Taste-test unwraps flavor of shark fishery’s potential

By on April 19, 2016

Johanna Lachine and Eric Whidbee lay down the appetizer course for service. (Jim Trotman)

The third and final tasting event in the North Carolina Sea Grant Shark Sensory Evaluation has come and gone.

Over the course of three non-consecutive Tuesday evenings, Café Lachine in Nags Head created nine dishes featuring cape shark, also known as spiny dogfish, a local species. An average of 45 diners tasted the dishes and rated them by appearance, aroma, texture and flavor.

The goal of the project, held under the auspices of North Carolina Sea Grant and the N.C. Coastal Studies Institute, is to come up with hard data for discussions leading to a broader local market for cape shark. The hope is to help local fishermen and dealers economically while continuing to manage the fishery’s sustainability.

Within a year, cape shark/spiny dogfish could start to become more familiar on the dishes of area restaurants.

Sara E. Mirabilio, fisheries extension specialist, ran the project and conducted the sessions here. Her colleagues held sessions in Wilmington and Morehead City. At each Nags Head session, Mirabilio gave presentations about the cape shark. The first two  covered tasting protocol and the biology of the cape shark/spiny dogfish. The third concentrated on the cape shark fishery.

Chef Justin Lachine introduces the dishes to the taste jury as Sara E. Mirabilio adjusts her shamrocks. (Jim Trotman)

The majority, though not all, of the cape shark caught here is shipped to a processing center in Massachusetts for export abroad. The cost of shipping unprocessed cape shark to New England works against local fishermen and fish houses.

Creating a market for cape shark here is about getting more value for the fish that are harvested, not increasing the local catch, a point Mirabilio has stressed in each talk.

In her third presentation, Mirabilio indicated that the well-managed fishery would maintain current catch levels. Though cape shark were once overfished, the stock is now rebuilt.

Citing information on commercial landings by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Mirabilio showed how pressure on dogfish in the mid- to late-1990s led to the stock being overfished. In the early 2000s the fishery was closed or curtailed, and by 2010, the stock was considered rebuilt.

Federal regulators are calling cape shark a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U. S. regulations.

Of the states where Atlantic cape shark/spiny dogfish are commercially harvested, North Carolina is second only to Massachusetts. Their combined catch in 2014 accounted for 68 percent of the Atlantic coastal landings. Though these states provide the majority of the catch, Massachusetts fishermen on average have gotten prices $0.03 higher per pound than North Carolina Fishermen and the difference has been as much as $0.11 as recently as 2014.

From Mirabilio’s notes: “Should significant processing infrastructure be developed in NC, there is perhaps an opportunity to recoup some of these costs. While $0.03 to $0.11 doesn’t sound like much, this additional value could make NC’s 2014 landings be worth an additional $170,000 to $620,000, respectively. And remember, this is just ex-vessel values, not market values or the price of cape shark as sold to restaurants and retail markets.”

Commercial Fisherman Dewey Hemilright emphasizes a point of Mirabilio’s program. (Jim Trotman)

Commercial Fisherman Dewey Hemilright was on hand to expand on Mirabilio’s presentation. Hemilright is an advocate for North Carolina commercial fishermen, a tireless educator and is active in Outer Banks Catch and the N. C. Coastal Federation and other related organizations.

“These taste testing put on by Sea Grant, Sara and Cafe Lachine are most important in the future success in bringing cape shark to the consumer plates here in the U.S.,” said Hemilright. “Sara did an awesome job presenting. She gets it! This fishery is sustainable and is not overfished.”

Hemilright said there are efforts along the East Coast to promote cape shark, with many chefs taking an active part. The specieis is relatively inexpensive compared to other fish, so the profit motive cannot long go unnoticed by the restaurant industry.

He added, “The chefs are vital to the success in marketing and getting folks to try it. I am grateful to Cafe Lachine for participating in this. They always step up to the plate in community outreach and support.”

The dinners served in the third session began with an appetizer of benne encrusted cape shark atop farrotto, or faro, a grain, cooked in the style of a risotto. This all sat on an acorn squash puree. Benne is akin to sesame.

This was followed with a take on Caesar salad with cape shark croquettes serving as croutons.

A blackening treatment in the final course upped the spice quotient considerably. It was served with green bean tempura, herb polenta and a sweet corn puree.

Freshly landed cape shark. (Jennifer Cudney Burch)

To pull the project together, Mirabilio needed three things: a host restaurant, a fish house to cut and freeze the fish and warm bodies to serve as human sensory evaluators, or, taste testers.

“We were pretty excited about it,” said chef Justin Lachine. “We had worked with it before. Someone dropped some off to us last year and we knew it fried well. The culinary arts side of us was kind of intrigued with it and in working up some recipes.”

Mirabilio presented some sample fillets with which they could experiment.

Needing a source to prepare the cape shark, Mirabilio called on the Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. in Wanchese to cut and freeze the fish. Though reluctant at first to commit, they finally came through for Mirabilio.

The staff at Etheridge had reason to doubt. It wasn’t something they were totally comfortable with as they had little training in cutting the fish and knew their results would be different than the way the Massachusetts fish processors did it. In the end they put their reluctance aside and signed on to the project.

