Salt in the blood

“Fishing has built courthouses, schools, homes, communities. That’s what meant by having salt in the blood,” said Karen Willis Amspacher as she clearly and bluntly laid out the significance of North Carolina’s coastal fishing business in a voice still touched by the vanishing Ocracoke accent.

She spoke on the first day of State of the Plate, an excellent two days of exploring food issues in the state and the larger world. It was organized by Marcie Cohen Ferris, of the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and presented by the university’s Center for Global Initiatives, Center for the Study of the American South, Department of American Studies and Global Research Institute.

As a seafood lover, the articulate and forceful Amspacher – she’s involved in virtually everything about helping her home of Harkers Island, fishing communities and fishermen, including being on the board of NC Catch – and her fellow panelist fisherman Morty Gaskill of Ocracoke, spoke to me. One disturbing statistic: 90 percent of the seafood sold in the U.S. is imported. And only a fraction of that amount undergoes any safety inspection.  Add to that issue the recent Associated Press article revealing that some imported seafood was caught by slaves.

When I moved to Raleigh and began writing about food around 25 years ago, I was shocked that it was next to impossible to find seafood from North Carolina in this area. Fortunately, that has changed, as the “eat local” movement has begun to branch out from farms, but more needs to be done.

“‘Know your fisherman’ should be as important as ‘know your farmer’,” Amspacher said. “We are part of the local food movement. You must demand local seafood.”

Gaskill and Amspacher are part of a coastal success story: saving Ocracoke’s fish processing house for local fishermen and making it part of a cooperative. Fish houses have been disappearing, forcing fishermen to either travel farther and spend more to have their catch made ready for sale, or give up fishing altogether.

When the Ocracoke house closed, “there was nowhere on the island to sell. We had to go on the ferry to Hatteras or over to Cedar Island, taking up time that could be spent preparing our boats or doing more fishing,” Gaskill said.

Now the Ocracoke fish house operates as a 501 (c) (3), and they hope to reproduce its success elsewhere.

What can you do to help North Carolina fishermen and their communities? Insist on local seafood.

And, guess what? It tastes better, too.

A taste of the coast

In the mail today, The Hub and I received the confirmation letter from the place on the Outer Banks where we spend a much-anticipated week each spring. Every year, that letter and Girl Scout cookies keep us going through the messy end of a North Carolina winter.

Now I have something else to help me hold on: “The Outer Banks Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from North Carolina’s Barrier Islands” by Elizabeth Wiegand. It’s a heartfelt book for those who love that little strip of shifting sand and the good things served there.

There are recipes for everything that comes from the water, from traditional dishes like Hatteras-style clam chowder (no cream) to more modern contributions such as Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Carolina Shrimp or Soft-Shell BLT using soft-shell crabs. There’s information on traditions including Old Christmas and Outer Banks windmills, even a few things I didn’t know about (mullet roe as “Ocracoke caviar”?) Weigand also offers step-by-step instructions for doing your own oyster roast.

Weigand is a veteran food writer who provides clear instructions in her recipes. The book has a nice mix of simple recipes and more complicated ones from coastal restaurants. My only gripe is that the fractions are a little small for my bifocaled eyes.

There are a number of recipes that I’m looking forward to trying, but this one tapped my urge for salty breezes and nothing to worry about but which book I’ll read. I’ll tuck that confirmation letter in my pocket while I’m making it.

Wasabi Sesame Tuna

1 tablespoon wasabi paste (mix equal parts wasabi powder and water) or to taste

1/3 cup soy sauce

4 tuna steaks, 1 1/4 inches thick

1/2 cup black and white sesame seeds

1/4 cup olive oil

An additional mixture of 1 tablespoon wasabi paste as a condiment

Cucumber Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Mix together the wasabi and soy sauce in a nonmetallic bowl.

Place tuna in a shallow baking casserole and pour wasabi-soy marinade over. Allow to marinate for 5 to 6 minutes.

Place sesame seeds in a small, shallow dish. Place each tuna steak on top, pressing to coat each with seeds on one side only.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat. when hot, add tuna, seed-side down; sear until seeds are browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn tuna over and cook for just another minute, until tuna is still soft and red in center. (It will continue to cook when off the heat.)

Serve immediately with Cucumber Vinaigrette and additional wasabi paste.

