Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oysters: If I can get them, how come...?

 There they are! Right there, not even 100 miles away

 I'd show you how tasty they look, but oops! They got eaten!

I'd show you the wonderful greenish-gold color of the wine, but it's gone too

Any person can just drive over to Tomales Bay or Point Reyes, walk into the store at an oyster farm, and buy as many as they want (if you want hundreds, calling first is a good idea). You can just put them in a cooler on ice, bring them back, and enjoy super fresh seafood. All in less than a day's time.

I suppose there might even be fishermen along the Northern California coast, not too far away, doing  sustainable harvesting. If they're going out in day boats, their fish should be cleaned and iced right after it's caught so when the boat arrives the fish is in prime condition ready to prepare.

California has Dungeness crabs, and there might even be tasty shrimp that could be trap caught too. We've bought live crab in Bodega Bay, and it was fresh and snapping.

So, this all seems obvious, doesn't it? Go to the coast, give someone money, bring back absolutely fresh seafood, prepare it, eat it. Simple. I can do it. You can probably do it. So why can't supermarkets do it?

The last time I was at our local supermarket, the fish looked like it was one step ahead of being made into fish sauce. It was limp, slimy looking and lay flopped over the ice like a beached jellyfish. The trout was bloody, with sunken eyes. The salmon was farmed, colorant added, yet looked mushy. The shellfish looked like it expired while frozen, gaping open.

Can't something be done to make the seafood counter an anticipated destination? Seafood is more expensive every day, yet the quality is dropping faster than you can say bathyscaphe.

I, an individual, can go to the coast and buy what I want. But I can't get it here in the supermarket. Huh? These are supposed to be professional food distributors and sellers, yet they can't manage to stock their cases with anything worthy of accompanying a simple Entre-deux-Mers?

What about an online ordering system, where people could pay in advance and the seafood would be shipped as fresh as possible for the delivery date? What about not stocking limp, flaccid stinking trout? If the fish is borderline, why even bother selling it? How about doing away with all that non-sustainable farmed salmon altogether and telling people to wait for the real stuff in to come into season?

Why have a seafood counter at all, when half of it is just thawed out sea protein. Might as well just leave the stuff in the freezer! Have people grown as flaccid as that half-melted tilapia fillet, that they can't even thaw their own shrimp? What if the seafood case really had only the best quality fish, and the rest of that crap they're selling were sold off as cat food (don't make a habit of it though - mercury isn't good for kitties, either).

Maybe you're reading this thinking that fish normally smells like someone forgot to clean the aquarium. Maybe you think it should rival California's famous Banana Slug in sliminess. Maybe dull, sunken eyes and brown (or missing) gills don't tell you anything. So, here is (another) quick review on how to select fresh fish. (If you're an expert fishmonger or piscivore you can stop reading here and get back to the mise en place for your beurre blanc.)

Is that fish fresh? Check this:

  • Firm flesh, briny odor, not fishy
  • Smooth, but not slimy. Your fingers should come away from the fillet with a light coating of fishiness, not coated with slime.
  • whole fish should have bright, shiny eyes that bulge. Not dull, sunken pits with black holes in the center.
  • The fish's gills should be light to medium pink. They should still be attached to the fish, not missing. If someone cut them off, was it because they were deep red and slimy?
  • For fish with scales, the scales should lie flat on the fish and not have gaps.

  • Clams closed, or will close when tapped. No, you can't check this by tapping the case, so it's not too practical. Same for mussels.
  • Shrimp: buy them frozen (unless they're alive), from a sustainable source, preferably wild. Thaw them yourself.
  • Oysters? Well, I've never been brave enough to buy these in a supermarket. Obviously, they should stay tightly closed. So tightly that you need a special knife and some skill to open them without exploding the shell and spewing particles of shell all over the meat.
  • Squid: buy it frozen. It probably arrived at the store that way.
If you want to see really nice, fresh fish head for Sunh Fish in the Asian Foods Center on Broadway or Oto's Marketplace. When it comes to fish, those guys don't mess around. Be aware that both sell non-sustainable fish, so do your homework or arrive with your Seafood Watch card in hand. Or if you're geeky, there's an app for that, too.  Just click here.

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