Friday, February 22, 2008

The Last Fish: Seafood Gumbo

I have this radical idea that we should just stop eating fish out of the oceans. Bluefin tuna have become the modern equivalent of the American bison: we've fished them almost to extinction. Europeans have so decimated the fish stocks off West Africa that the locals are abandoning their homeland for lack of a catch. The once-abundant coho salmon no longer return to spawn in their former numbers on our own west coast. And the list goes on.

I follow the recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program, which is one of several of its kind that list which seafoods they think are sustainable and which to avoid. These days, I wistfully pass the seafood counter at the local Whole Foods, admiring the monkfish, the red snapper, the Chilean seabass--all off limits to me now.

That doesn't mean you can't eat seafood at all. Look lower down the food chain, especially to shellfish, which grow and reproduce much more quickly--and in greater profusion--than large predator fish. A classic Creole gumbo is a perfect treatment. It has just the kind of big flavors I like, and you can add almost anything to it. For this particular gumbo, I used shrimp, scallops, catfish and garlic sausage.

Gumbo starts with roux, which may be familiar to you as the basis of a Bechamel sauce. But the roux for gumbo is cooked longer. For a seafood gumbo, some say the darker the roux the better, until it is almost black. I've explained previously why a long-cooked roux doesn't thicken much. The molecules in the flour are re-arranged, so the roux is more for flavor and appearance.

For six persons, coat the bottom of a heavy pot or Dutch oven with canola oil and over high heat brown 1/2-pound Kielbasa sausage, cut into slices on an angle. Remove the sausage and lightly brown 1/2-pound sea scallops, which may need to be cut in half or into quarters if they are very large. Remove the scallops, lower the heat to moderately-low and add 1/2 cup canola oil. Stir in 1/2 cup all-purpose flour. Cook, stirring frequently, until the roux is dark brown. Do not let it burn. This could take a half-hour or more.

To the cooked roux add 1 small onion, peeled and diced small, 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced small, 2 stalks celery, cleaned and diced small, and 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped. Cook until the onions begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add a handful chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoons salt and a generous pinch black pepper to the pot, as well as the browned sausage. Pour in 4 cups stocks. This can be made with shells from your shrimp or from fish racks (skeletons) purchased from the fish monger, or use a store-bought seafood stock. I used a home-made chicken stock that was rich with flavor. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the gumbo is aromatic and flavorful.

Just before serving, add 1/2-pound deveined jumbo shrimp, the scallops and 1/2-pound catfish fillet, cut into pieces, and cook just until the seafood is cooked through. Adjust seasonings, ladle gumbo over rice, such as a brown Basmati rice, and serve hot, with a flourish, perhaps garnished with more chopped parsley.

Note: The Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program advises to avoid imported shrimp and select wild-caught or farmed shrimp from the U.S. or Canada, with wild-caught shrimp from Oregon and British Columbia listed as the "best" choice. Avoid wild-caught sea scallops from the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and any kind of imitation scallop. Choose either wild-caught sea scallops from the Northeast or farmed bay scallops. Farmed U.S. channel catfish are the best choice, but other kinds of imported farmed catfish can be substituted.


Meg said...

That sounds delicious--and, thanks for the Seafood Watch link. I've definitely been aware of overfishing problems, but wasn't really sure which species or areas were being hit the hardest. That link is very helpful!

Joanna said...

I can't remember the last time I ate those big shrimp - partly because they aren't native to our waters, and I can't be sure they didn't take the plane here. But I occasionally buy north Atlantic ones, small - is that okay? I am finding it VERY hard to access decent information in the UK after your prompt last week. So we're down to herring in various guises, and rope-grown mussels - these are good because they clean the water in which they are grown. Only problem, my husband doesn't like them, so I am in search of the perfect recipe!

Sad if we can't eat fish at all, but it's fair to say that I've restricted what we do eat for years and years, apart from a blind spot about the occasional monkfish. No more. But you're right: we don't want fish to go the way of bison.


Ed Bruske said...

Meg, trying to be politically correct with seafood can be really difficult. It's a complicated subject. That's why I rely on "Seafood Watch" for guidance on which fish to buy.

Joanna, I wonder if this link to the Marine Conservation Society, which is based in GB, would be of help to you sorting out which fish to buy at the market:

Kim said...

It's funny you talk about not eating fish anymore. On NPR the other day, I heard a piece about fishermen studying the way we wiped out cod in order to avoid doing the same to another species. It made me think that if we could all agree to not take any fish from the ocean for just one year, the ecosystem would be able to rebound. Nature is usually surprisingly resilient, after all.

Not gonna happen, I know!

JacquelineC said...

Happily just discovered your blog - you might enjoy the "Teach a Man to Fish" sustainable seafood event I hosted on mine. Readers, home cooks and chefs shared recipes, thoughts and experiences learning about making sustainable choices.

Teach a Man to Fish

Jacqueline Church

Jenna said...

Thanks for the link to seafood watch, as my family tries to become more aware and involved in our food (and our food choices) I have a feeling this is going to be very helpful.

A quick question... while the gumbo looks great (my husband is now salivating) is it possible to either simply up the catfish or add chicken (or another protein) to the dish instead of the shellfish? Better for the environment to eat I know... but as I'm allergic, well. Not so much a good fit here. I'm usually pretty fearless about subbing in recipes, but I'm afraid to completly ruin and waste the food by going blind.

Ed Bruske said...

Kim,I think scientifically it's proven that if you leave the fish alone, they will rebound and probably provide more income for a longer period of time. Trying to get to that point--trying to get the fishing industry to stop fishing or seriously cut back rather than think only about today--is the tough part. Nobody wants to be the first to give up their livelihood, but in the case of cod, whole towns and industries were put of business because people did not want to bit the bullet.

Jacqueline, I loved your "Teach a Man to Fish" feature so much, I've linked to it permanently on this blog. I'm glad you alerted me to that--it's nice to close the circle with other people who are thinking along the same lines.

Jenna, you can make gumbos all kinds of ways. Some "seafood" gumbos call for chicken. Shrimp is pretty popular in that part of the country, as you might imagine. But if you're allergic to seafood, just bulk up on the catfish, sausage, chicken. Or maybe you have another non-oily fish you really like.