snapper

Rewind to the end of last summer… Joe has cleaned and gutted a snapper and is preparing a simple sugar and salt brine to soak it in. He explains that technically the fish didn’t need to be scaled but the things tend to come off and become annoying if you don’t. The snapper goes into the brine and later tonight we will smoke it.
prep

He describes his pre-dawn fishing routine. Three rods out over the side of the dinghy. One for bait fish and two with varying sizes of bait for varying sizes of fish. If you want to catch a big fish, use a big chunky piece of bait. The smaller fish might have a nibble, but you’re waiting for a big guy to go for an audacious chomp and take the hook.

We are in the Hauraki Gulf where snapper has been a sought after and over-fished catch. They eat all sorts including Kina and shellfish, and when their numbers are low it has a cascading effect amongst their prey species and their habitat. We are in the wider ‘Snapper 1’ area, which is roughly the North East side of the North Island, and where the minimum recreational catch size has recently been increased from 27 to 30cm, while the commercial minimum size remains at 25cm.

There is friction between commercial and recreational fishers over managing the fishery and all sorts of complicated considerations. For example recreational fishers are close to shore in concentrated areas and commercial fishing happens in deep water. Is one more damaging than the other? Commercial fishing is big business and a politically powerful export industry, but who are the outspoken recreational fishers? Are they mom and pop fishing to feed the family or are they charter boat operators? How do you divide up a resource that is bouncing back from decline? How much flesh is there on a 25cm fish?

Joe says the wings of the fish are the best bit. He’s also told the kids this, so they’ve become a sought after item. I try one from yesterdays catch and agree the tender bits are delicious but it’s a bit of a fiddle getting in round the bones. Kindof funny the kids are into it as bones were the thing that put me off fish when I was young.

Usually you would put a dish of meths in the bottom of the smoker but we didn’t have any so put the box directly on the hotplate and guesstimated how long to leave it there, before setting it aside hot and leaving it covered while we re-stoked the fire.
fire

We cranked the fire back up and cooked sausages then roasted marshmallows in the drizzling rain. The perfect night. We had the fish the next day and it was amazing. Mild, creamy, filling, and the brownish bits round the edge were super tangy and moreish.
smoked

 

trevally

I struck out early Sunday morning for Avondale market and did my usual rounds, filling a backpack with coriander, cabbage and aubergines. I dropped in at the cheerful bread guy, and had the mandatory sunday breakfast on skewers at the Oriental street food bus. I came prepared with a list of possible fish and some corresponding ingredients to find with each option. There were several relatively clear-eyed looking trevally on offer so I picked out the largest one then struck back out into the market to find some lemons and green chillies.

Tandooried hake had caught my eye in a 1987 paperback edition of Rick Stein’s English Fish Cookery. Tandooried! …And hake! Hake is one of those familiar sounding but utterly mysterious fish I know nothing about. As I described in the previous post, hake is on a back-burner for now, but I had seen trevally suggested as a stand-in. Trevally are a schooling fish who feed on krill and plankton and seem to show up in the same area as snapper around the North island, and similarly can be caught with rod and reel from the rocks.

So I’m arriving home with this fish and contemplating how the recipe calls for steaks. Very specifically the steaks must be cut from the central section of the fish. *shrug*. At least one of the steaks will be right …right? I watched a couple of how-to-gut-a-fish videos and set to it. After much swearing and brown muck smeared everywhere I got the job done. An important and obvious-in-retrospect take away is that if you are going to be cutting the head off anyway, you don’t need to worry about all the guts and stuff that’s attached to its throat.

steaks


I’ve never stopped to think about whether some fish are better suited to steaks or fillets. I noticed how its almond shaped torso tapered off sharply toward the tail. At this stage I also glanced at the fish poster and noticed the trevally is of a representative cartoon fishey sort of shape, while the Hake is long and cigar shaped. You would clearly be able to get several similar sized steaks from the latter.

poster


I had read about the bloodline down the side of the fish that is generally cut out of fillets, and it appears fillets is how trevally usually come, so along with two steaks I cut two comically miniscule fillets. I then threw together the marinade ingredients without really thinking about how they would look together, and was super impressed with how tasty the simple combination of mint, lemon juice, coriander, turmeric, paprika, pepper, green chilli and yoghurt was. The whole lot went into a bag in the fridge for 4 hours, providing a good opportunity to tidy up and have a breather.

