Ask An Expert

Know where your fish comes from

Wellfleet shellfisherman Andrew Cummings with Alex Hay roasting oysters in front of the Truro Market.

This is the first piece in a new feature that will interview New England’s fishermen, chefs, retailers, policymakers and others about their perspectives on sustainable seafood.

Today’s interview: Alex Hay, chief operating officer and co-owner, Mac’s Seafood, Wellfleet, Mass. You are known for your commitment to local and sustainable food. Tell us about your philosophy.

Alex Hay: Part of what drives us is personal: We got into this business because of our love of fish and of this place (Cape Cod). We grew up spending summers fishing with our grandfather. He wasn’t a commercial fisherman, but he took us out from Ryder Beach in Truro, and we sportfished for anything we could find. The time we spent out on the water, and also exploring the tidal sand flats, taught us a lot about our interdependence in a unique ecosystem here. Learning to fish gave us a sense of responsibility: This is something to take care of for future generations.

Of course, we’re extremely fortunate now to be buying and selling fish in a place where there is so much tradition and knowledge, and so much abundance. That makes it easy to focus on what’s local. When we got started, we weren’t trying to make a big statement about that. We simply didn’t know any other way. Our idea was, “We know how to catch fish and how to handle it, fillet it and cook it, so let’s do that.”

Now we think it’s important to help our customers get to know a wider range of the local catch. That’s part of learning to roll with the seasons and quotas and support sustainability. We’re still learning, and we know we need to do some teaching, too: Yes, the cod out here is fantastic, but so is the pollock, the hake, the mackerel and the squid.

TF: What’s important to you as you source seafood products for your customers?

AH: First, we want the fish we offer to be superior. It has to be super-fresh and delicious to eat. Every customer counts on us for that. As close as we are to the source, a lot of work goes into getting that right. We track what’s coming in from where every day. We pay attention to how the fish is handled before it gets to us. And we work with our fishermen and suppliers to let them know if something isn’t working.

We’re HACCP-certified, which means we use the FDA’s “hazard analysis and critical control points” system for managing food safety. The idea is to protect public health by training those of us who produce, sell, and prepare foods to monitor and document proper handling all the way through to the consumer. Mac’s Seafood is, I think, the only restaurant group that has its own HACCP processing facility, to buy direct from fishermen on Cape Cod. This means that we can land shellfish and cut a lot of fish right here in our Truro market. At first we worried about the paperwork involved, you have to know when and where each fish was caught and by whom and what temperature it’s been at every minute. But in the end, we know this gives us an edge on quality.

It has made us more aware of how important it is to us to know how and where the fish was caught or farmed. For sustainability’s sake, we work with fishermen who work on a smaller scale, primarily bringing in their catch on hook and line, not large-scale dragging operations. This is something that customers are gradually coming to appreciate.

A few fish we do bring in from farther away. What we try to do in those cases is apply the same standards we use locally: We look for superior quality, we make sure the fishermen are people we can actually talk to and work with directly, and we check into their fishing methods, too. For instance, we’ve gone to Mexico to meet the families who cooperatively harvest the wild shrimp we get from there, and we’ve also gotten to know the Canadians who harpoon our swordfish and catch our halibut.

TF: What do you think today’s consumers want in their seafood?

AH: People really do want to know where their fish comes from. And that is no longer just a way of asking whether the fish is going to be fresh and healthy to eat. More and more, it’s becoming a question of concern about sustainability. People want to know that they are not eating something that is outside a quota or fished or farmed in a way that damages the habitat.

A related trend we’re noticing––and excited about––is this: Our customers are becoming a little more adventurous in what they will try. They’re open to tasting something other than the cod and salmon they grew up eating. They’re curious about pollock, squid and mackerel. They want to be educated about what it is and what makes it special and how to enjoy it. It’s amazing to have such a smart base of customers who are interested and ask us good questions.

TF: What seafood questions do you get most often from your customers?

AH: Almost everyone who comes in wants to talk about how to prepare the fish they’re buying.

