Archive for the ‘aquaculture’Category

Backhouse realizes Niagara’s great potential

Ryan Campbell of Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Too bad the great French gourmand Christian Millau didn’t live long enough to visit Ryan and Bev Campbell’s Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake (242 Mary St.; 289-272-1242; backhouse.xyz). In 1968, Millau revolutionized the way the French (and, given the era, the world) regarded haute cuisine when he announced that he had discovered “the best restaurant in the world” in the provincial town of Roanne. He might have said something similar had he discovered this grill-centric, hyper-locavore restaurant in a shopping strip at the edge of this Lake Ontario resort village.

“Best restaurant in the world” is hyperbole, of course. But the comparison to Les Frères Troisgros is more than fair. Backhouse serves brilliant food far from the metropolitan restaurant scene. Asador Etxebarri in the small village of Atxondo in Spain’s Basque country might be an even closer comparison. Etxebarri’s chef Bittor Arguinzoniz cooks everything with open flame and coals. So does Ryan Campbell, one of the most talented and obsessive chefs we’ve ever met. He uses the trimmings from local peach and cherry orchards that would otherwise be burned as slash.

Light my fire


Campbell knows the appeal of the grill, and he places the five-foot cooking box front and center in the restaurant. Diners can opt to sit at conventional tables—or line up in seats along the bar facing the fire. We chose the bar for a tasting menu. We wanted to watch Campbell work the apparatus and poke the logs while wearing his heavy leather blacksmith’s apron. He is so organized and calm that his motions seemed almost meditative.

chicken liver purses at BackhouseThat’s probably because so much of the menu is prepared ahead. Locavore cooking in a cold climate means lots of smoking, drying, pickling, and even freezing products during their seasonal glut. Most of us associate open-fire cookery with quick roasting. Not Campbell. The chickens hanging in the back of the fireplace are cooking ahead for the first step in his “bird on a wire” dish. For our opener, we ate these pastry purses filled with chicken liver mousse and tomatillo chutney. He paired the dish with barrel-fermented sparkling hard cider.

As soon as we finished this earthy combination, we found ourselves looking at a small bowl of fresh curds and whey with just a dash of maple syrup and a beautiful viola flower floating on top. The milk came from Sheldon Creek Farms, a single-herd microdairy. The combination was ethereal and a bright counterpoint to the chicken liver starter. We thought we’d caught our breath, but immediately Campbell set out a tiny ramekin of fried egg white mousse with a confit egg yolk topped with trout caviar. We couldn’t help but think of the pintxos creativos of Spain’s San Sebastian. In effect, the liver purses, curds and whey, and “Meg’s Egg,” as Campbell calls it, formed a trio of canapes that hinted at the restaurant’s range.

Bread and veggies


After a short pause, another trio of dishes appeared in a sudden flurry. Campbell treats his sourdough breads with house-cultured butter as a course unto itself, as well he should. His sourdough starter, affectionately known as “Roxane,” has been with him for years. The bread and butter clean the palate for the intense vegetable dishes that follow.

wild leek and potato soup from BackhouseThe first was a wild leek and potato soup, thick and green, served with a sourdough brioche toast float, a dab of crème fraiche, and thin matchsticks of homemade prosciutto. (Campbell buys only whole animals and does his own butchering. Nothing goes to waste.) Since local asparagus was still in season, he completed the trio with a plate of wood-roasted Niagara asparagus, a smear of black garlic aioli and another smear of garlic mustard. (He makes his own condiments, of course.)

The meat of the matter


First Ontario shrimp at BackhouseWithout getting too precious about it, Campbell treats animal proteins with an almost religious regard for the creatures. He said it took him two years to rise to the top of the wait list to be allowed to buy First Ontario farmed shrimp. The farm only produces about 300 pounds per week, and Campbell gives each Pacific white shrimp a place of honor atop local grits in this small bowl.

bird on a wire from BackhouseOur tasting menu moved on to a variation of the “bird on a wire” dish—so called because Campbell slow roasts heritage chickens strung on a wire in the back of a firebox. He then picks the meat and presses the smoky flesh into a tubular sausage. Thick slices are quickly grilled over the open fire before he plates them with a chicken leg, wood-roasted locally foraged wild mushrooms, and homemade gnocchi. The dish might be the apotheosis of poultry. The glass of Gamay Noir from a local virtual winery (13th Street) didn’t hurt either.

