Sunday

The Humble Fish Sandwich

As a kid, I always looked forward to Fridays during Lent.  Strange, as there's nothing especially glamorous about Lent.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.  Being raised Irish Catholic, Lent was meant to be a solemn time of discipline, self-reflection, and sacrifice in preparation for Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday.  Not exactly uplifting or exciting.  However, part of that sacrifice was abstaining from meat on Fridays.  And, growing up in relative privilege, that meant every Friday for 40 days we were having one of two things for dinner - cheese pizza or, as I usually hoped, seafood.  We even joked that Lent was a literal godsend for any financially struggling pizza parlors or fish markets. 

In adulthood, I'm not exactly observant of my religious roots.  I more consider myself to be, well, culturally Catholic best describes it.  That's a whole other conversation though.  However, if there's a Friday fish fry or seafood feast to be had, my piety all of the sudden comes rushing back like a true cafeteria Catholic (apologies in advance as this will certainly not be the last bad pun).  Good people coming together for great food should always be blind to creed, belief, and denomination, in my opinion at least.  

With this most recent Lenten season, there was one thing in particular I noticed.  It may have been from an uptick in my TV viewing due to the pandemic, but for some reason, advertising for fast food fish sandwiches seemed to be incessant.  Bearded fishermen in yellow slickers, blaring foghorns, hackneyed sea shanties, and rusty old tugboats were casting out each chain's catch-of-the-day everywhere, guaranteeing with one bite I'd be hooked.  And what's even worse, it actually worked.  They got me.  Volume advertising pays off, I guess.  For the those few weeks I had little else on my mind beyond fried fish sandwiches.

Attempting to research the fish sandwich, I came to realize its history is kind of a murky waters situation.  I mean, any form of fish on bread could be considered a "fish sandwich."  Salmon burgers, tuna melts, catfish po' boys.  Internationally you've got Denmark's smørrebrød, Istanbul's balık ekmek and Northern Germany's fischbrötchen.  Even lox on a bagel could be considered a fish sandwich.  I don't think anyone can genuinely nail down when someone first slapped a piece of fish between two slices of bread.  

McDonald's 1976 Filet-O-Fish Advertisement 
- image and much of the Lou Groen story courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine
That being said, I believe much of our American concept of the fish sandwich is deeply rooted in McDonald's history.  Fish sandwiches were probably eaten around the country long before, but McDonald's really brought them to national prominence over the last half century.  And when most of us hear "fish sandwich," I'd bet the Filet-O-Fish or some iteration is what first, or at least second, comes to mind.  Long story short, in 1961, a McDonald's franchisee in Cincinnati named Lou Groen saw his sales floundering on Fridays due to his location in a predominately Roman Catholic neighborhood.  He noticed a nearby competitor (an older version of Bob's Big Boy actually) having great success with a fish sandwich, and decided to pitch fried halibut with tartar sauce on a bun to McDonald's CEO & Founder Ray Kroc.  Groen's idea was initially spurned, mostly because Kroc wanted to push his own meatless idea of grilled pineapple and cheese called a Hula Burger.  The 60's weren't exactly "woke" times in terms of naming conventions.  Kroc also didn't want his stores "stunk up with the smell of fish."  However, after some market testing, Groen's sandwich was switched to cod, got a piece of cheese added, was labeled the Filet-O-Fish, and sold across all Mickey D's franchises by 1965.  Other food chains followed suit and the fried fish sandwich soon became a nationwide phenomenon.

So, for my own fish sandwich adventure, why not start with the inspirational source?  Both the classic fish sandwich and my current obsession with it were created by the fast food world.  Best to begin with the fast food versions then, right?  
Going clockwise from top left - Carl's Jr.
Popeye's, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's

I won't lie, I eat fast food with some semi-regularity.  Taco Bell nachos hit the spot every once in a while.  Egg McMuffins are delicious.  And Chick-fil-A, well, the hate does unfortunately taste great.  However, this was aggressively on another level: two days, five sandwiches, and eventually, one rather upset tummy.  First, I hit the big three.  Burger King, Wendy's, and of course, McDonald's.  Popeye's was next on the list, as their brand new Cajun Flounder Sandwich had been all the rage.  Ironic, by the way, as Popeye's has publicly bashed "squished fish patties on a bun" for years while advertising their Shrimp Tackle Box.  Who would have guessed that fast food chains, our society's bastions of integrity, would sell out?  Lastly, I finished with Carl's Jr., mostly because it was close by.  I wanted to try Arby's Crispy Fish, but the closest location was a 45 minute drive away.  With a 6-month-old baby boy at home, the decadent days of two hour road trips just for a sandwich are currently on hiatus.  Arby's fish sandwich will have to remain my white whale, for now. 

I didn't want to ramble on, paragraph after paragraph, talking about fast food.  But not providing some breakdown of these five sandwiches would be a disservice.  A table felt most appropriate.  So, in no specific order, here's my truncated analysis:   

Chain

Sandwich

Price sandwich only pre-tax

Pros

Cons

Score



Red Hook Beer Battered Fish Sandwich
Beer Battered Alaskan Pollock, Shredded Lettuce, Tartar, Toasted Plain Bun

 
$5.891

Crispy beer batter crust was a nice texture and best exterior of the five.  Fish was also noticeably flaky.

Most off-putting stale yet squishy bun and wilted lettuce of the bunch.  The fish alone is what saved the sandwich.

 
4/10


The BK Big Fish Sandwich
Panko Breaded Alaskan Pollock, Lettuce, Pickles, Tartar, Butter-Toasted Brioche Bun

 
$3.992

 
It was edible?  Burger King’s pickles are always okay.

