Chefs and fishermen extoll virtues of underutilized species
But tacos stuffed with chipotle-seared whiting, avocado and humus were a hit Saturday afternoon at the fourth annual Fish and Lobster Festival at Prescott Park in Portsmouth. Chef Ryan Lewis of Newmarket's Stone Church couldn't serve them up fast enough.
“It's a good fish, and you don't see it around too much,” said Lewis as he worked a grill loaded with small whiting fillets. “At least now we have a few hundred people who know what it is.”
New England is known for its creamy clam chowder, baked stuffed haddock and steamed lobsters bathed in butter. But there are plenty of other fish in the sea that aren't as tightly regulated as cod, haddock and flounder, three of the fishing industry's big money catches.
The fresh seafood industry is promoting underutilized species such as whiting, mackerel, skate, pollock and even dogfish in the hope of developing new markets and opportunities for local fishermen who have been hit hard by conservation measures. And despite some major obstacles, they've had some success.
“The issue is people's perceptions,” said Portsmouth fisherman Erik Anderson. “People like a white, flaky fish.”
Anderson and Gordie King, who fishes out of Eliot, Maine, said there's a demand for underutilized species in New York among the city's large immigrant populations. But most Americans have ignored a huge food resource right off the coast.
“Underutilized fish could be an opportunity, but it's been mostly on the periphery,” said King adding that monkfish has, so far, been the exception to that rule.
Monkfish are often described as the ugliest fish in the Atlantic. Their huge heads are connected to their thick meaty tails by a mass of jelly-like flab. And their deep-water lifestyle isn't admirable. They spend a lot of time loafing around in mud, waiting with their powerful jaws poised and ready to snap at any unsuspecting prey that swims too close.
Generations of fishermen saw them as trash fish, and any that happened to be hauled back in fishing nets were hurled back into the water.
But during the 1980s, Asian seafood dealers started shopping around New England's docks looking for ankimo, a prized Japanese delicacy also known as monkfish liver. Japanese chefs cut out the veins, salt it, splash it with sake and then roll it into a sausage shape. The livers are then steamed, chilled and sliced into a dish that fans swear is a lighter, velvety version of foie gras.
Once fishermen began landing monkfish for their livers, it made sense to try and sell the rest of the fish. And while it took some time to build a market for the fish that many say has a taste similar to lobster, today, monkfish tail medallions sauteed in wine or encrusted in pepper and broiled with lemon and butter are familiar choices on the menus of many seafood restaurants.
Exports and imports
Kelly Cullen, an assistant professor of resource economics and development at the University of New Hampshire would like to work up a little monkfish market magic for other species.
“In New Hampshire, 97 percent of the fish catch is exported,” said Cullen, adding that fish markets and restaurants then turn around and import fish that's sold and served to local customers.
“We've interviewed restaurant owners who say they would serve New Hampshire fish if they could get it,” she said.
Johnny Espeland, the head chef at the Press Room in Portsmouth, served pollock wrapped in nori, or seaweed, to hundreds of people at the fish festival.
“I usually don't cook pollock and I was glad I got it,” said Espeland who added that his mom cooked pollock when he was a kid growing up in Norway.
Espeland figures the more underutilized species are featured on television cooking shows, the more popular they will become.
But Cullen said there are a few other problems that need to be solved before Americans will start buying underutilized fish.
Most of the catch landed in Portsmouth is either cod or dogfish, a small, aggressive shark and one of the most abundant species in the Gulf of Maine.
“Dogfish are a light, white fish,” said Cullen who thinks there's potential for a local dogfish market. Much of the dogfish that boats bring in is exported to make fish and chips in England, which has its own unique culinary standards.
Other dogfish advocates have argued that the name has been a disadvantage and the seafood industry now markets dogfish as cape shark.
“Our biggest problem is that we don't have a processor in the state for dogfish,” said Cullen.
And that's a significant problem. Nature designed dogfish without a bladder, and if they are not processed quickly and correctly the urine they excrete through their skins builds up and gives them a harsh ammonia smell that's immune to most condiments and sauces.
Other underutilized fish like mackerel and whiting, are typically sold complete with skin and bones and Cullen said American consumers tend to shy away from, whole, bonfy fish. In fact many consumers prefer their fish already processed, breaded and, if possible, shaped like a stick instead of a fish.
The Portsmouth Lobster Company understands the reluctance many cooks feel when tackling seafood and rather than focus on underutilized species, they've taken the value-added approach. The company now manufactures lobster ravioli in three different styles: plain, with asparagus and with scallops.
“We tried to keep it simple so we wouldn't interfere with cooks who want to do their own thing with sauces,” said Dave Hickman, who ladled out hundreds of bowls of lobster ravioli in melted butter during the festival.
Hickman figures there's potential for both new seafood products and underutilized fish.
“People know cod ,and they know haddock,” he said. “Now they just have to try a few other things and who knows, they might actually like it.”
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Barbara Taormina may be reached at email@example.com.
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