Joe Lasprogata, director of purchasing for Samuels Seafood, asks: “How many people eat Cornish game hens compared to chicken?” My longtime fish purveyor is explaining to me the importance of eating invasive fish versus the reality. “We sell 100,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon per week. We’re lucky if we sell 1000 pounds of blue catfish,” he continues. “It does so much damage to the Chesapeake ecosystem. It’s an omnivore. It eats everything. And it’s delicious.”
It is “locally processed, comes in large sizes and isn’t bony” like the other invasive fish Samuels has attempted to educate its chef customers on serving, such as lionfish or snakehead. Some of the species that follow have indeed been a hard sell for restaurants, due to unfamiliarity to diners. But they all have one thing in common: they are delectable.
Lasprogata has been with Samuels since “the seafood industry was like the wild, wild west and before people in the US didn’t know tuna was supposed to be red.” But if customers can be educated, as evidenced by tuna, perhaps the tide will change? Lasprogata spent five years in the 1980s as a tuna buyer in the Gulf of Mexico prior to joining Samuels, selling tuna to Japan. Prior to this, “Americans thought tuna came in a can,” Lasprogata recalls. “In the 80’s, the US market had no experience with fresh tuna, but they were wowed by the beauty of sushi.”
Blue catfish sandwich at True Chesapeake, photo by Patrick Hudson
As a chef who specialised in serving fresh seafood for the last decade, its cost is constantly on my mind. I was accustomed to paying $7-10 wholesale per pound for varieties I would bring into Poi Dog, my now-closed Philadelphia restaurant. Serving anything other than ahi or salmon was frequently a challenge (we once brought in an entire fifty-pound cobia and sold a single order of cobia poke that day), and convincing customers to eat other species or even sustainably raised salmon took a fair amount of education.
Blue catfish is startlingly affordable. Fish sales representative Francesca Venti tells me: “If you were to walk in without an account, a whole fish is $3.25 per pound. With an account, a whole fish is $1.99.”
Zack Mills, executive chef of True Chesapeake Oyster Co. declares: “I think they could be substituted for fish that any household regularly eats at home. The Feast of the Seven Fishes would be a great place to start for the holidays.” Mills’ geographical proximity to the invasive blue catfish means he can make the most of it. “We regularly serve both it and snakehead in the restaurant. We generally deep-fry, pan-fry or pan-sear either of these fish. We've used them in both composed entrees as well as sandwiches. Both fish are received very well by diners.”
Snakehead, photo by Ange Branca
Ange Branca, founder of Kampar Kitchen makes a case for snakehead. “Snakehead is a really delicious fish. In Malaysia, if someone has surgery, eating snakehead soup or congee was a traditional recovery method. It’s believed to help heal wounds. Since we eat it in Malaysia, its population is controlled. It’s high in protein and glucosamine. It was considered a medicinal fish and a fish for beauty – because its collagen and glucosamine improve your skin. We also love it served sashimi-style. You can slide the sashimi, lightly cured in rice wine, into very hot congee to slightly cook it.”
Speaking of population control, my home state of Hawaii is considered the endangered species capital of the world. Home to 25% of the US’s endangered species, Hawaii is under constant threat from animals like the axis deer, which consumes endangered shrubs and trees. Initially brought as a gift from Hong Kong for King Kamehameha V in the 1860s, its population has grown exponentially. Axis deer has recently been showing up on menus at Chicago’s Alinea and in shelf stable Patagonia Provisions packets, in the form of delectable smoked jerky links.
Most wild game is not permissible for sale or restaurant consumption in the US. Amy Sins, the chef and owner of New Orleans’ Langlois bemoans this regulation when it comes to eating nutria (swamp rats) and wild hog. “The only way to obtain them is from a hunter or harvesting yourself. [Nutria] a very lean meat, and the animal eats mostly grasses. I cook this similarly to rabbit. I also find it is best ground and mixed with pork for meatballs, sausages or even tacos. Since the processing isn't certified, it cannot be cooked and sold.” There are some exceptions to the wild game rule. Maui Nui Venison works to harvest the Hawaiian wild deer according to rigorous USDA standards. The animals are never penned or trucked to slaughterhouses, which is the most common and stressful fate for commercially raised meat.
