Seafood from around the world presents an ocean of challenges and opportunities.
By all accounts, a chef should feel good, maybe even a bit tickled, about seafood. Species abound, from consistent farm-raised fish to those that course open waters. Distance is no longer an obstacle; seafood pulled from waters halfway across the globe can hit the grill faster than product from a truck driving from a few states away.
But isn't it the truth that there's always something to fret about? With so many options, the new challenge is about knowledge and choice. Day boat or diver scallops? Line caught or frozen at sea? Rely on one purveyor or count on many? Finally, what to do with all that bounty?
"Know your product and learn how to bring out the best qualities," says Sean Thueson, executive chef at Falling Waters Seafood Restaurant in Seattle. "There are so many kinds of seafood with different flavors and textures that lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods." For Thueson, who grew up in Boise, Idaho, catching trout in a mountain stream, roasting it on an open fire and then adorning the fish with a simple butter sauce bespeaks his philosophy. "The simplicity in cooking brings out the natural flavors and that's what makes it so good." Building on that kind of experience, Thueson thinks of ways to layer flavors, keeping them distinct yet complementary so the focus stays on the seafood. Seared tuna rides Vietnamese-style soba noodles with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy. Pacific snapper and prawns come together on watercress with fennel-scented ginger sauce.
Ed Brown, executive chef at The Sea Grill in New York City, says the focus of the Restaurant Associates-owned concept is to procure the freshest seafood and the best ingredients and present them in ways that are clean, simple and interesting. "We prefer to cook on a plancha, which is simply a thick chrome-plated griddle that gets very hot. Because it is so hot, you are actually toasting or caramelizing [the food] to enhance the flavor," he says. Fish varieties that land on the plancha include arctic char, fresh sardines, Dover sole and fluke. Entrées are served with wilted greens and lobster-coral emulsion.
At East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., Chef-owner Chris Schlesinger shows how deftly his passion for the flame, seasoning and the sea work together. In his Big Bowl of Seafood, large shrimp and scallops are grilled and joined by mussels and crispy whitefish in a spicy crab broth. The dish is accented with avocado, fried yucca and lime. Tuna, on the other hand, is encrusted with cracked white pepper and grilled. The steaklike fish is then served with pickled ginger, soy, wasabi, grilled vegetables and spicy bok choy salad. Michael Rosen, executive chef at Fathom in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., doesn't favor a particular method of preparation. It depends on the seafood, he says. "Some fish have texture and flavor that lend themselves to a particular kind of cooking. Cobia, mahi mahi and opa are fish that are great wood-grilled--nothing better for them."
Rosen says, "Tuna, wahoo and other firm fish are great with a quick sear in a pan with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and not much of anything else. On the other hand, seafood such as monkfish and small whole striped bass benefit from braising. Larger fish such as snapper or grouper can be more tender if braised," he says.
At Veritas in New York, where wine is the focus, Executive Chef Scott Bryan prefers seafood (shrimp, crab, and lobster) from colder waters. "They have more flavor, typically more fat and they're denser," he says. When it comes to preparation, he enjoys pairing classics but adding an unexpected twist, from cod with white beans, clams and chorizo to crisp Atlantic salmon with caramelized endive, sautéed artichokes, tarragon and red wine reduction.
NOT SO SIMPLE
Depending on the chef, seafood can be the easiest food to prepare or the most difficult. It's easy, some chefs say, because it cooks quickly. But seafood, especially fin fish, is also easy to overcook. "To do 400 to 500 covers perfectly, from the first piece of fish to the last, is a challenge," says Rosen. "It's not just a matter of putting it in a pan or on a grill," he says. "It must be turned properly so the isn't just charred but is caramelized. Fish is not always the same thickness and some fish is inedible if it is overcooked. It takes time to learn how to cook fish properly." Rosen's signature item, which is second only to Chilean sea bass as the menu favorite, is whole fried fish--yellowtail snapper or catfish--prepared Hong Kong style. The fish is coated in rice flour and deep fried for about five minutes before it is served with basmati rice and Szechuan chili vinaigrette. "When I started doing this 21/2 years ago, no one would buy it," Rosen says. "But now, we will sell 80 [orders] and we can't keep it in the house." He notes that "whole fish has become accepted and popular because it gives the perception of being unadulterated-you see the whole thing."
GOOD FOR YOU, TOO
Customer perception of seafood is driving its growth and popularity, chefs say. "It's seen as healthy and good for you," says Paul Schramkowski, director of product development for Nashville-based O'Charley's Inc., which has more than 135 restaurants in the Southeast and Midwest. In fact, the casual restaurant chain is emphasizing seafood and has lately increased its menu offerings from limited-time promotions to permanent menu items. They include grilled yellowfin tuna with Cajun seasoning, grilled to medium and served with spicy ginger sauce, and grilled or blackened "fresh catch" of salmon. At HDS Services, a foodservice and hospitality management firm based in Farmington Hills, Mich., seafood demand is also rising thanks to its healthy attributes. Seafood is served two to three times a week at HDS Services' Marquette House, a retirement community in Westland, Mich. Chef Edward Schenk serves cod, scrod, shrimp and salmon, which may find their way onto the menu in the form of shrimp with basil and cheese in phyllo or salmon stuffed with shrimp, bacon and mushrooms.
FISH FOR ALL SEASONS
Menus dictated by the time of year often feature fish that is seasonal, from red snapper to copperhead salmon. Fish from Hawaii as well as Nantucket scallops are also growing in popularity.
But many chefs rely on aquaculture because of availability and consistency. "We need to have farm-raised to keep the pricing down and so that we don't completely strip our natural resources," says Thueson. Bryan also sees a place for aquaculture, but prefers some farm-raised species to others. "Farm-raised salmon is OK, turbot is great but I don't like bass," he says. "It tastes murky and muddy."
Brown appreciates aquaculture for its uniformity, which is a significant in terms of cost. "If you're cooking for 500 people, and I know that a 2-pound fish like striped bass is farm-raised, I know that I will get two perfect portions because every fish will be the same size. If you call a fisherman, each fish may be more or less but you still have to buy the same amount of fish."
Brown says that farm-raised and wild fish also can cook differently because the latter often varies in fat content. Aquaculture produces fish with controlled fat content, he says. But that amount can vary in wild fish depending on their source and the time of year. "It all depends on how you use the fish," Brown says, adding that he uses both wild-caught and farm-raised fish in his kitchen.
Whole Roasted Striped Bass with Tarragon and Shallots