Ever suspect there's fishy business going on when you go to buy dinner at the seafood market? We cut through the noise to get answers on what's really local, and how to tell if it's fresh. . . .
For an exhaustive, and exhausting, listing of what is local and when it is available, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website is the most thorough guide. Some fish are available and legal all year round, including bluefish, weakfish, Atlantic cod, pollock, haddock, red drum, Spanish mackerel, King mackerel, eel, monkfish, menhaden (aka, the almost-inedible bunker), and most forms of blue crab. This doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find these thing all year round, of course — simply that there is no designated season. Fish such as summer flounder (which locals are more likely to call fluke), winter flounder, blackfish, striped bass, black sea bass, porgy (aka, scup), and lobster have specific times of availability and limits.
Are you confused yet?
In the olden days, some fish markets would engage in unscrupulous activities, such as using a small cookie cutter to cut faux scallops out of shark meat or rays. Some seafood manufacturers and processors still use sodium tripolyphosphate (S.T.P.P.) to keep fish “fresh” or to at least appear fresh. This is akin to the practice of using carbon monoxide on red meat to keep it looking pink. It’s the exposure to oxygen that makes meat turn that unappealing (but no less fresh!) gray color.
As for me, I would never buy fish from a grocery store, especially the stuff like “coconut-crusted tilapia” or “tempting teriyaki marinated dodofish.” Where did it come from? Has it been frozen? Was it farmed, and if so, in what country? Did they feed it something gross? And how long has it been sitting in that case??
To help understand what actually comes from the waters around the East End, and when you can expect it to be available, I spoke with a few of the best in the business.
Alex Fausto, manager of the Wainscott Seafood Shop (356 Montauk Highway,), said we’ll have to wait until autumn for more of our beautiful, sweet bay scallops — if you see bay scallops at the market, they’re imported from lord knows where — but sea scallops are available now. Calamari will be coming in soon, along with blowfish in June and July. The blowfish were plentiful last year but scarce the previous two years. Are you wondering why you may see it on menus all summer, such as at the Lobster Roll (a.k.a. Lunch), on Napeague? They’ve been frozen . . . and there’s no shame in that. Better a frozen local blowfish than antibiotic-stuffed catfish from Vietnam, we say.
Colin Mather, owner of the Wainscott Seafood Shop, and an octopus friend. At top: Bruce and Charlotte Klein Sasso of Stuart’s in Amagansett, another favorite.
All summer, he said, there will be tuna, swordfish, mako, and mahi-mahi (dorado), from the canyons way, way south-southwest of Montauk. Skate wing will be plentiful in summer, and wonderfully hearty monkfish can be had all year round. The arrival of bluefish and weakfish is dependent upon water temperature, according to Fausto, and if it’s too cold, you won’t see any cod for a while.
East End mussels are a big pain in the behind to clean, so all of theirs are from “beautiful farms” on Prince Edward Island. The Seafood Shop is well known for it’s local goods, including hard clams and steamers, but when they do sell imported, they are meticulous about making sure it comes from reputable sources — tilapia from Ecuador, salmon from Chile and Canada.
Fausto did, however, share an interesting tidbit about some fishy subterfuge that goes on at a couple of popular stores that will go unnamed: If you think you are buying fresh jumbo lump crabmeat (sold in a plastic container), take a closer look at it. It should have bits of shell and that yellow stuff, the hepatopancreas, part of the crab’s digestive system. If the crabmeat is completely clean and shell-free, this means they have transferred pasteurized crabmeat from a can into that plastic tub, and are charging you much more for it. This canned crabmeat, contains sodium acid pyrophosphate, SAPP, and is probably from Indonesia. Naughty, naughty!
Sean Barrett, founder of Dock to Dish — a fantastic program that matches small-scale fishermen with restaurants and shops, to improve the way we harvest and market seafood — replied all the way from Costa Rica.
“During the summer months, the most abundant fish are scup from Captain Dave Aripotch; longfin squid from Captains Bruce Beckwith and Wesley Peterson; and golden tilefish from Captain Dave Tuma and John Nolan, Jr.,” he told me, ticking off the names of some of Montauk’s Dock to Dish participants. “Our friends Mike Martinsen and Mike Doall at Montauk Shellfish Company are also having a bumper season harvesting beautiful Montauk Pearl oysters; while Captain John Aldridge and his first mate, Anthony Sosinski, are landing incredible hauls of fresh Jonah crab. Everyone at the dock is also really excited for the return of Captain Bryan Fromm, who will be landing divine big-eye tuna steaks and loins all summer from his new boat, the Flying Dutchman.”
Interestingly, the surface and bottom temperatures of water in Long Island Sound have risen about one half degree per decade since the 1970’s, due to climate change. This has created competition between warmer-water species and cold-water species as they fight for food and summer housing.
Thirty years ago, bluefish, cod, and winter flounder were more plentiful. Now they are being pushed out by porgies, black sea bass, northern kingfish, and even triggerfish. According to Peggy Howell, a biologist with the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Long Island Sound is usually left out of “climate modeling.” These findings mean that seasons, management, and minimum and maximum catches must be continuously altered. Good luck with that bureaucracy between states and freshwater vs. saltwater research!
Of course, the most friendly way to find out what is strictly local and freshly caught is to establish a relationship with your favorite fishmonger. They will be happy to guide and teach you.
For folks in Amagansett that might be Stuart’s (41 Oak Lane) or the Amagansett Seafood Shop (517 Montaul Highway), both small, cheerful, and thoroughly reliable. For those who enjoy a funkadelic atmosphere in the summertime, the Fish Farm in Promised Land (429 Cranberry Hole Road) is popular. Gosman’s Fish Market is a favorite in Montauk (484 West Lake Drive). And, in season, you can be assured that Round Swamp Farm in East Hampton (184 Three Mile Harbor Road) and Serene Green in Noyac (3980 Noyac Road) will have superfresh, genuinely local fish.
Fausto admits that the clientele of the Seafood Shop tends to stick with what they are familiar with: your basic salmon, fluke, and flounder. But why not let yourself off the leash and try something different? Try your striped bass wrapped in parchment paper with a dollop of black bean sauce, grated ginger and garlic, carrots, and sugar snap peas. The French consider skate wing a delicacy; try it their way with nutty browned butter and capers. Bet you haven’t bothered with that Rodney Dangerfield of fish, bluefish, in a while. Get some smoked and make a horseradish dip for cocktail hour. Sear up some blackfish fillets and top them with a sharp, herbed vinaigrette.
When asked if any unusual or rare fish had been brought into the shop, Fausto gets very excited and replies, “Last year a fisherman caught an 80-pound cobia near Long Beach in Sag Harbor. We only get one or two per year, if that.” That big beautiful cobia — a species of perciform marine fish, the only representative of the genus Rachycentron and the family Rachycentridae aka prodigal son or black bonito — went to a pair of locally esteemed artists, April Gornik and Eric Fischl. Those lucky ducks, I wonder what they did with it. . . ? •