Dining on delicious and abundant fish in the Gulf of Maine
by Nancy English
[Feature article from the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Green & Healthy Maine]
Five kinds of unfamiliar fish and seafood, all recommended by restaurant chefs, fishery scientists and a chorus of fishermen, are appearing on Maine menus this summer. Atlantic Pollock, mackerel, Acadian redfish, whiting, and northern shrimp, caught off the coast in the Gulf of Maine and bordering fishing areas, are each in their own right magnificent and healthy meals.
A campaign called Out of the Blue intends to put more of them on our plates.
Sam Hayward, chef and co-owner of Fore Street restaurant in Portland, is a member of the underutilized seafood steering team at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute that started Out of the Blue. Maine’s premier local fish, meat and produce lover, Hayward is a store of information and enthusiasm about this seafood.
“Atlantic pollock is a member of cod family,” he said. “It’s confused with Pacific pollock used so often in processed food like fish sticks and artificial crabmeat. Atlantic pollock is slightly off-white and has a different flavor. It’s a little richer, with delicate texture.”
Good-tasting fish has always been on Fore Street’s menu, including delicious mackerel, when they start swimming by the coast in June. Served roasted in the wood-fire oven, Fore Street’s mackerel are caught in a weir off Ram Island and are impeccably fresh.
At its most pristine, mackerel is sometimes a part of a chilled and raw seafood platter, Hayward said.
But because mackerel deposit a layer of fat under the skin and in the muscle, they must be chilled the moment they’re caught or that oil can begin to oxidize, becoming intense and pungent like cod liver oil. Perhaps indeed one reason mackerel is not more popular is that it has not been eaten as fresh as it should be. But grilled simply with lemon and olive oil or butter, mackerel is terrific.
Visitors who wish to fish for mackerel during the summer can catch them from the end of Maine State Pier in Portland, as one of Fore Street’s sous chefs and many Mainers do in their spare time. Bring along a cooler filled with ice to keep your catch very cold and very delicious, and make sure to register on the saltwater registry with the Maine Marine Resources Department (www.maine.gov/saltwater, $1.00 fee).
Eloise Humphrey, chef and co-owner of El Camino, a Mexican restaurant in Brunswick, offered Acadian redfish Vera Cruz style, with Vidalia onion, jalapeño, tomato and capers, in the spring. Quickly sautéed and scented with fresh lime juice, the redfish was served on rice.
Hayward remembers buying Acadian redfish from boats on the way to Portsmouth when he lived and worked in the Isles of Shoals in 1974. He cooks Acadian redfish at home in the meuniere style, with olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs and some aged apple cider vinegar, not forgetting to slash the skin so the fish doesn’t curl up as it cooks.
Like Hayward, Humphrey has always had the highest standards when sourcing her meals. She serves fish and shellfish only from the Gulf of Maine. “People eat a lot of seafood here,” Humphrey said. Swordfish and cod as well as northern shrimp are often on the El Camino menu. In the summer, when visitors to nearby Bowdoin College’s music programs take over that campus, lobster reappears on El Camino tables.
At Inn by the Sea’s Sea Glass Restaurant in Cape Elizabeth, Executive Chef Mitchell Morgan Kaldrovich serves whiting, also known as silver hake, on a succotash of fresh corn and other vegetables in the height of the growing season. Inn by the Sea, an elegant and devotedly green hotel, also provides an after-dinner walk to the water near newly planted Eastern cottontail habitat.
Kaldrovich and the inn’s public relations and green programs director, Rauni Kew, are both members of the GMRI team that developed the Out of the Blue program. The inn’s cuisine is dedicated to local sources, with a lobsterman and vegetable farmer next door at Alewive’s Farm always ready to replenish the kitchen’s stores.
Northern shrimp are tiny compared to shrimp from the rest of the world, and cook in mere seconds. Their delicacy and sweetness are unique. The northern shrimp season is in the winter, but frozen northern shrimp are sold throughout the year.
Northern shrimp are part of the seafood paella at Sea Glass. “I use lobster consommé to cook the rice with chorizo in a separate pan,” said Chef Kaldrovich. “The clams take 12 minutes to cook, the mussels take six, calamari takes one minute and northern shrimp cook in 10 seconds.” Saffron, smoked paprika and his own soffrito fine-tune the flavor of the dish, which is finished with a half grilled lobster placed on top.
For consumers seeking an understanding of how their dinner affects marine ecology, and the status of, for example, Acadian redfish, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute offers scientific research to back up enjoyment of this Gulf of Maine seafood.
“The fisheries in the Northeast are really among the best and most well-managed in the world,” said Jen Levin, program manager for the Sustainable Seafood Initiative at GMRI. She and Sam Grimley, project coordinator for the same initiative at GMRI, worked with restaurateurs and fishermen to develop Out of the Blue.
Scientists at GMRI have so far verified that eight species of fish and seafood, including the five on the Out of the Blue list, meet important criteria around responsible harvesting, can be traced to the Gulf of Maine and are not in danger of overfishing. The Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested branding program, also run by GMRI, provides a way for consumers to identify these verified species in local grocers.
Dealers like Hannaford Brothers and Shaw’s that sell the verified seafood, display the program’s seal at their seafood counters throughout the region. In 2012, GMRI is launching a Culinary Partners program, which will highlight restaurants that commit to serving Gulf of Maine seafood and contributing to sustainable practices.
GMRI scientists work with fishermen to discover ways to reduce the environmental impact of fishing. Benefitting from this research, fishermen are using fishing nets with larger mesh and other innovative equipment to fish more selectively to fill their carefully regulated catch limits.
In the Gulf of Maine, where there are many species of fish, catching multiple species can sometimes put fishermen over catch limits, which would bring an early end to a fishing season. But new gear technologies helped fishermen fish more selectively and avoid that risk. Research on habitat, like the depth a fish calls home, also permits fishermen to harvest more exclusively some of a species they find in abundance.
One intention of popularizing other fish in the sea is to broaden the focus of both fishing fleets and markets, taking pressure off popular species like cod. In the 2011-2012 fishing season which ended April 30, the Gulf of Maine cod catch during the first 11 months had reached 92.6 percent of the allowable catch. And, as a result of new research showing pressure on the population of Gulf of Maine cod, in April regulators at the National Marine Fisheries Service announced a 22 percent cut in the 2012-2013 fishing season’s allowable cod catch.
The species in the Out of the Blue program, except for northern shrimp, are caught at far lower percentages of their annual, allowable catch limits. In those same 11 months, for example, only 28.5 percent of the Acadian redfish allowable catch had been brought to shore.
Out of the Blue participants hope that once consumers know how good the unfamiliar fish taste, fishermen will start catching more of them. By adding to their income sources, fishermen will be better able to weather any future cutbacks in the volatile annual quotas of more popular fisheries.
Seafood is an enormous part of the United States economy. “Eighty to 85 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported,” Levin said. “And imported seafood is the second largest component of the national trade deficit after oil.” Sam Grimley added that, in 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service valued those seafood imports at $14.8 billion. Out of the Blue seafood, of course, is caught in Gulf of Maine waters, and buying and eating it boosts both the local and national economy.
Michael Alfiero, a partner at Harbor Fish, a retail seafood store and wholesaler in Portland’s Old Port, has observed firsthand the evolving popularity of particular fish. Haddock has been a bestseller for more than a quarter of a century. Preferences for seafood are well established and slow to change. Lately, Alfiero said, fine-grained hake is becoming a new favorite of both consumers and restaurant chefs.
But with restaurants devising exquisite new dishes of fish and consumers hungry to do their part to sustain the oceans, new favorites are destined to be for dinner.