Sustainable Seafood

January 31, 2009

Sorry, another screed from the bully pulpit…

Fish is a high-protein, low fat food that provides a range of health benefits. In particular, white-flesh fish is lower in fat than any other source of animal protein, and oilier fish contain substantial quantities of omega-3, or the “good” fat in the human diet. A growing body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids help maintain cardiovascular health by playing a role in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction.

In addition, fish does not contain those “naughty” omega-6 fatty acids lurking in red meat.

Despite their nutritional value, fish can pose considerable health risks when contaminated with substances such as metals—the most commonly discussed being mercury. Once mercury enters a waterway, naturally occurring bacteria absorb it and convert it to a form called methyl mercury. Unfortunately, humans absorb methyl mercury readily and are especially vulnerable to its effects. Because the poison is odorless, colorless and accumulates in the meat of the fish, it is not easy to detect and cannot be avoided by trimming off specific parts. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals, known as congeners. Eating fish contaminated with mercury or PCBs, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system, causing serious health problems, especially for young children and pregnant women.

How do you select a fish?

Rule: Know thy local fishmonger or butcher. There is no excuse for timidity—his job (the one he is paid to do) is to serve you fresh fish, fowl and meat. Probing inquiry about his product is completely de rigeur, if not mandated; and a fishmonger or butcher who does not openly share his intimate knowledge with you is one to avoid. (I knew one.)

(1) “Flat” fish:
The shorter the “boat to plate time” the better; firm, shiny, bright colored flesh; fresh, mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent, not “fishy” or ammoniac; scales intact & even; clear, not cloudy eyes (except for deeper fish, e.g., grouper); bright pink or red gills, not slimy, dry or mucous covered; fillets & steaks should be moist and without discoloration.

(2) Shell fish (crustaceans & mollusks):
“Boat to plate time” again rules; mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent; Lobsters and crabs should be purchased live and as close to the time of cooking as possible. Both should actively move their claws; lobsters should flap their tails tightly against their chests or, when picked up, curl their tails under their shells. Shrimp should have uniform color and feel firm to the touch. Hard-shell clams, mussels, and oysters, purchased live in their shells, should have tightly closed shells or snap tightly closed when tapped. If they do not close when tapped, they are dead and should be discarded. Soft-shell clams are unable to close their shells completely. To determine if they are alive, gently touch the protruding neck of each clam to see if it will retract. If the neck does not retract slightly, discard the clam. Discard any clams, mussels, or oysters that have cracked or broken shells. Freshly shucked clams, sold in their liquor, should be plump, moist, and shiny. Freshly shucked oysters should be surrounded by a clear, slightly milky, white or light gray liquid. Freshly shucked scallops vary in color from creamy white to tan to a light pink color. Squid should have cream-colored skin with pinkish patches.

Rule: Keep in mind how the fish in our precious oceans are preciptiously vanishing…the numbers from studies are staggering. For instance, since 1950, the harvests from about one third of the world’s fisheries have collapsed to less than 10% of their historical highs. Among the culprits are overfishing, habitat damage, climate change, oxygen depletion and bycatch. So, solemnly chose a species which is relatively abundant, and whose fishing/farming methods are friendly to the seas and rivers. The fish should also be one which is commonly free of known toxins or contaminants…that is, not found in troubled waters.

Because of the number of fish involved and the ever changing populations, a well researched, almost indispensable, site which rates current seafood choices is the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch . Another equally informative site is Blue Ocean Institute, offering assessments and suggested better alternatives to fish in significant environmental danger. Both sources also offer seafood and sushi pocket guides to assure your restaurant choices include sustainable fish.

Finally, a new book entitled Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving The Oceans One Bite At A Time was released for publication last month which provides a comprehensive guide for conscientious sushi diners.

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In Morocco, it’s possible to see the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the same time.
~Tahar Ben Jelloun

A tajine (طاجين), is a cooking vessel—a partially glazed earthenware dish with a pointed, conical lid. But, tajine also refers to the traditional North African method of slowly braising succulent meat (often lamb and chicken) with sweet & savory fruit woven in a prolific complexity of aromatic spices.

Couscous is a coarsely ground semolina pasta which has been a staple in North Africa since the 12th century. It is often steamed in a device the French call a couscoussier. which resembles a double boiler with the upper part having a perforated bottom which is set over a pot of boiling water or over the tajine served with the couscous. The recipes below are created using more conventional cookware.

