Category: seafood

New England herring make for strange bedfellows

Photo by jpwbee (Julie Weatherbee) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As reported earlier this week by Jess Bidgood in The New York Times, fishers and environmentalists who often find themselves at odds are working together to supports limits on Atlantic herring fishing off the New England coast.

The issue at hand was about 30 large boats that use nets as big as a football field to scoop up hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring, a cheap fish often used for bait…. Their appearance in New England about 10 years ago alarmed both environmentalists and traditional fisherman, who are concerned that the trawlers’ efficiency is depleting herring stocks and depriving other fish, birds and sea mammals of a critical food source.

Head here for the full story.

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Whole (sea)Foods

Photo by Kate Skegg (skeggy) via Flickr

As reported in the last few weeks, Whole Foods is increasing restrictions on seafood that it will sell. Specifically, it is eliminating items that are the most ecologically troublesome and therefore rated as “red” (avoid) by the Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, two organizations pushing for more sustainable seafood production. As Abby Goodnough of The New York Times reported from New England last week, such decisions will have immediate impacts on some fishers.

Although the new policy will affect fishermen nationwide, the reaction from Gloucester and other New England ports may be the unhappiest. New England has more overfished stocks than any other region, according to federal monitors, and its fishing industry has bridled — and struggled to survive — under strict regulations. “We’ve been murdered,” said Russell Sherman, who sold his entire catch to Whole Foods for the last six years and is seeking new buyers. “It’s not fair at all.”… Some question the need for grocery stores to reject certain American-caught fish when the government has already imposed its own conservation measures…. But Ellen Pikitch, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, said Whole Foods was doing the right thing. “Whole Foods is setting a good example by offering fish from relatively well-managed fisheries,” she said. “It’s too bad that more New England fish don’t qualify, but over time, such market forces should help bring these fish back — both in the ocean and to the Whole Foods seafood counter.”

For the full article, head here.

YLNT Lobster Farm

Photo by Andrew Gray (shimgray) via Flickr

I just recently finished listening to my first episode of the podcast You Look Nice Today. I think I added it to my phone’s podcast app after Glen Weldon of NPR (Pop Culture Happy Hour and more) recommended it for the umpteenth time. Given my blog, the latest episode‘s title—”Lobster Farm”—obviously piqued my interest, so I finally took the plunge.

If you’re unfamiliar with YLNT, let me quote from Evan Minsker’s list of 10 essential comedy podcasts over at Paste: “Premise: Merlin Mann, Adam Lisagor and Scott Simpson just talk. Their tagline? ‘A journal of emotional hygiene.’ Why you should care: Of all the podcasts in this list, You Look Nice Today easily has the least structure—it’s always an absurd conversation between the three guys spliced between ukulele riffs. It was gone for about two years, but it looks like within the last month, they’ve finally begun to make their triumphant return.”

Based on the “Lobster Farm” episode, the guys seem smart and funny, in that “you can tell I love comedy deep in my bones because I will sacrifice anything, including humor, in the service of a joke” kind of way. Listeners who are feint of heart might want to stay away. As the YLNT website warns, “You Look Nice Today is an audio program that has been prepared by and for ‘adults.’ As a Journal of Emotional Hygiene, our program tackles many of the painful issues typically encountered by persons of this awkward age. Consequently, an uncontrollable level of candor and seemingly non-stop tsunami of profanity may be encountered by listeners. Please do not present this material to non-adults.”

They can be absurd, yes, as well as crass, vulgar, and decidedly non-PC, all in a certain flavor of maleness that I haven’t quite put my finger on. And yet … there was genuine food for thought in this food-themed episode, about everything from the ethics of meat eating to modern urbanites’ lack of knowledge about farms and farming. The litany of topics covered—”Sushi DMV, pupu platter, Tuna Corn Mayonnaise, kiwanis roll, the Andrew Jackson with extra hickory, two types of foreigner, $50 squid, lobster drag, dinner theater, is it vegetarian if she throws it away, Tevas, ‘My mussel’s name is Sandy,’ ma, the jute chewers, churn for a living, Andie MacDowell and a Sofia Mini”—only hints at what awaits brave listeners. If you think you can handle 1) both cringing and laughing as someone not unthoughtfully talks about eating a live squid while it watches him, 2) initially funny lobster references that long overstay their welcome, and 3) fun had the expense of well-to-do locavores, check it out.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

This morning we saw my 6th and J’s 7th film of the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival. Jiro Dreams of Sushi was the only WFF film this year with food as its primary focus, so of course I wanted to check it out. The fact that it has gotten almost universally positive reviews (it’s 98% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) was also encouraging. The movie features mouthwatering images alongside the story of restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, its 85-year-old exacting sushi master Jiro Ono, and his apprentices who include his two sons. The tiny 10-seat restaurant earned a coveted 3-star rating from the Michelin Guide, and the movie focuses on the attention to detail required to achieve such high accolades. The film was quite enjoyable, though is not without its flaws. As NPR’s Mark Jenkins notes (and I concur), director David Gelb “didn’t shoot during regular business hours, so the film lacks the spontaneity and serendipity of cinema-verite documentaries” and “the [musical] accompaniment is obtrusive at times.” Also, as Nicolas Rapold at The New York Times accurately comments, “Like many other such portraits, it wastes valuable time declaring its subject’s excellence that could be spent fleshing out demonstrations, explanations, context.” That said, the film is definitely worth a viewing. It is currently rolling out across the country, so head here to see when it will be in your area.

