Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is your smoke alarm driving you crazy?

I had it all under control. Sure, the oven was set to 500F, but I had my windows open, and some chopped up veggies ready to go around the chicken the moment the fat starts to splatter and burn. "Have you noticed how I haven't set off the smoke alarms on either Friday or Saturday?" I asked Jason. "Yeah! You are getting good at this. Weren't both of those Tender at the Bone classes?" he said appreciatively. My meat class was the worse smoke alarm offender. Try searing a porterhouse, a rack of lamb, and a pork roast in a row with NO vent. It's not pretty. What was worse was that it usually happened right after Jason put Sammy to bed. But I am a reformed cook now. I have finally figured out how to deal with the smoke and am no longer dreading teaching my meat class.

"Maybe I should blog about this. I bet other people have smoke alarm issues," I said. "You definitely should. By the way, what's that smell," said Jason. I opened the oven door and... Oh no!!! I put the skillet in the oven right with the handle mitt and there goes the smoke alarm.

Ok, so maybe I am not the smoke alarm master I thought I was. But as long as I don't cook my oven mitts at 500F, my smoke alarm prevention system really works. Really.

Here are some tips on how to keep your alarms at bay.

With hood that vents outside
If only we all were this lucky. If your hood vents outside, your job is easy. Turn it on low at least a few minutes before doing something smoky. It will create air flow that will suck that smoke right up. If you turn it on after the smoke is starting to build up, it will not catch up effectively.

No hood that vents outside, but there are windows in the kitchen
Let's get real -- that thing above my stove is useless. I stopped turning it on, and try to create air flow in other ways. Opening the windows in the kitchen and on the opposite side of the house works well for me. Just make sure to do it before you start searing. Opening the windows after the smoke starts to build is not effective. In winter, it might get chilly. You didn't think you'd get something for nothing, did you? If I could find a way to vent the smoke outside without effecting the temperature of your room, I'd be a rich woman.

No hood that vents outside, and no windows in the kitchen
This one is tough. You'll need a fan. Set it up so that it blows the air out of your kitchen and open as many windows as possible in the adjacent room. This is a trick my brilliant husband Jason came up with. Blowing air into your kitchen seems more intuitive to me, but it doesn't get rid of the smoke. Just like with the above two cases, you have to get your fan blowing and windows opened before searing.

Now that we got some air flowing, let's talk about the smoke itself. Believe it or not, some of it can be avoided. Not only will your house be more peaceful because the smoke alarms stay quiet, but your dish will taste better because you won't burn your fond (those lovely brown bits at the bottom of you skillet).

Use Canola Oil
I love olive oil as much as anyone, but it's not for searing. Its smoke temperature is too low. Use canola oil, and you'll create less smoke.

Fill in the gaps
Choosing the right size and shape of skillet for searing and high heat roasting (over 450F) is very important. If it's too small, the food will steam rather than brown. If it's too large, the exposed parts of the skillet will overheat resulting in burnt brown bits and smoke alarms. In an ideal world, you'd have a perfect batterie de cuisine that includes a pan in every size and shape (even those really cute oval roasters that fit a pork roast and chicken perfectly). But this is not an ideal world, so we have to learn to cook with what we have.