Couscous scents are unmistakable—intricate, ambrosial with thoughts drifting to Paul Bowles’ contemplative Moroccan sojourn in The Sheltering Sky and the doleful blue magic of Ali Farka Touré’s guitar and plaintive voice.

CHICKEN MAROCAIN

1 1/2 T coriander seeds
1 1/2 T cumin seeds
6 cardamom pods

1 T paprika
1 T turmeric
1/2 T ground cinnamon
1/2 T cayenne pepper
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

4 local, free range, organic chicken leg-thigh quarters or one whole chicken cut into 8 pieces, room temperature
Extra virgin olive oil
3 peeled, slightly crushed fresh garlic cloves

3/4 C medium yellow onion, diced
1+ T fresh ginger, minced
2 T garlic, minced
1 T red pepper flakes
2 cinnamon sticks
2 jalapeno or other chile peppers, diced

1 C dry white wine
1 T tomato paste

1 28 oz can of san marzano tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 C chicken broth
1 C canned chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
3/4 C kalamata olives, pitted and halved
2 T honey
2 preserved lemons,* cut into wedges
2 bay leaves
1/2 C chopped dried figs
3/4 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained

Toast cumin seeds, coriander seeds and cardamom pods in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. In a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Combine with remainder of rub spices, then rub over chicken liberally. Let stand for at least 1/2 hour or refrigerate longer. Keep unused spice rub in pantry for later use in other dishes.

Heat 3 TB oil a high-sided, heavy bottomed pan or dutch oven over medium high heat with smashed garlics. Remove garlic, then add chicken skin side down, sauté chicken until browned on both sides, 5 minutes each side. Remove and loosely tent. Pour off all but 1-2 TB drippings.

Add onions and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in peppers and saute another minute. Then, stir in the ginger, garlic, pepper flakes, cinnamon stick. Cook until fragrant, for another 1 minute.

Deglaze with wine and tomato paste, stirring. Simmer gently until liquid almost evaporates.

Add tomatoes, broth, chickpeas, olives, honey, lemons, bay leaves, figs, currants and stir to combine. Arrange chicken in pan, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce is somewhat reduced, about 20 minutes.

Finish with:

Fresh mint & cilantro, chopped
Grated lemon rind
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

*Preserved lemons are among the most widely used ingredients in Moroccan cuisine.

4 large lemons (preferably thin skinned), scrubbed
2/3 cup coarse sea salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice
4 caradamom pods
olive oil

Dry lemons well and cut each into 8 wedges. In a bowl, toss wedges with salt and transfer to a glass jar (about 6-cup capacity). Add lemon juice and cardamom pods; cover jar with a tight fitting glass lid. Let lemons stand at room temperature 7 days, shaking jar each day to redistribute salt and juice. Add thin layer of olive oil to cover lemons and store, covered and chilled, up to 6 months.

COUSCOUS WITH APRICOTS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium yellow onion, peeled and minced

1 T turmeric
1 t coriander (toasted & ground)

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, slightly simmering
1/2 t lemon zest

2 T green onions, sliced
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 C whole almonds, toasted & coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until soft and translucent. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and sauté gently over low heat until slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the green onions, almonds and apricots. Fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.

A Sermon: Shop Local

January 30, 2009

…as in, a long tedious speech, particularly on a moral issue. It may sound trite, but our individual ecological efforts, each and every day, week, and year will make a collective difference to our Earth—so we become part of the solution and not the problem. Like life, this Earth is not a dress rehearsal. So, both environmental and culinary reasons abound for shopping in your own backyard.

Our Daily Bread is now grown and processed in fewer and fewer locales, often requiring extensive travel to reach your table. Although this production method may prove more feasible for larger suppliers, it remains harmful to the environment, consumers and rural communities. In buying local, your community is supported and fresher product adorns your table.

Transit
The average grocery store shelves produce which often travels nearly 1,500 miles between farm to home, and some 40% of fruit is harvested overseas. Those plants, fruits, seeks, tubers, bulbs, stems, leaves and flowers that now grace the table were former transients—over land, sea and air—-for as long as 7 to 14 days. Local victuals are usually savored soon after harvesting, requiring fewer preservatives or chemical ripening agents. The trip from farm to palate doesn’t extend for days or weeks.