In the meantime, check out this interview with the movie’s director by Emily Ackerman of Tribeca Film, and watch the official trailer below.

Red tides

Photo by alex1derr via Flickr

Today NPR’s All Things Considered ran this piece that focused on Seattle-based scientists who are working in Puget Sound to try to predict the appearance of red tides.

Neither communist plot nor NCAA Division I athletic program, a red tide is an algal bloom that releases neurotoxins dangerous to sea life that ingest the algae as well as animals (human and otherwise) higher up the food chain. Shellfish in particular can pass on these neurotoxins to human diners with decidedly unpleasant consequences. As such, state officials close fisheries when affected by these blooms, with the predictable economic ripple effects for those who harvest, prepare, and serve shellfish.

Red tides aren’t limited to the Pacific Northwest by any means, with recent outbreaks on the U.S. East, gulf, and southern California coasts, along with other coastal areas of the world.

For a bit more of the biology and chemistry of the organisms that make up red tides, check out this piece from Jennifer Frazer’s “The Artful Amoeba” blog at Scientific American.

You can also view the short video below, which features work on brevetoxins (the red-tide neurotoxins) from Michael Crimmins of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Vancouver: Culinaria at The Art Institute of Vancouver

Yesterday I ate dinner next to Mila Kunis, but the best part of the night was the tartar sauce.

Let’s back up. I had agreed to go to a group dinner with some colleagues who were also in Vancouver, but at about 5 pm local time I hit a wall. I was just too work- and travel-weary to handle a big group event, so I bowed out. I headed back to my hotel room, Skyped with J, and blogged a bit. After that, I really wanted to be in bed vegging in front of some fluff TV, but I needed food. I decided to just make do with the hotel restaurant and headed down.

Fortunately (given how my night turned out), the noise level there was so high as to be completely intolerable. I turned tail just as soon as I walked in and hit the streets in an unplanned search for an alternative. Earlier in the day, I had noticed a small restaurant nearby sponsored by the culinary school at The Art Institute of Vancouver. They weren’t even half full when I approached, so after I took a look at the posted menu, I headed in.

The nicely decorated modern space was staffed by two friendly, experienced servers (a man who initially greeted me, and a woman who did most of the waiting on me). They providing a relaxed professionalism at the front of the house for the student chefs who, through a wall of glass, could be seen hard at work (and sometimes playfully joking around with each other) in the kitchen.

The restaurant offers a prix fixe three-course dinner for just $28. (I didn’t bother to bring my phone when I headed downstairs, so sadly no pics of my meal.) I had already settled on the wild local salmon for my entrée, so I asked the server to suggest a nice red wine pairing. At her recommendation, I had a glass of Cedar Creek 2009 Pinot Noir, which I really enjoyed. As the menu explains, “Our beverage program has been created around our philosophy as a Canadian-based culinary school to support local producers wherever possible. To that end, all the wines on our list are from Canadian wineries using 100% Canadian farmed grapes and almost all are from British Columbia.”

My wine was soon followed by some nice bread and herbed butter. Then, to my pleasant surprise, a chef brought out a fish-and-chips amuse-bouche. On a small plate, a little piece of deep-fried fish was served over a light, tangy tartar sauce (soooo good!) garnished with a few microgreens and two extra-thin crispy chips. The amuse-bouche tied with the salad for my favorite dish of the night. Speaking of which, for my first course I had an endive salad that featured blue cheese, pears macerated in port, and candied pecans. Really lovely, though if I’d been prepping the dish I probably would have used a bit less cheese and a bit more endive, but my plate went back to the kitchen completely empty.

My salmon main course was quite good, but I didn’t love it, maybe because it was served with some of the skin on, which isn’t really my thing. Like the salad, it was a very generous serving: a big piece of fish atop a lot of veggies plus potatoes. With dessert still to come, I gave up before I made it all the way to the end of the dish. None of the dessert options ended up really striking my fancy, so I let the server guide me to the chocolate cake and mousse with raspberry sauce, served in a glass as a sort of parfait. It wasn’t fantastic, but that didn’t stop me from finishing the entire thing.

