Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How to Save Food by Eating It

This time of the year we’re thinking seafood at Tre Piani. It’s Lent and as a self-respecting Italian restaurant we serve seafood. Which brings me to the Cape May Salt Oysters - I love them, first and foremost, because they are delicious: they kiss your palate with just the right blend of sweet and salty, elegant and smooth. But then they are a great example of how you can save an endangered species of food simply by eating it. A win-win situation.

The Cape May Salt Oysters are actually Delaware Bay oysters grown in a very salty patch of the ocean off the shore in Cape May (hence the “salt”). Delaware Bay Oysters, a New Jersey legacy, once streamed out of Cape May - collected in barrels, loaded onto trucks and dispatched to Philadelphia. They were so bountiful that some streets in colonial Philadelphia were paved with their shells. The Cape May oyster industry provided jobs for thousands of people and created a bustling economy in the area. Back then, places selling oysters were as common as present-day pizzerias.

But as it happens all too often, overfishing, pollution, a changing environment and diseases brought a decline in the local oysters and the oyster industry in Cape May. While the Cape May estuary was home to 1,400 boats with 2,300 men in 1879, those numbers shrank to fewer than 50 boats and 150 men involved in cultivating and gathering oysters.

But things have been turning around recently, largely due to the innovative research, expertise and hard work of two of my friends: Danny Cohen, a longtime fisherman who looks like a PhD, and Walt Canzonzier, a PhD who looks like a fisherman and specializes in oysters. Danny and Walt started to grow Delaware Bay Oysters in sustainable conditions that make them the exquisite delicacy that they once were.  Known now as Cape May Salt Oysters, they are enjoying a real renaissance, and are a much sought-after item on the menus of Tre Piani and many other high-end restaurants across the country. You can read all about it in Locavore Adventures.

I also dare say that Slow Food Central New Jersey and the Slow Food’s Ark of Taste program have something to do with the oysters’ re-established caché.  The Ark Project is a way to identify and catalog endangered foods, such as oysters. Slow Food groups from outside the US had already identified hundreds of Ark food-members; they included not just seafood, but heirloom fruits and vegetables, rare breeds of livestock, beverages, cheeses, honey, grains, and the like. I wanted the Delaware Bay Oysters to be the first American food to enter the ark. With the help of Walt, and my Slow Food colleagues, we put together a paper documenting our case. We really wanted to protect the endangered Delaware Bay oyster industry itself. We were realistic because of course there was no way to bring back the boom times, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t develop a good market for locally grown oysters of special quality.

We succeeded in hoisting the oysters up the Slow Food ladder to be the first Ark of Taste member of Slow Food USA. At this level not only is the product identified but we take steps to reintroduce it into niche markets. James Tweed, Danny Cohen’s Oysterman, was recently asked, “Has Slow Food helped [in popularizing the oysters ]? His answer was an emphatic yes. The production has tripled and the demand has sustained itself.

Sometimes all you need to do in order to preserve an endangered food is to eat it. Create demand that will sustain its producers and allow them to keep doing what they’re doing. Oysters can be served in so many ways. Here is one of Walter’s quirky recipe, as is, from Locavore Adventures.

Having sampled a batch or two of oysters for Dermo or other symbionts of interest, one is
typically left with a nice batch of preshucked bivalves that demand thrifty disposal late in the
afternoon. TFD drawing near, it it might be most appropriate to utilise this “by-product” by
consigning it to the kitchen for additional processing that will convert it to a comestible item
for the dinner table. One quick and simple procedure that I have applied to such excessively
manipulated oysters is the following.

Shucked oysters (nice glycogen-rich specimens from the Cape Shore or the MR Cove preferred)
Fresh parsellee, chopped fine
Some spinach from a local farm market (if in season); wash to remove the sand and cut coarsely
Some high-quality bread crumbs
Some boiled hamm if not all the supply has been used for lunch sandwiches (smoked hamm is
Some ground thyme and ground black pepper
A bit of EV olive oil from Puglia
Some white wine or dry vermouth

Spread a layer of bread crumbs on the bottom of a moderately shallow ceramic dish. Place some
hamm on top of this layer and then place the parsellee and/or spinach on top of the hamm. Next
add the oysters on top of the spinach. Sprinkle on some pepper and thyme and then a thin layer
of parsellee and spinach.
Drool a few mL of olive oil over this layer plus a bit of white wine (if the oysters are of high
salinity, use plenty of wine to dilute the salt) and then cover the entire mess with a nice layer
of bread crumbs. Cover the dish and place in the microundulator and give it a spin at low to
medium power until it bubbles around the edges. Now place the dish in a preheated oven and
bake at a fairly high temperature until the crumbs are nicely browned. This concoction is easy
to make and is ready before you have finished your first glass of vino potabile.

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