Archive for July, 2016

Summer Means Whiting in Ipswich Bay

Thursday, July 21st, 2016



Many people reading this blog will say whiting is old news. And it is; the whiting fishery in Gloucester was once so important that many families made a living fishing nothing but Gulf of Maine shrimp in the winter and whiting in the summer. They didn’t even bother with ground fish; shrimp and whiting provided a comfortable enough living for a fisherman’s family. Gloucester whiting went directly to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City, where vendors from New York and Philadelphia purchased almost all of it. Jewish cultures smoke it and serve it with bagels; the Spanish split it, grill it, and drizzle it with olive oil. In Sicily whiting is considered a definitive delicacy and sells for many euros a pound.

I spoke to Gloucester fisherman Al Cottone, Executive Director Gloucester Fisheries Commission, at the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives offices after his fourth day fishing for whiting. A strapping, dark-haired 50 years old, Cottone confessed he was beat. He’s not used to the unrelenting action fishing for whiting demands anymore.
Cottone has been fishing since he was 17, and has never had any other kind of work. But his ground fish quota this year, allocated by NOAA, was pared down to almost nothing: Cottone is allowed to catch 1,800 pounds of cod, 2,800 pounds of dabs, 3,000 pounds of grey sole, and 2,400 pounds of yellow tail flounder for the year. He has been ground fishing two times since the season began, when the allocations were announced in early March. In just two “tows,” meaning two drops of the net – that means ground fishing for four hours in total – he landed 700 pounds of grey sole, 600 pounds of dabs, and 300 pounds of yellow tail. In four hours of fishing he landed 1/4 of his quota for the year.

This means two things: Cottone cannot catch enough fish to make a living, unless he begins leasing quota from other fishermen, which has added costs. (Cottone says that many fishermen are so fed up, or they are just leasing their allocated quota to the few fishermen left, and finding other work.) It also means Cottone is out of shape; he just hasn’t had enough fishing practice recently.
But Cottone loves fishing for whiting.

“I fell in love with it immediately. Fishing for whiting is constant work; it’s constant action. You’re moving constantly, fishing the whole time. There’s no time to eat, no time to do anything, and you fish everyday.”

Ground fishing is long tows that take a couple of hours each. Fishing for whiting means short tows that take an hour at most. As soon as the catch is landed on the deck the other partner begins sorting the catch, while the net goes down again. Whiting fishing requires two men, one to run the boat and tows, the other to sort the catch. Most ground fishing these days is done solo, a particularly dangerous situation.
Cottone fished for whiting on the FV Razzo with Captain Joe Randazzo for four days. They did three tows, and landed 6,000 pounds the first day, 7,500 the second, and 6,000 the third, Thursday, the last day, rough seas limited the catch to 4,500 pounds. NOAA allows 7,500 pounds of whiting per day per boat. Ipswich Bay, where Cottone was fishing, is teaming with whiting.

The whiting first show up in the middle of June. Cottone says he doesn’t know where they come from. When they disappear in October, they are gone – just gone – until the following June.

“When I started fishing,” Cottone said, “we would only fish for ground fish in the spring. We fished whiting from June to November, and Gulf of Maine shrimp all winter. Now the shrimp fishery is gone.”

And whiting in Gloucester is news again. When the Fulton Fish Market in New York closed down in its old site, the Gloucester whiting market lost its market, and the fishery faded away. Now, with the ground fish quota so spare, and the whiting fishery so healthy, fishermen are pairing up to go for whiting again.
But it’s a grind, Cottone reminds. And most of the fishermen left, the ones who just can’t stop fishing, are not young. With all the ground fish conflicts and closures of the last twenty years, a generation has been lost. John Sanfilippo, 70, and his brother-in-law Joe Orlando, 62, are the ones out there in Ipswich Bay beside the “Razzo,” dropping nets and sorting fish on the FV San Pio.

Captain Joe Orlando

John Sanfilippo on boat


“I don’t know how they do it,” Cottone says.


Whiting are sorted in three sizes, small, large and king, the last of which are usually more valuable.

sorting the catch

king whiting


Maybe it is the light texture and super-mild flavor, but Italians consider whiting health food. One Gloucester fisherman’s wife even believed it should be sold commercially as baby food. In the past month I have poached it in an infused olive oil, and served it over crispy paella. I have fried it so the skin is very crispy and served it with a fermented sofrito sauce. I have dusted it in flour, fried it, and served it with the cool, spicy Portuguese molho vilhao sauce – lots of diced raw onion, chilis and white vinegar. I have dipped it in vodka, rolled it in cornstarch and flour, and fried it to super-crispy. I served that with a black garlic, hoisin style sauce. I also prepared a winning recipe for whiting from a seafood throw down last season, Common Crow chefs’ recipe for whiting in lettuce cups with rice noodles and peanut sauce.

