I've always felt seafood doesn't get its due place on the American dinner table. Think about your weekly dinner regiment. Not to be presumptuous, but I imagine most are composed of something like chicken and rice, a hearty soup, taco Tuesday, some sort of pasta, an entree salad (cause we all want to feel healthy), pizza (to counteract that healthy salad), and maybe, if feeling bold, a piece of salmon. Seeing how healthy and delicious seafood is, it's a shame it doesn't make it to our home dinner plates more often. It's also a shame that when it occasionally does, it's usually just shrimp or salmon. Reading Paul Greenberg's American Catch and Four Fish really makes you realize what an amazing abundance and diversity of seafood is off American shores. Then, sadly, we limit ourselves to ecosystem-devastating farmed shrimp and unsustainably-caught and overfished tuna. I know I'm teetering on the edge of sanctimony (I fuckin' love shrimp, love it!), but for the health of our oceans and the health of ourselves, our dietary choices really need to start supporting more sustainable aquaculture products like clams and mussels and responsible fisheries like sardines and ling cod. Check out Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch for some guidance. They have a wallet size guide you can always carry with you.
But back to the point of why seafood doesn't show up on our plates more often. There are tons reasons for sure from availability to personal taste, but three main ones that I most often see. First, and the most obvious, is that it's damn expensive. Standing at the butcher and fishmonger at your local market, it's pretty easy to opt for the $2.99 a pound bone-in chicken thighs over the $34.99 a pound dungeness crab meat. Sure, seafood is often seen as a luxury item only bought and cooked for special occasions. However, when considering the season and the items, it can be pretty easy to make seafood an economical staple in your diet. Things like mussels, clams, and squid rarely exceed $5.99. Rockfish is usually available year-round at $9.99 a pound as is farmed rainbow trout. Fish like salmon and halibut fluctuate in price throughout their seasons, so keep a sharp eye out for a drop in price. Or, even better, befriend your local fishmongers. Trust me, if they like you, they'll always "hook" you up. Hackneyed puns are the best.
Second, and by no means do I intend to insult, but most people are intimidated by cooking seafood at home. Maybe intimidated is a bit strong, but certainly unfamiliar. Fact of the matter is that most of us grow up on pot roast, burgers, and spaghetti. Seafood was something you ate when you went out to dinner. So, as an adult, these are the familiar items you know and cook or can easily call your mom for the recipes. A lot of people also really fear spoiled seafood. For some reason stories of having a bad oyster are much more popular than bad chicken. Therefore, we often avoid seafood because of the looming fear of it being off. However, proportionally, contaminated salad greens and poultry make far more people sick than seafood. Nowadays though, both of these issues are easily overcome. As previously mentioned, I can't stress enough how valuable it is to become friends with your local fishmongers. Chat with them, get to know them, hell even tip them or bring them beer as a holiday present. They will not only guide you to the freshest items available that day, but can also provide a number of fun ways to prepare them. If you don't have this luxury, farmers' markets will often have a quality seafood vendor that's worth the trip or, admittedly not economical, there are a number of online services that will ship fresh seafood to you. Several oyster farms like Hog Island and Island Creek will Fedex oysters directly to your doorstep less than 24 hours out of the water. And when it comes to preparation, come on, we've all got Google. Be adventurous.
Lastly, and much in the same vein as my last point, seafood is simply foreign to many people. Not only in cooking as previously discussed, but in flavor and style. Outside of a few classics like chowder or lobster rolls, when you see most seafood preparations in the States, they are either one of two things: asian or fried. This is certainly not a bad thing and is definitely changing with time. Omakase nigiri is my absolute jam as is chili-garlic crab. My last blog post was even about deep fried oysters. Unfortunately, this limits our consumption of seafood as nobody wants to only eat fried food or asian-fusion every single night for dinner (if you do...don't stop...stay beautiful). In every single seafood restaurant I've worked the chefs were always hyperconscious about not having too many fried items or asian-influenced items on the menu. They all pushed for creative and new presentations. I love the idea of "Americanizing" seafood. No, not putting it through extreme-vetting or delusionally "making it great again." Rather taking some typical and traditional American cuisines and making them with seafood. Smoked trout hot dogs, octopus pepperoni, catfish chili, black cod bratwurst, salmon pastrami, buffalo oysters, smoked sturgeon club sandwiches. Chef Doug Bernstein at Fish Restaurant in Sausalito is someone who I admire greatly and is creating a lot of these exact types of dishes. So, I decided to try my hand at one of his very own: Oyster Chicharrones (or Oyster Pork Rinds)
The process is pretty simple in labor, though takes a few days of waiting. In a food processor, blend the oysters into a paste with seasonings to taste. In this instance, I used Pico de Mariscos (a Mexican Old Bay-esque seasoning) and some guallijo chiles. Mix the paste with an equal part in weight of tapioca starch. This will come to the consistency of a kneadable dough. Knead a few more times on a floured cutting board and form into the shape of a one 2-3 inch wide log (or however large you'd like your chips to be). Then steam the log for 45 minutes to an hour and place immediately in the fridge to rest overnight. The next day, slice the log into thin chips. Dry these chips out on a baking rack on a cookie sheet over night.
From this point, the chips last in a zip-lock bag in the fridge for ages, ready to fry-to-order. Of course, I couldn't wait any longer. 350 degree canola oil and in went the chips, just a few at time. You know right when they are finished as they puff up just like a chicharron and float to the top. It's hard to describe how cool it looks, so here is a link to a video demonstrating. I wish I had taken a video, but I was solo and safety first. Plus I didn't want accidentally deep fry my phone (libations were had). However, I can share an image of the end product, which was amazing.
They were crunchy but fluffy and mild but with a oystery ocean brine pop. Just like I'd hoped, an oyster chicharron. I threw a little hot sauce on, more Pico de Mariscos seasoning, and served with fresh lime. I then proceeded to sit down with a 22oz Tecate, the Giants game, and the entire bowl to myself. Believe me, they did not last long. I wish I had shared them with someone, but a big part of me is glad that I did not. I really look forward to trying my hand at some other seafood dishes like this and I hope you may now too.
The SF Oyster Nerd