Most roasts are oval, but most skillets are round. Don't get hung up on keeping that roast in one piece. If necessary, cut it into smaller roasts that will fit into your skillet better. I always end up cutting a rack of lamb and pork tenderloins in half to better fit them into my 10 inch round skillet. If there are still empty areas on the bottom of the pan, I fill them with chunks of carrot to absorb the heat. If done correctly, this method won't compromise the quality of the sear. Here are some tips on how to do this:
  • Use veggies that are low in moisture to avoid creating steam. Large carrots work the best (make sure to dry them very thoroughly before using, and don't use the overly moist baby carrots). If you don't have any carrots on hand, there are always celery and onions, but they tend to create more steam making it more difficult for your protein to brown.
  • Cut the carrots into 1/2 inch thick planks or 1/2 inch thick slices on the bias. You want the pieces to be rather large. This will help you to keep them from under the protein you are searing or roasting. Your protein needs to be in direct contact with the skillet, so don't let those carrots sneak under.
  • Let the protein sear as long as possible without adding the carrots. I usually sear on the first size, then flip and add the carrots, but you'll have to use your judgement based on how much empty space you have in the skillet and how much smoke is created. Keep in mind that it's good to have some space between your pieces of protein (1/2 - 1 inch) to keep them from steaming. But if you have lots of empty space in your skillet, you'll need to fill it in.
What do you do with carrots afterwards? Most of the time, you discard them (but I much rather sacrifice a carrot than ruin the brown bits and set off smoke alarms). When this technique is used for searing proteins on the stove top, the vegetables end up too browned on the outside, but raw inside. When surrounding a roast with them, there is a possibility that they'll be cooked at the same time as the protein and become delicious, but there are no guarantees.

Chose the right type of smoke alarm
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes the smoke alarms go off anyway, so it's good to get ones with a button that you can press to shut them up. Keep a broom handy, so that you don't have to climb up on a chair.

When all else fails
If your smoke alarm goes off no matter what you put on your stove (even a pot of water for pasta), it might be time to get new smoke alarms. With use, alarms accumulate a layer of gunk on their sensor and the slightest whiff can send them over the edge. If you cook a lot, it can happen faster than the manufactures indicate. I had to replace mine after 6 years of use.

Do you have any other strategies for dealing with smoke alarms? I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Boston Seafood Show part 3: the answers

This is my last post about Boston's International Seafood show 2009. Remember the list of questions we put together before the show? I had good luck with more specific questions (oysters, previously frozen fish, HACCP regulations). The more fuzzy questions about sustainability and aquaculture practices were tricky. I picked up tidbits of information, but nothing cohesive. Here is what I learned on different topics:


Q: Is mercury an issue for oysters and is there a limit on how much a person should eat?
A: Oysters are small and don't eat other fish, so mercury is not an issue for them.

Q:Are there any other health issues like parasites because you eat them raw?
A: Parasites don't seem to be an issue, but oysters from warm coastal areas like the Gulf of Mexico could potentially be contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus bacteria during the warmer months. This doesn't seem to be an issue for New England oysters.

Q: How long are oysters good for after they have been taken out of the water and what is the best way to keep them once they are out?
A: Oysters can keep for a couple of weeks (potentially as long as a month, but you don't want to risk it) if refrigerated in a well ventilated box. Make sure they can breathe.

Previously Frozen Fish

Q: What are the recent advances in freezing technologies?
O2 seems to do a better job than CO2 in preserving the color of flash frozen fish. I tried an O2 treated big-eye tuna and it was very good.

A: Is there such a thing as lean previously frozen fish that tastes good?
Q: In theory, there is. Flash freezing should keep the integrity of the fish and prevent the moisture loss. But none of the lean previously frozen fish that I tried at the show was particularly inspiring. Most of it was dry, mushy, or both.

Talking to some of the companies that sell frozen fish shed some light on this issue. Much of the frozen fish is frozen whole at sea, then shipped to China, where it's defrosted and filleted (because it's cheaper to fillet in China), then refrozen and shipped to the US. I bet they are even marketing it as "frozen at sea."

To prevent lean fish from losing moisture, they should be flash frozen ONCE and kept at that state until they are ready to be thawed and used. That's easier said than done. Your home freezer definitely doesn't maintain low enough temperature (super freezers are at -70F, while your home freezer is around 5F). I highly doubt that supermarkets have super freezers either (they are very expensive). According to Maguro International, the company whose flash frozen tuna I liked, their product will keep in a regular freezer for 7-10 days. I doubt any stores that sell previously frozen fish and market it as "flash frozen" are that careful with keeping that fish in perfect conditions. To make a long story short... I still don't believe there is such a thing as lean previously frozen fish that is available for retail and whose texture is as good as fresh.

