Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Arguments about fish

Last night, I made fish. More specifically it was a swai fish that I found at Safeway, which I really never ever buy fish from. Normally I find a clean and respectable fish market and I often buy something wild (flavor issue, but I will tackle this later). The only reason I bought swai from Safeway was because I had a very good experience with the farm-raised southeast pacific fish a little while back. I first saw it on the east coast and it made its first appearance when it was poached in my bowl of rice porridge for breakfast. The fish, poached in porridge is perfect - likens itself to a the texture of a softer slightly denser black cod. It is often known as a Vietnamese catfish (because of whiskers) or even thought to be a shark (head shape). It tastes like neither. Thinking the fish would hold well on texture, I decided to sous vide the fish.

So I seasoned it with smoke chile rub along with julienne fresh ginger and chive sprigs. I vac-packed everything and set it in the immersion at 61C or so...which I still always feel is too high for fish personally, but there is that 60C (140F) bacteria killing border to think about. I then prepped a blood orange fennel lillet reduction with roasted fennel leaf garnish. See below:

Finished product above, immersion below:

I would love to tell you how great perfectly tasty the fish was, but honestly, this was a complete disaster. the fish did not seem to hold up well against the spice and the fennel lillet reduction was much too strong. I figured I could have played it safe and did some sort freaking pure vegetable consomme, puree or some type of veggie water, but hell, I'd rather go out in a blaze of glory. The dish is certainly pretty, probably qualifies for food porn, if it didn't leave such a bad taste in my mouth, literally. I probably should have exercised a little restraint with the lillet. I knew I should have went riesling dammit and maybe more juice.

The only redeeming item here obviously was the fennel garnish. Crispy sweet and subtle. Texturally, the sous vide fish is compressed and often packs a fish into a denser form. This can really affect the texture of the fish. The "airiness" of it becomes sorely lacking - something a poached or steamed fish will always have. I may have to evaluate packing the fish with other items or changing the setting on vacuum pressure. The whole process lead me to to the following questions or thoughts about fish density and sourcing fish.

Basically, I can read a stupid fish fat chart and look at different types of fish all day. I know how most fish taste because I've practically cooked or worked with most common types of available fish, pacific and atlantic. But a big problem issue that I normally contend with uncertain fish types is trying to guess the texture of the fish. The taste can be indicative of the fat content and water/sea the fish comes from, but I feel that texture is the second primary component of what makes a fish great. And the primary component for fish texture is density of fish. I haven't seen too many resources discuss much of anything about this, but this is something to consider as it often seeps into my consciousness when I purchase whole fish. Exactly, how dense or packed is the protein/flesh of the fish and what affects on texture does it have when you factor in fat content? Sometimes, it seems fat content may factor into flavor profile, but not always texture. e.g. Low fat cod can be very flaky, soft and brittle, but cooked tuna would be dense, packed and elastic. This may just be random jib-jab, but density of fish is defined by the density of the water it swims in, or so science says. So aside from fish fat and activity, when thinking of cooking with fish, a fish's body shape and density is a big question. Moving on to that all important taste/sourcing conundrum...

Now, I have not read every philosophical argument on wild or farmed fish, but ambiguity seems to be the only consensus regarding the issue. Harold McGee argues for and against both in On Food and Cooking and I have not read a critic of one source without meeting a critic of the other. Basic argument topics for and against both include, but are not limited to, environmental effects, genetic alteration, "organic", sustainability and taste. Even the recommendation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which offers the local "Seafood Watch" guide seems to almost imply, "yes, buy farmed if you can go there and see how they are farming it." But how the hell is someone at a market supposed to know? We can listen to a fishmonger spin what the distributor/seller says, but that's 3rd party source of information at best. Ever have a 30 minute conversation with a fishmonger at 5:30 pm when you're cooking for 3 kids? Here's the somewhat useful and useless resource argument from the aquarium. You can find the oft ignored Seafood Watch guide on the site too.

For all the blind "organic" selecting hippies, organic always means "farmed" and sustainability sometimes means the population of the fish isn't farmed to a dangerous level - well, not yet, because no one runs a survey until its too late. There's more mud at both tail ends of the argument. Even I'm practically clueless. I guess we need to start visiting fish farms or we can grow our own fish. Yea, eat Nemo.

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