ingreds

marinade1


I cooked the steaks over a hot grill and they were great. It was a bit finnecky getting around the bones but the flavour was good and I suspect the marinade shored up the slightly fishy taste. I reckon I’ll come back to this recipe, but next time with the whole fish or just fillets.

cooked

hake

 

hake

When I had just started with this fish project I described it in an email to my Granny who lives in England. She replied and wondered “why some fish are found all over the world and others seem to stick to one place? For instance, do you have turbot, halibut, hake etc in the Pacific or are they Atlantic fish?”. This and many other questions about fish are still a mystery to me and usually the answer is not particularly clear cut.

So, we do have hake, but your hake and ours are both one of a dozen or more geographically distinct subspecies of the Merlucciidae fish family. They live mostly in deep water and eat whatever is down there, sometimes rising to the surface at night. Hake seems to be less popular or well known in New Zealand. I suspect if I had a friend reel off 10 commercial fish species hake wouldn’t appear, however it does seem to be available, and it is on the fish poster. It is described as a tasty white fish, which handles a range of seasoning and smoking.

I spent a good couple of hours going around in circles trying to figure out whether New Zealand’s hake is a good choice environmentally. Forest & Bird rate it poorly due to seals, sea lions and birds being caught as a by-catch, and Greenpeace rate it poorly as well. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), who are an international non-profit originally set up in a partnership between WWF and Unilever have certified the South Western Pacific hake fishery as healthy for the next 5 years, and this is the certification a lot of commercial fishery operations go by.

If you’ve got lots of time on your hands you could read this article from Greenpeace poking holes in MSC’s approach, or this 2011 Guardian article on the poor credibility of MSC’s findings, or this 2014 response from MSC to Greenpeace. I guess overall it is good that there is a robust discussion going on at some level.

Hake’s Atlantic counterpart seems to have a more optimistic outlook in European publications. Thats a good thing because according to Wikipedia the Spaniards are mad for it and eat 6 kilos per capita annually. Anyway somewhere I read that trevally would be a good stand-in for hake, and happened upon some at the market so I’m going to leave all this up in the air and move on to the next fish…

octopus

It’s the morning of New Years Eve and Im digging around in the ice bins at the fish market. The day is hot and busy and there are people with lists and bags. A long queue has formed over by the prawns and squid area and crowds outside are eating oysters and chips and sauce. Ive found the octopuses over by the fish heads and bones and Im scratching my head – not literally of course.. the last thing you would want is octopus slime in your hair – figuring out how to disentangle a specimen from the icy grey/purple tangle. Long squooshy tentacles stretch and twist around each other and small eyes peer out from elongated heads. It is difficult to tell where one octopus ends and the next begins. A helpful fishmonger reaches in with a rubber glove and gets one by the neck. “This one look good?”.

in the sink
I gave my specimen a rinse before cooking and although I had read about massaging the octopus to tenderise it, I found it to be an very wriggly squooshy and hard to handle creature and only really gave it a cursory once-over. I had read a dozen recipes for stewed and grilled octopus then amalgamated them on the fly. I took a big, dry, empty pot up to a medium high heat and dropped the octopus in. There was much hissing and smoke and steam. I glugged in some olive oil, then put the lid on.

steam and smoke

After 10 mins or so I turned it over and left it for another 20 mins. Where the tentacles had first touched the hot metal there were blackened spots and some caramelization, but enough liquid was released fast enough that it was soon simmering in salty juices that were bubbling up almost covering the animal. I threw in half a lemon, a handful of parsley and cold water to cover and left it for another 40 mins. The smell at this stage was salty, evocative and meaty.

simmering

As it bubbled away I did a spot of reading. Octopuses are amazing!

Technically they are moluscs from the class cephalapoda. In greek this is ‘head-foot’, literally the head is attached directly to the feet. I also learned that the term octopi is incorrect as the word has its roots in the greek oktōpous rather than latin. The greek plural would be ‘octopodes’.