To get her taste-testers, Mirabilio first acquired a list of clients from Café Lachine to start, which rendered a handful of tasters. The Coastal Federation holds wine and dine events that feature a seafood commodity in three courses. She had helped with one session on shrimp and through that contact, acquired more names.

Above: Benne Crusted Cape Shark appetizer. Below: Caesar and Cape Shark Croquettes. (Jim Trotman)

 Then a co-worker turned her on to Outer Banks Green Drinks. They hold monthly events where people interested in the environment can get together and mingle over appetizers and a drink and see programs on environmental concerns. They maintain a list of nearly 2,000 people, and that rounded out her numbers in addition to a number of her co-workers at the Coastal Studies Institute.

There were some bumps along the way. The restaurants in Morehead City and Wilmington trimmed a bit differently than had been instructed, requiring more fish for their events than had been allotted.

“Café Lachine really followed the protocols as I had laid out. They were measuring three ounces exactly. I’m really pleased with how the Lachines approached this project. The way they approached it was exactly how I wished the other chefs would have approached it,” said Mirabilio.

And then some of the taste testers dropped out of the second and third tasting. “I expected that to a certain extent,” said Mirabilio. “We recruited fifty people for the tasting but in the back of our mind wanted forty. But the second and third tastings, I had 38 for each one. So that was a little bit disappointing.”

“On the flip side of that I was really impressed by the people that did show up, how seriously they took it. They really wrote very thoughtful critiques, not just I hate it or I love it.”

Blackened Cape Shark. (Jim Trotman)

Even in the middle of the project, she saw attitudes turning and some excitement building. It had taken a lot of persistence on Mirabilio’s part to get Etheridge over their reluctance to cut the fish for her.

“Then after the first round of cutting and the results from Café Lachine, they were just amazed. They didn’t think their first crack at cutting it would yield a half-way decent product,” said Mirabilio.

They then asked her if she’d mind if they sent along some frozen packs of cape shark to a couple of restaurant clients because they wanted them to try it.

Indeed, some intrepid chefs along the coast are serving the fish already. Bay Local in Virginia Beach is sourcing the fish whole and cutting it themselves. Closer to home, Chef Bud at Basnight’s Lone Cedar has also been working with the fish and Ketch 55 Seafood Grill in Avon has been testing the waters with cape shark.

“It’s good to hear that the industry themselves think this is a worthwhile project,” Mirabilio said. “Now they are getting excited that it could be locally sold.”

New diners will no doubt require some comparisons before jumping in. In trying to describe what other fish cape shark resembled, Lachine said, “We were trying to compare flavors and Eric (Whidbee) was saying it reminded him of something between a flounder and a trout. I guess people get used to their tuna and their salmon and their mahi and that’s what they want. Other people are up for a change.”

“Last summer when we were serving it, 95 percent of the feedback was positive. For the most part people loved it; they were intrigued by trying something new.”

So Lachine is confident cape shark will gain acceptance here.

“We don’t serve anything that is not from our waters. We like to support the local fishermen and the local fisheries around here. Most of our clients will trust us and if they see us with something like dogfish, uh cape shark, they trust and that it’s from here and so it’s not just us they are supporting but the guys who caught it and cleaned it.”

He said he found it to be a very versatile product and said he was looking forward to amplifying some of the dishes to serve his guests. “We could definitely do the cape shark fingers, fried with the remoulade sauce. Those went over well. Or tacos. Tacos would work well.” He said he thinks the smoked shark salad could work well as a trio of cold salads, paired on a plate with chicken and egg salad.

Lachine was particularly happy with how the stock turned out using the trimmings and pin bones. “It was really aromatic. It was the base for the chowder. A lot of people will buy bases for that, but it’s there, it’s free so you might as well use it. In the kitchen the object is to not throw anything away, so if you can turn something you would throw away into something you can use it’s better for the bottom line, it’s better for the flavor.”

The chowder was an outstanding favorite among the taste panel.

Now, Mirabilio and her team are going over the results. “We have a long way to go before we get to do final report, but my co-worker has been doing the analyses between each round.”

A quick look at the responses from the first session didn’t show a great difference of likability between the courses, they rated all above fair, or a numeric value of 4. Then the responses from the second session, which included a chowder, a smoked shark salad and a cornmeal crusted entrée varied greatly.

“We started seeing lots of sevens in that second round and the comments were just like, awesome.” This highest numerical grade allowed was a seven. Also, the recommended prices he taste panel was asked to choose went up as well. Some actually rated above what the staff at Café Lachine’s suggested.

In particular, people gave big points to the chowder and the blackened entrée in the third session. Another of the nine dishes rating high points was the smoked salad in the second session.

“I think it is a testament that Café Lachine did a good job bringing us nine preparations to us that were pretty tasty,” said Mirabilio.

For Mirabilio and her staff, analyzing the open-ended question will take the largest amount of time. Still she is hopeful they will be able to present their final report by the middle of summer.

“We have to have it done at by Fall, and we want it to be done in advance of Fall because it would be great to inform the fishery next year, to go back to Etheridge and say, start cutting fish this year.”

Mirabilio believes that the data from three different locations, 150 tasters, and with many variations on preparation, can help in getting restaurants and wholesalers on board.

“I think that this information will give them some actual true market data. I hope that we’ll have some information to give them courage to do it. I think that’s what processors need. They need something that says, ‘If you do this, they will buy it.’ ”

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