Sheila off the Hook
Earlier this month, I had an amazing opportunity to join the first ever Off the Hook dinner at the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky. This “celebration of animals, vegetables, and minerals from the pond to the sea” featured lots of local chefs, plus ten chefs (including yours truly) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon Task Force. I was joined by Chef Rob Monahan, chef de cuisine at Jax in Boulder, who helped me prep and prepare our course. Often times with out of state events like this, you don’t know what kind of setup you’ll be given to cook at, so we’ll prepare everything beforehand. We had all of our ingredients ready to go, all we needed was a fish, which we got to pick out when we arrived. We chose a beautiful Hybrid Striped Bass, which we prepared as a crudo, with sunchoke puree, black pepper dashi, pickled pearl onions, daikon, shiso, and puffed grain furikake. Dinner was served in the aquarium, which was a really fun and unique. The guests were all extremely nice, curious about our sustainability efforts, and excited to meet chefs from Colorado that had come all the way out for the event. Both Rob and I had a ton of fun!
The next day, our group of Blue Ribbon Task Force chefs drove out to Big Fish Farms in nearby Bethel, Ohio. Famous for their Paddlefish Caviar, Renee and Keith Koerner ranch paddlefish in local ponds and lakes. The aquifers underneath Ohio create the perfect water for ranching paddlefish, rich in zooplankton, which they eat. While paddlefish are naturally stream-dwellers, they thrive in these local ponds. Once they are fully mature—about ten years—they will harvest their eggs. When we arrived at their farm, they already had two giant paddlefish ready to harvest. Together we butchered the fish and they walked us through the ropes of making caviar.
I am a big caviar fan, and I totally geeked out! First, we all drank a ceremonial shot of vodka. Then, we extracted two ten-pound lobes full of eggs from each fish. We extracted the eggs, pushed them through a screen to remove the membranes, and rinsed them in a saltwater solution. Cool fact—caviar is very delicate and quickly absorbs all kinds of flavors and odors from its environment, so you have to be very careful not to contaminate it. In fact, it’s so sensitive that we used ceramic knives throughout the whole process, and every time we washed our hands we used a special fragrance-free soap and then disinfected our hands with vodka!
Once the caviar had been rinsed, we drained it over another screen and then salted it.Renee and Keith experiment with all kinds of salt mixtures, and for these particular fish we used a mix of Pink Himalayan Salt and Blue Caspian Salt, which gave the caviar a cool multicolor hue. We mixed everything by hand and, after letting it sit, packed it all into tins. They refrigerate the tins for a week, flipping them from time to time to make sure they get seasoned evenly.
After a full afternoon of hard work, we were ready for some refreshment, and retired to their house for some paddlefish filets, more vodka, and, of course, tons of delicious caviar.
All in all, it was a wonderful trip. Rob and I had a blast at the aquarium and making caviar with Renee and Keith at Big Fish Farms was a dream come true. We are reviewing the logistics in order to hopefully source some to share with our guests at Jax. And after enjoying all that wonderful paddlefish, I’m hoping to be able to work with it more and spread the word about how delicious and versatile it is.
-Executive Chef of Jax Fish House, Sheila Lucero