Food for Thought
---- — Dogfish, Squalus acanthias, are Marine Stewardship Council Certified, meaning the fishery meets the three overarching principles that the Marine Stewardship Council requires for it to be declared a healthy fishery. These are the “general” qualifications according to the MSC website:
Principle 1: Sustainable fish stocks. The fishing activity must be at a level which is sustainable for the fish population. Any certified fishery must operate so that fishing can continue indefinitely and is not overexploiting the resources.
Principle 2: Minimizing environmental impact. Fishing operations should be managed to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem on which the fishery depends.
Principle 3: Effective management. The fishery must meet all local, national and international laws and must have a management system in place to respond to changing circumstances and maintain sustainability.
Dogfish are sharks, which means, among other things, they are cartilaginous; only a spine of cartilage runs down their center, no bones. Because they have no rib cage, out of water a dogfish would collapse beneath its own weight. Dogfish are bottom-dwellers, and the longest lived in the shark family; some dogfish live to be centenarians.
Dogfish are delicious, with abalone-white, mild- to sweet-tasting firm flesh. There is almost no fish recipe to which dogfish doesn’t kindly adapt. Dogfish comes in long thin fillets, about 2 inches wide, and almost 15 inches long, or the whole fish looks like a long wide tube, a little wider than the cardboard inside a roll of paper towels.
The meat makes feathery centers to a cornmeal-crusted fried fish. It sisters-up with caramelized onions and silken red peppers in a fish fajita; its mild taste and pearly meat are a happy counter to any slowly braised vegetables, or tomato-ey puttanesca, or a spicy cilantro- and cumin-laced taco. Dogfish, in fact, given its name, is the cheerful yellow Lab of fish, happy to go along with just about anything you do to it, and lookin’ good all the way.
Fisherman and cookbook author Hank Shaw agrees that dogfish make the best “fish and chips” — “The meat is white as snow, very lean, and firmer even than halibut. And, eaten cold the next day, tastes astonishingly like cold fried chicken.”
Most of Europe and Asia, the major dogfish markets, think so, too; for years traditional English fish and chips were always made with dogfish, which leads to it being the poster child for the whacky results of targeting a species to either save or fish for.
Dogfish were considered a threatened species after a glut of over-fishing — all those English fish and chips — from 1987 to 1996.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) applied catch limits to the species in 1997. In 2010, NOAA declared dogfish stocks rebuilt. Harsh quota restrictions were lifted.
According to Kris Kristensen of Zeus Inc., the first dogfish processor in Gloucester, 10 million pounds of dogfish were landed in the 2011-’12 season, 1.5 million in Gloucester alone.
“And we could have landed a lot more,” Kristensen said. So the fishery was protected, but the Zeus processor acknowledges that “now there are an alarmingly huge bulk of (dog) fish; they consume a huge amount of resources that cod and haddock would be using.”
Gluts, overfishing, quotas, rebounds. These are the fish tales told when regulations target a species rather than consider the sea’s balanced eco-culture. Dogfish had a great market in Europe, got overfished, got protected, and now it’s back, trying to be the new darling. And it should be the new darling — there’s lots of it, and it tastes good. Many say that dogfish are the key to the survival of the small boats in Gloucester. But many also see the absurd yo-yo-ing that comes from focusing on a single species, rather than treating the oceans as a balance of ecology, and applying good fishing practices to its harvest.
Look hard at the recently passed 2014 Farm Bill; Squalus acanthias has a small but nonetheless significant mention; it speaks volumes — Fish is Food! — that a fish is even mentioned on the Farm Bill. Here’s what that mention looks like:
“SEC. 3205. TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE FOR SPECIALTY CROPS.
“(c) U.S. ATLANTIC SPINY DOGFISH STUDY. — Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall conduct an economic study on the existing market in the United States for U.S. Atlantic Spiny Dogfish.”
No one knows what this really means for the dogfish; will we be seeing it in school lunches soon?
Kristensen, processor of dogfish and other “under-utilized” species such as whiting, monkfish and skate, just shrugs when asked what this Farm Bill mention might mean. In his thick Danish accent, he leans back in his chair, stretches, and says, “who knows ...” There’s a vocal fisherman for you.
The greatest dogfish irony is that dogfish, star of the fish and chip plate, this Farm Bill face of fishing promise, with its weighty local landings and Marine Stewardship Council badge, is almost impossible to find in retail markets. Ask, even beg, your fishmonger for some, and if you find it, first make fish and chips.
About cooking it: the only tip is to first soak the fish for 10 minutes in a bowl of salted water, about 1/4 cup of salt to 3 quarts of water. Like all sharks, dogfish can have an ammonia scent if not handled properly, meaning gutted immediately, on the boat. But Kristensen warns not to soak the fish longer than ten minutes or else the meat will begin to break down.
Disclosure: Those are frozen “chips” in my photos, but the dogfish is the real thing.
Cornmeal-Crusted, Beer-Battered Dogfish
2 pounds dogfish fillets
2 cups all-purpose flour plus 1 cup flour, divided
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
Freshly ground pepper
Beer, approximately 2 bottles of your choice.
1/4 cup cornmeal
1. Salt the fish and set it aside at room temperature. In a dutch oven or electric fryer, heat the oil to 360 degrees. Preheat your oven to “warm.” Prepare a cookie sheet with a wire rack on top, and set side.
2. In a large bowl, mix together, stirring all the while, the flour, seasonings, and enough beer so the mix’s texture reaches “the consistency of house paint, or melted ice cream,” as Hank Shaw puts it. Let the batter rest for 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl mix together the last 1/2 cup of flour and the cornmeal.
4. When the batter is ready and the oil hot, dredge the fish in the batter and let the excess drip off for a second or two. Then roll the dredged fish into the dry flour-cornmeal mixture.
5. Lay each piece gently into the hot oil by first allowing only the end of the fish to fry for a second or so in the oil before you let the whole piece drop into the oil. This helps prevent the fish from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Dislodge any pieces that stick to the bottom with a long fork.
6. Fry in batches until golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove each to the rack on the cookie sheet, and keep the cookie sheet in the warm oven until all the fish is prepared.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.