The Underutilized Untouchables
I grew up in Woods Hole eating the codfish and haddock that my commercial fisherman father brought home for my mother to cook. We referred to either species simply as fish, because they were abundant and always available for dinner. Back then I never thought about how declining population levels and strict government regulations regarding “fish” would end up affecting people like us.
Groundfishermen of New England put their children through college on the cod and its brothers during the heydays of the 1990s, but times have changed drastically since then. What is left of the battered inshore handline codfishing fleets of the Cape have been forced to turn to the fishing of more abundant, less profitable species such as skate and dogfish in order to stay afloat. Unfortunately, these types of underutilized species are not what locals are used to eating, or know how to prepare. Our tastes haven’t changed accordingly with the local fishing climate, and we face an unbalance as we continue to consume what is simply no longer available on a local, sustainable level.
You probably haven’t thought much about the dogfish since your last trip to the aquarium in grade school, much less seen one on a menu ever in your life. Captain Eric Hesse, originally a traditional codfish tub-trawler out of Harwich, now spends at least two long, backbreaking months per year fishing for dogfish. Eric uses the same gear he uses for haddock and cod fishing to catch the dogs. “Dogfish seem to be made for hooks,” he says, “but how do you make a business out of dogfish that is valued at 11 cents per pound? You can catch them year round but it would be difficult to make the fuel argument to go for them in the wintertime when they are all the way out in Stellwagen Bank. Three to four hundred dollars per day income to target dogfish doesn’t really add up.”
While targeting haddock stocks in Stellwagen, oftentimes a fisherman like Eric must haul in his handlines before all the hooks are “set” with the white-bellied fish. If he leaves his gear in the water for too long the haddock will be chomped to bits by the voracious dogfish that prey on species like the haddock. A full set of haddock is an easy meal for dogfish and this can easily thwart the efforts of a fisherman relying on a good catch of haddock to make a living.
Fishermen like Eric and Captain Leo Maher, another handliner out of Chatham, are both curious about eating dogfish, but neither has ever tried it. Leo would like to eat some prepared by a chef because he says that he wouldn’t know how to cook it himself.
Both Leo and Eric have sons in high school that fish commercially, but both are starting to look into college as a more dependable plan for the future. Leo’s son Hunter plans to fish alongside his father this summer in his own separate boat in order to save money for school. Hunter is a third-generation fisherman in his family and all of his cousins are fishermen. He loves fishing and would like to make a career out of it, however he and his father are both somewhat skeptical about the feasibility of such an idea given the state of the industry with its strict, ever-changing regulations as well as the low availability of marketable, local fish in our inshore waters.
Leo refers to the fishing of today as a “patchwork industry,” one that requires an enormous amount of energy, good health and nimbleness for any sort of success. Leo himself just completed four years of accounting school at the age of 49. “You never know,” he said to me. “I wanted to make sure I had something to fall back on. Luckily my boss understands that in order to make a living I have to go fishing on all of the days that I can.” Leo fishes so intensely during certain times of the year that he often relies on less than two hours of sleep a day.
Leo tells me that nowadays many fishermen go out to hunt the dogs alone. It is easy to set a small amount of gear for the dogfishery, but to do so is dangerous and it kills the backs and bodies of fishermen hauling in tons of these 10-14-pound animals for such small pay. They have to catch a lot of dogs during a very small time frame just to make it worth their while.
Most of the dogfish harvested in Cape Cod is sent to New Bedford, Boston and even New York City for processing, separating and freezing. Clean, skinless fillets are frozen and sent to England and Australia where they are fried for fish and chips. Fins are dried and shipped to Asia where they are often made into soup. The cartilaginous vertebrae of these animals are cleaned and usually end up in those mysterious joint support pills you see on vitamin infomercials.
I had my first stint with the untouchables—dogfish, skate and whole monkfish—when I began working for a large seafood company in Brooklyn a few years ago. One of the men I worked for was an exporter of dogfish fillets to places like the UK and Australia where their white flaky meat is consumed by the masses as the main ingredient in fish and chips. I realize that it’s a challenge for a salty Cape Codder to wrap his brain around this, but in England the price of dogfish exceeds the price of our beloved codfish. As time went on working for this Brooklynite, I encouraged chef clients of mine to experiment using dogfish fillets in their tacos and for fish and chips. I also encouraged them to refer to the dogfish as smooth shark.
