The "Other" White Meat
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
It’s Monday, the seedy Santa Monica shore is tepid, and oysters are a dollar here at Herringbone’s daily happy hour. Sitting and slurping shells with Mackenzie over a frothy draft, I have the eccentric thought; these probably aren’t even really oysters! Lets be honest, the concept of year round oyster availability at a mere dollar a shuck, would lead any logical culinary mind straight to ironic inquiry. Product costs alone are enough of a reason to wonder how the specialty item industry is sustainable. It’s around this time of year that we find ourselves accosted by flashy fish at bottom feeder prices with foodies anxious to get their hands on a prized piece of the experience. So with the reckless end to Mars’ retrograde and general extraneous fuckery finally taking a backseat to the start of spring, we enter the Gemini term with our crystals cleansed and our palates ready for the coastal inauguration of seafood season.
Shouts out to my overstayed welcome in LA on that last one.
But seriously fellow foodies, it is that joyous time of year when precious oysters interrupt their involuntary aquaculture rearing obligations, and let instinct take over the need to breed. Saltwater fare will litter the chalkboards of every dive bar in America and patrons will flock to their nearest marine eatery in search of fractured lobster shells oozing with citrus butter and dill.
Now, this time of year can get tricky for the culinarily inept; there’s wine pairings and crème sauces, weird ink foams and uni, unpronounceable pasta shapes, and that moving purple mace that is currently approaching your table. Overwhelming, I know.
So how to navigate the murky waters of the savory sea as a mere minnow to the game? For this we turn to our shortlist of fish feasting commandments. Take these tips with you on your next sapid aquatic outing to improve your sea fare knowledge, impress your second round Tinder date, and avoid your third being a mutual tapeworm extraction.
Whether you’re planning on cooking “en papillote” or treating a special someone to a night out, these helpful hints are here to guide you through the menu from origin to entrée.
The "Other" White Meat
That ever so flakey protein packed with Omegas cuts it’s opening day ribbon sometime in April, with the Pacific Bay Shrimp and Halibut taking the lead. For the rest of the year, a variant of sea creatures will continue to guest star on the menu, but nearly half of that global consumption will be sustained by aquafarming. Politics surrounding this economy fluctuates due to the carnivorous nature of certain popular fish depleting the sources of others, global warming shifting ocean climates, and the subsequent effects on viable habitats, so to air on the side of smarts, always try to purchase in season.
It’s April 20th, 2010 and BP is on every single new station, getting torn a new one for their sole blame in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion. The subsequent information would not only fatally cripple the company, but in essence rendered all seafood from the region inedible. Aerial oil leakage snapshots have a way of curbing ones appetite real quick. It’s occurrences like these that suddenly shift the accessibility of food items while demand remains steadfast. As companies struggle to find viable supply, farming waters work overtime producing subpar quality in mass quantity. Maintaining a global ear on environmental change and knowing info like the origins of your fillet is not just dating plus, it ensures you the best culinary experiences as you learn when and where to source.
Farm vs Free
Sometimes seafood menu options are accompanied by an “F” or “W”, simply indicating whether the source is Farmed or Wild. The palatable difference between these marked dishes takes only a few turns of comparison before you feel offended being offered anything other than the monger’s daily catch. More trained taste buds know to watch out for metallic tastes and fishy flavors. A good eye also knows that when it comes to fish, leaner is better. Using visual cues like a fat to flesh ratio in a fillet can make all the difference when choosing farmed or wild caught fish. Generally, farmed fish tend to have larger fat deposits in the form of thicker white layers tucked between the sinews, whereas wild fish utilize more of their natural muscles, resulting in leaner meat.
Look for the naturally vivid colors when shopping for fish and mollusks: more red and orange tinted salmons, buttery off white crème colored scallops and for mussels, look for the potency of color as they range from light pinks to bright corals. The sea may be deep but its contents are far from bland. Some of the brightest colors come from the oceans deepest most rarely seen fish, iridescent waves create secret rainbows within oysters’ shells, and have you tried crunchy red octopus yet? Moral is, the more colorful a plate, the more colorful a palate so shop with brightness and vivacity in mind.