Cucumber Vinaigrette

1 cup peeled, seeded and cubed cucumber

1/2 red onion, diced

1/4 each sweet red and yellow pepper, diced

1 red tomato, diced

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch of sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Allow flavors to meld at room temperature for about an hour. Refrigerate any leftovers.

 

 

What I ate on my summer vacation

pan-frying tilefish

Despite having books that we had not yet read, The Hub and I reluctantly returned recently from Buxton on the Outer Banks. We do three things while we’re there: Read, walk on the beach, and eat seafood until we threaten to grow fins and shells.

We dug into enough steamed clams to pave a driveway. Grilled sea scallops were sweet enough to consider them dessert (until we dug into the bag of Oreos in our condo pantry). The mackerel must have been running that week, because it was the catch of the day at most restaurants we hit, along with some sea trout and bluefish. Mackerel and bluefish are the rare finny creatures that are not to my liking. But my patience was rewarded when we visited a seafood market with a mind to cook dinner. There it was: tilefish.

When I gush to people about this fish, they usually look baffled. Few people have heard of it. (I was delighted to see it at Chef & the Farmer in Kinston the week it reopened after a fire.) The white fish has a sweet flavor reminiscent of shellfish, because that’s what it likes to eat. It’s moist, and difficult to mess up when cooking. I kept things simple. I sprinkled the fillets with a little salt and Barrier Reef Seasoning from Savory Spice Shop, then pan-fried them in olive oil.

We also toted back some spiced shrimp that had been steamed at the market, and added some penne pasta and steamed broccoli.

Add beer on the side. Listen to the waves.

Tastiest catch

Demand for North Carolina seafood is growing as the local-foods movement has stretched from farms to other foods. The issues that come along with that increased interest are explored in “North Carolina’s Local Catch” on UNC-TV tonight at 10 p.m.

The program explores seafood caught on the coast, the challenges facing those who harvest it and the place of fishing in the state’s coastal heritage.

Chefs from Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head and Sammy’s Seafood House and Oyster Bar in Morehead City, along with people from coastal seafood markets, talk about using local seafood – and how to tell that it’s local in the first place.

That’s always the question, isn’t it? Even on the coast, I’ve learned to ask questions about menus and which restaurants are really dedicated to local seafood. Not everything you eat on the coast is locally caught. For example, the season for N.C. shrimp doesn’t start up until the summer, so if you see fresh shrimp in January, it’s unlikely that it’s local. I’ve been told by coastal restaurants that because flounder is so popular with diners, they feel they must have it on the menu, even out of its local season. (I usually order whatever the special of the night is, because it’s most likely to be local and unusual.)

Educate yourself about local seafood by looking at the North Carolina Seafood Availability Chart from North Carolina Sea Grant. Sea Grant’s site has additional information about local seafood and efforts to promote and preserve it. It also participated in funding for “North Carolina’s Local Catch.”

 

Food news roundup

Andrea Weigl’s column in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) explores the fact that the Community Supported Fisheries delivery she signed up for has not been exactly upfront about some of its offerings not coming from North Carolina waters.  Read more here. Weigl believes the misinformation wasn’t intentional. But it raises an issue that has been in the back of my mind. Now that “eat local” has become so popular, some people may begin to view it as a profitable marketing tool. At the moment, consumers must trust restaurants, stores, etc., that the items touted as locally caught or grown actually were. Eaters should continue to ask questions, educate themselves about what is in season and when in North Carolina, and get to know farmers, chefs and producers.

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer examines how Target’s touted low grocery prices really stack up. Grab your cart and head here.

If it’s not hot enough for you right now, fire up some Hot and Sour Soup from Cary’s Super Wok. The recipe is in the Independent Weekly (Durham. N.C.) here.

NestMeg begins exploring German food after producing a truckload of cupcakes.

For generations in North Carolina, ramps were something you ate because you were desperate for something green after the cold winter, and it was an excuse for a festival that drew political candidates and moonshine. Now, ramps are haute. They were all over Manhattan menus when I was there a few weeks ago. Now, LeitesCulinaria urges us to pickle them. In ‘shine, perhaps?

A video of two top New Orleans chefs making crab and corn bisque is a hoot. It’s at the Times-Picayune, here.

And this has nothing to do with food, but y’all should read it. It’s the blog by Scott Huler, North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate, here. This one is about little league baseball, but the blog is usually on just about anything. See it here.