Catfish has been a big hit in the USA but for some reason eating “dog” hasn’t caught on. What is in a name, anyway? William Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Not true when it comes to selling underutilized and undervalued species such as dogfish or scup for human consumption. Operating my own seafood company based in Point Judith, Rhode Island, I have found that referring to scup, a member of the bream family, as “local sea bream” to high-end customers has increased likeability and created an outlet for sales where there previously was none. The best part is that chefs are pleased with this “new” discovery; they want more bream.
You can understand why chefs love local bream when the alternative for their whole-fish plate preparation is most likely a farmed piece of daurade, another slightly mutated version of the bream species. Daurades are shipped in from Europe by airfreight. It can take a long while—maybe up to two weeks—before it is eaten by some poor, undeserving individual who happens to be dining on American soil. If you haven’t ever eaten farmed daurade I would describe it most accurately as tasting somewhat akin to the metallic soapy water that is found in the bottom of your dishwater after its cycle.
When we speak about local, underutilized species, it’s important to consider the story of the monkfish. Up until the 1980s monkfish was considered a junk fish: useless garbage of the sea. Monkfish isn’t exactly the Cindy Crawford of fish species, and its lazy way of luring in prey with dangling antennae wasn’t helping its cause, either. When Julia Child, one of the first ever “celebrity chefs” of our time, started experimenting with the monk, it went from horrifying to popular. Monkfish tails are now being sold on a wholesale level sometimes for over six dollars per pound, and certain overseas as well as U.S. markets utilize all parts of the animal including the cheeks, livers and stomach lining. That’s snout to tail dining from a seaward point of view.
Jason O’Toole, owner and chef at a brand new local eatery, Pizza Barbone in Hyannis, knows his fish and he knows how hard it is to find fresh fish on Cape Cod. Although his menu is not seafood based, he looks forward to the possibility of serving local, sustainable seafood at his restaurant this summer, but he worries about the facility of sourcing his fish.
Jason has worked in an impressive list of kitchens throughout his career, including Le Cirque and Bar Boulud in New York City and Lumiere in Cambridge. During these years Jason cooked often with underutilized local New England species that are typically shipped overseas to Europe and Asia.
Skate wings are one of Jason’s favorite fish to fillet and cook. He recommends using minimal ingredients when cooking skate, or any fresh fish. A simple preparation of Jason’s skate wing fillet could entail breading the fillet with crispy cornmeal, salt and pepper, and creating a simple sauce of capers, red onion and lemon. When it comes to monkfish, Jason likes to wrap its loins in bacon or pancetta and bake it in the oven. Monktail loins are meaty and can be treated almost like a fine cut of pork or beef tenderloin. Jason doesn’t stop at monktail. He uses the cheeks of the animal by sautéing them in a pan with pancetta. Monk is hearty and dense; Jason even says that monk is excellent in a red wine sauce.
Florence Lowell, chef and owner of The Naked Oyster in Hyannis, is devoted to feeding her clientele the lesser-known, underutilized species of Cape Cod. When she can get her hands on fresh redfish, skate wings, monk liver, conger eel, dogfish or any other underdog of the seafood realm, she cooks it with the passionate confidence of a French-born, female seafood chef. “I don’t need to know what it is or when it’s coming, just bring it to me!” Florence exclaims when referring to these gill-bearing proteins. Florence wants it all, but she finds it challenging to serve abundant yet lesser known species in her restaurant. Although her customers relish in unique local specials, these species are generally unavailable from her local distributors. “I think telling my wholesaler that [I will cook any fish] would be incentive for them to sell some of the lesser known species, but I guess not.”
Surrounded by the ocean, Cape Cod fish markets tend to sell what most people consider the usual suspects: haddock, codfish, tuna, scallops, lobsters and clams. Nowadays the real availability of these classic species from local sources is very limited, not to mention expensive. Not everybody realizes that just because you are eating cod on Cape Cod does not mean that it was harvested locally, or even domestically.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states, “Today, 86 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported and about half of this is wild-caught.” When I bring up this subject in conversation with Florence, we begin talking about the mislabeling of species that came to light last year in a couple of intensely revealing articles featured in both The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Florence assured me that she and other chefs who know and care about presenting their ingredients with truth and awareness can tell the difference between something like a local codfish and one that is shipped in from Iceland or any other country overseas.
