One Man's Trash Fish is Another's Treasure
Using non-traditional fish can add great value and variety to your menu
With tens of thousands of known fish species inhabiting the Earth's water, why do fish like salmon, tuna and halibut get the most space on menus? Considered more of the prize fish, those species are most enjoyed, not to mention recognized, around the country. However, by sourcing more non-traditional fish, also known as by-catch (fish not intended to be caught) or "trash fish," you can have a more sustainable impact on fish life and the environment, while saving you money.
Flounder, bluefish, scamp, triggerfish, cobia, dogfish and pollock are just the tip of the iceberg. Oftentimes, these fish taste just as good, if not better, than their more popular cousins, but cost a mere fraction of what you likely pay now.
"You can get great quality fish for significantly less than you would pay for more common fish," said chef Daniel Herget of Nashville's Little Octopus. "We often use bluefish for our ceviche. Not only is the price great, but its relatively high-fat content stands up nicely against the acidity of the ceviche."
Ceviche is just one example where trash fish can stand in for others. Rilettes, fish and chips, sushi and tartare are further examples to incorporate lesser-known fish into your menu. This allows you to experiment with more fish varieties, while exposing diners to what's out there.
"There are thousands of great species of fish that never make it to our dinner table," said Rick Moonen, chef/owner of rm seafood at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. "Overfishing of popular fish is a real problem and we need to introduce our customers to other options so all species can have a chance."
One way Moonen achieves this is by using canned fish like sardines and mackerel — fish that are often used as bait and can spoil quickly if bought fresh — in various preparations like kimchi sardine ragout; sardine brandade; and a simply prepared crostini topped with sardines, spinach, sun-dried tomato and capers.
Sourcing non-traditional fish also helps to reduce overfishing. More and more chefs, like Seadon Shouse of Hoboken, N.J.'s Halifax restaurant at the W Hotel, turn away from overly popular fish so they have a chance of survival.
"In this day and age, there are few mainstream fish that are sustainable," Shouse said. "They're becoming endangered and the farm-raised fish — most salmon take five pounds of other fish to raise one pound of salmon — are not sustainable. Trash fish are plentiful and they're not currently at risk of being overfished. That's why I choose them."
On Halifax's seafood-heavy menu, you'll find fish like pollock, porgy, herring and only wild-caught salmon. And for Shouse's fish and chips, instead of using more typical cod or halibut, he uses cape shark, a.k.a. dogfish, which is firm, holds up well to frying and is less expensive.
Chef Rob McDaniel of SpringHouse in Alexander City, Ala., agreed about using more sustainable fish and has turned that "trash" into treasure. It keeps costs down and his guests love some of the dishes he creates like the smoked by-catch West Indies salad. Traditionally, that ceviche-like dish uses crab, but since crab is more expensive, McDaniel started getting a variety of fish from his purveyor using the "by-catch," which are unwanted fish scooped up during commercial fishing expeditions.
"The way the by-catch program works is our purveyor ships a mixed box," McDaniel said. "I may ask for 20 pounds and get things like beeliner or other snapper varieties, scamp, triggerfish, drum, porgy. We smoke those and make the West Indies salad and it worked out great."
To truly be successful using non-traditional fish, you need to first introduce it to your diners, but then keep serving it so people become more familiar and comfortable ordering it when they see it on the menu. Why? Because there really are so many fish in the sea. It only seems right to use them all.