Fish

Gloucester’s Saints

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

 

The older women, dressed in nice jewelry, holding heavy pocketbooks, begin arriving at the front door as early as 11:30 in the morning.  They take the first seats in the large room, built intentionally for this day, to honor St. Anthony, off the center hall of John and Angela Sanfilippo’s Gloucester home.  The room is lined with folding chairs all facing the broad far wall which is tiered with candles, fresh flowers and shiny vessels arranged to honor St. Anthony, the saint of lost things.

The women’s lined structured faces still bear the lees of being pretty young Italian girls.  The pretty young Italian girls arrive a little later, equally dressed-up, but late because they were at their jobs, and had to wait until noon to leave, or they had to put a baby down for a nap before the sitter arrived. The arriving men – young and old –  go right to the back yard, where the other men are grilling whiting, and already gathered in circled lawn chairs after having set up the tents, tables and chairs.  

In the formal parlor across the front hall, the priest is arranging his robes.  He is extremely tall and thin with dark trimmed hair and beard.  Reaching to fit the robes over his head, he fills the room like a long-limbed El Greco subject fills a canvas, reaching for the skies.  The priest’s expression is kindly and gentle.  He speaks Italian with melodic, fluidity, not the choppy Southern Italian dialect of the gathering crowd.  

Downstairs, Angela, her friends and family are finishing preparing the twenty or so dishes for the feast that will follow the mass.  Sixteen feet of table are completely covered in platters, pots, and bowls, each covered loosely in foil to keep the food warm through the mass.  

 

Angela’s husband and brother are fishermen, as was her father and all her family members back in Porticello, Sicily.  On this table there is freshly caught whiting, monkfish, ocean catfish, haddock, scallops, and squid – breaded and baked, grilled, deep fried, barbecued, chilled in a salad, hot in a chowder.

This is Gloucester, where saints are prayed to, talked to, begged to for everything from lost keys to lost loved ones every single day.  Saints are taken as seriously in this city – heavily made up of Sicilians who came here to fish – as politics and the weather.     

Even if you don’t understand Italian, you know by his affectionate cadence that Father Andrea is not preaching today, but telling the St. Anthony stories, how the saint advised a young prince with paralyzed legs to marry the poor young girl who came alone to church every day and cried at the altar.  The prince married the girl, and walked on his wedding day.   Father Andrea is telling the story of how St. Anthony  raised a murdered friend from the dead to testify against the wrongly accused, and then repositioned the victim in Paradise on his return.  

Angela Sanfilippo has her own St. Anthony miracle.  At nineteen, her father was captured by the German Army in World War II.  Angela’s grandmother didn’t know where her son was or even that he was a prisoner, but she prayed every day to St. Anthony for his return.  Two years later, her son walked into the Sicilian village, and the mother’s lifelong vow to St. Anthony began.    For the rest of her life, although she was a comfortable woman, she went door-to-door in Porticello begging for donations to her St. Anthony’s feast.  At every year’s feast, she laid out her finest linen, china, and crystal.  Her first guests were always three orphans selected from the local orphanage and a monk, allowing the poorest from the community to enjoy the riches of a king for a day.  

Angela came to America as a child with her family, first to Milwaukee and then they settled in Gloucester for fishing.  Angela’s grandmother stayed in Porticello, continuing her famous St. Anthony tradition.  When Angela had her own home she started the St. Anthony tribue on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

St. Anthony, St. Joseph and St. Peter are Gloucester’s saints.  Each saint’s feast day (the day they died, meaning the day they left their humanity behind and became a saint) is almost more important than Christmas and Easter.  The feasts days are like a birthday and a major holiday all wrapped up in one.  Like Angela, the Sicilian people have personal attachments to these saints; they ask them for favors large and small. Their pictures hang on walls and watch over the families like a beloved uncle.  St. Anthony, to this adoring crowd, is right there with them hearing their stories and prayers, laughing and crying, serving himself some antipasti.  At the same time his June death is as big as Christmas.  People in Gloucester travel around to each others homes saying novenas to him, sharing cookies and coffee afterward – for 13 days in advance.  On the actual feast day people take time off from work; they dress in their best; they go to mass, and they cook.   Friends, relatives, local dignitiaries skip breakfast that day knowing that fish from the Gloucester waters will be prepared fifteen different ways for lunch, and not one dish is to be passed over.

Most people imagine that St. Peter, the fishermen’s saint, the saint celebrated at fiesta with greasy pole walking, seine boat races, and amusement park rides, is Gloucester’s headliner saint, but there was a time when the entire city shut down on March 19th for the feast of St. Joseph.  Today, buses take crowds from altar to altar all over the city celebrating St. Joseph.  At Angela’s that day, St. Anthony drew a standing-room-only crowd.

At each saint’s feast, the bread is taken to the altar and blessed.

 

About Squid.