Kampachi (availability and price)

Q: How can sustainably raised and terribly delicious kampachi become more affordable and accessible to home cooks?
A: Kona Blue, the company that farm-raises kampachi in Hawaii, is planning a farm in Mexico, which will make transportation to mainland US much easier and cheaper.

Freezing fish for serving raw

Q: How much of the seafood served raw in US is previously frozen?
A: Most of the fin fish is previously frozen, but as it turns out it's to keep the prices down, not because of HACCP regulations.

Q: How do people in the industry deal with the HACCP regulation that seafood intended for raw consumption needs to be previously frozen? Is there some seafood that doesn't?
A: As it turns out, seafood that doesn't have a high risk of containing parasites doesn't need to be previously frozen. This includes tuna and all farm-raised fish that are fed pellet feed.


Q: What are the most up to date sources for finding out which fish are endangered and which ones aren't?
A: Turns out I wasn't asking the right question. Fishing for endangered fish (like Atlantic salmon) is forbidden, at least in the US. I meant to be asking about over-fished fish. Fish Watch is a good site for the fish caught in the US.

Q: What does MSC certification involve?
A: MSC stands for Marine Stewardship Council. It's a global organization that certifies wild fish from all over the world. They make recommendations to the fisheries on how to fish sustainably. If the fishery implements their recommendations, they can go through the certification process (fisheries have to pay for this). This reminded me a bit of "certified organic." It's hard for me to figure out whether this certification really makes a difference in improving the health of the species or whether it's more of a PR campaign. I know there are a lot of small local farms that can't afford to become certified organic. I wonder if that's the case for small fishing operations. But I guess that MSC certification does help big fisheries be more environmentally conscious.

Difficult questions and fuzzy answers

Q: Which farms are feeding fish (rather than grain) to their farmed fish?
A: Every farm I talked to at the show was feeding the fish pellet food. Of course, I probably didn't talk to every farm, but pellet food seems to be more popular.

Q: What are the recent advances in the field of aquaculture? Which farms have more environmentally friendly practices?
A: This was a hard one. There was a lot of info about how to market your fish as sustainable, but not a lot of data on aquaculture practices and their impact on the environment.

Q: I'd like to learn more about Individual transferable quotas (ITQs), and other economic devices to control overfishing.
A: John Ward from NOAA seemed to have a good opinion of ITQs and mentioned that they've been very successful in New Zealand, Iceland, and on the west coast of the US for sable and halibut. I didn't get a chance to find out how ITQs are distributed to fishermen in the first place, so I sent John an e-mail with that question. Still waiting to hear back.

Q: How is the relationship between fishermen and fisheries management doing in the current economy? Is the trust between the two groups better or worse than in previous years?
A: No luck with this question. Sorry Jessica.

Q: What are the most up to date sources for finding out the amount of mercury in different fish?
A: Didn't get around to asking this, but here is the FDA site I usually use.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Seafood show part 2: cutting up tuna loin

Enough about politics. Let's talk about food for a change. The booth that impressed me the most at the Seafood show was True World Foods (above picture is their fish display). They supply seafood to really upscale restaurants. The raw fish samples they were giving out were very good. Here is what I tasted from them.

Big-eye tuna was lean but had good texture (very impressive considering the fact that it was previously frozen). They gave me their shpeal on how they blast it with O2 rather than CO2 to preserve the color. It was definitely the best tuna at the show. Though I'll be honest with you -- none of the tuna at the show was particularly impressive. It was all too lean. Yuji Haraguchi from True World was the most accessible sushi chef I've ever talked to. He saw me sketching a diagram of the tuna loin as he was cutting it up and agreed to do it again slowly so that I could take step by step pictures.