Below the head, at the centre of the tentacles is a beak like a bird’s and a tongue like a drill bit. All species have a venomous bite, but only the greater blue ringed octopus is considered harmful to humans. They prey on crabs, crayfish and shellfish and can bite through the shell. They have large brains which are thought to be necessary to control the complicated nervous system behind all those tentacles and the independent action of the suction cups. They have the ability to change colour better than a chameleon, and since their blood is copper-based, as opposed to our iron-based blood, it flows blue. The movement of each tentacle is partially outsourced from the brain so they can reflex on their own, with built in chemical mechanisms for not getting tangled with the other tentacles. Also.. Get this.. the third tentacle from the right on the male octopus is used to fertilize the eggs of the female octopus… whaaa!?!.. He just reaches over and places it inside the cavity in her head! He then dies, and the female only stays alive long enough to incubate and protect the eggs before she dies. Therefore no octopus recieve any parenting. It has been suggested we should get on with eating them as they would surely take over the world if they figured out parenting.

The oddities continue. Consider their three hearts, each pumping blood to a different part of the body. Or the ink sac, which they squirt in a getaway, or to confuse their prey. Or the option to move at high speed with jet propulsion by bringing water in through the valve in the side of their head and powerfully ejecting it.

They are intelligent creatures but the way in which this is measured appears to be up for debate amongst scientists. They will try different approaches to solve a problem for example changing their technique when a familiar shellfish is proving harder to pry open (because some scientist has wired it shut). They’ll copy behaviours from their peers e.g. taking the twist top off a bottle to get the crab inside and are documented to have taken coconut shells and modified their shape into appropriate housing. Ive heard anecdotes of Octopodes found far from the sea, walking in the forest. They appear to have a sense of humour, and there are countless stories of them interfering with acquirium pumps and thermometers, including of course the old chestnut about them climbing into other tanks during the night to eat the other occupants.

Octopuses only live for 3 years, but multiply quickly, which should make them a sustainable food choice. This view is shared by the Australian site Good Fish Bad Fish, but neither Greenpeace nor the Forest and Bird guide seem to have much to add that is specific to NZ. It is noted that baby octopus are often imported from a different fishery so may have a more dubious status.

Back to the kitchen…
I removed the octopus from the pot and set about cleaning off the gunk. The tentacles and head firmed up and were much more tactile, but had also become fragile. The suckers on the tentacles came off while trying to clean off the gooey gunk in between them. I was left with 8 smooth tentacles, the head and the area around the beak. Most of the surface of the head is edible and inside is undistinguishable grey muck which I scraped out. It appears to me that this animal probably has the highest proportion of edible to non-edible parts to it, leading to a feeling of having respected the animal by eating most of it, despite having butchered its integrity with my experimental cooking. I later read they are 90% muscle. I sprinkled on oil, salt, pepper and a handful of thyme, then fried over a high heat and drizzled with lemon juice. I tipped the hot crispy curly tentacles into a bowl and studied them. This wasnt quite how I had imagined this would turn out. Next time I will wash more thoroughly while raw and keep the suction cups. I nibbled gingerly at first, then realising they were truly delicious began to hungrily demolish them, particularly the curled up crispy tentacle ends. I headed out to enjoy the last few hours of the year, stoked to have made peace with the octopus.

on the plate

Kahukura mussel chowder

mussels_small

There are handfuls of good mussel recipes, and my favourite is probably the classic buttery moules marinières or maybe… mussels grilled open over a hot smokey fire until the shells are beginning to blacken then slathered in cheap sticky off-the-shelf Thai chilli sauce. For the sake of literary amusement though I figured I would try a recipe from the book Wake by Elizabeth Knox. I couldn’t bring myself to put the book down once I’d dug in, and polished it off almost entirely in one sitting. It is set in the fictional Golden Bay seaside town of Kahukura, and it shouldn’t unduly reveal any plot to mention a passage where Bub the fisherman’s son describes his version of Mussel chowder

“She moved her gaze and squinted past his shoulder at the sun. ‘How long will your chowder take?’

‘Well,’ Bub said. First you have to chop plenty of onions and garlic, and fry it so it’s soft. Then put in a little saffron. Or turmeric, but saffron’s better. The mussels have to be steamed open. You rinse them to get out any barnacles and tiny crabs, then you chop up the big ones, and put the whole lot in water with some salt and pepper on a low heat—so that the liquid doesn’t get hot before the solids. That’s what makes mussels tough. You simmer it for a couple of hours. Then you add potatoes, bite-sized, and cook till the potatoes begin to get that peach fuzz look. And that’s it.’