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Longfin Inshore squid spend their winters in deeper waters along the edge of the Continental Shelf.  Their arrival inshore – they come to spawn – marks the start of spring for those living close to the Nantucket Sound waters.  For the fishermen, they are like the gunshot in the air declaring the start of the year’s fishing season.
After squid spawn, they return to deeper waters, retreating from the paths of rapacious striped bass and bluefish; almost all New England fish consider squid a favorite meal.
At night, attracted by the lights, squid will chase small bait fish, also attracted by light, into shallow waters around bridges and piers.  Many squid fishermen fish with lights at night to attract the squid.  Some simply drop glow sticks from the county fair, tied to a leaded weight, into the water.  Jigging this way for squid off docks is a springtime New England tradition, but it is considered very bad manners to leave squid ink on someone’s boat.
“The squid are cyclical but no one can remember the cycle,” Auerbach says.  “Some fishermen will say it’s every seven years there’s a great year, but no one can remember which year was the last great one!”
Fishmongers refer to squid that hasn’t been skinned or cleaned as “dirty squid,” but dirty squid means the added gift of ink, their defense mechanism, famous in Venetian dishes like the ebony squid-ink risotto or pasta.  That pouch lives inside the squid body.  Cleaning squid, look for it in the “guts” that come out of the body when pulling the legs and tentacles away.
Squid have a chitinous quill down their spine that looks like nothing more than plastic trash; it’s almost shocking how convincingly nature has mirrored plastic debris, or the reverse.
Longfin Inshore Squid have a healthy reddish-to-gray cast, but darker red means they are beginning to spoil.  Watch for that.  And squid spoil quickly, which is why they are often flash frozen.
Squid should be cooked with quick high heat to medium rare.  In these recipes Draghi uses a very hot pan and Duarte plunges them in boiling water for under a minute.
Watch the salt.  Squid have seawater in them, so taste the cooked product before adding more salt.
Draghi reminds that squid are a great foil for strong flavors – add calamari to a stew with mussels, or other strong flavored fish.  But they are also great prepared as simply as possible, with just a squeeze of lemon.
Squid ink can be added to sauces or seafood stews acting as a thickener.  Jose Duarte goes even farther, saying that raw squid can be pureed in a blender with a little stock, and used in seafood stews as a thickener.
People say the best tasting squid are the ones in Nantucket Sound and particularly off Point Judith, R.I., because they’ve been feeding on fish that have been eating blue-green algae, which sweetens everything.
The best testament, according to Charles Draghi, on squid deliciousness?
“Squid is the absolute favorite food of striped bass, and stripers have their choice of anything in the sea!”

How To Clean Squid

Lay your squid out beside each other on a cutting board.  They should be a beautiful gray-white-to pink color with no aroma.  Pick up the first squid, holding the body in one hand, and the tentacles in another.  Give a gentle tug, pulling the tentacles away from the body.  The guts should have pulled out of the body, remaining attached to the legs and tentacles.
Look carefully within the guts for an opalescent-black sack.  That is the ink sack.  As you clean, gently remove the guts to one bowl, so that you can later try to contain and harvest the ink sacks.
Now you have two parts:  the body is one part and the legs with tentacles (with guts attached) is the other.  Pick up the body, and remove anything left inside.  Feel the wider end of the body for the hard, plastic-feeling quill or pen, actually pointy at the end.  Find that, and give a tug.  The pen should pull right out of the body in one piece.  Discard.
There is a pink outer skin still on the squid body; simply pull that away and off, and discard.  The wings can be cut off at this point.  Reserve them.
The tentacle section is a length of three parts:  guts (with ink sack within), eyes and then tentacles.  First cut off the tentacles right in front of the eyes.  Feel the top of the tentacles for a hard, white, 3/4” sphere.  That is the beak.  It pulls out easily with your fingers.  Remove and discard.
In the photo you see 5 elements:  starting from the rear of the photo, the body (not yet skinned), the tentacles and legs, the eyes, the guts, and the beak.  Discard the beak and eyes, and reserve the guts to a bowl so that you have the ink. On a plate, pile the bodies and tentacles in two separate piles as you work.  Continue with the remaining squid; you will get the hang of it quickly, and this work should really take just 15 minutes, about a minute per squid.

Atlantic Pollock – Pollachius virens – and a great winter recipe.

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions:

  1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2.   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.
  3.   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.
  4.   Bake f0r 15 minutes.
  5.   Meanwhile, mash the potatoes and parsnips.  Add a few scraps of nutmeg and adjust seasoning.
  6.   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.

 

 

It Might Take A Fish To Save A Village.

Friday, January 20th, 2017

fish holder

 

We all know the charms of a fishing village:  the shoreside industries that make a stroll along a harbor compelling, the boats bulging with gear tied up to the pier, nets laid out to dry.  That, and the small family fishing boat, may soon be another casualty of corporate driven fishing policies.  Fishing culture – the vision of a boat chugging into port beneath a cloud of squawking seagulls, the chapel steeple pointing from the town rooftops to the skies, signaling home to the returning vessel – all this will soon be nothing more than photos in a heritage center if more effort is not made to preserve the small family boat and the rich culture that follows, just like those seagulls.