You set the tuna on your board skin-side down (the skin is already removed by now) and cut it crosswise into chunks about 7 inch long.

Then you make a slice parallel to the board to remove the top 1.5-2 inches of the loin.

Then make another cut parallel to the board to remove another 1.5-2 inches.

The slice closest to the board often has a lot of connective tissue that is cut out with a curvy stroke. This part is usually chopped up for rolls.

Now you have 3 tuna planks. The next step is to cut them lengthwise into rectangular pieces (about an inch apart).

These are the strips you see in a display case at sushi restaurants. To cut them for sashimi, just go against the grain. For nigiri, you have to angle the knife a bit to make wider pieces. Here are sashimi slices.

I've been dying to learn this for years! I think I'll bring a sketch pad with me more often. I had a friend who got an upgrade on his tasting menu at Charlie Trotter's and got to meet the whole kitchen crew just by sketching what he was eating :)

What else was good? The tastiest fish I had at the show was probably True World Food's hamachi. Very nice, juicy and firm (not previously frozen, which is hard to find). Their sea bream was good too.

Do you know what this little root vegetable is that's sitting on top of lemons?

Fresh wasabi! You read that right, not the powder stuff you get everywhere but the real root. This is the first time I had it. It was tasty -- much more complex and less hot than the powder stuff, but I wouldn't pay $90/Lb for it :)

Apparently, there is one restaurant in Boston who serves is. Take a wild guess which one. O Ya, of course. If your restaurant bill doesn't look like half your monthly mortgage payment, you are probably not getting real wasabi.

What else did I eat that was good? Kona kampachi was yummy as always. Still as unavailable and as unaffordable as always, but that might all change in a couple of years. They have plans for creating a farm in Mexico, which would make transportation to US mainland much more affordable than from Hawaii.

Oysters and raw clams from Aquanor were tasty. This is the first time I have really enjoyed them. I am not usually a big oyster person. I love texture in foods, but oysters are something you just swallow, so it always felt like I was missing something. I can't say that I'd chose oysters over tuna now (no way ;) but I think they are growing on me.

Yukon River hot smoked Keta salmon from Kwik'Pak was outstanding. I've had so much terrible smoked salmon at the show that it was a pleasant surprise to try theirs. Very buttery and delicate -- probably due to Keta's unbelievable fat content.

Shrimp from CleanFish Alliance were awesome -- very sweet with no iodine aftertaste that usually bothers me about most shrimp. I hear that Marden's carries some of their products (just not shrimp). I'll try to encourage them to get shrimp too.

Whitefish and Pike roe from Fresh Water Fish Corp. -- pleasant texture that feels like an explosion of little bubbles in your mouth, low salt (compared to most caviar), and very affordable (comparable to salmon row).

Overall, there was way more terrible food than good food at the show: tons of deep-fried, overcooked, under-salted, and deeply disturbing products. Fake caviar (made out of processed fish) was probably the scariest thing I tried -- they told me it was fake after it was already in my mouth and they saw a look on my face.

If you are wondering whether I got the answers to the list of questions I put together before the show, stay tuned. That's my next post.

The difficult question of sustainable seafood

It seems like I got the seafood show posts started on a nice controversial note. Before I make more people upset, I'd like to clarify my position on environmental issues. I am just as confused about these questions as most home cooks. I want to learn more about how my choice at the fish market effects the survival of different species. I think this issue is very complex. I don't want to make sacrifices just to feel like a good person who cares about the environment. Guilting me into giving up fish doesn't work, but I am more than willing to listen to data.

