A Bite of the Ocean

Spring/Summer 2019

It’s August, and we’re finally getting a day without stifling humidity. The flowers outside Chef Rizwan Ahmed’s home seem renewed by the recent rain. The decline in temperatures means the chef can entertain with the windows open, a gentle breeze tickling the lace curtains as he cooks. It’s a perfect afternoon for chowder and crab cakes.

But here’s the thing: there are no clam or quahog shells lying around.

Instead, on the counter near the sink is a neat mound of slipper limpets, sometimes called slipper shells. And the crab cakes are not from the usual blue crab: they’re Jonah crabs, long regarded by lobstermen as bycatch. Yet these choices were not made because the usual ingredients were sold out; in fact, they symbolize the whole purpose behind Simmering the Sea, a new cookbook intended to introduce home cooks to sustainable eating.

Mitonnez la Mer

When University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography professor Jeremy Collie met French fisheries scientist Marie-Joëlle Rochet at a conference, he made an interesting discovery. Rochet had teamed up with other fisheries scientists to produce a cookbook focusing on underutilized fish resources. Its name? Mitonnez la Mer, or Simmering the Sea.

The idea for a similar book geared for a New England audience was born, and the two teamed up to begin the process. Later, they would partner with Eating with the Ecosystem, including Sarah Schumann and Kate Masury. The nonprofit is dedicated to developing ways for people to support “the region’s marine ecosystems and the people who depend on them,” according to their website. Schumann and Masury would do some of the writing, maintaining an approach to the American version that was like that of the French.

“URI researchers were looking into the production of the ecosystems and comparing that with consumer use and fish availability,” Masury says. “We wanted to find out what species were out there and why some species may not typically be found in our local marketplace.”

The foundation of Simmering the Sea was about to be established.

(Above) Chef Rizwan Ahmed, with Kate Masury, serves up slipper limpet chowder from Simmering the Sea.

Fish Finders

Most cookbooks are created in a relatively straightforward manner: The author may simply choose recipes from the latest trends or from what’s selling in a restaurant. Not so in this case.

“We enlisted citizen scientists for our research,” Masury says. “We had people from all over New England recording the availability of different fish species at markets. Every week they had an assignment that we called a ‘fish list’ of about four species of fish that they would try to find at three different markets.

The list was randomly generated from a list of 52 species, including the usual suspects like lobster or cod, but also unusual ones like dogfish or scup or skate. We’d send them out and ask whether a market had it. They recorded whether the market carried it, [and] if they did, the citizens were asked to buy it and prepare it at home, later reporting on their result. It ended up being a really cool project, and it had the added effect of getting a number of managers to stock the fish, saying, ‘Hey, you asked about that fish last week, and now we have it!’”

In addition to learning about the availability of species, the research had the added benefit of informing the team about which species might be challenging to work with. Citizens were asked about their experiences cooking these fish: Did they like it? Were they successful?

For example, Masury says many people struggled with butterfish; they didn’t seem to know what to do with the bones. Once much of the research was complete, it was time to take the next step: bringing in the chef.

From Bait to Plate

The cookbook was not Ahmed’s first collaboration with Eating with the Ecosystem. Ahmed, an instructor at Johnson and Wales University (JWU), first met Schumann several years ago when he owned a restaurant in Bristol.

“Every Saturday I used to go to this farm stand and pick up produce and local ingredients for my restaurant, Hourglass Brasserie,” he said. “Sarah had a sign out saying she was looking for chefs to collaborate on a dinner series featuring underutilized seafood. I thought, ‘What a great idea!’ I invited her to my restaurant and she was very pleased. We already had a lot of that sort of fish on the menu like skate, scup, and periwinkles, and we really clicked right there. She asked if I would like to start the series off, and we had the first dinner event there. We had Sarah speak, I spoke, and we had others. I served a five-course meal, and as we served, we talked about the environment, how we chose the best species, so it was a good event. It caught on, and restaurants around the state began to host similar evenings.”

Ahmed shares an anecdote that might represent much of the philosophy behind the book: convincing the public that there are more delicious fish in the sea than just the typical seafood counter favorites.

“When I first moved to Bristol, I went with my wife for a walk in Independence Park. There was a fisherman out there who caught a skate. He took out a bat and hit it a few times, cut it up, and put some on his hook. I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘This is no good. It’s a garbage fish, so I’m using it for bait.’ I said, ‘No, these are the kinds of fish I’m interested in using at my restaurant, so next time you catch any, bring them to my restaurant and I’ll take them.’ And guess what? The next time I opened my restaurant, he came in and sold some to me.”

Refining Recipes

Ahmed says it took about four or five months to develop the recipes, test, and refine them. Some alterations were made to make the recipes less intimidating.

As a chef in a fine restaurant, I learned that some of the recipes I sent to Kate were a little too ‘cheffy’—I wasn’t making the recipe for a home chef, so I needed to tone it down a little bit. It’s understandable. I was still going to use the recipes from my restaurant, but I would cut down on the ingredients. I would also go out to the farmers’ markets to be sure readers were able to obtain the recipe ingredients.”

JWU granted Ahmed permission to use their kitchens in recipe development.

He also chose four students to cook his recipes. “I had the recipes, I gave them to my students, and I said, ‘You guys go and make these recipes, taste them, and from there, you tell me what they taste like.’ I had it in my own head what they should taste like, but I wanted the guys to tell me what their experience was. Most came out well, but a few we had to tweak a little here and there.”

In his home kitchen, Ahmed is cleaning up after offering a sampling that was both delicious and looked like it came from a fine dining magazine. Both he and Masury speak of the enthusiastic cooperation Simmering received from URI, JWU, restaurants, and their citizen scientists—and the fishing industry.

“Fishermen are always very supportive of getting people to try more of the species that they normally don’t have a market for,” Masury says. “It helps them make a living because then they can go out and catch any kind of species that are in the water, not just cod or lobster. At the same time, they’re supporting the ecosystem because they’re taking things that are more abundant.”  

by Hugh Markey
Photographs by Jesse Burke

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