Eating seafood connects us to our roots: the fishing cultures of New England. Nowadays the “normal” seafood species that we associate with this peninsula are so far removed from our real food systems that it is mind-blowing how truly disconnected from local seafood we have become. Giving dogfish, skate and other underutilized seafood species a chance by dining in local restaurants that have the finesse and drive to serve these types of fish will expand our minds and mouths. In turn we can spread the word and continue to eat in a way that helps fishermen and chefs source the local and sustainable seafood species that are available to us in abundance.
SAUTÉED SKATE WING WITH LEMON, PARSLEY AND CAPERS
Recipe courtesy Jason O’Toole, Pizza Barbone
Makes 2 servings
- 2 boneless, skinless skate wings
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons cornmeal
- 1½ tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- ¼ plum tomato, chopped
- 2½ tablespoons capers, drained
- 1 tablespoon shallots, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons parsley chopped
- 1 zest and juice from lemon
- Season skate wing on both sides with salt and pepper. Mix the flour and cornmeal on a plate. Pour the oil into a non-stick skillet set over medium-high heat. Place the skate wings on the plate and coat both sides with the flour/cornmeal mixture, then place them in the skillet. Cook until each side is nicely golden brown, about 3-4 minutes per side. Set aside on a clean plate when done.
- Wipe out the skillet, and then add the butter and turn the heat to medium-high. When melted, add the tomato. Cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the butter turns a light brown. Add the capers and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Finally, add the shallots, parsley, lemon zest and juice. Cook for 30 seconds, stir well, and then pour the sauce over each skate wing.
- Jason recommends simply roasting in-season vegetables, such as potatoes, asparagus, fennel or whatever is fresh from the farmers’ market, to accompany the skate wing.
MONKFISH TAIL TANGINE
This adventurous dish has many components, as well some unfamiliar ingredients—be sure to read it through carefully. Serve over couscous.
Recipe courtesy Florence Lowell, The Naked Oyster
Makes 5 servings
- 2 cups raisins
- 6 ounces pitted black olives
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 2 small preserved lemons
- 1 green pepper
- 1 red pepper
- 1 eggplant, cut in ¼-inch thick slices
- 1 young carrot
- 1 large onion
- 1 lemon, cubed
- 1 ounce honey
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Balsamic vinegar
- 5 monkfish tails, cut into 5-ounce sections
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 2 cloves
- 2 lemons
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt & pepper
- 8 ounces white wine
- 8 ounces fish stock
- Pinch of saffron
- 1 ounce grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon ras el hanout* (recipe follows)
- 10 ounces tomatoes, peeled and crushed
- Chopped fresh cilantro
- Chopped basil
- Soak the raisins in warm water for 15 minutes.
- Put the olives in a pan of cold water and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes then drain.
- Toast the sesame seeds in a pan for 2 minutes.
- Cut the preserved lemons into thin strips, removing the pulp.
- Wash peppers, roast in 350° oven until skin blackens. Place charred peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap until cool enough to handle. Remove skin and seeds and cut into ¼-inch slices.
- In a skillet, sauté carrot, onion and preserved lemons in olive oil until wilted (about 5 minutes), then add the honey, mustard, balsamic vinegar and simmer for 15 minutes.
- In a bowl, combine 1 tablespoon olive oil, cayenne pepper, paprika, cumin and cloves. Add the juice from 1 lemon, garlic, 2 cups of cold water, salt and pepper. Marinate the monkfish at least 2 hours in refrigerator.
- Take monkfish out of the marinade, reserving liquid.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan. Add monkfish and brown on both sides. Remove fish to a plate.
- Add the white wine, fish stock, ¾ cup of water, saffron, ginger, the reserved marinade, eggplant and carrot mixture. Sprinkle with ras el hanout, mix well and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.
- Add the monkfish and tomatoes, and simmer covered for 15 minutes until the fish finishes cooking. Add the olives, raisins, preserved lemon and peppers and let cook 10 more minutes over low heat.
- Check doneness of the fish and the seasoning of the sauce. Remove the fish and let the sauce reduce if needed.
- Two minutes before the end of cooking, add cilantro, toasted sesame seeds and lemon slices for garnish.
- Sprinkle with basil and serve immediately.
RAS EL HANOUT
Ras el hanout is a popular blend of spices that is used across North Africa. The name means “head of the shop” in Arabic and refers to a mixture of the best spices a seller has to offer.
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
- 2 teaspoons ground mace
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- Combine all ingredients.