Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Hawthornes Participate In A Taste-Testing Study Thanks To Café Lachine And The NC Sea Grant Extension Program.

Because of my association with the Outer Banks Voice, I was recently invited by Sara Mirabilio, Fisheries Specialist of the NC Sea Grant Extension Program, to be part of a cape shark (spiny dogfish) consumer taste-testing study. Three sessions are being held, February 2, February 23, and March 15.  Wilmington and Morehead City will also be having similar events. 

Rosie and Mr. Hawthorne were there, February 2, with bells on because:
1) It's a free dinner, and...
2) It's going to be at Café Lachine.

Picture from January 2012

Chefs Johanna and Justin Lachine presented a delicious meal at one of our NC Aquarium cooking classes a few years ago, so I was looking forward to this.  I remember the cooking class was on a Tuesday, Johanna had just given birth the previous Friday, and they were opening up Café Lachine the next Monday.  Holy cow!

 Café Lachine is working with the North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Program to come up with numerous preparations of cape shark, or Atlantic spiny dogfish.  This species of fish, Squalus acanthias, is a shark (Its skeleton is cartilaginous.).   Other fish have bony skeletons.   Close to fifty lucky invitees were in attendance at Café Lachine Tuesday evening, February 2, to participate in a sensory evaluation test to provide information on consumer preferences on flavor profiles and cooking preparations.  The second session, we will learn about the biology of the dogfish, and the third session will be about harvesting and fisheries management.

According to the North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Program, "Cape shark, or Atlantic spiny dogfish, is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations. And, the fish is an important part of local fishermen's livelihoods. The entire fish is used, but it is all exported. This project aims to create North Carolina market opportunity for these native fish, which have a sweet, mild flavor, in an effort to bring more value to the fishery."

 At our first session, Sara gave us a briefing on taste-testing science and information on cape shark.  She explained that this fish is an undervalued fish and would help diversify our revenue stream for commercial fisherman and also give you more diversity in your palate. Pretty much 100% of any product that comes from the spiny dogfish, whether it's fillets, fins, or belly, all gets sent overseas, so, according to Sara, it's not something a chef or restaurant would have familiarity with as far as prepping it.  Chefs Johanna and Justin Lachine accepted the challenge and had about 2 weeks to familiarize themselves with the meat and come up with recipe formulations.

We will be receiving an appetizer, a salad, and an entrée where about 3 ounces of fillet will be used in each portion.  Sara then gave us an overview of the actual taste-testing protocol, explaining that we are "citizen scientists," helping them with their market research. We then received sensory ballots.

Over the course of the evening we were not allowed to have any other food or beverages, besides the prepared dishes, and our room temperature de-ionized water and unsalted-Saltine crackers.  This is to cleanse our palates and minimize "sensory fatigue."

Personally, I occasionally like a bit of sensory fatigue.

We were asked to rate each dish on a scale of 1-7 on several characteristics - flavor, appearance, aroma, and texture.  The way this is going to work is any dish that gets a 4 or lower, the Lachines will have the opportunity to reformulate and bring back to us at the next session.  Our feedback and suggestions will help Chefs Lachine to reformulate any low-scoring dishes, otherwise, we will get three new dishes next time.

Our hostess, a lovely woman, Sara Mirabilio, explains the consumer taste-testing process.
I'm sure a better picture has been taken of her, but it wasn't mine.
Also, I don't use flash when I'm in a restaurant and just go with whatever non-ambient light there isn't.

 Rosie also had the immense pleasure of meeting one of her "imaginary" friends on Facebook, fellow bon vivant, Jim Trotman.  His camera was bigger than mine and he used a flash.  The Hawthornes and Mr. Trotman decided to sit in the back, where the troublemakers sit.  I always like the corner of the room, with my back to the wall, so I can survey the vista, plus I'm sure a certain bit of paranoia is involved.  We were a regular Algonquin Table, except there was no booze involved.  Just that damned room-temperature water.  (OK, I'd locked and loaded a few drinks before leaving home.)

Somehow, the three of us didn't process that part about the room temperature, de-ionized water and unsalted-saltines being there for palate cleansing during the actual tasting and I guess we sort of considered them a lame appetizer.  Hey, we were hungry.  Between the three of us, we'd gone through all the crackers and water before we were even served the first course.  When I picked up the last cracker, I unselfishly divided it into thirds, then we ordered more crackers and water.

Here's our first course - an appetizer.  It's a piece of cape shark wrapped in phyllo atop carrot purée with a hint of ginger with tiny diced carrots and green beans.