Pretty forgettable all around.  Flavorless fish farce with no real texture and the tartar sauce was way too sweet.  Also the wilted lettuce was upsetting.  

 
3/10


Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich
Panko Breaded Alaskan Pollock, Lettuce, Pickles, American Cheese, Tartar, Toasted Plain Bun

 
$4.19

 
Decent in size compared to the other five.  Fish was flavorful on its own.

A little too much going on.  Similar fish farce to BK with no texture, but had flavor.  And cheese on fish sandwiches makes no sense to me at all.

 
4/10


Cajun Flounder Sandwich
Cajun Seasoned AP Flour Dredged Flounder, Pickles, Tartar, Toasted Brioche Bun

 
$3.99

Best seasoned of the five.  Pickles were wonderful.  Flaky and well textured fish. 

It seemed the same dredge recipe as the fried chicken.  So while very flavorful, the flounder’s moisture compromised the crust's integrity.

 
7/10


Filet-O-Fish Sandwich
Wheat Crumb Breaded Alaskan Pollock, American Cheese, Tartar, Steamed Plain Bun

 
$5.191

Steamed bun was very good and a decent, tangy tartar sauce in comparison to the others.

As expected from past experience, fishiest of the five, not in a good way.  Again, cheese on fish?  WTF?  I’ll never get it.

 

NA3

1Carl’s Jr. and McDonald’s say the sandwiches cost in the $3.69 to $3.89 range, but there are fluctuations in franchise pricing
2 The BK Big Fish Sandwich is part of the 2 for $5 deal, so you can technically get two fish sandwiches for $5.00 before taxes
3The Filet-O-Fish is its own thing.  And while not good, you know what you’re getting and you kind of like it – like most fast food really  

With the fast food chains out of the way, it was time to move on to the high quality, local fish sandwiches.  Surely, given the Bay Area's acumen for all things culinary, there had to be some great ones.  I began doing my research, and to great disappointment, there really wasn't much.  A few cutty fish fry places here and there, and a very intriguing, but COVID-closed place named Masabaga in Oakland.  Hook Fish Co. in San Francisco and Fish in Sausalito do their spins on a fish sandwich, but not the classic style.  Also, hopefully Masabaga reopens soon because that fried tuna belly 
sandwich with yuzukosho aioli and sesame cracker looks absolutely delightful.  But where were all the others?  Why has the fish sandwich been seemingly reserved to fast food chains?  Just look at the dearth of options on a few, simple, web searches.  Mostly fried chicken spots, delis, or Red Lobster-esque places. 

Looking across the country, there were a couple celebrated versions, but not many.  I sought out a Cuban style one in Miami's Little Havana a year back.  Mainly I just saw other regional fast food chains and their fish sandwiches.  If you know of any legit establishments making them, please share as I've surely missed a few.  I can certainly sell a post-pandemic trip to Charleston, Milwaukee, San Diego or any other city under the auspices of a family vacation.  It'll be our little secret that it's truly for the fish sandwich. 

Masabaga's Tuna Belly Burger - courtesy of
San Francisco Chronicle
After much thought, I still couldn't figure out why the classic fish sandwich wasn't more contemporarily popular.  Sadly, they're overlooked and underappreciated.  But with such great potential for flavor and quality, they shouldn't be.  Maybe because the main association with them is fast food?  Sure, there are some vestigial restaurants from the 1970's around where you can still find one.  You know, those places named "The Rusty Scupper" or "Sindbad's" that have marlins and ships' helms all over the walls.  But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who considers "The Clam Tavern" to be on the cutting edge of what's fashionable in food.  You'll find it as a special at a few trendier places occasionally, especially for the Lenten "fish sandwich season," but rarely as a staple.  And it can't be the health concerns of fried foods.  Fish 'n' chips is as popular as ever.  Plus, we've got the fried chicken sandwich renaissance that's been happening the past few years.  There are the fast food-centric "chicken wars," but we've seen the sandwich's popularity gain significant momentum on the local, celebrity, and high brow chef levels.  In the Bay Area alone we've got FlybirdThe Organic Coup, The Bird, and World Famous HotBoys, not to mention the numerous pop-ups I always hear about.  And there are several celebrity chefs opening up chicken sandwich spots like David Chang's Fuku, Michael Mina's Tokyo Hot Chicken, and Sean Brock's Joyland.  Why isn't the fish sandwich getting any well-deserved love?  Where are all the trendy fish sandwich shops with names like "Port & Hull," "Dock 22," and "Fins or Tails?"  Where's "Crow's Nest Cod Sandwiches" by Jamie Oliver? 

Not quite like the commercials, eh?
I might be onto something here.  Perhaps the fish sandwich will be the next big food craze.  I say fried chicken sandwiches have jumped the shark and it's the humble fish sandwich's time to shine.  Maybe not, but one can always hope.  Either way, I knew I had to try my hand at a homemade fish sandwich.  First though, in attempting my own, the drive-thru fish sandwich escapades had provided a few key takeaways (told you the terrible puns wouldn't stop):

1)  A local, fresh filet of fish.  Pretty obvious one. Those fish stick type mash ups were not pleasant.  A white and flaky yet well textured fish like California halibut or rock fish would probably be best, based on my location.  And being a sustainable fisheries evangelist, no way I could do anything less than a responsibly caught and sourced fish for my sandwich.  Yes, I am aware the five sandwiches I'd just eaten were by no means sustainable, despite what they claim.  Pulling entire schools of pollock with their by-catch from the Bering Sea isn't exactly ecologically friendly.  We're all hypocrites from time to time.  I know I am.  This was in the name of research, at least. 