Somehow, people have the idea that cooking fish properly is tricky. But the truth is, fish is so much simpler to prepare than meat. “Less is more,” we tell them. When fish is really fresh, all it needs is a little olive oil or butter, salt and pepper, and it’s ready to sear on a hot grill or in a skillet. The main thing is, you don’t want to overcook a good piece of fish.

We do love to amaze the people who call from far away to order gift shipments from our online market. They’ll ask whether the lobsters or oysters we’re sending arrive fresh or frozen. They fall off their chairs when they learn these things are delivered alive. Of course, you get questions like these and you realize how important good cooking instructions are going to be.

TF: Is it getting easier or harder to source the seafood you are looking for?

AH: If you’re asking about the impact of new management systems, we’re for them. There’s no doubt things are different from what they were in our grandparents’ day. We think the new quotas are going to prove important in helping to restore stocks. But one near-term challenge for us is in managing appropriate buying strategies that support fishermen working within those quotas.

Since we buy from fishing families, not huge corporations, we need to try our best to pledge to take everything they catch, not just cherry-pick the most popular fish. This also means that we need to accommodate them as they target different species throughout the season. Buying direct is a challenge.  Just as you get in a groove with your vendors and customers, the season ends and it is time to start on a new product.

In addition, our own growth has made sourcing more challenging. Our buying process involves maintaining a lot of close relationships. Finding those fishermen and farmers who truly share our values just takes more work now than it did when we were smaller and only needed a few fishermen and farmers to supply us.

In the long run, we think the extra effort will be all to the good. Buying a broader range of local fish has pushed us to introduce cooks and eaters to a wider menu. That puts us all in this together, and we actually think customers do want to join in efforts to give popular fish a break and make good use of bycatch (fish caught unintentionally). And of course, we believe they have everything to gain, flavor-wise.

Alex Hay cuts a side of swordfish.

TF: Would you like to share a recipe featuring a New England seafood item?

AH: One fish we’ve been seeing more of this year is hake, and a lot of customers ask us how to cook it. It sears up firm and white, and its juices will thicken up a pan sauce nicely. Here’s a version that’s perfect right now, when our Cape Cod woods are full of boletus mushrooms. (For advice on those, I’ll turn you over to my wife, who writes Diary of a Locavore, about local foods: If you can’t find wild mushrooms, that’s OK, flavorful cultivated ones like shitakes will work fine. Either way, check out the meatiness of mushrooms with fresh fish––it’s a great combination.

Pan-Seared Hake with Wild Mushrooms

Serves 4

  • 1  1/2 pounds fresh hake fillet (preferably cut from the thicker end), sliced into four portions
  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • 1/4 cup butter (4 tablespoons)
  • 1 small shallot, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 1/2 lb. wild mushrooms, sliced about 1/3 inch thick (three to four cups, sliced; you can use cultivated shitakes, trumpets and chanterelles or even just plain shitakes work fine)
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
  • sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Pat the fillets dry and season them with a big pinch of salt, and set them aside to come to room temperature while you prep everything else. Bringing fish to room temperature just before you cook it helps it cook evenly.

Heat about half of the butter along with half of the olive oil in a skillet and fry the mushrooms. Don’t turn them right away, let them sear a minute first. When they’re about done, toss in the shallot and sprinkle on salt, a good grinding of pepper and the thyme. Set aside.

Heat the rest of the olive oil in a well-seasoned skillet big enough to hold the four fillets comfortably, and heat it to shimmering hot. Place the hake pieces in the hot skillet, flesh-side down, and let them sear about two minutes, undisturbed, until they begin to brown.

Flip the fillets so they’re skin side down, and give them about three more minutes so the skin crisps and the fish begins to cook through (it is okay for the fillet to stay slightly translucent in the center). Control the heat throughout the browning process so the pan stays hot, but not smoking: you’ll be using the pan juices in the sauce, so don’t let them burn.

Take the skillet off the fire and remove the fish to warm plates or a platter; cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil to keep it warm while you finish the sauce.

Put the pan back on medium heat to warm the juices that remain from the fish searing. Stir in the reserved skillet-full of buttery mushrooms and shallots. Stir in the white wine. Simmer and taste the sauce; add more salt and pepper if needed.

Swirl the last hunk of butter into the simmering sauce, spoon it over the fillets and serve.


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