Desserts at Backhouse are seasonally inspired. We were dining in late spring, and maple was Campbell’s inspiration. (We never asked if he uses sugar, but we suspect that maple is his sweetener of choice because it’s local.) He presented a sweet potato custard, a melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, and a crumbly spice cake—all scented and sweetened with maple. Alas, we were too sated to try the plate of Ontario cheeses.


For an overview of attractions, restaurants, and lodging on the Niagara Peninsula, see Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Hawaiian food with a French twist

Chef Mavro in Honolulu
Perhaps it’s because he’s French, but George Mavrothalassitis, known to everyone simply as Chef Mavro, is the most romantic of chefs. He’s still recalls his first morning in Honolulu, looking over Waikiki Beach to Diamond Head at sunrise. “I fell in love at first sight,” he says. Almost thirty years later, the love affair continues.

Chef Mavro art-filled interior Born in Marseilles, Chef Mavro developed an early appreciation for fresh fish paired with the strong Provençal flavors of olive oil, garlic, fennel, rosemary, bay laurel, and other herbs. “I never worked with cream and butter in my life,” he says, noting that it was easy to translate his approach to cooking to using fresh ingredients from the Hawaiian archipelago. He first cooked at some top hotel restaurants on Oahu and Maui and was one of the founding chefs of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. When he opened his eponymous Honolulu restaurant Chef Mavro (1969 S King St, Honolulu; 808-944-4714; www.chefmavro.com) in 1998, his romanticism carried over into the design. He went to great pains to get the lighting just right. “I wanted women to look wonderful,” he says. “The light caresses you.”

Chef Mavro zucchini tempura Of course, any woman will also look pretty blissed-out as she savors each step of Chef Mavro’s four- or six-course tasting menu. Some chefs treat tasting menus like a band playing a medley of greatest hits. Chef Mavro treats dinner like a symphony that builds from the amuse-bouche to a crescendo of the fish and meat dishes to the teasing envoi of cheese, pre-dessert, dessert, and miniature pastries. Rather than having a wine list, he recommends wine pairings to complete the experience of each dish.

Chef Mavro - Confit hamachi “I cook technically,” says Chef Mavro, referring to his technique developed from nouvelle cuisine. He notes that he uses all the ingredients in his backyard and is inspired by the mix of ethnic cuisines of the islands. “I put my craziness on your plate,” he adds with a smile.

One person’s crazy is another person’s delicious.

lobster dish at Chef Mavro.The range of foods he gets from Hawaii—mainly from Oahu and the Big Island—is really impressive. He served me the zucchini tempura appetizer (above right) on a coulis of amazing fresh tomatoes. For the hamachi confit (above left) he uses fish farmed off the west coast of the Big Island, in this case giving it a spectacular garnish of lemon shave ice—a delightful savory riff on a favorite Hawaiian dessert. Even the Maine lobster (right) was local, in a sense. A special facility on the Big Island flies in lobster from Maine, then holds the crustaceans in tanks of cold deep-sea water for weeks or more until they have fully recovered from jet lag. As a result, Chef Mavro always has truly fresh Atlantic lobster on the menu. For my tasting menu, he roasted it and served it with an emulsion of the lobster juice and Basque espelette peppers.

I kept ticking off fantastic local products as I ate—from the medallions of Wagyu beef (another Big Island specialty) to the mousse made with Big Island Goat Dairy cheese, to the watermelon refresher course and the yuzu ice cream. When I commented how pronounced the flavors were, Chef Mavro shrugged.

“Life is too short,” he said. “I decided a long time ago to eat only what is delicious.”