Danielle Glantz, from Pasta via Corta, the new cheese and pasta shop in Gloucester, gave me a recipe for steaming it in grape leaves, and serving the whiting with a lemon and olive-cured black olive salsa. Angela Sanfilippo would say that fresh whiting is so delicate and delicious that doing the least to it is the best way: dust small whiting lightly in flour and fry them or steam them and dress with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Maybe garlic.  Versatility, thy name is “whiting.”

simple fried whiting

crispy fried whiting

But here’s the thing. Currently, New York is the only market receiving whiting. I wrote this blog in the first week of July. This week, July 11th, Joe Orlando was heading out fishing and the New York market called him to say, “don’t go.” The whiting market was flooded, and the price was down to pennies. So the boats returned to the dock, while people in Gloucester who would love this fresh, seasonal catch, can’t get it. These are the complex vagaries of the fishing industry today.

But I am going to leave you with the Rung McLean’s recipe for Thai Fish Cups.  Chefs Rung McClean and Mark Delaney of the Common Crow Natural Food Market, Gloucester, MA, took home the seafood throw down win with this ravishing Thai inspired dish: steamed delicate whiting, a nest of rice noodles, nestle into a burst of Boston lettuce leaves. A sweet-hot Thai chili-peanut dressing is spooned over the fish, and a cool watermelon/fennel salad, dressed in a purple-basil vinegar dressing, is spooned beside.

McClean wrapped the whole whiting in foil, and steamed it while she prepped the sauce, noodles, and greens. Any small to medium whole white fish could be used the same way, like pollock, haddock, hake or even halibut.  This is a light, fresh recipe that uses a lot of local produce, and it includes all the flavors no one can refuse.  As watermelon comes into the markets, the salad alone is great recipe to have on hand.


Thai Whiting Cups

Thai Fish Cups
prepared at the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market Seafood Throwdown, August, 2015
Serves 6

For the Fish:
2 whole king whiting, or 3-4 pounds other whole fish or 2-3 pounds fillets (If you can find medium-sized whole fish that’s great.  But you can steam fillets in the foil also.)
olive oil for rubbing
salt and pepper
6 fennel fronds

For the sauce:
6 Thai chilies, seeds and ribs removed, diced small
2 red bell peppers diced small
5 cloves of garlic crushed, and made into a paste
11/2 cups sugar
11/2 cups rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup crushed peanuts

For the salad:
2 tablespoons purple basil vinegar (or herb vinegar of your choice)
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 large fennel bulb thinly sliced
1 seedless watermelon either red or yellow diced small
1 lb. arugula

1/2 pound white rice noodles or brown rice vermicelli

1 fluffy head Boston Lettuce
1 bunch Thai Basil
1 bunch cilantro
For the fish:
1. Rinse and scale the whole whiting. Lightly score both sides. Rub both sides and cavity with olive oil, salt and pepper. In the cavity place fennel fronds. Loosely wrap fish in tin foil, almost tent-like, so the fish will steam inside the foil (- much like fish cooked in parchment paper en papillote style). Place foil package over a medium-high grill or place in a 400 degree oven. Roast for 20 minutes, or peek, opening up the foil, and checking to see that the meat is cooked through completely. If done, open foil package to stop the steaming, and allow the fish to cool slightly. When ready to serve, take forks and pull away large chunks of fish, discarding the skin. Set 2-3 large chunks (about 1/4 pound in total) upon the lettuce leaves, and continue with the plate.

For the sauce:
1. In a medium bowl combine all ingredients and reserve.

For the salad:
1. Whisk together vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper in a glass measuring cup. Toss fennel, watermelon and arugula together in a large bowl, and coat lightly with vinaigrette.

For the Noodles:
Prepare as directed on package. Rinse, and set aside.

1 bunch Thai Basil
1 bunch cilantro

To Assemble the Dish:
1. Place a large Boston lettuce leaf or two on each plate. Set on that a portion of cooked rice noodles, a portion of steamed fish, draping all in the sauce. Place a portion of the watermelon/fennel/arugula salad beside the greens, and garnish with a few basil and cilantro leaves and a pinch more of the crushed peanuts.

Gloucester Fisherman’s Wife Seafood Casserole

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

GFWA cass


The fishing industry today has copious layers obscuring its comprehension (which some people view as intentional; if no one understands what’s going on, they can’t protest the regulations), starting with quotas and ending in catch shares. Fishing policy is byzantine and often seems contradictory, resulting in a cloud of thought hovering over the average consumer’s brain that looks like this at the fish counter:

I should eat fish because it’s good for me, but local fish is so expensive. But everyone says I shouldn’t eat cheap imported fish. But there are fish, specifically wild salmon, on the USDA food pyramid. The USDA is telling me to eat more fish, at the same time the government tells me that the fishing industry is dying. All kinds of people say that salmon is packed with omega 3‘s, and I should be eating lots of it. But not farmed salmon. Is salmon not fish?!