What the Funk?
I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that “fishy” smell joke at some point in our immature and prepubescent youth, but did it hold any validity? Mature Adult Tip: the revolting smell of rotting fish will always exceed the waft of unwashed bits because one, is actually dead. Seafood can naturally take on different scents depending on the breed and location of water it was birthed from. Odors can vary depending on whether the animal was farmed or wild caught, how it was packaged and how long it was held on ice before cooking. Most of the time we are looking for that light, clean, gently sea kissed aroma: a far cry from the pungency referred to in our high school humor.
Break It Down
Ok, you’ve made it through the market, made an educated selection on your sea fare and now its time to dissect that twenty pound Salmon splayed over your counter. Easier said than done, naturally. When we order at a restaurant we hardly ever think of the intricate and delicate processes that go into shucking and filleting, but there is something to be said for those who can effectively break down gentle flesh. Fish isn’t malleable like ground beef where you can just glom together a new shape every time you handle it. There's translucent bones and rubbery silver skin to look out for as well as metallic dark flesh and blood lines. Watching a professional helps demystify the process, but there is no substitute for investing in proper equipment and simply getting your hands dirty. For beginner budgets sake, start with less expensive chum like Skate Wing, Mackerel, or Catfish and learn your way up to those Sword and Monk fish.
Pair with Perfection
There is no adult moment more socially nerve racking than being handed a wine list; so much pressure squeezed onto one little card. To be clear, most acclimating adults will have no idea off hand what the difference is between a house red and a Zinfandel…but their taste buds will. Various wines open the palate differently, allowing for certain natural flavors to unfold and be complimented. In training the tongue to understand proper tannin, acidity and sweetness balance, you learn how avoid selections that will overpower the meal and ultimately steal the show. Start to work with bringing your mental recollection of spirits together with mouth feels and notes by studying a short list of which wines pair best with which fish.
Let There Be Spice
Adventuring with new flavors is always a tricky taste road to traverse, especially when it involves a flesh as delicate as seafood: the potential for poor quality product will only be amplified by the addition of potent or weak spice. The general rule on seafood is that it should (for the most part) be of a neutral ocean flavor or one that subtly reflects the elements and trace minerals present in its water of origin. This doesn’t mean that coffee rub on a white fish fillet is off limits, it simply means that when doing so, it might be apropos to add an element of vanilla, to bring out the spice blend’s ability to procure a smoky and savory bitterness. It’s easy to feel safe with the staple spice blends marketed in fish isle like Cajun and savory herb, but feel free to experiment with more exotic and other underestimated combinations because they often offer unparalleled flavor.
Lemon caper, creamy Alfredo, and red wine oh my. The sauce swag on fish dishes has matured from the days of salted urn cures and catsup. As collective gastrointelleigence increases, we learn new ways of balancing interesting citrus notes like kumquat and fingerlime with a variable of salts. The reason for these two primary notes are that they are natural “cooking” agents; as citrus and salt begin to denaturize the fragile flesh, it rearranges the proteins in seafood making it safe to eat, hence dishes like ceviche. In the free culinary world though, there are no fish/sauce pairings that are law, as food is prepared differently on a global scale according to spice availability and food storing methods. Be wary of menus that harp on crème heavy sauces as this can sometimes mask the elegant flavor of food, or simply mask a shitty fish. Be adventurous with your options if you are cooking at home and consider introducing elements to your sauce in new ways such as smoked, dry rubbed, or brined.
It doesn’t take being a level four sommelier, decades of kitchen work, or even a fishing rod to mold yourself into a knowledgeable and conscious seafood eater; all it takes is a bit of research, exploration and dedication to the tongue to built a palate primed for any fish dish. With just a few of these chef notes in your back pocket, you can walk into Whole Foods empowered, sit at a Chinese buffet with ease, and finally cook confidently for all those transitioning vegan friends you cant stand.