You will see what he means if you try his recipe for Confit Hamachi. This is a little different from the one pictured above, since it uses sour cream to make the lomilomi that goes under the medallions of hamachi. Since hamachi is hard to get in most fish markets, you can substitute amberjack (usually sold for sushi), skipjack, or, more commonly, wild-caught salmon steaks.

CONFIT HAMACHI

Chef Mavro Lomi Hamachi
with lomi lomi salmon, tomatoes, sour cream, salmon roe

4 servings

Ingredients for the hamachi:
4 pieces hamachi medallions, 3 ounces each
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Ingredients for the lomilomi salmon:
4 tablespoons sour cream
juice of one-half lemon
1 medium tomato, peeled, core removed, diced
1 medium shallot, minced
4 ounces smoked salmon, diced
1 tablespoon sliced green onions
sea salt and pepper to taste

For garnish
4 tablespoons salmon roe

Directions
In a small sauce pan, bring the olive oil to 140° F (60° C). Poach the hamachi for 8 minutes (make sure the fish is totally submerged in the oil).

In a mixing bowl, combine sour cream, lemon juice, tomato, shallot, salmon, green onions, and salt and pepper to taste.

Place the lomilomi salmon in the center of an individual plate with the hamachi on top.

Finish by placing 1 tablespoon of salmon roe on each piece of hamachi.

14

03 2016

At Smithtown Seafood, ‘local’ is measured in feet

Dried whole tilapia at Smithtown Seafood in Lexington, KY
Chef Ouita Michel, who calls Holly Hill Inn (www.hollyhillinn.com) in Midway, Kentucky, her home base, is completely on board with the vision of FoodChain (see previous post). She’s so on board that she opened the little takeout seafood restaurant inside the Bread Box called Smithtown Seafood (smithtownseafood.com) and installed the immensely talented Jonathan Sanning as her chef de cuisine. (That’s Jonathan below holding the fried fish.)

Jonathan Fanning, chef de cuisiine at Smithtown Seafood in Lexington, KY Ouita (as everyone in Lexington seems to call her because everyone in Lexington who cares about food knows her) studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and took as her primary lesson the observation that the best French and Italian chefs create meals out of what they find around them. She’s inculcated that same respect for local products in Sanning, who is Kentucky trained but has the chops to cook anywhere and at any level. For the moment, he’s getting a kick out of working hard at Smithtown, and Lexingtonians are lucky that he does.

Smithtown Seafood is easily the chief customer for the tilapia being raised on the other side of the wall at FoodChain, and is also a big user of FoodChain’s herbs and lettuces. You order at the counter, and when your food is ready, you walk about 20 feet to the taproom of West Sixth Brewing, where, if you’re smart, you order a Lemongrass American Wheat to go with the fish dishes or an amber with the meat.

The fish excite us the most. Smithtown offers three variations of tilapia baskets using the FoodChain fish. The one shown above is Tilapia Singapore, a fried whole fish with sweet and spicy pickled vegetables and FoodChain microgreens. Another version pairs the fish with a tomatillo-serrano salsa verde and corn tortillas. And finally, there’s a basket of fried pieces battered in Weisenberger cornmeal, served with fries and hushpuppies (of course).

Smithtown Seafood fish tacos in crispy rice paper Sanning’s own palate skews Mexican, Southeast Asian, and West African—and he’s not afraid to mix them up. The Rockin’ Rice Paper Catfish Taco pictured here is a smart twist on the Baja fish taco with pieces of fried wild-caught saltwater catfish and Thai-style pickled vegetables and microgreens on puffy pieces of fried rice paper. The rice crisps are far better than a taco shell for holding everything together in your hand.

Another good way to enjoy Sanning’s signature acid-spice style is by ordering a side of one of his salads. The Nebbe Black-Eyed Pea Salad could be a vegetarian meal all by itself. Here’s the recipe:

NEBBE BLACK-EYED PEA SALAD


This adaptation of a spicy Senegalese bean salad is typical of Jonathan Sanning’s propensity for using an ingredient that’s traditional in Southern cuisine as the base for something light, bright, and completely contemporary.