In the end, I left completely sated, pleased at how lovely the space and service were, and charmed by the enthusiasm of the chefs.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: I also left with my second “Hollywood North” celebrity sighting. After a brief, unintrusive, tactful interaction between the waitstaff and the man at the table to my right while his female companion was in the washroom (yes, they say “washroom” up here), the servers eventually confirmed that said companion was in fact Mila Kunis of Black Swan, Saving Sarah Marshall, That ’70s Show, and more. No one made a fuss while Ms. Kunis was in the restaurant, but the servers had a lot of fun bantering about it with each other, me, and the chefs after the couple had left. Our good-natured interaction about the brush with fame we’d had was another tasty morsel in an unexpectedly wonderful evening.

Chain appeal

Red Lobster Detour

Image by voteprime via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Oh Red Lobster. You are a delicious treat!” So said a Facebook friend this morning in my feed. Since I was having a hard time understanding this statement in the absence of any winky irony, I decided to take some time to consider the appeal of chain dining by way of Dead Lobster (as I’m sure teenagers and former-teenagers everywhere still call it).

Apparently my Facebook bud isn’t the restaurant’s only fan. Just yesterday, the Darden restaurant group announced it’s third-quarter financials; as reported by the AP, “Revenue at restaurants open at least a year rose 6.8 percent at Red Lobster …. That figure is considered a key performance indicator because it excludes the effects of restaurants that open or close during the year.” Darden’s Olive Garden has been struggling, though, presumably because more people think “I can just make pasta at home” than think “I can just make fried seafood and biscuits at home.”

In this piece from the Toronto Standard, John Semley considers the comforting appeal of Red Lobster. (USA-folk, don’t be scared off by his Canadian references — the writing, save a few grammatical clunkers, is worth it, even if you aren’t entirely sure what Jack Astor’s is.) As he puts it,

Tacky, faux-faded plaques with names for businesses like the AMES BOATWORKS deck out the wood-paneled walls, alongside replica oil paintings of mighty Maine lighthouses, which seem so essential to the idea of eating at a Red Lobster that they’re practically conceptually loadbearing. The result is weird, but fitting considering the marginalized place of chain restaurants like Red Lobster: the restaurant seems to exhibit a sense of nostalgia for itself…. Imagine, driving out with your best gal to the Bar Habror [sic] Bar in Kennebunkport, circa 1968, to enjoy one of those not-yet-patented Red Lobster Shrimp Caesars with a side of homemade biscuits, cheese sifted straight from Cheddar Bay! The idea itself is phantasmal, referring to something that never even really existed. But this desperately nostalgic Red Lobster restaurant concept breeds a weird sense of urgency, like you’re eating in a restaurant that’s on the verge of extinction. (The cheesy dated signage certifies this feeling, collapsing time into space, like when people talk about dying and your life flashing before your eyes instantaneously.) And while a sense of necessity may help you scarf down a pound of reliable-but-ultimately-mediocre crab legs, it also undermines what’s supposed to be, above all else, a comforting experience. Because it’s dependably delicious [a]nd because the uniform sameness of the chain itself proves reassuring….

As an unofficial followup to that piece, a few weeks ago The Onion AV Club (Toronto) ran this piece [no longer available online] by Semley, which reports his annual participation in Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp promotion. He mentions aspects of the restaurant that draw him in regardless of the current promo (“As usual, the server was friendly, attentive, and helpful, ensuring a steady rotation of shrimp, beer, and fresh-baked Cheddar Bay Biscuits. The restaurant is an absolute joy.”), but never-ending shrimp take center stage. Where his earlier essay paid homage to the comfort of chain predictability, this one revels in the gluttonous, painful pleasure of overindulgence.

Because shrimp are slight, fairly insubstantial things on their own, it’s easy to take down a whole bunch of them before the feeling of satiation begins to bear on you in any real way. (Unless you’re one of those people who sensibly knows when to stop eating, instead of just waiting, counting on your body’s disapproving reproach to tell you, “Put the fork down, fatso.”) Personally, I took down in excess of 70 shrimp, which was on the high end for our party, but not earth-shattering or anything. Just enough to get full in a way that makes you feel both proud and ashamed—the Janus-face of crapulence itself. It’s when you get home, and the overload of shrimp and garlic-butter begins churning through your disgusting gut that the Red Lobster avenges itself on your hubris.

I’m not sold, but familiarity and plenty are two quintessential American values, so I think I understand the appeal a little better. Red Lobster in particular seems to have succeeded in part by marketing itself as a “fancy casual” place. Prices aren’t cheap — at $16.99 (here in Madison), the pick-two Create Your Own Feast is on the lowish end of their prices, and doesn’t include beverage, tax, or tip — but they aren’t approaching the nosebleed heights of high-end places. Folks can splurge on a night out without making a reservation or getting dressed up, without worrying about which fork to use, and without wondering what skate wing, beurre blanc, or almond foam are. No one will look down on you for ordering a Diet Coke with your baskets and plates full of (superficially) satisfying salt, fats, and carbs, and your car is conveniently waiting for you in the parking lot to whisk you home at the end of your meal.