Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona Restaurant in New Orleans has famously championed bycatch on her menus, introducing guests to sheepshead and tripletail, among other little-known fish.
Chef Kara Brooks had to make a decision. She had built up a "green" reputation at her Still River Cafe in Eastford, Conn., with a menu of local, seasonal and sustainable products. Now she debated whether to add a Hawaiian farm-raised yellowtail marketed as a sustainable fish under the Kona Kampachi label.
She finally did it.
"Sometimes it makes sense to sell something sustainable from the South Pacific rather than something from Long Island Sound that will be gone in three years," she said.
Growing numbers of chefs and home cooks across the country are thinking along the same lines. Overfishing is threatening to wipe out entire species — Brooks calls it "cooking to extinction" — while fish farming can wreak environmental havoc if not done right.
Many chefs and some home cooks are turning to underused and underappreciated species of fish, some of which is called "bycatch" because fishermen don't go out specifically looking for them and these "other" fish get caught in the process. Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona Restaurant in New Orleans has famously championed bycatch on her menus, introducing guests to sheepshead and tripletail, among other little-known fish.
"Diversity is always desirable, whether in farming, fishing or community," she said. "If we just eat or grow the same things all the time, the variety dwindles and goes away, and we are left with three kinds of potatoes, or only a choice between tilapia and Atlantic salmon. Variety truly is the spice of life, and it's paramount to sustaining our resources for future generations."
One issue is getting folks to bite when offered a little-known or once-maligned fish at the market or in a dining room. Sardines, for example, are enjoying a huge image makeover now as chefs take a shine to their flavor, abundance and low price.
Spicer said Americans are open to trying new kinds of fish and shellfish because they've spent the past 30 years learning about ingredients, cooking different cuisines and exploring all aspects of food.
"Sometimes they just need the introduction that chefs can provide," she added.
Following the green path isn't always easy. Chefs and consumers alike sometimes have to parse the question of sustainability right down to the reputation of the provider, just as they do with produce at farmers markets. Brooks said consumers also have to do research, ask questions of their fishmongers and suppliers, and cope with seasonal swings in availability. And they can look for the "Best Choice" designation from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program (seafoodwatch.org).
"Part of the equation is being more agile in the kitchen," said Bruce Sherman chef of Chicago's North Pond restaurant and chairman of the board of overseers for the Chefs Collaborative, a national group working on sustainability issues. If he can't find sablefish one day, he said, he needs to be flexible and find another green fish.
"We can't let that stop us from dealing with the issues."
CRISPY-SKIN STRIPED BASS WITH ASPARAGUS CREAM
Prep: 20 minutes Cook: 25 minutes Makes: 4 servings
Susan Spicer uses little-known and underused fish such as striped bass on the menu of her New Orleans restaurant, Bayona. Striped bass has been given a "Best Choice" designation from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.
Â1/2; pound asparagus, ends trimmed
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, chopped
1 cup milk
Â1/2; cup whipping cream
1 cup fresh spinach leaves, chopped
Â1/2; teaspoon salt
Â1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 fillets striped bass, about 6 ounces, skin on
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Heat a large saucepan of water to a boil. Cut off 3 inches of the asparagus tips; add to boiling water. Cook 1 minute; drain. Place asparagus tips in a bowl of ice water. Set aside. Cut stalks into Â1/4-inch rounds.
2. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot and asparagus stems; cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Add milk and cream; heat to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer until asparagus is tender, and liquid is reduced by about half, 10-15 minutes. Add the spinach; cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat; cool. Drain, reserving liquid.
3. Place the asparagus in a blender with half of the liquid. Blend; add the rest of the liquid with the motor running. Strain through a fine strainer, pushing down with a ladle to extract all the cream. Season to taste with half of the salt and half of the pepper.
4. Season the meat side of the fish with remaining salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fish, skin side down. Cook until skin is golden brown and crispy, and fish is cooked about one-half to three-quarters through, about 7 minutes. Turn fish; cook until just barely cooked through, 1-2 minutes. Place a drizzle of sauce on each plate. Arrange asparagus on one side; place fish on the other.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 409 calories, 57 percent of calories from fat, 26 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 128 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 37 g protein, 463 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
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