They've been called trash fish by some, fringe fish or rough fish by the more euphemistically inclined, but the significance is the same: Because of our grocery store bias for familiar species like salmon and cod, other species -- mullet, scup, invasive carp -- are largely left off the table.
If you follow this trend to its natural conclusion, you'll see overfishing of certain species and the devastating ecological effects thereof. Which is why groups like Chefs Collaborative have been crossing the country, demonstrating the culinary wonders of underused fish and preaching the value of a more diverse seafood scene. This week, the Minnesota Zoo is hosting its own five-course fish dinner to teach Minnesotans about the bounty of sustainable seafood most of us never knew existed.
As for how a species gets blackballed with the "trash fish" designation, Keane Amdahl, sustainable seafood coordinator for the Minnesota Zoo and also a frequent Hot Dish contributor, points to a number of factors. He admits that some fish are more difficult to work with because of their complicated bone structures and therefore not as desirable for fishermen and processors. But still other species, he says, are simply and somewhat arbitrarily not in fashion.
"These are underused species because they don't have market value," says Amdahl. "People are looking for things they know."
So while cod and salmon and walleye consistently fill Minnesotan menus and grocery baskets, the abundant and easy-to-filet mullet -- a richer, oilier fish that Amdahl likens to a lighter version of mackerel -- is still an uncommon choice.
In response, the Minnesota Zoo's Fish Smart program is putting on Hook, Line, & Sinker: A Tribute to Fringe Fish this Thursday. Five celebrated local chefs -- Corner Table founder Scott Pampuch, now of Aramark at the University of Minnesota; current Corner Table chef Thomas Boemer; Ryan Cook of Sea Change; Matt Bickford of Icehouse; and Robert Wohlfeil of the Oceannaire -- will each craft a fish course to showcase underused species (plus one non-fish dessert by Sea Change pastry chef Sam Valesano). The hope is that exposure to lesser known species will spur diners to seek them out, asking for them at restaurants and fish counters and bumping up demand.
So far, organizers have settled on Acadian Redfish, Striped Mullet, and Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, but the final two selections will be made closer to event time, perhaps even on the day of the dinner, according to what's fresh and available.
Both Acadian Redfish and Atlantic Spiny Dogfish represent success stories for marine stewardship: The two species were once overfished and have since rebounded through management and regulation. Now they are sustainable choices for fish lovers, says Amdahl. Taste for yourself at the event, or ask about them at your local fishmonger. (Amdahl notes that Whole Foods has a solid track record of finding and bringing in fish when customers request it.)
Hook, Line, & Sinker takes place this Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at the U of M's Carlson School of Management. Tickets are on sale now, and for $100 guests will enjoy a cocktail reception, a six-course dinner, and wine and beer pairings.
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