There are some simple questions that demand deep consideration but that often never render answers until after the event. On the other hand, there are often simple solutions to complex questions that defy logic.
For me it is more often simple issues like why didn’t I order that dish; why did I go to that restaurant or why did I trust that fisherman ; that pose the most difficulty in finding a solution.
In broader life there are many more perplexing questions however, such as how the insignificant can quickly become the significant; the unfashionable can become fashionable and the readily available bargains become rare and expensive oddities.
There is no more obvious example of these issues than in the foodservice industry, where, like punting, success is often best determined in hindsight.
Most of us in and around the industry are held in esteem for our forward planning and business strategy, right up there with hairdressers and motor mechanics. As we all know, It is more common to find operators across the foodservice industry from suppliers to restaurateurs, who are more driven by the love of food than the love of ledgers.
Although I somehow managed to pass economics in my final high school exams, and further go on to complete a university degree in commerce, I have to admit to a need to take my shoes and socks off to count over 10 – probably the result of having spent many classes gazing out of classroom windows wondering how I could escape the theory of business and go fishing.
But it was not the theories of Keynes or Friedman that I most missed digesting during schooling, it was my lack of vision in appreciating the real culinary characterisitics of so many fish that went back.
Following on from our discussion in the April edition of Foodservice on how to drive the best value out of the relationship with your fishmonger, I thought it timely that we consider a number of species which are coming into season now, which are often much maligned but are generally plentiful, inexpensive and delicious at this time of the year.
If you are genuine about serving great food but are finding the pressure of food costs difficult, consider some of these underutilised species :
Warehou – Silver and Blue
The Silver & Blue Warehou’s are from the same part of the fish family tree as the Blue Eye trevalla. Their thick fillets, when skinned and with the dark “bloodline” along the side of the fillet removed, have a luscious, full flavour. The flesh is typically moist and scalloping with few bones– surprisingly similar in texture to that of their much more famous cousin.
Abundant in winter, the Warehou’s have been the staple of the Victorian Fish’n’Chip trade for decades, which in part explains why Victorian’s claim to have the best fish and chips in the country.
With a high oil content, the Warehou’s need to be fresh and well handled, but can carry strong flavours well and are delicious marinated and grilled, baked or smoked. If frying, salt the fillets for 30 minutes prior to cooking and you’ll have a cooked flesh which can rival the popular frying staple, flathead, at a fraction of the cost.
Sometimes known by their less glamorous names of “slimy” or “horse” mackerel, the humble blue mackerel is more commonly sought by commercial and game fishermen than chefs, as they make excellent bait for the larger pelagic species such as tuna. Yet it’s ready availability, low price and delicious eating qualities should see it appearing far more regularly on the plate than hook.
A member of the same pelagic family as tuna, the Blue Mackerel from Southern Australia during late Autumn and Winter are in peak condition. Firm grained, high in fat and plentiful, the mackerel is highly regarded by Japanese Chefs for sousing and use as the iconic sushi topping in bosushi.
Salted for 30 minutes before cooking, the Blue Mackerel is fantastic grilled, pan fried, baked or even poached, it’s high oil content making it suited to strong flavour and high heat preparations.
A distant relation to the above fish from the Southern part of Australia, the Grey Mackerel is caught mainly in the North of Australia over the Winter months and is more closely related to the famous Spanish Mackerel.
Mackerel can be fried, baked, poached, grilled, marinated, smoked and barbecued .it is considered by some to be the best barbecue fish in the South Pacific. One should always take particular care not to overcook mackerel, and if the mackerel is being fried it should first be lightly salted.
The high oiliness of these species often requires the addition of an acid to balance the richness. This is easily achieved by baking the mackerel with vinegar and vegetables that, in turn, will give the mackerel a slightly pickled taste and provide a balance of flavours. Mackerel is also perfectly suited to an aromatic herb crust, served with baked tomatoes and anchovy butter. The strong, distinct flavour of the Grey Mackerel is also popular in many Asian cuisines, in particular Vietnamese where it is almost a staple.
Another great bargain is the Spotted Mackerel abundant also during Autumn and Winter.
