish, the “real cost” of seafood can be hard to swallow. Who’s going to pay this “seafood bill,” she and Bubba ask? The next generation, of course, some of whom were sitting, wide-eyed, with me in the Sant Ocean Hall on Saturday.
August 3, 2010
This blog has inspired me to try several types of seafood I’ve never had before, like sardines, lionfish and jellyfish. I cracked open my first crabs last summer, and my first whole lobster earlier this year (although that one deserves a mulligan, since apparently most lobsters aren’t full of black goo).
So when I went to lunch with friends at TenPenh restaurant last week, the “tempura ponzu softshell” winked at me from the menu. Everyone’s always raving about how good soft-shell crabs are, but I’ve always been a tad skeptical that an exoskeleton could really be edible, let alone tasty.
I tried to ignore it and order salmon, which I know I like, but then I asked the waiter where it came from. Farmed, and he didn’t know how or where. Uh oh. Not wanting to risk supporting unsustainable aquaculture practices (see this fact sheet on farmed salmon for an explanation), I pointed to the crab instead.
It arrived whole, the shape of its claws still clear beneath the batter, and appeared to be scuttling toward me—though it was merely sliding a bit on its bed of cucumbers and rice as the waiter set my plate down. I picked up my fork and knife more out of defensive reflex than actual appetite.
I tasted a mixture of salt and buttery sweetness, as well as that flavor that can only be described as “oceany.” A few globs of something light green, like wasabi paste, oozed out as I cut closer to the crab’s head.
“What’s this?” I asked my friend.
“Just eat it,” she said. “It’s like a delicious mustard, and that’s all you need to know.”
Actually, it was probably the crab’s liver and pancreas, often called mustard or tomalley. I pushed it aside, preferring the taste of the sweet chili dipping sauce. Other than that, I ate every last bite on my plate.
I was surprised at how easily I could cut through the shell, it was no tougher than chicken skin. That’s because the creature had just shed its hard shell to grow a larger one, as blue crabs do some 18 to 23 times within their three-year life spans, according to the Maryland Seafood & Aquaculture Program.
If a crab is removed from the water right after molting, its new shell does not have a chance to harden—something fishermen figured out more than 100 years ago.
“A dainty succulent soft shell crab, nicely cooked and well browned, tempts the eye of the epicure and makes his mouth water,” one writer enthused in a New York literary journal in 1870. His explanation of the molting process is more poetic than scientific, but I like it:
“Making a great effort to throw off the incubus of babyhood that weighs so heavily upon them, they burst open the back door of their shell and crawl out…they gaze in stupefaction at their old shell, amazed to find out that they have, by their own efforts, unaided and alone, accomplished such a wonderful change. The thought is overwhelming. It fills them with pride; rejoicingly they exult, and swell with gratification…[until] they have increased their bulk to nearly double its former size. They can’t get back into the old shell now, for it won’t fit them…The only thing left for them to do is build another house.
It takes three or four days before they get fairly to work, and during that time they are called soft-shell crabs. This stage is particularly dangerous to the delicate creatures…Tender, helpless, innocent and beautiful, they are almost certain to be victimized and gormandized.”
What’s your favorite way—or favorite place—to eat soft-shell crabs?
July 15, 2010
I’m no Andrew Zimmern, but I like to think I’m a slightly adventurous eater, or at least a curious one. And I’m especially curious about foods whose production or harvesting doesn’t harm—and might even help—our environment. Invasive species like lionfish, for example. So I was intrigued when the latest issue of our magazine suggested another potentially food source that’s in no danger of disappearing: jellyfish.
Staff writer Abigail Tucker wrote a fascinating feature titled “Jellyfish: The Next King of the Sea” (with a slide show on Extreme Jellyfish) for our special 4oth anniversary issue, as part of a “what to expect in terms of science, history, technology and the arts over the next 40 years” theme. Among the issue’s environmental predictions—which also include Rosamond Naylor’s thoughts on the future of global food security, and a few crops that may help in the fight against hunger—is that our definition of seafood may soon have to change.
While the populations of many marine species are wilting due to overfishing, pollution and other environmental changes, jellyfish are “blooming,” often more than humans would prefer. Jellyfish can survive in oceanic “dead zones,” and sadly, there’s no shortage of those on the horizon.
Despite their venomous reputation, Tucker explains, some types of jellyfish are edible:
“About a dozen jellyfish varieties with firm bells are considered desirable food. Stripped of tentacles and scraped of mucous membranes, jellyfish are typically soaked in brine for several days and then dried. In Japan, they are served in strips with soy sauce and (ironically) vinegar. The Chinese have eaten jellies for 1,000 years (jellyfish salad is a wedding banquet favorite). Lately, in an apparent effort to make lemons into lemonade, the Japanese government has encouraged the development of haute jellyfish cuisine—jellyfish caramels, ice cream and cocktails—and adventuresome European chefs are following suit. Some enthusiasts compare the taste of jellyfish to fresh squid. Pauly says he’s reminded of cucumbers. Others think of salty rubber bands.”