Vast amounts of fossil fuels are expended to transport foodstuffs with the accompanying release of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other delightful pollutants—joining hands, nefariously wafting into the troposphere. As a necessary evil, processors use unfriendly paper and plastic packaging to stabilize food for longer periods. These wrappings wind their way into already congested, greenhouse gas spewing landfills.

Apart from the environmental harm that results from processing, packaging and transporting foods, the industrial produce and livestock farms and packing plants are themselves often the birthplace of air and water pollution.

Nutrition
Extended travel and storage often means lost nutrients—so choosing local, fresher products proves a healthier choice. Also, the preservatives necessary to stabilize foods during long trips are not always substances you may want to ingest as part of your meal.

Larger agribusiness farms also tend to use more pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones, all of which can be damaging to both the environment and human health. On the other hand, local foods from small farms—especially organics—usually use fewer pesticides and fertilizers, undergo minimal processing, are produced in relatively small quantities, as they are distributed within a few dozen miles of where they originated.

Community
According to the USDA, over five million farms in this country have disappeared in this country since 1935. Family farms are rapidly going out of business, not only causing rural communities to dissipate, but resulting in a loss of food quality. The U.S. loses two acres of farmland each minute as cities and suburbs spread into the surrounding communities. By supporting local farms near suburban areas and around cities, you help keep farmers on the land, and, at the same time, preserve open spaces to counteract the environmental downside of urban sprawl.

Labels
Beyond the local market issue, there are a number of other labels and designations to keep in mind, including organic, biodynamic, and sustainable. Organic food is regulated by the U.S.D.A. and must meet certain standards to be certified as such. While there is debate over the value of the U.S.D.A. organic label and how much it corresponds to the initial aims of sustainable architecture, you can usually assume that any food bearing the U.S.D.A. organic label is free from artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Biodynamic farming likewise avoids pesticides and fertilizers which renders a sustainable system in which everything on the farm is reused or recycled. There are a myriad of other words used to define sustainable agriculture, but in its basic form, it strives to sustain rather than degrade the environment while also being econonomically viable.

For a local market in your area: www.localharvest.org

Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of scented urine.
~James Joyce

There has been ongoing lively discourse over the comparative attributes of charcoal and gas grills. Now, debates have been emerging around the country about whether is is greener to grill over charcoal barbeques or on gas grills. Which patio toy produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions in the long run?

In an article published in the The New York Times, Tris West, an environmental scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, calculated emissions from the two grilling methods. He concluded that since charcoal is derived from wood products— trees that absorb atmospheric carbon as they grew — burning it on the grill approaches a “net zero” result in terms of carbon emissions. By comparison, gas grills use propane which is a fossil fuel that adds to greenhouse gas accumulations. However, West cautions that the polemics become a tad more complicated because burning charcoal may release particulates into the atmosphere.

The good news is that your choice won’t effect any significant change in mass carbon emissions. By West’s estimation, the total amount of carbon dioxide released from barbecue grills on July 4 is on the order of .003 percent of the annual U.S. total. Has the discussion now returned to its origins…an issue of flavors and scents?

I am Sam, Sam I Am

January 29, 2009

Do you like green eggs and ham? Would you like them here or there? … Would you like them in a house? on a train? in the rain? with a goat? on a boat? You may like them you will see…

P.S. to an earlier post about developments in the White House culinary staff (Obama Fare—Gratin Dauphinois).

Sam Kass, a private chef who cooked for the Obamas while they were living in Chicago, will now serve them in the White House.

A Chicago native, Mr. Kass, 28, graduated from the University of Chicago and received his formal training at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe. He later worked at Avec, a Chicago wine bar serving Mediterranean food.

Mr. Kass then founded Inevitable Table, a private chef service in the Windy City that purports to be a “link to clean, healthy food.” The services advertised include cooking and shopping “mainly from local farms,” buying wines from “small sustainable wineries,” and offering meals for children and private parties.

Not to worry White House executive chef, Cristeta Comerford—a spokeswoman for Michelle Obama said Mr. Kass will not be the only cook preparing the first family’s meals, but “he knows what they like and he happens to have a particular interest in healthy food and local food.”

Mr. Kass’s appointment again underscores the Obama family’s commitment to healthy, local and sustainable foodstuffs. Is an organic vegetable and herb garden on the White House grounds in the offing? Imagine the bounty from the White House kitchen waste alone which could reaped to create an official presidential compost bin. A science project for Malia or Sasha?

