Monday, October 29, 2007

Is Fish Farming Our Future?

Sustainability. Isn't that what we're all shooting for? Defined as a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely. Indefinitely means forever or for a long time, no end defined. In advocating sustainable food we are attempting to create and support environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities. In doing so we are ensuring the future of our healthy food will be there when we need it. Sounds logical, right? But for some reason, not everyone is catching on.

So what do we do about the sustainability of our oceans and it’s living organisms? I mean, we continue to pollute it with oil spills, trash, toxic waste, etc, let alone over fishing it to the point that we are actually running out of fish! A 2003 study in the journal, Nature, reported that up to 90 percent of the stocks of the ocean’s major predators (Atlantic cod and blue fin tuna) have been wiped out. NYTimes

How has it gotten to this point? Tuna fish was once considered “Chicken of the Sea” because it was so plentiful and in high demand as the chickens running amuck our dry land today. Oh, how these days have passed. If the whole world stopped eating fish for two years, maybe even just one, there would be a chance our fish populations could possibly bounce back. The chances of that happening? Slim to none. Instead of fisheries slowing down their production, they’re going to whatever extremes necessary to make their money now, before there’s nothing left at all.

Commercial fishing, once viewed as a proud job, was passed along family businesses from generation to generation. Those days are coming to an end because of the bad rap the fishing industry has created from pollution and bycatch (unwanted fish and animals caught). Let's look at some of the more well-known techniques; “trolling”, “longlining”, “hook and line caught”, and of course the now taboo method of “dredging”. The latter, dredging, is when farmers drag a heavy frame with an attached mesh bag (the dredge) along the seafloor to catch bottom-dwelling shellfish. Some dredges have metal “teeth” along the base of the frame that act like a rake. Dredges cause significant habitat damage as they destroy all flora and fauna in its path and smooth out sandy and muddy bottom habitats, as well as catching bycatch. If you want to learn more about these issues, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium site.

Longlining sometimes gets confused with “Hook and Line Caught”. But don’t be fooled by their similar names. Hook and Line is the old-fashioned and trusty way of using a single line with one or two hooks and bait. As each caught is made, its wound in where the fisherman can quickly release unwanted catch from their hooks, keeping what they’re after. There is no habitat damage and the possible bycatch are released. The other technique, longlining, is a fish line that can be 1 mile to 50 miles long and is pulled alongside the boat for hours. Sea turtles, birds, sharks, and other fish are accidentally caught, killed unnecessarily, and end up being pulled along side for hours at a time.

Farming, another taboo word could possibly be our temporary answer. If we can learn to harvest wild fish sustainably then we will have succeeded in something we have failed at on land: finding a balance with a naturally productive ecosystem. We first need to be able to differentiate salmon farming and it’s foul history from the new possible standards. Salmon farming has given rise to numerous controversial issues including what is being fed to these fish, how it’s transmitted to our bodies, what it’s doing to our economy, and how it’s polluting our natural waters. PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls, a toxin) is found in all fish, but when the farmed salmon are fed fish pellets (ground fish meal and oils made from fish) their whole life, their numbers of PCBs are much higher than wild salmon which only start to feed on other fish with PCB as they are mature adults. Before the wild salmon have grown large enough to feed on small fish, they feed on tiny crustaceans called krill. These crustaceans have naturally occurring pigments that give salmon their beautiful orange color. Farmed salmon never have the opportunity to feed on krill, only being fed fish meal their whole lives, so their natural color is an unattractive gray color. Who wants to eat gray salmon?? They are in turn fed artificial pigments inside their meal in order to turn their flesh orange. Kinda gross, no?

In What to Eat, author Marion Nestle goes into great detail about our fish farming problems. She explains that along with the pollution from the waste of the farmed salmon spilling into our waters and harming the wild life, the salmon often escape their pins entering the natural waters. They can then mate with other types of salmon, spawning mutant species. If their levels of PCBs are higher than normal already, then they're introducing more toxins into the waters to be eaten by other fish. And, in case you're curious, just a few of the terrible health conditions that result from extreme exposure to PCBs include skin problems, reproduction difficulty, mental and physical developmental delays, and behavior problems. Scientists are still uncertain to what the small amounts of PCB found in wild fish will do. Hmm.

There are fish farms out there that are attempting to make a difference in the farming industry. Kona Kampachi of Kona Blue for example, a cousin of the Japanese Hamachi, similar to Hawaii’s Amberjack, has been farmed a half mile off the coast of Hawaii for a few years now. Cages that are 200-250 feet under the water hold fish that are kept and fed until they're mature enough, and in high enough demand, to sell. Hatching actually begins on land from a stock of fish caught off the coast and brought into holding tanks until they’ve become acclimated enough to start spawning. The eggs are then carefully transferred to the on-land hatchery until hatched where they are fed plankton for three weeks. Then the fish are weaned on to pellet-feed, made from vegetable-based proteins, PCB and hormone-free fishmeal, and fish oil. They are then transferred to the open waters where strong currents keep the fish moving and happy with minimal environmental issues. If any fish do escape during the exchanges, there is no risk in harming other wild fish in the open waters because they are not genetically modified and these are their natural waters.