‘You just gave me the whole recipe.’

Bub looked sheepish; then resolute. …”

Following the description, and guessing that 3 onions was plenty, I chopped them and 3 cloves of garlic. Cleaning out the steamed open mussels I found two little crabs, who were carrying eggs, which I ate. Kind of earthy tasting. Perhaps the taste of the seafloor.

little_crabs_small

I had saffron, so threw that in, added cold water and left it on low for two hours before adding the potatoes. Even the smaller mussels that had escaped chopping had lost their chewiness and the potatoes lent a bit of thickness to the liquid. The saffron taste came through and was just right. The chowder really benefitted from further salt and pepper when served. I was really impressed with the texture and the flavour especially given the utilitarian ingredient list. Next time I’m on the coast and find a source of mussels I know I’ll be wondering what the chances are of there being turmeric or saffron available to throw this together.

kahukura_chowder_small

 

gurnard

Gurnard, Sea Robin or Kumu-Kumu is a white-fleshed fish, found at your local big-name supermarket, near the rear of aisle 3, commonly in grotesque styrofoam and plastic packaging.
gurnard_supermarket

In the water Gurnard are colorful and elegant creatures. Like a striking orange dragonfly with wings splotched with green and blue, or streaked with red. The name Gurnard refers to the wider ‘Triglidae’ family and includes the blue fin, grey, orange, eastern, spiny, scaly, spotted and other Gurnards. What generally sets them apart as a family are their interesting pectoral fins. Some have what look like bat-wings, others have what look like feelers and others have spiny protrusions. They forage near the sea floor for crabs and shrimps.
eastern_spiny_gurnard

Of the 4 or so varieties of fish available fresh at the supermarket, Gurnard is my favourite. Im clearly not alone on this if the price is any indication – generally twice that of the cheapest fish, Hoki. To my unrefined palate and limited experience the flesh is firmer, meatier and ‘creamier’ – for lack of a better description. When pan-fried it retains its shape and can be picked up as a whole fillet without coming apart. this makes it an excellent candidate for the straight forward flour, egg, panko procedure.
gurnard_pre_panko_web
Panko is a new concept to me but immediately makes sense. The light, dry, crispy and very-processed-looking breadcrumbs stick well and stay stuck to the floured and eggy fish, while browning perfectly in the same timeframe it takes for the fish to just cook through. The whole process works best with a generous pour of oil. I’ve heard the same procedure works well with eggplant too.
gurnard_cooked_1

 

 

bluff oysters

Bluff oyster Tiostrea chilensis, is found throughout New Zealand, most commonly in the south and famously in Foveaux Strait, between Bluff and Stewart Island. The same species is also found in Chile.

Bluff_satellite
These egg-shaped medallions live in gravelly sand as opposed to clinging to rocks, ropes or structures like the Sydney rock oyster or the Pacific oyster. Another point of difference is that Bluff – more recently known as Dredge – oysters live well out of the intertidal zone, at a depth of 25 to 50m and we collect them by clawing them out of the seabed. This wasn’t always the case. When oystering began in the area in the 1860’s, they were collected on sand bars at low tide. After about 15 years the beds had been over-harvested to the point of exhaustion. A couple of years later new beds were found in deeper water and commercial harvesting continued.  Skipping forward to 1987, the catastrophic Bonamia parasite decimated populations and ceased the commercial harvest until 1994. The disease popped up again in the 2002 season, taking out most of the harvest. It continues to take around 9% of the population annually. Their commercial sale is restricted to a season, beginning in March, and running to about July or August, depending on when the quota is met. This year the quota is (its complicated) around 15million oysters.

Dredging technology doesnt seem to have evolved much over the decades. While looking into the subject I found this wee gem of a historic video about Southland in the 1950’s which shows much the same technology in use (~8mins in) as this one does (with great dredge-eye-view) from our National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) 50 years on..