Also known as King Salmon, is no relation to the Atlantic Salmon from Tasmania, the King Salmon is caught in the same waters as the mighty Barramundi – throughout the saltwater and estuarine regions of the far North of Australia.
The soft, grey flesh is hardly glamorous in it’s raw state, but cooks up firm and white, with a scalloping flesh reminiscent of a Snapper or Emperor.
A pronounced “bump” along the central spine makes it quite difficult to fillet and renders a relatively low yield , however, it makes for excellent cutlets.
With a mild flavour and a firm texture when cooked, the King Salmon could be readily used as a low cost alternative to dishes using Snapper, Barramundi or Bream.
With the onset of the cooler months, so the mighty John Dory makes it’s welcome return to the South Eastern waters of Australia. A premium table fish, expect the price of John Dory to increase this year as early indicators are that there will be limited supplies, however, swimming along with the famous “John” is the equally delicious Silver Dory.
With an almost identical body form to the John Dory, Silver Dory yields about 35% boneless flesh and has become a staple of the premium fish’n’chip trade in New South Wales over the same time that Flathead has become an almost exclusive restaurant fish.
The tight, firm grain and natural sweet, mild flavour of the Silver Dory is enhanced when cooked on the bone ( like John Dory) – with a simple bone structure – it offers a great “plate fish” option to the more high priced Snapper, Barramundi or Silver Perch.
Tailor is one of the more abundant fish in Southern Australia over the winter months, the much ,maligned Tailor is rarely seen in retail fishmarkets, let alone on a plate in foodservice. However, this firm flesh, strongly flavoured fish is not only plentiful but it in the right hands, can also be delicious. It is important that it is handled well from catch – ideally bled and chilled at harvest, and should be treated with respect when selecting the cooking method and accompanying flavours .
As a fillet, with the skin and dark red muscle removed ( which runs the length of the skin side of the fillet ) Tailor is a delicious, white, broad flaked flesh fish which has great culinary flexibility.
A memorable dish eaten at a Sydney Vietnamese restaurant recently, where the fillet was steamed, then fried and served with a high acid, herb and chilli dipping sauce; reminded me recently how delish this fish can be.
It seems that the Leather Jacket, like Mexican Cuisine, has been the “next new thing” in food for years but this rabbit of the sea is truly a recession buster – plentiful, especially in Winter, inexpensive, consistent, firm grained, mild flavoured and a great shelf life.
Easy to fillet, the flesh is mild flavoured and has an almost “chickenability” in regards to how it can be cooked, I prefer them cooked on the bone, where they remain soft and juicy and absorb the rich flavour of the simple bone structure.
Superb in curries, the Leatherjacket excels in baked, grilled and even poached preparations.
Currently in near plague proportions on the East Coast of Australia, the Leather Jacket is an ideal “green” choice being fast growing, abundant and the total commercial harvest is well below the known sustainable levels.
Clearly these fish won’t sell themselves, try using generic terms on your menus – “Thai fish curry” or“Moroccan grilled Fish” for example will be far less threatening than naming an unknown or frighteningly named species.
Allow your wait staff to inform guests of the species you are using on the day. Up the level of staff education and training in regards to these lesser known species. Clearly, having enthusiastic floor staff who can articulate the culinary values of the fish you are using, will have a dramatic impact on the saleability of these dishes. Getting your wait staff comfortable with this concept will be the catalyst to success with this “lesser known fish” strategy.
Importantly, be flexible – even more so with lesser known and lower value fish, you have to be vigilant with your commitment to using them – more than with premium value species you will need to encourage your fishmonger to seek out the best quality and to keep you informed of supply and availability – there is no point in merely replacing expensive with less expensive fish if you can’t manage the quality of the fish you receive.
I know, I know, it is easier said than done to menu the lesser known species and hook the interest of diners in your restaurant with fish they have never heard of or have had terrible experiences with at the hands of an old Uncles’ fishing expeditions. However, with tough times come innovative solutions- and by applying commitment and creativity I am confident you will be successful.
Whilst life is funny, using lesser known species is no joke if you are serious about serving premium quality fish, and still making a good margin.
Don’t look back on these times and think you could have done better – give secondary fish species a go and make some sense!