Offshore fish farming is still really new so there’s no track record yet on the environmental issues. Up to this point fish farming has been done incorrectly and created more harm than good. But there is such a thing as sustainable farming and I think it can be pulled off in the fish industry, as well. At this point I believe we should be open to this idea as our oceans are in critical times and in danger of being wiped clean. At least until our wildlife can make a come back. If we can farm turkeys on land for our massive consumptions during the silly holiday, "Thanksgiving", then we should be able to consider fish farming a safe means, as well.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Cooking the Perfect Beans!

With bean season here in our beautiful Northern California fall, let's make sure we cook them successfully and deliciously.
Cannelinis, Navys, Gigantes, Garbanzos, Limas, Cranberry, Favas, Lentils, Flageolet, Great Northern, Mung, Pinto, Kidney… There’s definitely a bean for everyone. No matter what variety and/or recipe, there are a few important bean factors to take into consideration.

Soaking the beans over night may reduce your total cooking time but it’s not absolutely necessary. I’ve been cooking beans straight from their packaging for the past 6 years and never had a problem. Though rumor has it, soaking your bean and changing the water a few times cuts down on the flatulence-producing enzymes. Hmm, this will be for you to try and found out.
The common bean is made up of 22% protein, 61% carbohydrate, and 2% fat making these little legumes an all-around bundle of health. And some of us may remember learning in grade school what a bean is comprised of; the inner cotyledon, the embryo, and the outer seed coat. Why am I bringing up these lost memories of science class? Because in order to understand how to cook a bean properly it’s best to know how it works. The cell walls of beans will soften more readily in alkaline solutions, not acidic or salty. One of the most common mistakes people make when cooking these little buggers is adding salt to the liquid in the beginning of the process. This is the biggest no-no! Never, no matter how long you cook them, their skins, or shells, will never soften past a snappy crunch. Even veteran chili makers know that adding uncooked beans straight into their acidic and salty sauces will not speed up the process and absorption of flavor, but result in beans that seem to be uncooked. They will feel done and creamy in the middle, but still have a lingering rawness in the outside shell. But then we run across the problem of having beans that aren’t seasoned enough, or at all. So where does the salt come into play?? The solution to this problem all comes with the timing in the salting.
70%-80% done is a general rule of thumb when to add salt. I lean more toward the 80% side. How do you know when your beans have reached this level of done-ness? You can either bite into the bean to test the rawness of the core, or you can break open the bean and look into the middle. When a bean still has time left it will have a little white dot in the middle showing you your hot liquid has not permeated it yet. The amount of salt for your recipe depends on how many beans you’re working with and how much liquid. I generally salt the liquid until it tastes like a salty soup when there’s 20% time left.
Speaking of the bean liquid, it contains most of the ingredients of a veggie stock, so I always triple the amount of water to bean ratio, saving the excess liquid for stock with added starch (from the beans) for soups and braises. I simply ladle the excess liquid off the top of the bean pot and poor it through a strainer to leave out any little bits.
One more tip to creating the perfect beans is adding in olive oil to your water in the beginning of the cooking process. This results in a more velvety texture in the bean and the broth will taste richer.

Bean Recipe: For 5 pounds of dry beans

1 Carrot, peeled
2 Ribs of celery
¼ Yellow onion
4 Sprigs of thyme
3-4 Smashed cloves of garlic
3 Tb. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Salt to taste

For 5 pounds of beans, use a 4-6 quart pot. Place the beans in the pot along with the remaining ingredients (except the salt). Add enough water to cover the beans by 3-4 inches. Bring the water to a light boil and then reduce to a simmer. Depending on what type of bean you’ve decided to cook, total cooking time will vary. Try checking the status of your bean in 30-minute intervals. Remember. Don’t add the salt until the beans are 80% done or add uncooked beans into acidic sauces!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Stocking Your Kitchen with Equipment and Tools

A lot of people ask what my favorite and most used kitchen tools are. Seeing how there are so many advertised and confusing items on the market, I’ve composed a short list of my most utilized and accessible tools in the kitchen. This list is derived from a compilation of years working in professional kitchens while serving the masses and using everything under the sun. Starred are the most essential things, but I highly recommend it all if you can. Instead of spending tons of money at big named retail stores on kitchen equipment, make sure to check out used kitchen supply stores and or other similar online sites for better deals. I wish we all could have the accessibility to a restaurant kitchen’s equipment, but if we have to cut it down to fit in our home kitchens and budgets, these items will definitely give you a head start.

*6” & 10” Wutshof Chef’s Knife (if you only can have one, I recommend the 8” Chef’s Knife)
*Sharpening Steel
Metal Fish Spatula
*High Temperature Rubber Spatulas
*Wooden Cutting Board (or a sturdy rubber/plastic one)
Tons of kitchen towels for cleaning and hot items
*Digital Meat thermometer
*10” Stainless Steel/Aluminum Core Sauté Pan
8” Aluminum Sauté Pans
4-Quart Stainless Steel Pot
Little ceramic/glass bowels for prepped ingredients
Glass/Metal Mixing Bowls
Pepper Grinder
Food Mill
Fine and Medium Sieve
Hand Blender

If you have favorite tools that I haven’t listed, please add them on via comments!