So.. Bluff oysters are truly wild, and grow up in pristine conditions but are combatting a disease that has dug its heels in and are harvested in a way that stirs up sediment, and dislodges whatever else is down there. Their commercial harvest seems at best quaint, but more realistically archaic and unsustainable. They’re scarce, and they’re expensive, and… they’re delicious! They are really beefy in composition, have a robust creamy flavour, and in comparison to Pacific oysters they really benefit from a squeeze of lemon.

Bluffies

I certainly don’t intend to permanently add Bluffies to my diet, but Im glad I know a bit more about them. And.. since we are eating them, why not push the boat RIGHT OUT, and get our hands dirty with some empirical data vis-à-vis Carpetbagger steaks!

steak_sepia

Lock me up! Im a food-criminal!

carpetbagger

What can I say? .. I reckon the carpetbagger was not greater than the sum of its parts. I mean.. it was grand.. and the novelty factor was off the charts, but it simply tasted like a steak, with an oyster inside it. I was surprised how the oyster became firm and matched the texture of the steak as it was heated, bulking it out, rather than providing a gooey centre like I had somehow imagined. I also failed to take into account the extra cooking time the extra bulk would require. Alas, we won’t be trying this one again.. I’ll take my next Bluff oyster neat, with just a splash of lemon juice, thanks.

pacific oysters

Originally from Japan, and known there as the Miyage Oyster, the Pacific Oyster is now grown commercially worldwide and considered to be a threat to other species in some places. They were introduced to New Zealand in the last 75 years and tend to out-compete the native Sydney Rock Oyster for resources and space. They feed on phytoplankton (tiny living sea-vegetables) and broken down kelp particles, and are preyed on by crabs, starfish, large sea snails and presumably, oystercatchers. They live for up to 30 years but the farmed ones will be under a couple of years old.

On the way back from surfing up north we dropped in at Matakana Oysters for a big old bag of delicious morsels. They’re half price if you shuck em yourself. I could definitely have paid more attention. My mind was focussed on leaving the driveway back onto the main road heavy with weekend traffic, without ourselves being shucked by a fast european car. Luckily my fearless assistant had the presence of mind to pay attention to the demo, and led proceedings when we got them home. Basically, hold the oyster flat side up, with the hinge side toward you. Take your knife about a third of the way up one side, wiggle it in, twist the blade …and presto!
shucking
Apparently this is actually the worst time of year for pacific oysters. They go through a cycle of beefing up, then producing sperm and eggs, then releasing them. Fertilization occurs in the open water then the larvae swim around for a couple of weeks before clinging on somewhere. The release happens toward the end of the year, then in January through to March the oysters are in the growing and recovery phase and the meat is thin and less appealing. I thought these ones were super delicious, and since I’m not yet an oyster expert, I’ll have to come back to this later in the year and make a comparison. I had a couple with a squeeze of fresh lemon, but preferred them unadulterated, scooped fresh ’n’ raw out of the shell.
oysters

albacore tuna

albacoretuna

Albacore tuna can be found in tropical, subtropical and temperate waters the world over and consequently are known under many names, commonly: pigfish, tombo (Japan), pacific albacore, longfin tuna and others. They generally stay away from coastlines, apparently preferring cooler, deeper water as they age, growing to around 1.2metres in length and weighing about 60kg. Looking at a side-on sketch, it is easy to miss the large pectoral fin behind the gill. When seen swimming these appear like large wings sticking out from their sides.

tuna_wings

They are a member of the Scombridae family which includes the other tunas, mackerels and bonitos. The scombridaes have in common a need to be continuously swimming as they lack a swimming bladder to help with buoyancy. They are a predator at the top of the food chain and dive over 400 metres down in search of food therefore limiting our knowledge of what they get up to down there. It is thought that they host elaborate cocktail parties and engage in lengthy discourse on contemporary literature. They are known to eat fish, crustaceans, tiny deep-sea squids and gelatinous organisms. What is a gelatinous organism you say? Oh… that’s stuff like gummy bears and sour worms. Apparently the bigger and older the tuna the higher the content of mercury, but also the deeper they live, so the less likely they’ll be caught by trawlers.

