Environmentalist chefs are working to eliminate invasive species,one delicious dish at a time
Author Jodi Helmer Photography Andrew Hetherington/Redux
CONNECTICUT – Night after night, the same scene plays out at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut. A few less-than-courageous patrons spend minutes gawking at the menu before turning around and walking right back out the door. The reason? Instead of beef negamaki, salmon avocado rolls and tuna sashimi, James Beard Award–nominated chef Bun Lai has filled his inventive menu with peculiar offerings such as lionfish sashimi, slow-roasted swan and other dishes based on such unappealing-sounding items as mugwort, sea squirt and feral hog.
“We wanted to think outside the box and make sushi that helps support the environment,” Lai explains of a special menu that is comprised solely of invasive species and plants that have been introduced to the U.S.—intentionally or accidentally—and are now wreaking havoc on an environment that has no way to fight back. “Though we get national and international accolades for our approach, it takes a while for people to warm up to it.”
A growing number of chefs across the country are adopting a similar ethos, creating signature recipes featuring invasive ingredients. In addition to taking pride in using their appetites to help the environment, diners are delighted to discover that invasive species are often delicious.
Conservation biologist Joe Roman, who created the Eat the Invaders campaign to support consumption of invasive species, encourages developing a hearty appetite. “Our end goal is extinction; we want to eradicate these species,” explains Roman, a researcher at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. “Traditional methods [of eradication] are economically and ecologically expensive, so it makes sense to put our appetites to good use.”
Asian shore crab
The Problem Native to the Pacific, these crabs are about the size of a quarter, but they pack a surprising ecological punch. Since appearing off the Jersey Shore in the late 1980s, they’ve spread widely along the Eastern seaboard, competing with native shellfish for food and taking over their habitats.
The Solution Bun Lai hand-harvests crabs on certified Connecticut shellfishing grounds, a process he likens to weeding. He turns them into a flavorful stock and fries them whole as a crunchy garnish for a dish called Kanibaba.
The Problem Feral and fearless, wild boars can now be found in 45 states, where they inflict massive environmental damage by feasting on endangered sea turtle eggs and native plants. In most environments, these ecological troublemakers have no natural predators.
The Solution The Rabbit Hill Inn, in Lower Waterford, Vermont, serves braised wild boar shanks, which are known among chefs for their succulent, lean meat.
The Problem While the fish (which resembles a snake) is a delicacy in its native Asia, it’s viewed as a major eco-menace in the States, where it was introduced by fishmongers hoping to create harvestable local populations and by aquarium owners whose pets had outgrown their tanks. It’s known for being an immensely voracious predator.
The Solution At the new Laotian restaurant Thip Khao in Washington, D.C., snakehead has been featured in a traditional soup and in a pounded larb salad.
The Problem These miniature mussels originated in Russian lakes and hitched a ride from Europe on the hulls of ships. Now, an estimated 10 trillion mussels clog the Great Lakes, feeding on plankton and stealing an important food source from native fish.
The Solution Minnesota’s Excelsior Brewing Company uses zebra mussel shells and Eurasian milfoil (an invasive aquatic plant) taken straight from Lake Minnetonka in its Milfoil Lakehouse Saison Ale.
CUTCHOGUE, NEW YORK – Is a new spicy condiment threatening to end Sriracha’s reign as king of the hot sauces? Harissa, a Tunisian paste made of chilis, garlic and spices, is showing up in dishes across the U.S.: over hamachi and eggplant at NYC’s Daniel; glossing squash soup at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse; atop stuffed zucchini at Philadelphia’s Vedge.
Oddly enough, one of harissa’s top cheerleaders these days is 91-year-old self-described “Montana farm boy” Earl Fultz, the former PR whiz who convinced Coca-Cola to add the now-iconic white ribbon to its logo. The longtime Long Island resident was introduced to harissa by his late wife, Gloria, whose Moroccan family’s recipe comes spiked with cumin seeds, cayenne and Spanish paprika.
A few years ago, when Gloria fell ill, she encouraged Earl to turn his love of harissa into a business. “She told me, ‘You’re going to miss me when I’m gone,’” Fultz says. “‘You need something to keep you busy.’” In 2013, he began peddling jars of his cHarissa at a local farmers market. By summer, he was consistently selling out, riding the wave of a spicy trend. Now, he churns out up to 800 jars a week, selling at NYC gourmet food stores like Kalustyan’s and Sahadi’s, and to restaurants like Bareburger and Blue Ribbon Bakery.
“I stumbled upon cHarissa at an inter-national food show and found the smoky, almost citrusy flavor addictive,” says Suzanne Allgair of Blue Ribbon Bakery. “At the market, we stir it with crème fraîche and use it as a garnish for lentil soup, which gives the dish another dimension.”
Fultz’s dedication runs deep; each spoonful is a tribute to his late wife. “I would not be doing this at my age if it wasn’t for Gloria,” he says. “She gave me a reason to keep moving.” —Leah Koenig
MASSACHUSETTS – Pound for pound, few foods match the umami richness of miso—Japanese fermented soybean paste. Varying in intensity from mild white shiromiso to aged reddish akamiso, the paste is now showing up in cocktails across the country.
Take, for example, the Barrio Chino, a sweet-savory blend of Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup and caramelized miso syrup. The tipple is the creation of Ran Duan, the imaginative 28-year-old mixologist behind the Baldwin Bar, a speakeasy tucked in the back of his parents’ restaurant, Sichuan Garden II, in the Boston suburb of Woburn.
“Miso is high in sodium, which amplifies the subtle notes in the spirit that can sometimes get lost in the mix,” Duan says. For bartenders, adding it to drinks is “like chefs and bakers adding a pinch of salt to sweets to round out the flavors.”
Miso pairs surprisingly well with a wide variety of flavor profiles: in the cobbler-inspired, bourbon-based Lucky Peach at Chicago’s Momotaro; in the savory Woman in the Red Dress, made with tomato, Thai basil, lime juice, gin and Campari at LA’s Providence; in a michelada made with Mexicali beer, yuzu and togarashi salt at NYC’s Empellón Al Pastor; and in the Miso Mule (Japanese whiskey, Limonata soda, honey and miso) at Austin’s Bar Congress. —Geraldine Campbell
Barrio Chino Yields one drink
• 1½ oz. Ancho Reyes
• ¾ oz. pineapple juice
• ¾ oz. lime juice
• ½ oz. simple syrup
• ½ oz. caramelized miso syrup
(see recipe below)
Shake all ingredients and serve in a collins glass with a pineapple leaf garnish.
Caramelized miso syrup
• 4 oz. low-sodium white miso
• 1½ quart sugar
• 2 quarts water
• 3 oz. vodka
Toast white miso in a pan on low heat until caramelized. Add sugar and water and stir until dissolved. Add vodka to fortify.