What I like about NOAA's Fish Watch site is that it's more up to date than Monteray Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch (the site I see quoted the most for environmental issues). If I remember correctly, Monteray Bay Aquarium kept swordfish and striped bass on the "avoid" list for quite some time after the stocks have recovered. Also, NOAA's site doesn't ask consumers to make choices based on information that's not available to them. For example, Monteray Bay aquarium's site suggests that big-eye tuna caught by troll/pole would be a good alternative, but caught by longline should be avoided. I've tried asking my fishmongers about how the tuna I am buying were caught and no one seemed to be able to give me those answers. If capture method makes a difference, wouldn't it be more effective to regulate capture methods or at least requires fish industry to label fish with their capture method? Without this data, there is really not much a consumer can do to make an informed decision.

I sometimes get angry reader comments on this blog suggesting that my recipes for monkfish or tuna can promote overfishing. Somehow I highly doubt that this blog has such a strong influence. I am not an authority on the environment, so I don't want to tell you want to eat or not to eat, but I hope that the information on this site can help people become more seafood savvy. It's hard to make environmentally sound decisions when you don't understand the difference between Cod (very overfished in the Atlantic) and Black Cod (marketing name for Sable from Alaska whose stocks are healthy); or between Yellowfin, Big-eye, and Bluefin tuna; or how to substitute one fish for another without compromising the taste. I hope this site helps you eat whatever seafood meets your ethics standards, not whatever seafood meets my ethics standards.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The most interesting thing from the seafood show

I am back from the Boston Seafood show. After spending 7 hours in the ocean of seafood industry, I am tired. But before I go to bed, I wanted to share with you my greatest find.

Fish Watch

Want to know which species are over-fished and which ones aren't? Are there measures in place to help the species recover? What about bycatch? Fish Watch can answer all those questions. It won't tell you what to eat or not to eat. It will just provide you with up to date information on the health of the species. The site is created by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). I'd like to say a huge thanks to Dr. John Ward, Chief Economist at NOAA, for patiently answering my neverending questions at the show and leading me to such a valuable resource.

Since the site is created by the US government, it focuses on the fish caught in the US, so it's in no way a complete reference. However, I find that most of the fish I buy is indeed from the US (bluefish, striped bass, monkfish, swordfish, sable, halibut, grouper, haddock, mackerel, snapper, tuna, mahi, salmon), so I found the site to be a great resource.

I was curious how much we can do as a consumer to help a species recover, so I asked John if it's reasonable to avoid buying overfished fish. His answer was no. Chef's and consummer's boycot of a fish does not help it recover. It simply drives the price of that species down and moves it to a lower-end market. For example, during the "Give swordfish a break" campain, the price of swordfish fell so much it became a cafeteria and Red Lobster fish. What eventually helped swordfish recover were the quotas put in place by the government to restrict fishing and allow the stocks to come back. Swordfish is now at a happy 99% of the biomass that supports maximum sustainable yield.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Boston Seafood Show

I've read about it for years and I am finally going! I'll be there all day on Sunday, March 15. If you are a blogger or a food enthusiasts and want to get together at the show, let me know.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me back up. The International Boston Seafood show is a yearly event that brings together fishermen, distributors, retailers, chefs, food writers, and anyone interested in the seafood industry. I hear there'll be a lot of food, and was warned not to eat for 3 days.

If you had a chance to meet seafood distributors, what would you ask them? Do you have seafood questions that don't let you sleep at night? Leave me a comment and I'll try to find out the answers.

