Archive for the ‘oysters’Category

Winning shellfish dish in PEI chef cookoff

Finalists cookJudging the final round of the Garland International Chef Challenge turned out to be a big deal. Instead of hiding in a back room while we tasted, Dominic Serio and I sat on the main stage while the two finalists cooked on the main floor of the hall in front of the stage. Chef Alain Bossé paced back and forth for an hour offering commentary and gently kidding both contestants.

With $10,000 on the line, the two finalists gave us their hand-printed menus. Marc Lepine was preparing lobster poached in orange beurre blanc with crab meatballs, miso mayo, fennel sponge, wild rice crispies, and lobster jus. Ryan Morrison proposed “packed” lobster tail, oyster and crab hushpuppies, cauliflower purée, chanterelle and spearmint “salad,” and dill-pickled mustard seeds. They had to complete the ambitious dishes from prep to plate in one hour.

00 - Marc's dishBoth competitors stayed calm and controlled as the clock ticked away. My view from the stage let me look down on their dishes (and the backs of their heads). Both chefs were methodical, executing their complex garnishes first — Lepine’s fennel sponge (made with agar-agar) and wild rice crispies (uncooked wild rice puffed in hot oil), and Morrison’s dill-pickled mustard seeds. Then they marshaled each segment of the dish in an order so that everything hot would be done last for presentation.

Even the way they chose to plate showed the different mindsets of two tremendously talented chefs. Lepine saw his plate as a series of featured items linked by sauces, and that’s how he plated them. Morrison saw his plate as a gestalt of flavors, and he literally piled one element on top of another. The final judging was close but unanimous. Both plates were gorgeous (and delicious). They were very different, but in the end, tiny details made the difference. Morrison’s pickled mustard seeds really thrust the shellfish flavors front and center, while Lepine’s bland fennel sponge detracted from the seafood. Ryan Morrison, whose dish is pictured below, went back to Vancouver $10,000 richer than when he had come.
00-ryan's dish

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10 2013

PEI: Not your average 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.

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.”

Tasty start to PEI International Shellfish Festival

lobster chowder2Mussels, oysters, or lobster? It’s hard to choose among them on Prince Edward Island, the small Canadian province with the massive shellfish harvest. This year I’m getting my fill of all of them as a judge of Garland Canada International Chef Challenge. But before the competitions got started on Friday the 13th, I joined 500 other diners for the Feast and Frolic kickoff dinner at the Charlottetown Festival Grounds. Food Network Canada star (and Islander) chef Michael Smith played emcee, and the students of the Culinary Institute of Canada did the cooking. It was an auspicious beginning.

The moderately deconstructed lobster chowder (above) consisted of a celeriac broth with foraged sea asparagus and green swoops of pureed lovage. A butter-poached claw and half-tail of PEI lobster was perched on a slab of perfect PEI potato (a fingerling cut lengthwise in thirds).

0 - salad servingAs Smith gleefully pointed out, locavore dining has always been the rule on PEI, and to drive it home, the salad course consisted of a big bowl of mixed greens and flowers (nasturtium, violas) and lettuce that each table harvested with scissors from planter centerpieces. Ilona Daniel of the Culinary Institute was at my table, so she mixed the dressing and tossed the salad.

Beef and crabBut the capper of the evening was an unusual surf and turf: braised PEI grassfed beef shortrib with some possibly local (I couldn’t find out) snow crab legs and a side bucket of PEI blue mussels. It was a reminder that even a small island like PEI has a resident beef industry, and that while most of us think of snow crab as a northern Pacific species, Islanders do indeed fish for them in the waters north of the island.

Tonging for wild oysters in Apalachicola Bay

I met Kendall Schoelles around dawn at 14.2 miles west of the John Gorrie Memorial Bridge on Route 30A. (That’s how they measure distances in Apalachicola, Florida.) We drove his pickup down a packed dirt path to a marshland dock, where we boarded Schoelles’ shallow-draft oyster boat. We were headed for the oystering grant that’s been in his family since the late 19th century. The Schoelles family grant used to be 1,100 acres; after government takings, it’s down to 158. That’s enough to keep Kendall and his brother harvesting enough oysters to make a living. Most Apalachicola oystermen, like those pictured above, have to make do with the public bars.

Apalachicola Bay oysters are the pride of the Gulf of Mexico – plump, sweet, and salty. It’s the last place in North America where wild oysters are harvested by hand by oystermen in small wooden boats. It’s back-breaking work, not unlike the small-boat lobstering I used to do in Maine, and I felt honored that Schoelles let me come along to participate, if only peripherally, in this vanishing way of life. Food doesn’t get any more locavore than shellfish from a town’s front-yard bay.

Apalachicola Bay is a unique environment on the Gulf of Mexico, created by an extensive barrier island system at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, which drains much of Georgia and the Florida panhandle. The plankton-rich mix of salt and fresh water creates optimal conditions for oysters. Apalachicola bivalves have always been the premium Gulf Coast oysters, so prized that oysters from elsewhere in the Gulf were sent here for packing so they would be shipped out in crates stamped ”Apalachicola.”

Schoelles revved the engine and we sped through the weeds into flatwater, unable to see more than a few feet in the fog. I asked how he found his lease under such conditions. ”Mostly, I just know,” he told me. ”I’ve been coming here most of my life.” Schoelles has never fished more than two months anywhere else but on his lease. He paused for effect, ”Of course, the last four or five years I use GPS.”

We anchored on a bar and Schoelles got down his tongs, which resemble two garden rakes connected together like a pair of scissors. The fog was starting to lift, and I could see that loons ringed the boat because tonging stirs up the small fish that they like to eat. The chicks were diving feet from the gunwales while the adults kept their distance. Both herring and laughing gulls had keen eyes on the boat.

Tonging is intensely hard work – reaching down to the bars, closing the rakes, and hauling the catch to the surface. Schoelles did it methodically, moving the boat a few feet every few minutes, until we had a huge heap of oysters and other sea life on the deck. With the sun trying to peek through the fog behind him, he seemed to glow beatifically.

Then we sat down for the grunt work. Because Apalachicola Bay oysters are wild, not farmed, they grow in clumps with a slew of other organisms – mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, giant algae, and other creatures I couldn’t possibly name. The oysters have to be separated from all these other objects – mostly by banging on the junctions with a steel culling iron without cracking the shell. All the small oysters must be tossed back to grow. Schoelles held out whelks and starfish to take ashore to die because both are oyster predators.

The cracked oysters (it’s easy to smash a shell by accident) became bird food for the gulls that follow the boat. One laughing gull has been coming to Schoelles’ boat every morning for two years. How does he know it’s the same gull? He doesn’t – not for sure – but the two seem to have an understanding.

The birds of Apalachicola eat well – but then so do the people. For more on where to enjoy the nutty, buttery flavor of Apalachicola Bay oysters, see my profile of three restaurants in the October 28 Boston Globe: “Where to eat oysters in Apalachicola.”

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11 2012