2)  Beer batter or a slurry for the fish's fried exterior.  Any sort of panko, flour, or bread crumb coating doesn't expand enough to maintain the crunchy texture when adhered to the moisture-filled fish.  Also, the steam produced once between the bun quickly breaks down any crispiness a bread crumb crust may have.  Popeye's sandwich proved both these flaws, whereas Carl's Jr. demonstrated a slurry was the way to go for optimal crunch.  Add "a salt and batter-y" charges to my fish sandwich's rap sheet.  
 
3)  A steamed bun, probably brioche.  Despite the issues with the Filet-O-Fish, the steamed bun was quite enjoyable.  Popeye's bun was also essentially steamed, due to the tin foil packaging it comes in.  A softer bun, produced from steaming, would go well in contrast to the crunchy, craggily fried fish.  The fish, after all, should be the focus, and I wouldn't want to take away from that with crusty French bread or a chewy sourdough.

4)  Pickles only, maybe a slaw.  Again, the steam and moisture from the fish once in the bun break down any fresh toppings like lettuce and they become wilted messes.  Nobody wants that.  Pickles or a vinegary cabbage slaw wouldn't break down from the steam, so they'd hold their texture and add a bright, acidic bite to cut the richness of the fish.  And of course, definitely no damn processed American cheese.    

5)  Light on the sauce.  I will admit I'm not a huge tartar sauce fan to begin with, but all five sauces ranged between mediocre to outright disgusting.  Sweet relish and mayo is just kind of gross from the start.  And the obnoxious drenching that each sandwich got of it was very disheartening.  However, a light coating could compliment well.  This really would be the wild card, too.  I could see a nice tartar-type sauce coming together with fresh cucumber, dill, citrus and some sour cream.  An Old Bay or Cajun aioli could work well, or even a malt vinegar one.  Or perhaps just a dollop of cultured butter.  I wouldn't want the sauce to overtake the fish, but it could definitely amplify the whole sandwich. 

Batter Notes

Well, this was an awful lot to contemplate and execute on my own.  I humbly knew I'd need some help on this project, but was excited to share the process with others.  So I hit up my friends Dana and Rizzi, both buddies from my previous sea foraging adventure, and we planned a good ol' fashion backyard fish fry, masked-up and socially-distanced, of course.  Rizzi, true to his nature, started geeking out on the frying batter.  He got real granular with all the potential flour, starch, and powder combinations.  As owner, chef, and operator of Lou's Takeaway in San Rafael, he's got a modest but commercial kitchen where he started testing all sorts of possibilities.  Just take a look at his preliminary trial notes.  And so many things to consider.  Viscosity, density, best adherence, appropriate leavening agent, optimal browning, proper expansion, gluten development, liquid concentration, and so on.  We chatted about it all week.  

Batter Testing
When the day finally arrived, I intently selected several condiments, seasonings, and sauces from my pantry and fridge.  Claussen's dill pickles, homemade mayonnaise, purple and green cabbage, Athletic Brewery Golden Ale, pickled jalapeños, Old Bay, Four Monk's malt vinegar, and more.  I then headed out to pick up a few key ingredients.  First, freshly baked brioche burger buns from Firebrand Bakery in Oakland.  Next, California halibut and rock fish from Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley.  And lastly, a yuzukosho-inspired Spicy Citrus condiment from INNA Jam in Emeryville.  I'd tried some at my sister's house a while back and thought it might make the perfect tartar sauce replacement when mixed with aioli.  A combination of Meyer lemon and habanero chilis with vinegar, salt and sugar, it's a great compliment to something as simple as grilled chicken thighs or as complicated as homemade Kaiseki dinners.  Give it a try if you can.  I promise you won't be disappointed.  Anyway, with all ingredients in hand, off to Rizzi's house I headed.

Outdoor frying is always preferred
#FrySafe
As soon as Dana got there, we hit the ground running.  Dutch oven filled with soy bean oil, wok 
burner ignited, and candy thermometer positioned.  As we anxiously waited for 340°, I broke down the halibut and rock fish into sandwich sized portions while Rizzi mixed the batter and Dana digitally documented.  Rizzi busted out the metric scale for precision down to the gram, and after a few tests, we ended up on basically two parts pastry flour, one part each potato starch and rice flour, and a teaspoon each of baking powder and kosher salt, all mixed with a cup of golden ale.  Once all set, the fish portions were dredged in rice flour, dipped in the batter, and into the scalding bath they went.  Just a few minutes later, it was sandwich assembly time. 

The Descanso Way Fish Sandwich
Firebrand brioche buns came fresh out of the steamer and received a light spread on both sides of the INNA Jam spicy citrus aioli.  I thick sliced the Claussen's dill pickles and mixed shredded green cabbage with a little bit of the jalapeño pickle brine to make a simple slaw.  The golden crisped halibut and rock fish portions were then placed on the buns and the whole sandwich came together.  It tasted quite delicious, I must say.  Rizzi, admirably ever the perfectionist, saw slight areas for improvement on the batter and frying process, but all in all it was damn good.  Each cooking experience should also be a learning experience.  One can, and always should, try to improve.  However, the sharp acidity and crunch from the pickles and slaw, richness and crispness of the fish, and the spicy brightness from the habanero citrus ailoi, all gently hugged into a soft, steamy brioche bun made for one pleasant sandwich on a warm Sunday afternoon.  The only thing better was the company, of course.  Who knows, maybe we'll look back at this day and say this was when fish sandwich finally started to get its due place at the literal and proverbial table.  I can certainly say it's got its rightful place at mine from now on.

Again, big thanks to Dana for much of the photography and Rizzi for the cooking assist. 