In the Good Food movement of the last thirty years we have learned that our soil, our land, our air, and our food is all healthier when farming is done in a small, manageable scale.  Farm communities are thus healthier, diverse, more interesting places, not simply animal factories or thousands of acres of corn.  The same is true of fishing: fishing on a scale that is human, supporting the small family fishing boat and its community, will make a healthier ocean, and consequently preserve the economies of fishing communities.

The United States fisheries are regulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the Department of Commerce.  The balance of commerce and healthy oceans has seemed like a tug-of-war since the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  An amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act –  the Sustainable Fisheries Act  – was added in 1996, strengthening the mandate to protect U.S. fisheries.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act created the 200 mile limit, declaring that no foreign boats were allowed within 200 miles of U.S. coastline. The Sustainable Fisheries Act’s was enacted “with the fundamental goals of preventing overfishing, rebuilding overfished stocks, protecting essential fish habitat, minimizing bycatch, enhanced research and improved monitoring.” (From the NOAA website.)

The “days at sea” program, enacted in the mid-1990’s, was one part of many actions born from NOAA’s new sustainability mandate.  Under “days at sea,” New England groundfish boats, for example, were appointed a specific number of “days at sea” to go fishing.

In 2010, the days at sea program was replaced in the New England groundfishery (earlier in most other U.S. fisheries) under Amendment 16 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, by the Individual Transferable Quota System – now called “Catch Shares.”

Catch Shares were a relatively new market-based strategy pushed since the mid-80s primarily by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and a few other big environmental groups.  Catch Shares would be – mythically – where sustainability and commerce got along.  The EDF and a few other environmental groups supported this big business agenda of deregulation, consolidation, and privatization.  Starting in New Zealand’s orange roughy fishery in 1986, then the Mid-Atlantic surf clam or ocean quahog fishery, and then Alaska halibut and sablefish fisheries, and now being pushed on most  U.S. fisheries, Catch Shares began to facilitate the big business take-over of the world’s fishing, not just America’s.

Some environmental groups, like the Environmental Defense Fund, believe only those with major investments – can be stewards of the ocean.   Catch Share have thus been the place where commerce and sustainability are being touted as married.  But here’s a fact to consider: some of these groups – like EDF – have received funding from the Walton family, and Koch Brothers and their various tentacles to support their Catch Shares agenda.

Catch Share have become a means by which fishing has become consolidated, privatized, and industrialized.  Many small and medium sized boats, assigned too small a quota to make a living, sold or leased their quota to the larger boats who could afford to buy it up.  The large corporate fleets are the ones left fishing.

As opposed to the industrialization of agriculture under President Nixon, this effort has been done under the cloak of “sustainability.”  It has been supported by certain environmental groups, groups that don’t equate small family boats to ecological sustainability.

We do.  The family farm movement taught us that although not perfect, the greatest potential in achieving our ecological sustainability AND food access goals is to support scale-appropriate independent family operations.

Even the term “fishing community” has been degraded by fishing policy: after the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson Act, in an effort to measure policy impacts on fishing communities, not just fishermen, NOAA attempted to define the term “fishing community.”  Under pressure from the northwest corporate-owned factory fleet led by the American Factory Trawlers Association (later renamed At Sea Processors Association), NOAA included in that definition “fishing vessels that process fish far from their homeports.”  An offshore factory fishing boat, therefore, is just as much a “fishing community,” and enjoys the same government considerations, as Stonington, Maine.

Just as we re-learned to accept whatever our local farmers were growing, picking up from our CSA’s or shopping at a farmers’ market, we must re-learn how to shop for local fish.  Fish markets today buy fish from all around the world pushed onto consumers by the globalized seafood companies.  There is almost no such thing as a “local catch.”  As a result, consumers have lost touch with the realities of the ocean’s ecosystems and its “seasons.” Customers are upset if there is no salmon, tuna, and swordfish in the case, no matter where they live, regardless of what fish is swimming in waters nearby.

We must support the small boats fishing out of a harbor, if only to protect that fishing community.  Otherwise all harbors zoned for maritime use will be rezoned for development – hotels, condominiums, and shopping – as fishing moves to offshore corporate trawlers.

Find a Community Supported Fishery, based on the same model as Community Supported Agriculture, in your community.  CSFs are now the best, most reliable way to source truly local seafood that will taste far fresher and sweeter, with less overall ecological impact than anything that flew around the world to get to you,  and you will be preserving the vision of that boat chugging into port trailed by a cloud of squawking seagulls.

Preserving the small family fishing boat may save the ocean’s health, for the exact same reasons saving the small family farm  – preventing farming from being entirely industrialized  – helps conserve the environment.

The fishing village stays just that, a fishing town that always knows its place in the ocean’s ecosystems.

Support local fishing boats, end of story.  Buy local fish, whatever it is.