Posts Tagged unpopular

Mar 26 2015

Why These Overlooked Fish May Be The Tastiest (And Most Sustainable)

By Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn
Market Fish En Papillote Photo: Armando Rafael for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Nidia Cueva

A FEW YEARS AGO, one of Charleston’s finest fishing boat captains approached chef Mike Lata with a problem: If business didn’t improve, he would have to hang it up. Federal quotas limited how much lucrative grouper and snapper he could catch, and while there were plenty of other fish for the taking, what he brought in barely sold for enough to cover gas. So, the chef made him a proposition:

The Recipes


Roasted sardines with seaweed salsa verde Photo: Armando Rafael for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Nidia Cueva

“I told him on his next trip to bring us everything he caught, and we’d pay.” Mr. Lata and his cooks set to work on the catch—a grab bag of amberjack, banded rudderfish, mackerel, eel, lionfish and sea robin—and discovered that many of these fish were remarkably delicious. “This was great product, treated with care and attention, only the species names weren’t marketable. So, we decided to take care of the marketing side.”

Mr. Lata is one of a growing number of chefs making a case for eating abundant domestic species that have up until now been largely ignored. These are widely referred to as “trash fish,” a name originally bestowed by fisherman unable to sell them, now co-opted by some of their staunchest advocates.

The sea is home to thousands of fish species, but only a few of them regularly appear on American tables. Shrimp, tuna, salmon and tilapia together account for nearly 70% of seafood consumed in the U.S.; in the case of fine dining, cod, halibut and sea bass have also been in heavy rotation for the past 30 years. These once-plentiful species have retained pride of place on menus and behind fish counters long after it stopped making ecological sense, as chefs and seafood purveyors have catered to a dining public skeptical of trading salmon and swordfish for fish with names like “scup” and “smelt.”

Every fishery has a unique set of under-loved species. Waters in the Northeast are teeming with pollock, hake and dogfish, which match the flaky, mild profile of dwindling cod. Acadian redfish, once used for lobster bait off the coast of Maine, makes a superior alternative to tilapia, much of which is raised in antibiotic-spiked pools in China. The Chesapeake Bay is lousy with blue catfish, similar to the basa being imported by the ton from Vietnam. Firm, buttery and plentiful Pacific lingcod is a good understudy for pricey halibut. “There are incredibly delicious, vibrant, abundant fish out there and people don’t know about them,” said Michael Dimin, the co-founder of Sea to Table, a supplier to top seafood restaurants like New York’s Marea and RM Seafood in Las Vegas.

Confronted by the copious overlooked species swimming off Massachusetts, chef Michael Leviton is working on a trash fish cookbook. At Lumière in Newton, Mass., he regularly serves such underappreciated species as Acadian redfish and porgy.

Would you eat goosefish or slimehead? Chances are, you already have, and just didn’t realize you were eating a re-branded trash fish. WSJ’s Jeff Bush reports.

“Diners have become very accustomed to chefs going to the farmers’ market and putting on the menu whatever is fresh and local,” said Barton Seaver, director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “We’re just beginning to see that sustainable menu philosophy applied to fisheries.”

Earlier this week, chefs from 20 of the world’s best restaurants—including Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York—committed to serving ocean-friendly species like anchovies, herring and sardines on World Oceans Day, which falls on June 8th. And Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability, has organized seven Trash Fish Dinners around the country in recent years, gathering top chefs to work their magic with local invasive species, by-catch and other alien sea creatures. The most recent such dinner took place at the Squeaky Bean in Denver, where chef Theo Adley cooks with the likes of snakehead, brown shrimp, moon snails and drum. “We go for broke in terms of the range of fish we serve,” Mr. Adley said. “A lot of the challenges we face have to do with guest knowledge, and providing a gentle education in terms of what a fish is going to taste like.”

As a member of Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, chef Jonathon Sawyer is similarly committed to supporting a diversity of species. His menus at Greenhouse Tavern and Trentina in Cleveland, Ohio, simply list “market fish,” which gives him flexibility to buy the best-choice catch of the moment. Porgy, grunt, black drum and farmed sturgeon have all made appearances.

Trash fish advocates hope that introducing diners to a wider array of seafood in restaurants will ultimately trickle down to home kitchens. It will likely take time, given home cooks’ hesitancy to work with unfamiliar fish, and the fact that most seafood counters still offer only well-worn options. Mr. Dimin and Mr. Seaver encourage consumers to start by choosing only domestically caught fish—U.S. fisheries are regulated to protect vulnerable species—and letting the best local choice dictate the preparation method, rather than shopping to a recipe.

After all, cooking with the whole net offers benefits beyond the ecological; it provides novelty at the table, it’s cost efficient and, best of all, choosing a local porgy or dogfish rather than farmed or imported options keeps fishing communities all over the country in business.

“Fishing is the last true hunting on earth,” Mr. Dimin said. “We have a duty to protect it.”


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