New England’s ever-dwindling cod supply is forcing U.S. chefs to look elsewhere for the popular menu item. Last year, the New England Fishery Management Council slashed 2013-2105 cod quotas by more than 50 percent for the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, in efforts to halt the fish species from completely disappearing from the region.
The Norwegian Seafood Council is looking to fill the cod void, promoting the use of skrei (pronounced skray), a seasonal Norwegian cod that migrates from the Barents Sea to its spawning grounds off Norway’s north coast. In ordered to be labeled skrei, reports the Council, strict conditions must be met. The cod must be caught wild, full grown, between January and April, and packed within 12 hours of being caught. It also can’t have any imperfections, such as nicks or bruises.
The Seafood Council is spreading the word about Norway’s sustainable fishing operations, a savvy marketing move as sustainability is cited by the National Restaurant Association as a top culinary trend for 2014. Norway’s sustainability claims, however, are not just a public relations ploy.
The small country—the world’s second-largest seafood exporter, behind only China—first enacted regulatory controls in 1816 to ensure skrei’s longevity. Of the 400 million cod that migrate annually to the coast, only 10 percent of those caught qualify to be branded as skrei. The remaining 90 percent are thrown back into the Barents Sea. All skrei is Marine Stewardship Council certified.
Norway is also making a name for its sustainable salmon and halibut aquaculture program, which combines the country’s natural asset of cold, clear waters with strict regulations to monitor the health and safety of fisheries.
Chef Todd Gray, who owns Washington-based Equinox and Muse Café with his wife Ellen, was among a group of U.S. chefs invited in 2013 by the Seafood Council to tour Norway’s fisheries. The experience was eye-opening, says Gray, who was also named to the Seafood Council’s U.S. Culinary Board.
“Farmed fish has always had a bad rap,” says Gray. “It was wise of the Council to take a group of chefs—we are all converts. We were able to see firsthand the way the fish is being farmed, and the dedication of the people involved. The salmon and halibut are farmed in this pristine environment along the coast, and, in combination with the fabricating facilities, it makes you understand that the next wave of our fish consumption will have to be properly farmed fish, in order to feed the masses.”
While Norwegian salmon is already on the menu at Equinox, Gray is looking forward to using the wild skrei. Just coming into season, skrei will be featured on Equinox’s menu for about six weeks, starting in late January. While similar to Atlantic cod, says Gray, there are also some differences.
Skrei flesh has a denser feel, and is meatier and tighter—not quite as flabby as Atlantic cod, says Gray. It is also more durable and able to sustain a higher heat, making it more appropriate for pan roasting and searing. “We can do a bolder preparation than we would with regular cod,” says Gray.
Menu possibilities include a pan-seared skrei with winter ingredients, such as endive and blood oranges, served with black trumpet mushrooms and smoked onions. Gray is also thinking of a tarragon-crusted skrei layered on smoked-onion butter with black trumpet mushrooms and caramelized artichokes.
Norway’s aquaculture and wild skrei fishing practices fit in well with Gray’s efforts to run a sustainable operation. In 2004, Equinox became the first certified humane restaurant in the D.C. area. “We’ve always taken a small farm approach to our menu, in the sense that we are using locally sourced vegetables from Tuckahoe Valley, all natural birds out of Pennsylvania, and buying a lot of soft shell crabs from small producers,” says Gray. “We look for family-owned business that live up to sustainable practices in the way that they use their products.”
The challenge is to ensure that a steady line of good, fresh product is available.
To that end, Gray is lining up purveyors to bring in a constant supply of Norwegian fish. He is also actively involved in introducing skrei to other chefs in the D.C. market, and will be hosting a chef demo in February at Salamander Resort and Spa in Virginia, where he is culinary director.
By Joann Whitcher