Twenty years ago, a national fast food chicken chain launched an advertising campaign with a small herd of cows waving scrawled signs urging consumers to “Eat Mor Chickin.” Now the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is similarly urging people whose default dinner is a slab of generic chicken breast to eat more seafood — Alaskan seafood in particular.
Over a dinner at Crush Wine Bistro & Cellar in Anchorage that includes fresh oysters, blue mussel soup with coriander and crème fraîche, king crab in cauliflower custard, and poached white king salmon in a corn velouté, Tyson Fick—ASMI’s communications director—tells me his mission is simple: “I would like to see Alaska seafood demystified.” By that, Fick says he means that Alaskan seafood is readily available, easy to prepare, affordable to eat and is a diverse offering. In addition, Alaska fish, and much of the shellfish, is sustainable and generally caught in the wild and not farmed.
Now is a good time for the Alaskan seafood industry. Preliminary data show that total 2014 sales topped $4.1 billion, with five species of salmon bringing in a third of those sales and Alaska pollock another third. Other popular species in terms of volume by weight include flatfish (sole and flounder) and Pacific cod. Halibut and four species of crab, while not big producers, still command good prices. And the current salmon catch for 2015 is expected to exceed the 2014 total by a wide margin. Altogether, Alaska supplies about 60 per cent of America’s seafood, yet two-thirds of the bounty is exported to other countries.
Our Anchorage seafood dinner is the kickoff for ASMI’s hands-on seafood tour for food journalists, chefs from three counties, and a seafood buyer serving northern Europe and Dubai. Over a four-day period, the group will try its own hand at deep-sea fishing, visit a salmon hatchery, a sonar salmon counting station on the Kenai River, a seafood processing plant, and learn about seafood cuisine in cooking classes in its base camp at the upscale Tutka Bay Lodge.
One of the key ASMI messages centers around the diversity of Alaskan seafood and its availability. For example, sockeye salmon is the most-prized and one of the highest-priced of the different species of salmon, yet pink salmon has a larger catch and sells at a much-lower price. Although the shellfish and mollusk segment is relatively small, it is very well known. Snow, king and Dungeness crab are all crowd favorites, yet there are so many ways to serve them other than steamed. And while Alaskan halibut graces many restaurant menus, there are interesting options.
Jan Rumble is a biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish &Game who helps determine the annual catch for ground-fish fisheries, but she is especially interested in Pacific cod and black cod (a.k.a. sablefish). “Pollock is the biggest fish in Alaska in terms of production,” she explains. “Cod is the new halibut!”
During the tour, there are two messages about salmon, Alaska’s iconic wild fish that even most red-meat eaters know about. “While salmon can be expensive, there are ways to stretch portions,” says Kate Consenstein, an ASMI spokesperson. “You can make salmon tacos, use salmon in salads and casseroles – I even grew up with canned salmon in mac and cheese.” Mandy Dixon, a chef whose family owns Tutka Bay Lodge, prepares for us knockout crab beignets utilizing chopped salmon, and an outing to the Saltry restaurant in Halibut Cove finds the kitchen sending out spicy, pickled salmon and creamy salmon rillettes.
The other salmon-says message that ASMI wishes every harried home cook would remember at dinner time is that you don’t have to thaw all that frozen seafood purchased at Costco or Trader Joe’s – “frozen to fork,” as they term it. “Frozen salmon and frozen cod are simple to cook,” Consenstein says. “Just rinse off the ice glaze in cold water, rub in a little oil on both sides and heat a pan to medium high. I cook it skin down for three minutes, carefully flip it, reduce the heat and cook for another three or four minutes, checking it with a fork. You can add white wine or water if you want a little steaming.”
A final message of the week is sustainability. Because of various political decisions made when Alaska was a territory and later a state, Alaskans are used to tough fishery management programs that determine what species need help in population regeneration, the length of the season and the catch allowed. “If consumers really are concerned about sustainability,” Fick says, “the best thing they can do is eat more American seafood and, especially, Alaskan seafood.”
Of course, Fick knows how to correctly spell, “Eat mor Alaskin seefood,” but he won’t argue with the slogan’s message.