Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Louisiana Seafood & Chef Michael Brewer

Time and time again, such as in my 3 Rules Of Eating SeafoodI have implored Americans to eat more domestic seafood. Sadly, we import about 90% of the seafood we consume and that is a tragedy on several levels. It is also unnecessary as there is so much delicious seafood in our local waters. By consuming domestic seafood, we give support to our local fishermen, many who have financial difficulties due to various circumstances. Domestic seafood is also highly regulated, helping to ensure our seafood is sustainable and safe.

At the Seafood Expo North America (SENA), I spent some time at the Louisiana Seafood booth, learning more about their seafood industry and speaking with an award-winning chef, Michael Brewer. If you look at the statistics, you'll understand the great importance of Louisiana and U.S. seafood. Let's begin with the size of its waters, noting that its coastline is over 7700 miles long, which is longer than that of California. Annually, nearly 4 billion pounds of seafood are landed in the U.S. and Louisiana lands almost 900,000 pounds. One-third of all landed seafood comes from the Gulf, and Louisiana lands two-thirds of that total, making it the King of the Gulf.

As for specific seafood species, Louisiana lands 32% of the U.S. total amount of Shrimp, 34% of total Oysters, 25% of Blue Crab, 98% of Crawfish, 25% of Red Snapper, 62% of Drumfish, and 52% of Catfish. Unfortunately, it is important to note that 75% of the Crawfish consumed by Americans is imported. Why can't people stick to Louisiana crawfish? A crawfish boil is tasty and so much fun, but it is best with domestic crawfish as you know exactly what you are getting. I'll also mention that roughly 85%-90% of the crawfish harvested in Louisiana is from aquaculture, which is considered sustainable.

You might not realize that Louisiana's seafood industry includes wild and farmed raised alligators. I'm a fan of alligator meat, especially from the body. The tail meat can be too chewy and fibrous unless it is cooked just right. Roughly 310,000 wild and farmed alligators are sustainably harvested each year in Louisiana, which is probably far more than you would have ever suspected. Gator is certainly more popular in the South, but I think more Northerners should check it out too.

At the Seafood Expo, the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board was present to discuss the benefits of seafood from Louisiana. I also got to briefly meet Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who oversees the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. Lt. Governor Nungesser has said, “Being a leader in the industry, we have responsibility to stress the health benefits and quality of our product compared to our imported counterparts.”

The Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board has also developed the American Seafood Coast Guard, an "initiative to address the issues associated with imported seafood and better educate the public about the health risks involved, as well as how to identify and where to locate high-quality, domestic product." Their basic advice to consumers includes getting them to seek out the origin of their seafood and to develop a relationship with their seafood vendor. Consumers need to check Country of Origin labels, to learn what is domestic seafood, and if they have any questions, they need to ask the fish vendor or restaurant staff. Education of consumers is vital in this regard.

As I've said before, one of the primary reasons why consumers don't eat more seafood is that they think it is too difficult to cook. Preparing seafood is far easier than most people think and if you can cook a chicken or steak, you can just as easily cook seafood. The Louisiana Seafood site provides a number of recipes for home cooks for Louisiana seafood, broken down into Shrimp, Crawfish, Crab, Oysters, Fish and Alligator. You'll also find recipes for Appetizers, Soups, Salads and Entrees. Try some Crawfish Bread Bites, Oyster & Bacon Chowder, Tropical Shrimp Salad or Crab Imperial.

For more recipes and advice on cooking seafood, please see one of my previous posts, How To Cook Seafood.

Last year, Chef Michael Brewer (pictured above) was crowned the King of Louisiana Seafood at the 2015 Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off for his Sheepshead Nachos. At the Seafood Expo, while Chef Brewer was removing shell and cartilage pieces from a large tray of crab meat, I had the chance to chat with him about his experiences and Louisiana seafood. He was unpretentious and down-to-earth, a passionate man and ardent advocate to the Gulf.

Chef Brewer initially worked as an electrical engineer but when his company closed in 2002, he decided to follow his passion and enter restaurant work. He didn't attend culinary school and began working as a waiter, subsequently receiving instruction and advice from the chefs at the various restaurants he worked. It would be the devastation of Katrina though which would firmly set him on his culinary path.

This tragedy brought out all of his love for New Orleans and he had an intense desire to help rebuilt New Orleans through food. He understood the importance of food to the people of New Orleans, such as the strong connection between family and food. In New Orleans, the talk at lunch ofen involves discussing what they will eat for dinner. There is also a close community of chefs in New Orleans, willing to help each other when needed.

For a couple years, Chef Brewer owned and operated The Sammich, a creative sandwich shop. It began as a test and closed last fall. Since then, Chef Brewer has become the new Executive Chef at Manning's Restaurant, which is located in the Harrah's New Orleans. Though Harrah's generally uses seafood from all over the world, Chef Brewer will be able to use only local seafood at Manning's. It is Chef Brewer's goal to give a soul to Manning's, to solidify its roots to the seafood of the Gulf.

Chef Brewer stated that the best thing about Louisiana seafood is its freshness, that it comes right out of their backyard. In addition, its diversity is also compelling, where fresh seafood is available year round, each season offering something different. He offered some advice on the use of seafood, first recommending that we use more "trash" fish, those underutilized species which still taste delicious but aren't as commonly popular. I've previously offered that same advice, having also heard it from a number of other chefs and seafood proponents.

In addition, Chef Brewer recommends using the entire fish, from nose to tail fin, to maximize the use of your fish and get every bit of value from it. He mentioned how he once learned the Mexican way to cook chicken skin and he then used that technique to cook fish skin. For example, he used the skins of Sheepshead fish (also known as the Convict fish), in his award-winning Nachos, which also had bacon fat tartar sauce and charred corn salsa. You will find other chefs now working with fish skin, which is great to see more people using every part of the fish.

Chef Brewer also provided some cooking advice for consumers, for preparing seafood at home. Many home cooks think cooking seafood is too difficult but his main advice is: "Don't be afraid. The worst thing you can make is dog food and that will make your dog happy." He recommends experimenting and not worrying about the results. Home cooks must get over their fears and just start cooking seafood, gaining practice and learning how to best prepare that seafood. Yes, there might be a few mistakes initially but if you keep at it, you won't keep making those errors and you'll start cooking delicious seafood dishes.

For more specific cooking tips, he states that home cooks need to get a flavor for salt, to understand how not to use too much or too little, to get to that happy medium. In addition, home cooks need to learn how to season better, to push it until it is almost too much. That will take practice but will payoff in the end, when you continually make perfectly seasoned food. Chef Brewer suggested using citrus peels as a  easoning agent, placing those peels in a coffee grinder. Finally, Chef Brewer highly recommended that consumers buy U.S. seafood, even if they have to pay more for it. U.S. seafood is a quality product and it is worth the added expense.

It was a pleasure to chat with Chef Brewer and I'm in agreement with his seafood advice. We need to eat more domestic seafood, more trash fish and not be afraid to cook seafood at home. Louisiana seafood offers many benefits and is a much better option than imported seafood, even if it costs a bit more. Explore the seafood options from the Gulf!

1 comment:

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