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

Wednesday

Seafood Sausages

Seafood sausages have been on my mind for a long time.  I talked about them way back in a 2017 post when I made Oyster Chicharrones.  Cooking seafood at home is still something I feel is pretty foreign to many Americans.  Sure, salmon and crab cakes make the occasional appearance, but we seem to be more comfortable with pot roasts and spaghetti bolognese rather than stuffed squid or salt crusted whole fish.  There has been incredible progress in chefs making traditional and identifiable dishes with a fishy twist.  Josh Niland of Fish Butchery is definitely most notable in his creations of swordfish belly bacon, blue eye trevalla cheeseburgers, and tuna meatball subs.  Still, I believe there's a shameful underrepresentation of seafood on American dining tables and clever ways out there to fix that. 

Grinding beef for hot dogs
I've always wanted a proper meat grinder and sausage stuffer, and thanks to my siblings, I finally got one for my birthday.  I'll be honest, the catalyst that finally made it happen was wanting to create my own homemade kid's cuisine like hot dogs and chicken McNuggets.  I'm about to be a pappy, and I want that kid to enjoy the classics without my guilt of just boiling an Oscar Mayer wiener and tossing it in a bun.  Ambitious and idealistic, absolutely.  That kid will have his fair share of Kraft Mac and Cheese and Tombstone pizzas, no doubt.  I'm by no means fully committing to an organic only, zero gluten, sugar free, did-the-chicken-have-friends type diet for my kid.  While you have to be pragmatic, nobody feels good about heating up some Gorton's fish sticks and feeding them to their children.  If I can mix in the occasional house cured pepperoni or homemade turkey lunch meat, I'll consider that a win.  

Anyway, with a new meat grinder on hand and the desire for seafood whimsy in heart, seafood sausages naturally came next.  Sausages are one of the most classic, iconic, and identifiable American foods.  It's debatable on where they originate, so I won't open that whole cultural appropriation can of worms.  Either way, everybody loves a good sausage.  And get your minds out of the gutter.  This is a PG kid-friendly blog, now.  Just kidding.  However, from ball park franks to spicy Italian on pizza, everyone enjoys eating sausage.  What better way to bring seafood and identifiable comfort food together than in a sausage?  So, with knives sharpened and hog casings soaked, let the grind begin.    

Smoked Trout Hot Dogs

Lake Michigan Trout and Salmon

I was fortunate enough to have a vacation this summer to visit my girlfriend's family in Wisconsin.  If anywhere in the states is sausage country, it's definitely the Midwest.  Funny thing too is that everything is called a "brat" and not a sausage.  Spicy Italian brats, breakfast brats, lamb merguez brats.  I figured I'd even see bratwurst brats, but it wasn't that bad.  Just classic brats.  More importantly, we had the opportunity to go fishing on Lake Michigan.  It was a pretty amazing experience.  Milwaukee felt just like a coastal city as we shoved off the pier, and even more so while we filleted our twelve salmon and lake trout as we came back into port.  We enjoyed some fresh on the grill that evening, though our haul was way too large for our modest party of six.  Luckily, a neighbor was kind enough to smoke the rest, allowing us to enjoy the delectable lake treats back in the Bay Area.

With now a little over three pounds of smoked lake trout in my fridge, I knew I was going to make smoked trout hot dogs.  The concept has always just seemed right to me.  Snappy casing, paprika and garlic forward beef, and that briny, smoky trout flavor underneath it all.  Just makes sense.  As it was my first attempt at homemade hot dogs, I needed a little guidance, though.  Ryan Farr, a Bay Area sausage legend of 4505 Meats, had a comprehensive recipe in his book I used as my base. 

Beef Mock Tender from the Chuck, Beef Fat Back, Smoked Lake Trout, Lamb Casings and a
Mixture of Cure #1, Kosher Salt, Paprika, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, and Black Pepper

I started off with grinding the beef and fat back.  Rule one of sausage making is everything must be ice cold, otherwise the fat will render and the meat will smear, leaving you with a nasty meat paste rather than a nice fine grind.  Bad bacteria also love room temperature meat, so, safety first.  After thrice through the grinder, I was ready to add the spices and emulsify the sausage, slowly pouring in ice cold water as it blended in the food processor.  The water helps the emulsification in making it smooth and keeping it cold, preventing it from breaking, just like a mayonnaise can.  Once all this was completed, I quick fried a tablespoon of the mixture for flavor and seasoning.  Tasting just like Coney Island's finest, I now had a smooth hot dog farce ready for casing and smoking.  I lightly folded in the smoked trout in hopes of retaining some of the fish's texture and transferred it back to the grinder for stuffing.  A quick few pumps into the lamb casings and I had trout hot dogs ready for the smoker.  Yes, I was going to really nail home that smoked flavor (and the recipe called for smoking the hot dogs, so I figured I should stick to the plan).  


 
A seemingly endless hour later, I had twelve beautifully smoky lake trout hot dogs. The color was a bit disconcerting at first as they were a pale gray right after stuffing, but the smoking process really brought out that classic red hot hue.  Paprika, beef and cure #1 do the trick, apparently.  Flavor and texture were spot on for a classic hot dog.  Unfortunately, the delicate and fragile fish didn't hold up through the stuffing process and melded into the beef farce.  One of the disadvantages of an electric vs. hand pump sausage stuffer.  However, they had that perfect snappy casing and a flush, meaty interior.  Taste was just like a Nathan's 100% all beef frank with a savory seafood finish.  Full garlic and paprika up front, layered with smoky, salty lake trout on the back.  Moisture was the only slight issue.  They were a little drier than I'd hoped.  But hey, most people drown their dogs in condiments anyway, so no real problem.  Dressed up with prepared horseradish, tomatoes, chives, radish, and red onion, they'd be a welcomed twist to any classic 'murican BBQ.  These are most certainly a make again and a great addition to my slowly growing sausage arsenal. 