Makes about 16 cups

Ingredients
1 lb. dry black-eyed peas
1/2 cup lime juice
1 cup minced parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 habañero pepper, seeded and finely minced
1 cup light salad oil (olive, sunflower, canola, blended….)
10 green onions, thinly sliced (both white and green parts)
2 roasted red bell peppers, peeled and diced small
1 English cucumber, peeled and diced small
2 cups cherry tomatoes (quartered) or grape tomatoes (halved)

Directions
Cover black-eyed peas with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until tender (about 1 hour, less if pre-soaked). Leave the peas in the water and salt heavily—a real brine. Let sit for 2-3 minutes, then drain.

Combine lime juice, parsley, salt, pepper, and habañero in a food processor. Add oil and blend until smooth.

Combine black-eyed peas, green onions, red bell peppers, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes. Toss with lime and herb mixture. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.

Lexington’s FoodChain redefines ‘local’

microgreens growing at FoodChain in Lexington
A Saturday afternoon tour at FoodChain (foodchainlex.org) in Lexington’s Bread Box complex might change the way you look at “local” food. At the very least, it can give you a peek into a somewhat promising food future where excess building space is converted into a living factory to produce vegetables and protein—or, more specifically, salad and microgreens and big plump tilapia.

The brainchild of Rebecca Self, native Lexingtonian, MIT graduate, and spouse of Ben Self (see last post on West Sixth Brewing), FoodChain is a demonstration project of an “aquaponics” farm. The growing techniques are a hybrid of aquaculture and hydroponics, which have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Aquaculture is generally used to grow fish or crustaceans in closed tanks or ponds. Most cheap frozen tiger shrimp, for example, are farmed this way in Southeast Asia. So is a lot of cheap tilapia from China. Hydroponics is most widely used in cold climates to grow vegetables indoors under lights on a soilless medium. A lot of microgreens, baby lettuces and spinach are produced this way.

Snipping cilantro at FoodChain in Lexington KY Both practices have significant shortcomings. Aquaculture produces a lot of waste that has to be cleaned from the water before it makes the fish or shrimp sick. Hydroponics requires a lot of nutrients to be added to the water that the plants grow in. To grossly simplify, aquaponics uses the plants to scrub the waste from the fish tanks, and the “waste” provides the nutrients to grow the plants. The details, of course, require considerable ingenuity and fine tuning.

The system at FoodChain circulates about 7,000 gallons of water through the growing trays and the fish tanks. Weekly harvest is about 35 pounds of lettuce and herbs as well as seven large trays of microgreens. About 15 pounds of full-grown tilapia—10-20 fish—are harvested from the tanks each Friday as well.

tilapia swim in TV aquarium at FoodChain in Lexington KY The plants are grown under lights (FoodChain uses Inda-Gro induction lighting, which draws less electricity than conventional grow lamps) and some minerals are added to the water for proper plant and fish nutrition. FoodChain is experimenting with feeding spent grain from West Sixth Brewing to the fish.

Becca Self is a bit of a visionary, as the aquaponics project is just Phase I of an envisioned three phases for FoodChain. Phase II is projected to grow mushrooms in the basement using the brewery’s spent grain as a substrate while simultaneously expanding to raised beds and hoop houses to grow food on the 20,000 square feet of flat roof over Bread Box. Phase III will be a kitchen incubator, with cooking stations to do small-batch processing. Tours are offered on Saturdays at 1 p.m. at a charge of $10 for adults, $5 for children. See the web site for details.

In the meantime, Lexington restaurants are gobbling up the greens and the tilapia are stars of the plate at adjacent Smithtown Seafood. (The future is now!)

29

08 2015

Making PEI mussels like the mussel master

Mussels to steamAs a native Belgian and as the man who launched mussel aquaculture on Prince Edward
Island (see post), Joel Van Den Bremt has eaten his share of mussels over the years. When I asked him how he preferred to cook them, he thought a bit and told me, “steamed, but with the vegetables soft enough to eat. I like the vegetables, too.” I agree with him. Some diners will pass the mussels to someone else at the table and just concentrate on the mussel-flavored broth. I prefer the three-bowl plan: one for the mussels, one of the spent shells, and a third for broth and vegetables. Although you can steam mussels in a dry pan, relying on their own juices, many people add raw vegetables to the pot. But by the time the mussels are cooked, the vegetables are neither cooked nor raw. If you keep cooking to finish the vegetables, the mussels will come out vulcanized. Joel’s solution is to sauté the veggies first.