Inspired by this, I set out to try some this week. Three colleagues joined me for lunch at a tiny eatery called Jackey Cafe in D.C.’s Chinatown district, agreeing that we would each order things we knew we wanted to eat, but also share some type of jellyfish dish. We debated trying the weekly special posted on the wall, which simply said “Jellyfish Head: $18.95,” but after talking things over with a helpful waiter, decided on a smaller investment ($6.95) in the “Cold Shredded Jellyfish” appetizer.
My expectations were as low as possible—I wanted to not gag.
The waiter set down a dish of what looked like a cross between noodles and stir-fried cabbage, then stood watching with a look that suggested his expectations of us were pretty low, too. He raised his eyebrows as we dug in, and said he’d take it right back to the kitchen if we didn’t like it.
It had much more texture than the word “jelly” evokes, yet I wouldn’t call it chewy—more like wetly crunchy, in the way of those seaweed salads you find at sushi restaurants. It was drenched in a tasty soy-based sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds, with strips of carrot and daikon beneath.
The waiter seemed relieved and surprised when we kept eating.
“I get a lot of people who say they want to try something new, but it turns out they didn’t really mean it,” he explained. “Next time, try the frog!”
Thanks. I just might do that.
July 9, 2010
Let’s be clear here. I hate bugs. I loathe bugs.
I was surprised by feeling excited at the prospect of chowing down on some creepy crawlies, but the occasion still called for a stiff drink. I sat down at the bar at Oyamel, one of Jose Andres’ hip D.C. restaurants, and promptly ordered a gin and tonic.
With a feeling of mild trepidation, I ordered some Tacos de Chapulines. Grasshopper tacos.
I sat back and awaited my fate.
At 3 Quarks Daily, Quinn O’Neill lauds the power of entomophagy (eating insects) in reducing human consumption of animal products—a practice that many, including O’Neill, see as a drain on our environment and our health. Quinn calls Western aversion to eating insects as “irrational.” Eating insects, entomophagists argue, is a much more sustainable source of nutrition. High in protein, low in fat, what more could you want?
But, of course eating insects is nothing new for humankind. Insects figure into the traditional cuisine of many cultures. The Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern eats them, and apparently, so does Salma Hayek. Chapulines are an ingredient in many Oaxacan dishes, and baskets of the crunchy creatures are sold in Oaxacan markets for use in tacos, tlayudas or to be eaten alone as a salted snack.
When my steaming tacos arrived, I thought there had been a mistake. The grasshoppers looked like a mound of finely shredded pork piled atop of a liberal dollop of guacamole. Perplexed, I asked the bartender, “You chop them up?”
He looked at me like I was demented.
“They’re farm-raised,” was his response.
“Yeah, but you chop them up, right?” I persisted.
“No, they’re whole.”
I picked up a single piece from my taco and held it up, examining it carefully.
“They’re baby grasshoppers!” I exclaimed triumphantly.
At this point the bartender decided to leave the crazy intern to his arthropods.
I dutifully tried a bite. Then another. These were tasty. Crispy, spicy, a hint of citrus—it was better than some of the other tacos I had tried. Though the legs do tend to get stuck in your teeth. I downed the entire taco and almost ordered another one, until the look of horror on my companion’s face gave me pause.
However, I didn’t feel I had completed my assignment yet. Amanda had asked me to find out what grasshoppers tasted like, and the ones in the taco had been spiced and sautéed in shallots, tequila and all manner of other delicious things. I needed the real deal. I needed to try these farm-raised little critters in the raw. I asked the bartender if he could provide such a thing. He seemed skeptical, but said he would try.
I waited and waited, and finally, with a furtive glance in either direction, the bartender surreptitiously placed a little bowl in front me and turned away without a word.
I scooped out a cluster of raw grasshoppers and stuck them in my mouth. They were chewy, without the crunch I expected from insects—apparently that came from being sautéed until crispy. They tasted rather sour and grassy (you are what you eat, I guess?), but not bad, reminiscent of a mild citrus fruit. What I had mistaken for a squeeze of lemon on my taco earlier had, in fact, been the natural flavor of the grasshopper.
Throughout the evening I had tried to make my dinner companion taste some of the little creatures. He gave in just before the end of the meal, having had enough of my cajoling. He delicately placed a grasshopper on his tongue, swallowed and washed it down with a deluge of ice water (though perhaps Sauvignon Blanc would have been a natural pairing).
“That was gross,” he declared.
I guess grasshoppers aren’t for everyone.
Guest writer Brandon Springer is spending the summer at Smithsonian Magazine through an American Society of Magazine Editors internship.