Low Country Boil Sausages

 

I immediately knew I wanted to do one of those gimmicky meal-in-a-sausage versions of something.  You know, those cheeseburger, Thai chicken curry, or chicken parmesan sausages you often see.  Got me thinking of what I could do for seafood, and a low country boil or frogmore stew quickly came to mind.  Heaps of crawfish, mussels, peel'n'eat shrimp, crab, spicy andouille sausage, potatoes and corn all steamed or boiled in tons of Cajun or Old Bay seasoning.  They're kind of a lot of work to put together.  Well, not terrible, but you know you're not throwing together a crawfish boil at home on a casual Tuesday evening.  What if that could all be brought together in a sausage for convenient consumption?  I also knew I needed to make something that my girlfriend, who pretends to like seafood while in reality does not, might actually eat.  She likes some shellfish, at least, so this could work.  A sausage like this would require some sort of base.  I suppose I could have made an emulsification out of crawfish tails and shrimp.  However, I wanted a hearty, rustic and coarse ground sausage.  A neutral base was needed, and nothing is more neutral than good old "tastes like chicken."  Seemed like a good carrier for the Old Bay and wouldn't overpower the other components.

Turkey Legs, Crawfish Tails, Andouille Sausage, Corn,
Parsley, and Old Bay Seasoning

As you may have noticed from the picture, I got two whole turkey legs rather than a bunch of chicken thighs.  Seemed a little more fun to me, plus my Local Butcher in Berkeley didn't have enough chicken thighs on hand.  Poultry is poultry, right?  There's also something appealing about single bird, pig, cow or whatever sausage.  It feels good to go from whole muscles to end product.  Takes away the whole "lips and assholes" element of sausage making, I think. 

I started out by deboning and coarsely grinding the turkey legs with skin on.  Sausage requires fat, and with turkey meat being so lean, the skin was the best source for this.  Also, I'd forgotten what a pain in the ass butt (sorry, no profanity in front of the kid) removing the tendons from the drumsticks was.  Seriously though, when raw, it's like deboning a fish on steroids.  With a solid base ground up, I started mixing in the crawfish tails, cubed andouille, parsley, corn and ample amounts of Old Bay seasoning.  I felt like quite the clever one using frozen corn, too, knowing it would keep the mixture ice cold as I pumped the casings.  F*ckin' smart!  Visually, they came out great.  A slight Old Bay colored tinge speckled with bright orange and white crawfish tails, verdantly green parsley, and eye-popping yellow corn.  If I ran a meat and seafood counter, these would be at the front of the case. 

 

     How'd they taste though?  Well, I can say turkey was a stupid idea.  I should have known.  For those of you who immediately thought "turkey's not going to work," you were right.  As soon as I started mixing the ingredients together and smelling them, I knew it was going to be too strongly turkey flavored.  A quick pre-stuffing fry of the mixture for taste confirmed.  Turkey meat, let alone the much gamier turkey leg meat, was going to be too fowl (dad jokes!) to let the other flavors come through.  I'd already crossed the Rubicon, though, once everything was mixed, so I had to forge on.  The Old Bay was pleasantly prominent, and there were nice textural bites of crawfish, corn, and andouille here and there, but it was primarily a seafood seasoned turkey sausage.  Hey, it would be disingenuous not to share my failures.  They did taste pretty good, just not what I was going for.  Perhaps a rebranding would be in order.  Old Bay Bird Brats or something?  I did see a recipe for a potato sausage in one of my sausage making books, so that will be base in my attempt at a Low Country Boil Sausage 2.0.  I'll keep y'all updated.

Seafood Boudin Blanc

Fish Sausage, Celeriac Puree, Peas, and
Onion Sauce in Whole Fish Butchery

Both my seafood sausages admittedly hadn't exactly been seafood so far.  Sure, they were seafood inspired, flavored, and partly comprised, but they were mainly based in meat.  It made sense.  When it comes to sausages, meat is more stable, easier to work with, less perishable, has a higher fat content and is a convenient way to use up scrap and discard.  Seafood is missing quite a few of those properties.  However, I knew I wanted to do at least one entirely seafood sausage.  A quick Google showed there are a few versions out there, primarily shrimp mousselline formed into a sausage shape.  I wanted a fish base, though, so my inspiration came from the aforementioned Josh Niland and his book's aquatic spin on the classic bangers and mash.  I also love the classic French boudin blanc sausage, and imagined the emulsified texture and flavor could translate well into a seafood sausage.

The entire world of boudins and puddings is quite the rabbit hole, or rather a veal, pork, and chicken hole.  There are countless versions of white, fine textured sausages with different meats throughout the world with very strict do's and don'ts. Creole boudin must have rice, Irish and Scottish white puddings use oats, and in France, they must have milk or cream.  The French also have a contentious debate on whether or not to include fillers or binders such as bread crumbs or eggs.  Rethel, in Northern France, even has a legal protection defining what a Boudin Blanc de Rethel must be.  A lot to consider and respect, but I just wanted to make a pure seafood boudin blanc, not become a culinary criminal.

Bay Scallops, California Halibut, Salmon Bellies, Shallots, Garlic,
White Pepper, Marjoram, Sage, Nutmeg and Hog Casings

  I'll admit, the only area of expertise I have with boudin blancs is knowing that I love them.  As I said, there's a whole lot to consider and centuries of debate as to what defines them.  With my rudimentary research, the main ingredients seemed to be sage, marjoram and cream or milk.  Other additions vary from mushrooms and truffles to raisins and apples.  I decided to stick with sage, marjoram, and cream, adding in white pepper, nutmeg, and some shallots and garlic sautéed in butter.  As sausages need fat, and this was a seafood only sausage, the best source for this was salmon bellies from Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley.  Bay scallops' texture and consistency would help fortify the farce and round out the flavor, so I added them in as well.  Both went into the food processor and cream was slowly added.  With a well set salmon belly and scallop mousse, I folded in cubed Californian halibut filet with the herbs and spices.  It all came together well, hopefully with some of the firm texture of the halibut remaining once pumped into the casings.  Boudin blancs, much like hot dogs, are fully cooked before reheating for serving.  I decided on steaming them, shocking them in ice water to stop the cooking process, then browning up in a cast iron.  