I do so like green eggs and ham, thank you, thank you, Sam I am…

GREEN EGGS AND HAM

Pesto

3 cups fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/4 C pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/3 C grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil, more if needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the basil, parsley, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil into a food processor or blender. Blend in pulses until the paste is fairly smooth, adding more oil if it is too thick. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper; set aside.

Bruschetta & Proscuitto

1 loaf Tuscan bread or baguette
1 head garlic, cut in 1/2 crosswise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

8 thin slices of proscuitto di parma or san daniele del fruili
Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat broiler, placing rack 6″ from the element

Slice the loaf of bread, on the bias, into 3/4-inch slices. Place bread in oven on sheet pan and broil until golden brown on both sides, approximately 2 minutes for the first side and 1 to 1 1/2 for second side. Remove to a platter and rub each slice of bread with the garlic and then brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; set aside.

Heat olive oil in skillet and sauté proscuitto briefly, 1-2 minutes.

Poached Eggs

1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
8 local, fresh, free range organic eggs,* room temperature
Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated or shaven

Fresh eggs are mandatory as they will gather compactly around the yolk, resulting in a rounder, neater shape.

Fill a large heavy based skillet deep enough to cover the eggs with water; bring it to a boil, and add the white wine vinegar The vinegar helps to strengthen the albumin in the egg white which will help to retain shape. Reduce the heat until the water is at a simmer. If the water is too cool, the egg will separate before cooking; if the water is boiling too rapidly, the whites will be tough and the yolks over cooked.

Crack each egg into a shallow bowl to assure they are not broken.

Then, using a slotted spoon, spin the boiling water into a sort of vortex, whirlpool. Once the water is spinning rapidly, gently drop the egg from the bowl in the center of the whirlpool, where it will spin around and coat the yolk in a ball of egg white. Cook until the eggs are barely set, about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs, draining well with a slotted spoon and dab the bottom with paper towels to dry them off. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

To assemble: put a slice of bruschetta on a plate, toppped by a slice of crisp proscuitto; then place 2 poached eggs on top. Spoon a tablespoon of pesto over each egg. Finish with grated or thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

*Free range, organic eggs: Organic eggs are produced from hens that consume a special feed in which all of the ingredients are free from commercial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Free range chickens usually have a covered shelter and access to an outside scratch yard. They are pasture-fed, also foraging for worms and bugs, which are ideal for their health and immunity systems.

…I do, I like them, Sam I am.

Seared Tuna

January 28, 2009

Ruling a large kingdom, is like cooking a small fish…handle gently and never overdo.
~Lao-tse

The two crucial issues that I wanted to wag on about—buying fish & sustainable seafood—will need be addressed in a later post. With this now public affirmation there is little choice but to revisit those topics soon.

Apparently deferring thought is one of the blissful liberties associated with this laisser-aller format. Wouldn’t the unrestrained, self conscious 18th Century authors/essayists, Laurence Sterne and Samuel Johnson, have been the stylistic masters of the English speaking blogging universe? Sterne called his spontaneous writings “progressive digressions,” which seems an apt description for a blog. Then again, imagine a Samuel Beckett blog with his playful, pestilent, multilingual pennings.

SEARED TUNA WITH WASABI & SESAME SEEDS

2-3 T wasabi powder
1/3 C soy sauce
3 T peanut or canola oil
1 T dry sherry
2 t sesame oil
2 t peeled, minced fresh ginger
Pinch of dried pepper flakes
1 T rice wine vinegar
4 green onions, thinly sliced

4 6-oz ahi tuna steaks (Hawaii or U.S. Atlantic)—each about 2 inches thick
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
Sesame seeds—white and black

1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced

In medium bowl, thoroughly whisk together wasabi powder, soy sauce, 2 tablespoons peanut oil, sherry, sesame oil, ginger, dried pepper flakes and rice wine vinegar. Taste and then vary quantities to suit your palate. Stir in green onions. Set aside.

Season tuna with salt and pepper and then coat liberally with sesame seeds. Firmly press seeds into the flesh with the palm of your hand. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon peanut oil in heavy large skillet over high heat. Add tuna and sear briefly until rare but slightly translucent in the center, about 1-2 minutes per side. Take care just to sear quickly and not overcook, but do not turn the tuna over repeatedly—just one turn. Slice tuna across the grain on the bias.