Here are some questions I thought of so far. This is a dynamic list, so I'll be updating it over the next week and a half.
  • What are the recent advances in the field of aquaculture? Which farms have more environmentally friendly practices?
  • How can sustainably raised and terribly delicious kampachi and hiramasa become more affordable and accessible to home cooks?
  • I'd like to learn more about Individual transferable quotas (ITQs), and other economic devices to control overfishing.
  • What are the recent advances in the field of transportation?
  • Previously frozen fish: how long can different fish be kept frozen without their texture suffering? When distributors package the fish, how do they decide on expiration date and how close do the stores adhere to these dates?
  • What are the recent advances in freezing technologies?
  • Is there such a thing as lean previously frozen fish that tastes good?
  • How much of the seafood served raw in US is previously frozen? How do people in the industry deal with HACCP regulation that seafood intended for raw consumption needs to be previously frozen? Is there some seafood that doesn't?
  • What are the most up to date sources for finding out which fish are endangered and which ones aren't?
  • What are the most up to date sources for finding out the amount of mercury in different fish?
  • What does MSC certification involve?
Reader's Questions:
  • Is mercury an issue for oysters and is there a limit on how much a person should eat? Are there any other health issues like parasites or something else because you eat them raw?
  • How long are oysters good for after they have been taken out of the water and what is the best way to keep them once they are out?
  • Which farms are feeding fish (rather than grain) to their farmed fish?
  • How is the relationship between fishermen and fisheries management doing in the current economy? Is the trust between the two groups better or worse than in previous years?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fish Market Near You

One of the most frequently asked questions in my Fish class is "Do you have a recommendation for a fish market near X?" Most often X = Cambridge, Boston, and Metro West and the answer is "Of course, I do." New Deal in Cambridge and Captain Marden's in Wellesley are fabulous. But sometimes X = some suburb I am completely unfamiliar with. On occasion, it's not even in Massachusetts. I've had students come from as far as New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. We do go over all the signs of a good fish market, and good questions to ask the fishmonger, but it helps to know where one can find such a fish market to try. Everyone knows their closest supermarket, but Mom and Pop fish markets are often small and not easy to find unless you at least know their name.

That's when a friend of mine who works for the seafood business came to the rescue. He sent me a list of markets located in suburban Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut that get their fish from reputable vendors. That's not a guarantee that the fish you'll buy from them will be excellent (they do need to store it properly and sell it quickly), but that's a good start.

This is not an exhaustive list. If your favorite fish market is not on it, leave me a comment and I'll add it to the list. Also, if you've tried any of these places, please let me know how was your experience. I'd love to compile a list of good fish markets that goes beyond Cambridge and ubiquitous Whole Foods.

What do you do when you go into one of these markets? What are good questions to ask the fishmonger? Is it a bad sign if the fish market smells fishy? What about Fresh vs. Frozen fish? What about Farm-Raised vs. Wild fish? Is prepackaged fish any good? How much fish should I buy per person? Here is a post that addresses these issues.

For location, phone numbers, and hours, try googling for the name of the fish market and its town.


Cambridge / Boston
New Deal Fish Market - Cambridge
Courthouse Seafood - Cambridge
Wulf's Fish Market - Brookline
Mercato del Mare - Boston (North End )

North Shore
Cherry Street Fish Market – Danvers
David’s Fish Market – Salisbury
Andy’s Seafood – Saugus

South Shore
Rocky Neck – Hingham / Milton
Mullaney’s Seafood – Scituate / Cohasset
Burke’s- Quincy

West Suburbs
Captain Marden’s – Wellesley
Quarterdeck Seafood - Maynard

Way West
West Boylston Seafood – West Boylston
Masse’s Seafood – Chicopee
Foster’s Supermarket – Greenfield

Cape Cod & Islands
Cape Fish & Lobster – Hyannis
Nauset Fish – Orleans
Net Result – Vineyard Haven
Sayle & Henry - Nantucket
Glidden’s – Nantucket
Falmouth Fish – Falmouth
Lobster Trap – Bourne
Chatham Fish – Chatham
Hatch's Fish Market - Wellfleet

Outside of Massachusetts

Stowe Seafood - Stowe
Earth & Sea – Manchester Center

Rhode Island
Dave’s Marketplace – 5 locations
Wilfred's Seafood - Woonsocket

New Hampshire
Mark’s Seafood – Salem
Seaport Fish - Portsmouth
Sanders Fish Market - Portsmouth

City Fish Market – Wethersfield
The Fish Market – Willimantic

Brown Trading Company - Portland
Harbor Fish - Portland
Free Range Fish - Portland