As I crunched through the phyllo, which is always a welcome feature to me, I bit into the fish.
Hmmmm.   The flavor is fine - very mild and slightly sweet.  It was the texture of the fish that rang a bell for me.  It was soft.  Not flaky.  Not mushy.  Not firm.  But not something I've had before.  I would say, "Not meaty."
All but one of the terms in which I can describe the texture of the fish so far start with, "Not."

OK.  So I was confused by the fish's texture.

I liked the flavor of the carrot purée, but because of texture of the fish, there weren't enough contrasting textures going on here for my tastes.  Flavor is there, but not enough texture for me.  I like a bit of crunch every now and then.

Our second dish is a salad.  Steamed shark (citrus/soy?) over baby greens with a sherry vinaigrette, orange sections, toasted almonds and fried wonton strips. I liked the texture of the dish but the fish is still not what I want texture-wise. I'd like a firmer meat.

I don't know about others, but my salad didn't have enough dressing for my tastes. I like to be more generous with a vinaigrette, less so with a creamy, mayo-based dressing. 

Our entrée is breaded and fried cape shark with an excellent rémoulade sauce and a good, traditional cole slaw.  I think this was the favorite dish of the entire crowd.
Hush puppy disappointed.  Mine was doughy inside.
This was the best presentation of the fish for me. 
Fry anything.  It's good!

Bottom line:  I want to try a thicker cut of cape shark.  I think that might make a difference in the texture.  The fried shark was a thicker cut and the texture was much more palatable to me than the first two presentations, which had thinner cuts.  I need to investigate this.  Unfortunately, I don't have a source yet for cape shark. 

According to Sara:
Etheridge Seafood filleted the fish, then vacuumed-packed them into roughly 4 1/2 pound bags and froze it. Sara explained that they could have gotten fresh fish, but admitted that there are real challenges in shipping fresh - our unpredicatable weather here and a restaurant's inability to rely on delivery of the product and the fact that you don't want to eat dogfish, or any fish, for that matter, a couple of days old.  This is a product that needs to be cut right away and put up properly.  The fish was taken off the boat and immediately cut.  Sara was present when they cut this first batch.  It was immediately vacuumed packed and put into a sub-zero freezer.

More info  (TMI?  I think not.):

The primary thing to realize is that shark urinate through their skin. This also applies to related species such as stingray and skate. They say that smaller and younger shark and related species usually don't have an off taste, but I prefer to treat them all the same. The off taste is that of ammonia. As soon as a shark or related species dies, the ammonia flavor and odor begin to permeate. The urea-like compounds in shark blood will immediately start to break down into ammonia.

And that, to me, my friends, is enough for me to eat frozen shark.

Later, attendees received an e-mail from Sara.  She will be presenting the numerical results of our first sensory session at our next session on February 23. She also plans to provide a brief presentation on the population biology of cape shark, since she noticed some people were uneasy about the sustainability of the fish if more market focus is directed towards it.  Sara wanted to address this issue right away:

First, the project is not about harvesting more fish, but rather, about getting more value for the fish that are harvested.  To explain, fishermen currently sell whole fish to dealers, receiving lately a mere $0.10 per pound.  All the processors are located in New Bedford, Mass., so the dealers truck up north 100% of the whole fish landed in Wanchese.  The dealers have been receiving from the processors lately a mere $0.22 per pound.  All the cape shark meat and products are sold overseas.  New Bedford processors are receiving about $3.00 per pound of processed product.  Quite a value difference! 

For this project, I got Etheridge Seafood to cut cape shark for their first time ever!  I am paying them $3.00 per pound of fillet.  That money stays in the community, bringing more revenue to fishermen, fish cutters and fish houses.  If there were in-state demand for the product, it would give reason for in-state processing capability to arise, and thereby, increase the revenue generated locally off the same caught fish

You should also know that according to the federal regulators, U.S. wild-caught cape shark is a “smart seafood choice,” because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.  Restrictive quotas since the declines of the 1990s have kept the total mortality (commercial, incidental and recreational) at low levels.  Here’s an excellent web resource on cape shark:

According to the 2013 stock assessment, cape shark are not overfished and are not subject to overfishing.  I will tell you that scientists project that the number of mature females may decline somewhat in the coming years due to the low number of pups born during the 1990s when spiny dogfish were heavily fished.  So, fishery managers are trying to plan for this now, so that this potential decline does not turn out as expected and result in the stock becoming overfished.

Here's an interesting article by Amy Huggins Gaw on the cape shark in Outer Banks Magazine.

Thanks to Sara Mirabilio of North Carolina Sea Grant and to Café Lachine for an informative, enjoyable, and quite tasty presentation.  Looking forward to seeing you next Tuesday!


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