Serve sliced tuna around a molded cup of white rice tossed with roasted almond slices and green onions; then arrange the roasted asparagus spears to your artisitic liking on the plate. Strew jalapenos here and there over the tuna, then drizzle wasabi sauce over.

Pourboire: The tuna can also be served over a variety of greens, such as arugula, frisée, etc.

ROASTED ASPARAGUS

2 1/2 pound medium asparagus, trimmed
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 400

Roast asparagus are best with spears that are a touch on the thicker side…more rubenesque. Snap a single spear toward the end so it breaks off naturally. Cut the remaining spears to match so they are of uniform length.

Toss asparagus with oil, salt, and pepper in a large shallow baking pan and arrange in 1 layer. Roast in bottom third of oven, shaking pan once about halfway through roasting, until asparagus is just tender when pierced with a fork, 8 to 12 minutes total.

Risotto

January 27, 2009

Any healthy man can go without food for two days, but not without poetry.
~Charles Baudelaire

My dawn ablution of a poem and three cups of joe reminded me of risotto. The poem, entitled Rotary by Christina Pugh, ruminates about the slow-paced rotary phone which predated the touch tone and ubiquitous cell. Her verses reminded me of the ritualistic patience needed to make refined, satiny risotto…and in general how simple home cooking can diurnally stall the usual frenetic pace demanded by modern life. The nexus between a rotary phone and risotto my seem a stretch to some, but on this morning it seemed perfectly logical.

Risotto is rustic yet elegant fare whose rural roots have now spread their reach to a more chic audience. The object is to produce a smooth, velvety risotto whose texture plays upon the essence of each individual grain in a way in which they all coalesce to form a sumptuous symphony. An the type of rice and an assiduous hand produces the desired consistency.

A good risotto begins with premium Italian rice, usually Arborio or Violone, which are short, stubby and absorb liquid—resulting in a creamy product which retains a slight bite (al dente) to each grain. Two starches are found in rice: amylose (which does not gelatinize when heated) and amylopectin (which does break down when heated). Rice with a lower percentage (ergo more amylopectin) is shorter and starchier. For instance, Arborio rice contains roughly 19-21% amylose. The desirable gentle chew in risotto is actually due to a defect in the Arborio called chalk. During maturation, the starch structures at the grain’s core deform, making for that firm, toothy center when cooked.

The rice should stirred gently and somewhat constantly, with hot stock added a cup at a time, until it has reached a point of softness yet with the grains retaining their shape. The rice should be creamy, with a slightly resistant core and should not stick together or to the bottom of the pan. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes of your focused attention. Risotto is not a dish you prepare haphazardly while performing other tasks around the house, but please do not be fearful or assume it needs expert coaxing…just some gentle pampering.

Some diehard aficianados suggest there is an added ritual of properly eating risotto. While such over wrought etiquette often falls on deaf ears here, here is a primer on the process: (1) the cooked risotto should be served mounded in the center of shallow bowls; (2) as you eat, push the risotto push the grains out slightly toward the edge of the bowl, eating from the now shrinking ring of rice; (3) Continue spreading from the center and eating around the edges in a circle, so that the mound in middle will keep the risotto warm as you savor the risotto around the rim. The more extreme sects of risotto eaters even insist upon using spoons rather than forks.

RISOTTO WITH WILD MUSHROOMS

7 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 lb fresh wild mushrooms such as porcini or chanterelles, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
1-2 T fresh tarragon, minced
2 plump fresh peeled garlic cloves, smashed
1/3 cup minced shallots (about 1 or 2)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
¾ C freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the stock in a large saucepan and keep at a gentle simmer as you prepare the risotto.

Heat the oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt, and sauté until browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2-4 minutes. Sprinkle the mushrooms with minced tarragon, drain them and set them aside. Wipe out the skillet with paper towels.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter and add the garlic for perfume, pressing the garlic down and around the pan with a spatula to spread the aromatic wealth. Remove and discard the garlic. Add shallots and cook over low to moderate heat, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the rice, and stir until it is well coated and semi translucent, about 1-2 minutes. The heat and butter will separate the grains of rice, assuring a creamy consistency in the end.

Ladle in 1 cup simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 16 to 18 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from heat and stir in parmigiano-reggiano, a scant tablespoon of butter, sautéed mushrooms, a drizzle of truffle oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately with a Barolo from Piedmont or pinot noir.

Yield: 4 servings

Pourboire: For a more full bodied version, add already coarsely chopped and sauteed pancetta to the risotto at the end.