The end result, absolutely wonderful, I don't mind saying.  They turned out exactly as I'd hope.  A nice, smooth, fine textured seafood sausage from the cream emulsification with the firmer cubes of halibut peppered in.  The contrast was great.  Flavor wise, they were also spot on.  Very garlic and shallot forward with a savory fragrance from the sage, marjoram, and nutmeg, backed up with a slight kick from the white pepper.  The hog casings browned up well in the cast iron and they came out exactly like a classic boudin blanc, just with a seafood spin.  A slight issue, similar to the smoked trout hot dogs, they were little drier than I'd have liked.  I'm not sure if this was from steaming them a bit too long, or needing to up the salmon bellies for more fat.  I'll have to play with that a little in future, but a buttery sauce would easily combat that on this version.  In terms of how to serve, I can't think of anything better than over a bed of mashed potatoes with an onion gravy.  Perhaps some citrus braised leeks or lemon-thyme roasted vegetables on the side would be a pleasant addition as well.  Incorporating some sort of acid, especially of the citrus variety, always goes well with seafood.    

All in all, my seafood sausage experiments went just as I'd hoped.  A few successes, a few failures, and invaluable experience and learning opportunities on where to improve.  And the possibilities are endless.  So many things could be next.  Octopus pepperoni, smoked black cod bratwurst, salmon mortadella.  Hopefully my kid won't be too picky of an eater, but this will certainly be a cheeky way to mix some omega-3's into his diet.  Wishing you all the best and hope you get a chance soon to try some fun and whimsical culinary experiments too.

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd  

Sunday

Low Tide with The Sea Forager

I talk a decent amount of shit.  There's a fine line between healthy skepticism and straight up hating, and I frequently walk it.  Some of my more recent posts have encouraged civil discourse and respectful discussions rather than passing judgment and these "I'm right - you're wrong" proclamations.  I do believe and stand by that.  We'd all be better off with candid yet considerate conversation.  But still, I talk shit, throw shade, sip water (any Beanie Sigel fans?).  My friend even recently told me I "bleed cynicism."  We're all hypocrites from time to time, or at least I certainly am.

It is pretty easy to sit back and be a critic.  There are a number of sayings out there in one form or another.  "Any fool can criticize, and most fools do" or "be a creator, not critic."  And "Those who can, do.  Those who can't, criticize....or teach gym."  Something like that.  Sorry, Mrs. Horsey.  High school gym class was the absolute best.  Just jokes.  But it's good to always be aware of this.  I too often find myself critiquing meals, movies, football matches, and so on.  And nobody wants to be that guy, right?  The Skip Baylesses and Colin Cowherds of the world are about as helpful as social distancing in a submarine.  I try to counterbalance my petty caviling by getting out of my comfort zone and doing things that are new, unfamiliar, or even that I'm genuinely bad at.  A nice hearty dose of humility does everyone some good.  

So, back in the fall of 2019, pre-apocalypse 2020, some friends and I decided we'd try "sea foraging," something none of us were particularly familiar or comfortable with.  There were decades of culinary, restaurant, and even fishing experience between us, but nobody could poke-pole for a sculpin or confidently pick out the edible seaweeds of the coastline.  I'd always thought I had a decent grasp on many things seafood.  I've shucked hundreds of thousands of oysters and clams, butchered more varieties of fish than I can remember, and even regularly messed around with exotics like percebes or making my own bottarga.  But ask me to go and pull a razor clam from the sand a short 25 minute drive from my house, I'd embarrassingly have little to no success.

Half Moon Bay at low tide 
While we were definitely out of our comfort zone in attempting this, we weren't stupid enough (at least anymore) to dive into it blindly.  Picking up stuff off the beach and eating it, after all, isn't like casually trying your hand at water colors or giving tennis a go.  Wrong kelp, wrong time, wrong clam, wrong tide - any one can quickly equal a trip to right the emergency room.  We were fortunate enough to enlist a pro's help.

Enter Kirk Lombard, a.k.a. the Sea Forager.  He's a Bay Area icon who I've been following for a bit now.  His biography on the website summarizes it better than I can, but he's basically all things NorCal fisheries.  Education, sustainability, research, commerce, preservation, recreation, and more.  If it's akin to the ocean, it's akin to Kirk.  He's got an informative and wit-filled book, provides guided classes, and even offers a weekly sea-to-table delivery service for at home cooks.  So, on a brisk but sunny day in November, we all met up in Half Moon Bay during a mega low tide in search of all the forageable, scrumptious sea creatures it had to offer.   

Fried whole smelt, or "fries with eyes," at
Hog Island in San Francisco's Ferry Building
As herring season was near, we started off with a tutorial in cast netting.  Not that herring were in Half Moon Bay, but the goal was to teach us as many sea foraging techniques as we could cram into one day.  Pretty straight forward in theory, but rather difficult to execute.  It's simply a circular net with weights on the edge that's attached to a handline.  You throw it out into the water, the weights drop, and with a quick pull of the line, anything beneath the net is caught.  The hard part is actually getting the net to spread out on the throw.  Takes a lot of practice, but it's great for catching large hauls (I've been told) of surf smelt.  It's also impressive as a fishing method that dates back millennia and is still employed daily from San Francisco to Shanghai and everywhere in between. Careful, though, as regulations vary by area and season.  Cast netting is something I'm nowhere even close to proficient at, but I'm keen to be as freshly caught fries with eyes are damn delicious.

