The other day the Fishmonger brought home a fish we had never eaten before. As you might imagine, this doesn't happen very often. I asked him to tell me about it, and he said he didn't know much. Anything? I asked. Not enough for the Local Food Report. He knows me well.
He sent me instead to his fisherman, Eric Hess. Eric is the captain of the Tenacious II, and he's been groundfishing on the Cape for close to thirty years. He told me that cusk is bycatch. It's a groundfish, just like haddock and cod, and fishermen like him catch it accidentally when they're looking for species that get a higher price. Off the boat, cusk sells for $0.80, maybe $1 a pound. Haddock and cod get $2 a pound, maybe more.
The thing is, cusk is aggressive. If a hook and line fisherman sets hooks in an area where there are cusk, he's likely to get some. Eric says he usually catches them in areas with rocky bottoms, anywhere from 200 to 600 feet down. If there's an area of a few miles where they're fishing for cod, Eric says, he'll avoid setting gear in the rocky spots, and stick to the sandier spots where they're less likely to find cusk, and more likely to find cod.
This, of course, is all about consumer demand. We don't know cusk, so we don't want it. Alex and I thought it was delicious—we cut it up into small pieces and packed it with parsley and cilantro into fishcakes. It had a different consistency than haddock or cod—it was more like lump crab meat—which is probably why most people aren't screaming for cusk.
But despite the fact that consumers aren't demanding cusk and fishermen aren't trying to catch it, the population is in trouble. Cusk populations have declined by 90 percent since the 1970s—not because of direct overfishing, but because of bycatch. Because they have similar habitats, cusk populations are tied to the fates of haddock and cod.
In this way, cusk seems like kind of a sad discovery. We loved it! It's gone! But in another way, it seems important. The only way overfished species are going to recover is if we take a break from them, start to eat some of the other fish in the sea. And while cusk alone might not be the answer, it's a step in the right direction. We need to learn to appreciate other species besides haddock and cod. We need to embrace what we've got. It might not be cusk, at least not right now, but it's good to start branching out.
Have you ever tried cusk? What did you think? What other unusual species have you eaten?
FISH CAKES IN TOMATO SAUCE
This recipe comes from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Alex has eaten a lot of fish cakes, and he said it might just be his favorite. Ever.
2 and 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 pint crushed tomatoes
a pinch of red chili flakes
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped mint
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
for the fish cakes:
3 slices bread, crusts removed
1 and 1/3 pounds white fish (for a sustainable local choice, try pollock or hake)
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons olive oil
Make the tomato sauce first. Warm up the olive oil in a very large frying pan (make sure you have a lid). Add the spices and onion and sauté for 8-10 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the wine and simmer another 3 minutes. Then stir in the tomatoes, chile, garlic, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and some pepper. Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until thick. (If you're using homemade canned tomatoes, this will probably take longer.)
Meanwhile, make the fish cakes. Pulse the bread in a food processor or crumble it with your hands to make crumbs. Chop the fish very finely and put it in a bowl with everything else besides the olive oil. Mix well with your hands, and then form cakes about 3/4 inch thick and 3 inches in diameter. There should be about 8 cakes. If they feel soft, put them in the fridge for about 30 minutes to firm up.
Warm up the olive oil in another frying pan over medium-high heat. Add as many cakes as fit and sear for three minutes on each side, until golden brown. Repeat with the remaining cakes. Now gently place the seared cakes in the frying pan with the tomato sauce—you may have to squeeze them a bit to make sure they all fit. Add just enough water to partially cover the cakes. Then cover the pan with a lid and simmer on very low heat for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the cakes rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve hot, sprinkled with mint.