Friday, March 30, 2007

Open Source Salmon

The righteous Albany Jane asks "where do you get your raw fish from?"

Setting aside considerations of big vs. small businesses, I seek out places that reliably have the product I'm looking for. The Cousins Fish Market has a variety of shellfish, especially when I'm buying in bulk, and I've been meaning to get to the Off Shore Pier Restaurant and Fish Market ever since my job relocated to East Greenbush.

For the lomi lomi and gravlax, I've been using Alaskan sockeye fillets from Hannaford. It's been running about $6.99/lb. which I find reasonable, especially when Atlantic farm-raised is about $5.99/lb. I shop at Hannaford out of habit, but Price Chopper probably has a similar selection. There are enough locations to make either a ready destination. Once or twice I've found good deals on King Crab Legs at BJ's, but that seemed to be a fluke. Stop me before I krill again!

Does where you buy your local fish really have that much impact, though?
Unless you can trace your mackerel from net to plate, I doubt it. Let the sashimi snobs turn their noses up at certain restaurants in the area, but it looks like two out of every three sushi joints in the U.S. are selling the same fish, supplied by the same religious whackos. Restaurant aesthetics and unabashed Nipponophilia aside, I suspect blind taste tests up and down Central Avenue would yield similar results.

As long as I'm taking a poke at the piscirati, can we all take a break in exclaiming how "fresh" the fish is at such-and-such a place?

Unless there's some law-breaking going on, it isn't (NYTimes: Registration Required).

It's all been flash-frozen: "Food and Drug Administration regulations stipulate that fish to be eaten raw — whether as sushi, sashimi, seviche, or tartare — must be frozen first, to kill parasites. "I would desperately hope that all the sushi we eat is frozen," said George Hoskin, a director of the agency's Office of Seafood. Tuna, a deep-sea fish with exceptionally clean flesh, is the only exception to the rule. But tuna is often frozen, too, not necessarily to make it safe, but because global consumption of sushi continues to rise. Frozen fish usually costs about half as much wholesale as fresh. And some cuts, like the prized fatty toro, are not always available fresh."

Here's the relevant section:

3-402.11 Parasite Destruction.*
(A) Except as specified in ¶ (B) of this section, before service or sale in ready-to-eat form, raw, raw-marinated, partially cooked, or marinated-partially cooked fish other than molluscan shellfish shall be:
(1) Frozen and stored at a temperature of -20°C (-4°F) or below for 168 hours (7 days) in a freezer; or
(2) Frozen at -35°C (-31°F) or below until solid and stored at -35°C (-31°F) for 15 hours.
( ((B) If the fish are tuna of the species Thunnus alalunga, Thunnus albacaresYellowfin tuna), Thunnus atlanticus, Thunnus maccoyii (Bluefin tuna, Southern), Thunnus obesusBigeye tuna), or Thunnus thynnus (Bluefin tuna, Northern), the fish may be served or sold in a raw, raw-marinated, or partially cooked ready-to-eat form without freezing as specified under ¶ (A) of this section.

I don't know if they if the FDA rewards snitches or not, but why not do your part for "law-n-order" and drop a dime on the next guy who tries to serve you some still-wriggling squid sashimi.

So, can you tell the difference between "never frozen" and "flash frozen"?
If Shin Tsujimura, the sushi chef at Nobu, says "Even I cannot tell the difference between fresh and frozen in a blind test" (NYTimes: ibid), then I really doubt some yammering Center Square hipster jackass can. I could be wrong, but that's not how the smart money's betting.

How am I buying my salmon?
By type, and I'm going with wild Pacific salmon. There's a great deal of information on the drawbacks of farmed Atlantic salmon, from health to environmental to human rights and labor issues. But let's get down to gustatory brass tacks: I think it tastes better.

There are five main types of Pacific Salmon: (Atlantic Monthly, Oct 2006. subscription req'd)
  • King (chinook)
  • Sockeye (red)
  • Coho (silver)
  • Pink (humpback)
  • Chum (dog)
and I agree with Corby Kummer that, "[w]ith a deep, natural color, sockeye is lower in fat but still high overall, allowing the flavor to better come through. Many salmon lovers, including me, consider this the best salmon-eating experience. "

I broil it, bake it, fry it, cure it, and this week went all but raw with it, and every time sockeye delivers like a champ. I love it so much, I might marry it. I got so much Omega 3 in me, I could be an Autobot. (Ob nerd ref.)
"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Another saltwater treat Hannaford occasionally stocks are Gold Band Oysters, a Gulf Coast variety which has become a favorite of mine. Meaty with a buttery texture and a lighter salinity than colder water varieties, these babys are a bivalve delight. A huge appeal is that they're practically "shuck-free" but still in a sealed shell! You can crack open a dozen of these in a few minutes with a butter knife. Just snip the plastic yellow band that gives them their name and let 'em sit for a second and they *pop* open just enough to slip in a dull knife.

For a quick read about the the elements of comparing and describing oysters check out Mark Mavrantonis' "An Oyster Manifesto". Mark's got some strong opinions on Gulf Coast oysters and their susceptibility to the bacteria Vibrio Vulnificus, due to the warmer waters they grow in. It's a rare cause of disease (the Center for Disease Control estimates 40 cases a year are reported) but has pretty nasty effects. Life is risk, eh?

As I mentioned before, though, it's about managing your level of risk and that's another appeal of the Gold Bands: the hydrostatic high-pressure process that "pre-shucks" the oysters also destroys the villainous Vibro Vulnificus! This is soooo going to be my new Super Villain name!

However, everything costs, and I typically see Gold Bands running about double the retail price of other oysters, $10.00 a dozen vs. $5.00. In context though, this is still a lot cheaper than you'd pay at a restaurant, typically $20-25 per dozen.

Another consideration when buying Gold Bands: you're supporting a Gulf Coast business and region that is still struggling to recover from both the effects of natural disaster and the shockingly mismanaged, if not immoral, restoration efforts of the Federal Government.

A note on shucking: I shuck, and I love to shuck. I'm quite the shucker (with scars to prove it) but until you've shown up at a seafood bake, toting a bushel of Crassostrea virginica and turned out to be the only person at the party with this particular skill-set, you won't appreciate the ease of these quick shuckers. My buddy Kevin makes a great caipirinha from scratch, but now he's known as the "caipirinha guy" and stuck at the bar at every summer gathering.

I feel his pain.

Till next time, "[t]here is nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster." - Saki