“Our mission at Maui Nui will always be to balance Maui’s axis deer population to help restore and strengthen both our ecosystems and food systems,” says Maui Nui co-founder Jacob Muise.
Axis deer, photo by Prince Abid @unsplash
At home, I sear axis deer leg medallions and ground venison and serve them with rice and garlicky sautéed romanesco. Chewing thoughtfully, my husband, chef Ari Miller muses: “The ground deer tastes like ground beef. Though it’s lean, there’s some fat in it, which makes it delicious. If Americans are going to be eating burgers and Hawaiian axis deer needs to be dealt with, Americans should just be eating burgers made with axis deer for a while.”
Food insecurity, self-reliance and curiosity buoyed by boredom has made many of us venture out literally into greener pastures. Heather McMonnies, forager and founder of Hedge says: “The pandemic has made foragers out of almost everyone. During lockdown… most of my chef clients texted me weekly to confirm species of plants and mushrooms they were finding by just taking walks with their families or pets. Even with so many more people foraging [invasive species] during the pandemic, I doubt any true ecological balance was restored in a grand way. However, learning about a new foraged plant and incorporating it culinarily adds new dimensions to the way we cook, eat, and think about food. If those new ideas…contribute to a better use of invasive plants, then I believe that's an incredibly positive thing.”
McMonnies highlights the urgency of eating some plants. “Japanese knotweed – you MUST discard all unused cut pieces by burning or pulping and wrapping in plastic. It is so invasive that scraps left from culinary prep can propagate almost anywhere and be as difficult to remove as bamboo. It will grow through the foundation of a home and in some countries is part of a real estate inspection process.” And for this holiday season? “Late autumn, leading into early winter, garlic mustard is the only thing that you might find [in Pennsylvania]. The greens are pungent and spicy, and the root can be ground like horseradish.” But McMonnies raises a word of caution for any potential urban foragers: “For someone living in a city, I would not recommend foraging. Toxins in the ground and water can be absorbed by plants.”
Knotweed tempura, photo by Ari Miller
Dr. Julie Skinner, food writer and founder of Georgia-based Root - through which she teaches classes on fermentation, food waste and more - tells me that wild plants connect us to “knowledge that many people, at least here in the US, may have been cut off from. We're very familiar with fruits and veggies in the grocery store, but when you remove the label and packaging and see the plant in the wild, you're suddenly interacting with it as its whole self. You're taking control of identifying and gathering your food.”
Gathering invasive plants is therefore Foraging 101, a good place to start knowing your food better.
“For invasives, we aren't so worried about population decline. [We] can safely gather them abundantly without harming the environment provided, of course, we're being mindful of not destroying other plants along the way. I really tried to push people [at the start of the pandemic] towards invasives when I was asked for foraging tips to hopefully help protect native species,” says Skinner.
Targeting invasive plants can initially be daunting. I spoke with Dr. Jon Reisman, a wilderness doctor, internist, forager, and author of just-published The Unseen Body. “I've gathered, cooked and eaten chickweed, dandelion, field garlic, garlic mustard, goosefoot, Japanese knotweed, and pokeweed.”
I pause. “Isn’t pokeweed toxic?”
Reisman laughs. “Pokeweed is indeed poisonous, but when it is first sprouting and just about a foot or so tall there is less poison in it, and you can boil it with a change of water, and that gets rid of the bitter poison. ‘Poke’ is very commonly eaten in the south. I've cooked some very delicious poke with soy sauce and sesame oil after boiling.”
In that case, I’ll add pokeweed to my poke and blue catfish, axis deer and garlic mustard to my holiday table this year.