Gulf Coast chefs are cooking all the fish in the sea
About five years ago, Chris Shepherd—then the chef of the now-shuttered Catalan in Houston—found a business card on his desk for fishmonger PJ Stoops, along with an order sheet for several fish he had never heard of: triggerfish, scorpion fish, almaco jack and longtail sea bass. Curious, he picked up the phone. “I called the guy and he said, ‘This is all the stuff in the gulf,’” says Shepherd, who is now executive chef at Underbelly. “And then he just started bringing me fish. Groupers and snappers, of course, but then a lot of other little things I’d just never seen.”
Called “bycatch” or “trash fish,” these species are usually pulled up when commercial fishermen are looking for something else. The average shrimp trawler’s haul, for instance, is only 16 percent shrimp. The rest, made of some 50 common species including squid, snails and sea pansies, is typically dumped back in the ocean, dead or alive.
Stoops didn’t start selling trash fish to be trendy, although in the five years since he started his business out of the back of his truck, bycatch has become something of a foodie catchphrase, along the lines of “farm-to-table” and “nose-to-tail.” Instead, he claims to have gotten into the business on a whim. In the Gulf of Mexico, in addition to oft-sought fish like grouper and snapper, you’ll find roughly 1,445 species of finfish—almost all of which are edible. “I went into bycatch not knowing that much about it other than that I could make more money,” he says.
Stoops’ gamble worked: Shepherd, who earlier this year brought home Houston’s first James Beard Award in 22 years, most days has some form of bycatch on his menu, served whole and fried. Mesquite-smoked bycaught mackerel with cane syrup, cabbage, mustards and pickles was on a recent menu at Justin Yu’s Oxheart in Houston. Brian Landry, the chef at Borgne in New Orleans, serves freshwater drum with brown butter, pecans and jumbo lump crab. And at The John Dory Oyster Bar in New York, chef Charlene Santiago has had whelks, or sea snails, with garlic and parsley butter on the menu since the restaurant opened in 2010.
In theory, less popular fish becoming trendy is a good thing. Eating bycatch, like eating offal, is about avoiding waste. But in fact, most of the fish that Stoops sells are eaten regularly in other parts of the world. Almaco jack, a cousin to amberjack, is known as kanpachi in Japan, where it is standard on sushi menus. Triggerfish, a light, flaky fish that tastes like crab meat, is a staple in Florida fish shacks. But, says Stoops, a potential danger is that the majority of these fish are not regulated by government agencies—and that not all chefs (or fishermen) are focused on sustainability. “Monkfish went from being abundant to endangered. And in Mexico, they fished out a species of whelk because they targeted them during spawning,” he says.
Still, by serving bycatch, restaurants can make an important contribution to conservation—even though there is progress yet to be made. “In an ideal world, fishermen would not be able to throw things back,” says Stoops. “That’s when bycatch would really mean something.”
Adding a little black or Earl Grey tea to a cocktail has been popular for a few years now, but only recently have bartenders explored the full range of possibilities: infusing the stuff directly into spirits, brewing and stirring it in or freezing it into cubes. “Tea opens up so many doors to different flavor profiles,” says Nick Kosevich, co-owner of Bittercube, a mixology consulting company that also makes bitters. “You can make the same cocktail a hundred different ways by using different teas.”
Here, Kosevich and his business partner Ira Koplowitz tell us how to make the Tea ’n’ T, a play on the gin and tonic they developed for Eat Street Social in Minneapolis. Recently, they’ve taken to altering the cocktail with the seasons, switching in chai, smoked Earl Grey and even a sugarplum tea for the holidays. Kosevich and Koplowitz use Bingley’s teas, but you can use any brand.
Tea ’n’ T
To infuse the gin, combine tea leaves and gin in a pitcher and stir intermittently for 15 minutes. Strain using a tea strainer and place back in bottle. Combine 2 oz. of the infused gin with all ingredients, except for seltzer, in cocktail shaker with ice. Shake. Add seltzer, then strain into a collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with lime wedge.
i was recently four-deep in the crowd at Row 34, Boston’s new seafood haven, nearly spraining an eyebrow in an effort to engage the world-weary barman. Finally: “A ZURE VAN TILDONK, PLEASE!” I megaphoned above the din, indicating a Belgian sour ale I’d heard raves about. It was, apparently, the right request.
“I just love this one,” the bartender said, beaming and suddenly energized. “Such beautiful apricot notes! Man, I love it when sourheads come in!” For the rest of the evening, my new sour-ale buddy carefully monitored my every penultimate sip, eager to resume leading me through the menu of sour beers. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’m usually a wine guy.
This is the beauty of sour beer, a category that’s hundreds of years old but has only recently bubbled up to rival IPAs and Saisons as reigning king of craft suds. The four major styles—lambics, gueuzes, goses and Flanders reds—are attracting a new fan base among my fellow wine drinkers, who are discovering that the tart fruit flavors pair with food with the same subtlety and thirst-quenching brightness as a high-toned vouvray.
For beer geeks, sours’ unique brewing process—inoculating the mash with wild yeast and bacteria and leaving it to ferment in open barrels—adds an appealing wildcard factor, as does the final step, in which beermasters combine other batches and sometimes fruit juices to get the flavor profile just so.
“That blending aspect is such an important part of the final product,” says Megan Parker-Gray, Row 34’s beverage director. “It’s a real art form.”
For 52 years, Carlos Casassa, the owner of La Fiorentina Gelateria in Lima, Peru, tended grape vines and produced pisco and table wine at his father’s 90-acre farm and vineyard. Throughout those years, he dreamed of the day he’d be able to relive his childhood, when he helped his mom make small batches of ice cream in her bakery. “I wanted my own gelato shop,” he says. Finally, in 2009, when he was 72 years old, he got it.
He sold the family farm to provide the capital and opened his compact establishment across the street from Surquillo Market, a farmers market where the city’s top chefs source their produce. Given the location, and Casassa’s lifetime of farming, it was natural that the gelateria became what it is—quite possibly the best place in Peru to taste the bounty of the country’s horticulture and agriculture in ice cream form. The 55 curious flavors on offer include an earthy porcini mushroom; a grassy avocado; a bright, berry-flavored Amazonian fruit called camu-camu; lucuma, which tastes like a sweet potato topped with maple syrup; creamy tropical custard apple; and yellow pepper, which is as citrusy as it is spicy. “I like creating unusual flavors; it’s a challenge to get the perfect balance,” says Casassa. “We have a lot of delicious fruits here in Peru, and I prefer to give the local farmers work.”