Leaving a salmon discussion out of it for now, no one understands anymore what fish to eat, or who are the good and bad guys in the fishing story. Sadly, since the 1990’s, the narrative being told throughout the media was so simple a kindergartner could understand it: the fishermen fish too much, and that’s why there are no fish left.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently held a two day workshop in Gloucester, a workshop called “Local Food Local Places,” created to help cities improve their local food systems. Historically Gloucester’s most important local food, fish, headlined the conversation. The participants at the workshop struggled to chart ideas for innovating the local fishing market in Gloucester. Those ideas will result in a report that Jason Espie, who directed the workshop on behalf of the EPA, will create. That report will be delivered to the White House.

Just weeks before St. Peter’s Festival and the blessing of the fleet, the fishermen in attendance at the workshop looked tired and depressed, as if they had seen all this before. They had attended too many meetings and tried to fight too many losing battles, and were still being defeated by government policies based on that much too simple, way too consumable tale: fishermen fish too much, and are destroying the ocean.

At the workshop, describing this battle to the other attendants, fisherman Joe Orlando told the story of how his own daughter once came home from Gloucester elementary school crying, accusing her father, who comes from generations of fishermen, of destroying the ocean. Again, a story so simple a kindergartner can understand it.  David Pierce, then Director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, had asked a room full of Gloucester school children how many believed over-fishing had destroyed the ocean; 90% of the children raised their hands.

Angela Sanfilippo, the daughter of a fishermen, the wife of a fisherman, and Joe Orlando’s sister, also participated in the EPA workshop.  Sanfilippo has been the outspoken and influential president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association since 1977. From the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association Cookbook, written by Susan Pollack, here is a list of what Sanfilippo had accomplished by the time the book was published in 2010:

“On Angela’s watch, among other accomplishment, the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association has helped bring about improved safety standards on US vessels, the end of ocean dumping, a ban on destructive factory trawlers, the first subsidized health plan for fishermen (upon which the Affordable Care Act was based), and a marine sanctuary at Stellwagen Bank.”

This is just the beginning of a long, rich story that disproves the short narrative about which those school children were surveyed.

I recently heard another daughter of a commercial fishermen, Emily Peterson of the podcast Sharp & Hot, say, “ like any other species, the best way to keep fish alive is to harvest and eat them.”

It is possible, as Angela SanFilippo is proving, to be a fishermen and the ocean’s best partner.

Watch for actions that resulted from the Local Food-Local Places workshop soon, but in the meantime, seek out local fish in the market, demand local fish at your favorite restaurant – even if it does cost a little more. You will be reminded of what honestly fresh fish tastes like and you will be rewarded in deliciousness; you will ask why you ever settled for “refreshed” (read: frozen) imported fish.

Lastly, greet your local fishermen with kindness, and stop accepting that suspiciously simplistic fish tale.

Here is a rich, delicious recipe from Angela; make it if you can with local lobster and scallops. If you can’t find USA wild caught shrimp, which I have been able to purchase frozen in Stop & Shop, simply omit the shrimp and make this with equal parts lobster and scallops; it’s even better that way. This recipe is also delicious, Angela says, made with monkfish cut into 1” chunks. Don’t scream, but I have been cooking with sea robin fillets recently, a fish the French feature in their most traditional bouillabaisse. They would be great here, as would layered dabs or flounder.

cass on table

Fishermen’s Wives Seafood Casserole

serves 4-6


1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter + butter to rub in the dish

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh red chile (or 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes)

1/2 -3/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

pinch of salt

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes

1/2 can (14 ounces) crushed tomatoes

1 1/2 cups plain breadcrumbs (or Panko)

1 cup grated Romano cheese

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound fresh lobster meat (cooked)

3/4 pound raw scallops, rinsed, patted dry, and halved if very large

3/4 pound cooked shrimp, halved if large, preferably wild caught in the USA


  1.  Rub a medium size, approximately 2 quart, glass or ceramic baking dish generously with butter. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Heat a large saute pan to medium heat, and add olive oil and butter. When butter is melted, add onion and cook until almost transparent, about 10 minutes. (Lower heat if onion is browning too quickly.) Add garlic, and cook for 5 more minutes. Add chiles, parsley and salt, and cook until onions begin to brown. Add tomatoes and let the dish cook for 15 – 20 minutes or until the tomatoes have lost their raw taste.
  3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl mix together the breadcrumbs, cheese, and black pepper. In a separate bowl toss the seafood together. When the tomatoes mixture is cooked, add the breadcrumbs into the pan and gently stir together. The mixture will thicken. Toss that into the seafood bowl, and combine all together well. (Use your hands if that works best. The mixture will be stiff.) Pour into the prepared dish, distributing evenly. Pat down to even out the top as best you can. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling at the edges and bits on the top are slightly browned. This dish is actually a little more flavorful when allowed to cool slightly.