MUSSELS A LA JOEL

Serves 4 as an appetizer

Ingredients
1/4 lb butter, cut into pieces
6 shallots, minced
2 stalks celery, cut in 1/2-inch dice
1 large carrot (2-3 salad carrots), cut in 1/2-inch dice
2 cups white wine
5 lb. (about 3 quarts) live blue mussels

Directions
In large stockpot over medium heat, melt butter, and add shallots, celery, and carrots. Stir steadily and cook until vegetables begin to soften.

Add wine and mussels. Bring to a boil and cover pot. Steam for about 5 minutes, or until all the mussels have opened their shells.

Remove mussels to four bowls using slotted spoon. Ladle broth and vegetables into four smaller bowls.

PEI folks give new meaning to foodies

Scott LinkletterI can’t say I’ve ever see an island where so many people make or gather or process wonderful food. Between judging duties at the International Shellfish Festival I had the chance yesterday to drive around the island a bit, heading up to the north shore to see a mussel processing operation (more on that later on), pay a visit to a potato farm, catch a picnic in the fields, and visit Raspberry Point oysters. That’s Scott Linkletter at the top of this post, hauling a cage of oysters to show how they’re grown using an Australian system of posts driven into the soft bottom of shallow waters. The cages are suspended on lines that hang on the posts. Every few days he and his staff haul cages out so the sun can dry out any incipient seaweed or mussel growth that would impede the flow of water to the oysters. It’s an ingenious system.

Picnic with the Pendergasts


CampbellsI also got a chance to join a picnic being catered by the Pendergast brothers, chef David and baker Richard, at Mull Na Beinne Farm, where Vernon and Bertha Campbell have grown gorgeous PEI potatoes since 1980. Here are the Campbells in front of their giant potato harvester, which is manufacturer in Prince Edward Island. (Yes, there are a LOT of potatoes here.)

Mussel rollsRichard and David put on a great spread that included mussel rolls (mussels and mayo on sourdough finger rolls), a fine chowder, and baked beans with oyster sauce. Then David picked up a guitar (Richard had a fiddle) and played some tunes. Check out this verse of his original, “Campbelltown.”

Fishermen feed the world (especially on PEI)

mussels1
I met one of my heroes yesterday at the PEI International Shellfish Festival. I say “hero” even though I had never known his name until I met him, but Jozef Van Den Bremt changed the way a lot of us eat. A Belgian immigrant who wanted to find a way to contribute to his adopted country and his new home province of Prince Edward Island, he set out in the 1970s to figure out how to grow blue mussels. It’s not that mussels were uncommon.

Joel They cling to every rock and pier in the North Atlantic–and every one of those wild mussels is full of grit in its flesh. To get sweet, juicy and grit-free mussels, you need to cultivate them on a substrate where the sand doesn’t wash into them. Van Den Bremt went to Holland and to Spain to see how they did it, and quickly figured that the winter ice around PEI would crush the raft environments that Europe used. Through trial and error, he developed a rope strategy, producing his first cultured mussels in 1978 for PEI Mussel King, Inc. They sold for 40 cents a pound. Mussels today bring in $26.7 million a year to the province–and give us all a lot of good eating. What Van Den Bremt likes best is that the mussel industry is spread all around the island among individuals. “The money,” he says, “doesn’t go into corporate coffers. It goes to the fishermen-farmers.”

So I count it an honor to have shaken the hand of the Belgian immigrant who showed us North Americans just how good a mussel can be. Joe’s proud, too, that it was his gift back to Canada. He estimates that mussel aquaculture has brought $1 billion to Prince Edward Island in the last 36 years.