Lessons from a sustainable-food conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California comes up with its wallet-sized cards — the ones that tell us what seafood choices are sustainable.
I got so interested in the topic that when I got an invitation to attend the aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions conference, I couldn’t pass it up. The event brings together high-profile chefs from across the country who are devoted to sustainability, and puts them in the same room with luminaries from the sustainable-food world. For me, it was a chance to plunge myself into a sea of conversation — to be able to learn a lot all at once, rather than slowly and ploddingly, one conversation and interview after another.
The food was lavish — proof that sustainability need not mean self-denial. At the reception, we were served oysters with a mignonette sauce, pasta with asparagus, little bits of beef served with a sort of Bordelaise sauce on top of some kind of blini or pancake, and sushi made from sustainable tuna from Hawaii. I haven’t had tuna sushi in years because it’s so hard to get sushi made from sustainable tuna. I greedily ate three pieces. I have missed the satiny texture of raw tuna, and the way that the sweet heat of the preserved ginger sets off the tuna’s dark, meaty taste.
Rick Moonen, a chef much admired for his way with seafood, attended the reception. Chef and owner of Las Vegas-based rm Seafood, Moonen is committed to introducing his customers to species of fish that they may not have tried before, such as barramundi (a “best choice” on the MBA Seafood watch website). In his new book Fish Without a Doubt, Moonen gives several recipes for this delicacy, including grilled whole with charmoula sauce (a yummy Moroccan sauce made with garlic, lemon, parsley, cilantro, and cumin) and sautéed with Orange-Soy Vinaigrette. He also introduces readers to new and enticing ways to cook more familiar yet underappreciated fish, such as mackerel and mussels. Just thinking about his recipes like “Pineapple Rum Ceviche with Mackerel” and “Mussel Paella” make me wish that I had access to a kitchen right now.
Properly for a conference devoted to food, we sometimes seemed to be moving from meal to meal. The second morning started with breakfast beneath a whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling and in front of the otter exhibit. It was easy to pick out all the East Coast writers: we oooh and ahhh over the fresh California fruit, cooing like parents looking at newborns through the window of the hospital nursery.
At the conference we hear from farmers, fishmongers, academics, and business people about the situation in which we find ourselves (climate change, overfishing, agriculture’s use of water and the resulting effect on the oceans, an anticipated increase in weeds that will accompany a warming climate, etc.) and what can be done about it. The information came way too fast and furious to be summarized in this column. For those interested, I’ll be detailing what I learned in my forthcoming website, thekitchenalmanac.com.
At this sort of event, a lot of interesting conversation happens late at night, after the formal programming. Given that most of the attendees devote themselves to food production and how it can happen sustainably, the talk often turns to big issues. Can we save the planet and ourselves? Or are we past the point of no return?
Those are questions that I personally struggle with. Both in the session and in the conversations afterward, I got a distinct sense of hope from people directly involved with saving the food system from itself. I’ll take that hope back to Massachusetts with me. And I’ll remember it when I talk to people who are convinced that any changes we can make now are pointless, so they feel free to drink bottled water shipped in from Fiji while driving their Hummers to a tanning salon. (I call these folks the DFRB’s: Desperate to Fiddle while Rome Burns.)
My Monterey experience will help me hold fast to a core belief: that we have to try to change our ways in the face of ecological disaster. It is our responsibility — to ourselves, our children, and all the other living beings on the planet — to at least try to stop global warming, the decimation of the oceans, and the population pressure on our limited natural resources. And trying means joining forces and sharing discoveries and best practices with an eye toward the future — the spirit of the Cooking for Solutions conference.
And in that spirit, I offer a recipe from Rick Moonen’s Fish Without a Doubt. I absolutely love trout and am always happy to find a new way to prepare it.
Photo: Ben Fink
Recipe from Fish Without a Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore. Text copyright © 2008 by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
For the marinade:
1/4 cup minced red onions
1/4 cup chopped scallions
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon Asian chili paste (such as sambal oelek)
For the rest of the dish:
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
All-purpose flour for dredging
Corn or peanut oil for frying
For the marinade: Combine the buttermilk, onion, scallions, dill, garlic, zest, and chili paste in a baking dish. Whisk or stir well.
Lay the fillets in the marinade, making sure you’ve got them completely coated. Cover with the plastic and marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to eight hours.
When you’re ready for dinner, remove the fish from the marinade and season it with salt and white pepper. Coat the fillets well with flour.
Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a heavy skillet (this is a good time to pull out your cast-iron pan) until very hot but not smoking. Fry the fish in batches for about 1 1/2 minutes on the first side, then turn and fry for another 45 seconds. The crust should be golden. Serve immediately.
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