After about twenty minutes of what can be best described as cast net fails by all of us, save Kirk, we were on to the main task at hand: clammin' - horseneck clammin' specifically.  I wasn't very familiar with horseneck clams until I heard we'd be targeting them.  They're a gaper clam and basically like a mini geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck).  If you've had mirugai sushi, that's geoduck.  It's also the comedically massive and phallic clam that's always elicited wry smiles and audible chuckles at every restaurant I've ever worked.  Yes, people do call it the penis clam and every other clever variation you can think of.  Clamming in general is just too easy for sexual innuendo and double entendre. I'll do my best to refrain. 
  
Half Moon Bay Horseneck Clam
   Horseneck clam harvesting on the Pacific coast goes back centuries with archaeological excavations unearthing shells at several coastal sites.  Native Americans would use both the meat as food and the shells for tools or jewelry.  How they did this without modern day means is beyond me as digging for these clams is a fairly tall order.  It starts pretty leisurely with a simple stroll down the beach at low tide.  You're looking for small, but not too small (quarter-sized or so) holes in the sand.  After spotting one, stomp a few times in close proximity.  If a spout of water squirts out, it just may be a clam.  This spout is from the clam being startled, sharply retracting it's siphon, and expelling the water it held.  It can be tricky as many of the holes are misleading and often just ghost shrimp, crabs, or other aquatic critters.  You want to be as close to positive as possible it's a clam, too, cause the tall order I mentioned starts here.

Digging up our first clam
Unlike the casual clamming of the East coast I was familiar with, digging for horseneck clams is an arduous endeavor as they can be buried deep, up to three or four feet sometimes.  Just to procure a single clam requires jamming a 3' x 18" PVC tube several feet into the ground, shoveling out heaps of wet, heavy sand, and siphoning out seawater that's constantly rushing in to fill the hole.  Then, you've got to get face down in the muck, probing around with a small trowel to locate the clam.  And once you've found it, you have to gingerly extract it with a gentle touch as to not crush the shell or tear the siphon.  As I said, a tall order.  Oh, and I forgot to mention, on that leisurely stroll down the beach, you're lugging around all this equipment the whole time. 

However, I must admit the labor is worth it.  Surfacing with that first gaper clam after a thirty minute physically draining battle was quite the reward.  "No pain, no gain."  Well, Kirk's pain and our gain.  I won't lie.  He did most of the work while the rest of us, let's say, supervised.  We ended up with two medium sized clams and discovered all sorts of interesting sea life along the way, ranging from adorable to appalling.  Innkeeper worms, sea lettuce, purple urchin, Turkish washcloth.  The most thrilling and incredibly rare find, though, was the Lewis's moon snail.

Half Moon Bay Moon Snail 
 You could immediately tell we'd found something special with Kirk's giddy, kid-on-Christmas-morning reaction.  First, they're massive.  About the size of a large dinner plate with a bulky weight to match.   Second, the expression "happy as a clam" wouldn't exist if moon snail predatory behavior were more commonly known.  The full phrase is "happy as a clam at high tide," presuming a clam would be happy as people can only dig them at low tide.  Safe equals happy.  However, moon snails go around chomping down clams all day every day.  As Kirk says, "they're the lions of mudflats" and "if clams dream, moon snails are their stuff of nightmares."  They are edible, but apparently require a jackhammer to tenderize and make palatable.  The size is also misleading as it's mostly water weight and they don't yield much meat.  Lastly, as they prey on other mollusks, they're more susceptible to dangerous toxins through biogmagnification.  Given the rarity, esteem, and culinary considerations, we decided to place this guy back in the sand, much to the dismay of many a clam I'm sure. 

For the last leg of our tour, we headed outside the Half Moon Bay jetty onto the rocks of Maverick's Beach.  With the mega low tide, there were scores of people scooping up bag limits (and probably beyond) of whatever they could find, mainly mussels.  Kirk had a few choice words on preservation, sustainability, and responsible harvests, given what we were witnessing.  It's certainly an important topic and warrants further discussion, but that's a whole separate post.  The main point: please forage responsibly, keeping in mind we want these valuable sea resources to stay around for generations to come.  That being said, grab all the purple sea urchin you can.  Climate change, warmer waters, disappearing predators and other factors have created a breeding boom for these urchin and they're laying waste to many California coastal ecosystems.  Perhaps a marketing catchphrase for purple sea urchin hunting is needed, like "stay calm and eat uni" or "munch an urchin just for the halibut."  

Poke-poling for pricklebacks
Anyway, we were there to focus on a method and a fish: poke-poling and monkeyface eel.  Poke-poling is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.   Just like cast netting is casting a net, poke-poling is poking a pole, more specifically into tidal pools.  It consists of a long rod (sturdy fishing rod, bamboo, or even a broomstick would do), a flexible but strong wire tied to it (coat hanger seems to be standard), and a few inches of fishing line with a hook at the end.  Squid, surf clam, mussels, or any other manner of bait is placed on the hook and poked around into the holes and crevices in the rocks, basically anywhere that looks like an eel would comfortably call home.  The fish bites, the hook is set, and out comes the catch.  It's a great way to nab monkeyface eels and even a clunker cabezon occasionally.   

