Alaska Pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus) and Atlantic Pollock (Pollachius virens) are two different species. To compare them is a good exercise in understanding the extremes of the fishing industry.
Alaska Pollock from the northern Pacific, is one of the world’s leading industrialized fisheries with over 3 million tons landed a year. The poster child for inexpensive, super-plain white fish, Alaska pollock is the fish in almost all commercial fish stick products; it is the fish in “fake fish,” that plastic-feeling, white and pink fish “salad” product you can buy at your grocery store, usually in a section with the smoked salmon and cream cheese pinwheels. If you don’t understand yet how big Alaska pollock is in the world, know that it is the fish in a McDonald’s fillet o’ fish sandwich.
Trawled with enormous mid-water nets by large corporate fleets, Alaska pollock fills the world’s frozen fish cases with breaded rectangles of cheap protein. This is the kind of fishing that undermines wild ecosystems and human communities.
Diversity and scale are the answers to much of the over-doing of anything in the world’s economy, be it industrial farming or industrial fishing. To grow one millions of acres of one crop or fish for millions of tons of one fish exploits ecologies and destroys communities. Industrialized farming exhausts soil, eliminates hedgerows and the bird life therein, makes seed stores, farm stores, even whole downtowns obsolete.
Industrialized fishing, fishing for millions of pounds of fish stick filler, has the same consequences. Only the large, corporate fleets can afford this kind of fishing, and these fleets land, process and distribute their fish often on and from their own floating processing factories. They have no need for the shore-side businesses that once supported the local fishing fleets – the lumpers who unload the catches on the dock, the fish cutters, the businesses that supply the boats with gas, food, and gear, all of which were once integral parts of fishing communities, like the farm stores in agricultural communities. These businesses offered good, middle class wages which allowed people to own homes in the community and educate their children. The economics of small farming and fishing built a web of connections that kept communities vital. With the local fishing fleet gone, there is no need for any of those shore side businesses. Harbor buildings are vacant, until the whale-watching businesses and tourist-driven agencies move in offering seasonal jobs but no long term sustainability.
Atlantic pollock is a ground fish, and a common substitute for cod. Actually a member of the cod family, Atlantic pollock is landed all year round in the Gulf of Maine. The fish are landed anywhere from 6-12 pounds, providing thick, meaty fillets of a sweet, mild fish. The raw meat is slightly gray compared to cod, but cooks to a creamy white color, and a thick, beautiful flake. A sweet, white fish with generous, cooking-resilient fillets, Atlantic pollock are fish any cook – and chefs – can love.
Landed abundantly but not industrially on New England fishing boats, Atlantic pollock are also a fish that a fishing village can love. These are fish landed on small boats that keep cities like Portland, Maine looking like a fishing town. They are fish that, if given a reasonable price, an independent fisherman can make a relatively good living selling And they are an excellent – some say preferred – alternative to haddock and cod, fish that deserve some relief from our appetites. This is where diversity and scale come in: if fishermen landed a little cod, a little haddock, and a bit more pollock, but not enough to injure stocks, the prices for all the species they catch would be good, and a fisherman could make a living. He would pull into the dock, unload, and resupply his boat from the services there on the shore. Economic connections would be made, and built.
Here is an unusual, simple, and delicious recipe for New England pollock from Chef Annie Copps. This dish is so sweet, so white, so comforting, it doesn’t taste like a fish dish at all. Fish dishes are rarely considered wintery comfort food, but this recipe is exactly that.
Baked in parchment, “en papillote,” pollock retains all its moist, firm character. Here’s the surprise: The fish’s light, sweet flavor snuggles right up to the natural sugars in parsnips, turnips, and celeriac. This recipe calls for a puree of parsnips and potatoes that have simmered in milk, but you could easily replace the parsnips with turnips or celeriac. For a study in winter white, serve the fish directly on top of the puree. It may not photograph well, but it is oh so comforting February dining, right from local waters.
Pollock en papillote with Mashed Parsnips and Potatoes
4 pieces of pollock, 1/2 pound each
salt and pepper
olive oil for drizzling
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 2″ pieces
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2″ pieces
about 2 cups whole milk
kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
a few scrapes of nutmeg
chopped fresh parsley
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Place the potatoes and parsnips in a medium pot. Cover with milk. (If there is not enough liquid to cover finish with water. Liquid should JUST cover the vegetables. Add 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender, 15 – 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, lay out 4 sheets of parchment, about 16″ x 20″. Fold the parchment in half. Basically you want to make a heart shape as you did in elementary school, by tracing just one side of the heart shape on the paper, and then cutting along that line. Open the parchment and you have a heart, just the right shape for each pollock fillet. Lay the each fillet on one side of each “heart.” Season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Fold the other half of the heart over the fish, and crimp together all the edges, basically to seal each package.
- Bake f0r 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, mash the potatoes and parsnips. Add a few scraps of nutmeg and adjust seasoning.
- To serve, open parchment gently, allowing steam to release. Lay a serving of potatoes and parchment on each plate. Serve the steaming fish beside it, drizzled with more olive oil, or lay it on top of the puree. Serve with chopped parsley.