In terms of sustainability, it depends a lot on which geographic fishery you’re referring to and how the fish was caught. This is true to some extent of all fisheries but with tuna being so popular the world over it leads to the frustrating situation of being marked as unsustainable in one place and given the green light in another. That’s okay if you’re willing to read 15 articles on the subject and really get under its skin, but for the punter making a decision about what’s for dinner, it’s just confusing. Presumably the albacore tuna steak I purchased the other day was from the New Zealand fishery, which – according to Forest and Bird – is mainly caught by troll (80%) and longline (20%) off the west coast of New Zealand’s North and South Islands, and is marked as a good choice. That’s right… 80% of our albacore is caught by trolls! LOL. Clearly I’m just scraping the surface of this topic here and intend to revisit parts of it later. Greenpeace recommend buying tuna caught via pole-and-line fishing and particularly avoiding long line and purse and seine methods, which have particularly bad outcomes in terms of by-catch of turtles and dolphins etc. Here’s a handy diagram. I’ve also read about ‘ranching’, which appears to be more prevalent in the States for the tinned tuna market, where juvenile tuna are caught then reared in captivity. Whether or not this is problematic belongs under a separate discussion on farmed fish.

While researching all of this I came across the following gem of a webpage, published by “a retired aerospace systems engineer, long time boater and ocean fisherman”. If you ever wanted to know absolutely everything there was to know about the habits of the albacore, this is the place. For example a discussion on the amount of oxygen present in the water required to keep them happy. Apparently during intense feeding frenzies the oxygen levels drop so low only sharks can handle it… so the other predators leave them to it. I have absolutely no idea about the scientific veracity of all this but it’s great reading.

tuna_steak

Anyway I fried my tuna steak, treating it like I would a thick rump steak. The meat of the albacore is sought after for its mild flavour and white flesh. In the US it is known as “chicken of the sea”, but to me it lacks the romance that red tuna has when cut through to reveal the contrasting centre. The pan fried albacore had a creamy appearance and came away in distinct meaty ribs on the plate. It was super tasty, but I can’t help think that the subtlety of the light coloured flesh was lost in the pan. Raw fish salad next time, perhaps?

 

 

sow fish

I’ve never heard of a sow fish and it doesn’t feature on the fish poster I’m most familiar with. This plays well with the notion of the fish poster as an abstract idea, rather than this or that poster we’ve seen at our local fish ’n’ chips shop. I picked up some sow fish heads and bones as they were the only non-oily white fish available that day for stock making.

The sow fish, also known as the giant boarfish or common boarfish (according to Wikipedia) is found in the eastern Indian Ocean, around southern Australia, and New Zealand. Clearly I am going to need a field guide to fishes and may need to come back to the humble sow fish to do it justice. I found the following article interesting – prepared by the fish section staff of the Museum of New Zealand:

“divers have witnessed giant boarfish rooting in the sand with their long snouts like a pig, hunting for their preferred food of crabs, worms, brittle starfish and sea cucumbers. Curiously, giant boarfish are one of the few fish species in our waters that are known to actively prey on sea cucumbers.”
http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/fishing/articles-reviews/fish/674304/Something-Fishy-Giant-Boarfish

I reckon any food blog worth it’s salt starts with a stock recipe.. I followed one from April Bloomfield’s ‘A Girl And Her Pig’. The cookbook is full of great recipes, interspersed with autobiographical snippets, anecdotes and tips. It is very well written and I should point out that I have paraphrased and added commentary into the following recipe:

2.3 kg fish bones and heads
½ a small spanish onion [what I call a ‘normal’ brown onion] – quartered
5 skin-on garlic cloves
1 small celery stalk – chopped in thirds
a small handful of fennel fronds
a small handful of flat-leaf parsley stems

Discard the eyes and use scissors to remove the gills. This is much more fiddly and awkward done than said.

sowfish_web 50_scale
Rinse under water and wipe away any remaining blood as this can cause bitterness. Combine the bones and remaining ingredients in a large pot and almost cover in water. Bring the water to a simmer over high heat then immediately lower the heat and cook at a gentle simmer for around 30 minutes, before passing the stock through a fine mesh sieve (and picking away at all the delicious leftover fish bits).

stock_pot 50_scale
Boiling should be avoided as it causes cloudiness. This requires some close attention – particularly when cooking on an old electric stove – and I’m a little hazy on the difference between simmering over high heat and boiling, but I was pleased with the clarity and colour of the stock. It will keep in the fridge for 3 days or a month in the freezer.