The monkeyface eel, or monkeyface prickleback, can be found all over coastal California and Oregon in abundance.  There's no size limit on a keeper, and they have same bag limit as rockfish at ten a day.  That's a lot of monkeyface meat in twenty four hours.  But as they're not exactly blessed with the best looks or reputation, they haven't been the focus of many commercial fisheries and are sparsely prized by local anglers.  As of late, however, more and more restaurants in the Bay Area have begun to recognize their value as a sustainable seafood.  The most curious thing is that monkeyface eels are omnivorous, eating mostly crustaceans and plankton while young and switching to primarily seaweeds and algae as adults, as if to grow some sort of ethical culinary conscience.  Lucky for us, though, the adults still can't resist a bit of squid being dangled right in front of them.  

Larger of the two Monkeyface Eels we kept
We each tried, but Kirk did most of the poke-poling and ended up bagging two respectably sized eels while losing a few and releasing some of the smaller ones.  They're slippery little buggers, don't always take the full bait, and can seemingly loose the hook with ease.  You basically have to pop them out of their holes and grab them by hand before they flop back into the water.  Or, if you're wise, just have a small mesh landing net on hand.  The amazement of onlooking mussel harvesters was probably the funniest bit of the whole poke-poling tutorial.  That, or getting to say "poke-poling" over and over again.  Seeing Kirk pull out eel after eel like reverse whack-a-mole drew quite the crowd.  The crowd's amazement then soon shifted to mild alarm as they realized such gnarly creatures had been lurking mere inches from their bare toes as they navigated the tide pools.  Some in the crowd even recognized Kirk, as we overheard "dude, that's the Sea Forager" a few times.  Must be cool to be a poke-poling celebrity. 

With a day's worth of invaluable mudflat lessons done and a modest but healthy haul of pricklebacks and clams in hand, we said our thanks to Kirk for the great experience and headed back to my buddy's house to cook our spoils.  But how was the big question.

Trudging back through the low tide beds of seaweed
Preparing a horseneck clam isn't like your standard littleneck or manila.  You can't just drop them in a pot and cook (that would be one awfully big steamer).  They require some butchering and cleaning.  This video by another Bay Area foraging legend, Hank Shaw, is one of the best instructional demonstrations I've seen.  First, just like oyster liquor, all that valuable juice that pours out of the clam while shucking is cooking liquid gold.  Be sure to save as much as you can.  Next, in breaking down the clam, most of the meat is in the siphon, which needs to be blanched, skinned, split, and rinsed of sand and particulate.  It can either be tenderized and used in chowders, stews, sauces, etc. or thinly sliced and eaten raw.  The body of the clam has to be thoroughly cleaned of its guts, basically any of the goopy dark stuff.  After this, you're left with a tasty foot, belly, and adductors.  These parts can be chowdered, but are best prepared seasoned and fried.  Also, aquacultured geoduck can fetch upwards of $30 dollars a pound commercially, often double or even triple that in parts of Asia.  To me, these gaper clams were just smaller versions of geoduck, so keep that in mind while savoring every last bit. 

Half Moon Bay Sea Lettuce
The monkeyface eel was just as, well, interesting.  I'll try to phrase this as delicately as possible.  After the eels had been dispatched, their resilient nervous systems pressed on.  While rinsing them off in the sink to prep, one even to managed wriggle its way down into the sink's drain, requiring pliers to remove.  No joke.  Like I said, they're slippery little guys.  And not to be crass, but all food comes from living things that shuffle their mortal coils to become nourishment for us.  I don't want to delve into the whole sentience and physical pain debate of our dietary choices, but I do believe the closer we are to our food, in all aspects, the better.  Distancing ourselves is what created the factory-farmed horrors of plastic-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breasts and ecosystem devastating salmon steaks.  "Out of sight out of mind" shouldn't apply to our food.  If you want to eat the sausage, you should be comfortable seeing how it's made.  Humane is respecting all living things while understanding some must pass on for us to eat, from peas to pigs and everything in between.  

Stepping off my soap box and getting back to the point, we now had four nice monkeyface eel loins and two cleaned and prepped horseneck clams.  I'll be honest, having spent hours trudging around the beach, digging for clams, lugging equipment, and scaling tidal rocks, we were flat out exhausted.  And hungry.  Sea foraging works up an appetite.  There was no way in hell we were expending more time and energy to make a hearty seafood stew or fancy sauces to go with pan roasted fish.  We wanted instant gratification, so out came the deep fryer.  The clam bellies and eel fillets were lightly seasoned and in they went.  No pomp.  No circumstance.  No ceremony.  Just salt, citrus, and hot oil.  We breaded some too, just for contrast.  Surprisingly, the naked fry versions won out.  Either way, clam bellies are always delicious deep fried.  The eel was also great and reminded me a lot of catfish, both in taste and texture.  I've heard it criticized for being too muddy or astringent tasting.  I found it rather pleasant and could see it cooked or prepared in any number of ways, just like any other firm, white fish.  The skin crisped up nicely too when fried and would make some delectable chips.  As for the clam siphon, sashimi style was definitely the way to go.  Thinly sliced on the bias and dipped in a soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and jalapeno mixture made for quite the treat.  It was very toothsome, but incredibly sweet, briny and almost nutty in flavor.  Clamming and poke-poling might just become a regular hobby of mine as the bounty was so delightful. 
          
Filleting the Monkeyface Eel
Deep fried Monkeyface Eel


















Our entire sea foraging day was incredible.  There were so many nuances and intricacies of the mudflats I'd never imagined, and still so much to learn.  From cast net fails and poke-poling misses to the deep fried delicacies, it was truly a new and somewhat intimidating, but eye-opening and amazing experience.  Hopefully you too, despite all the recent craziness, have the chance to try out something a bit different, new, or even scary.  Or at least, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, you can sit down, be humble....and eat some monkeyface eel. 


Special thanks to my buddies Dana for the photography and Rizzi for the cooking.

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd