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Mark Usewicz helps chefs bring sustainable and adventurous seafood to your plate

Mark Usewicz, chef and Co-Owner of Mermaid’s Garden, a Brooklyn-based sustainable seafood consultancy (Photo credit: Mark Usewicz).

Mark Usewicz is a chef and Co-Owner of Mermaid’s Garden, a Brooklyn-based sustainable seafood consultancy. You are known for your commitment to local and sustainable food. Tell us about your philosophy regarding seafood.

Mark Usewicz: My approach to seafood has been shaped in large part by my wife.  She has a scientific background in marine biology and studied fish for many years.  Her enthusiasm for sustainable seafood was infectious early on in our relationship. I like to think that I take her knowledge and channel it through both the creative and pragmatic needs of a chef. The things I look for in seafood are pristine quality, sustainability and traceability.

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

MU: My customers are restaurant professionals, so they ask lots of practical questions.  They are interested in learning more about the seasonality of fisheries, making more sustainable choices and sourcing new products. People in New York love raw bar, so I hear a lot of questions about the provenance of shellfish. Chefs are always excited to try a new type of oyster.

I find that most chefs want to make the right decisions but need some guidance.  I think the learning curve with fish is a few years behind that of produce and meat.  There is so much more to consider when choosing fish-does it come from healthy populations, where is it from, how was it caught, etc.  And that’s only considering wild fish. It’s a lot of information to assimilate for a busy chef, but the desire to learn is definitely there.  There are some great new companies out there that make sourcing fish responsibly a whole lot easier. Sea to Table, Trace & Trust and Gulf Wild all provide chefs with fish that is traceable and caught responsibly from well managed populations. They are doing great work.

TF: How do you balance offering something fresh and local against having customer favorites always on hand?

MU: Luckily, diners in NYC tend to be pretty adventurous, so I don’t hear chefs saying “but I have to have such and such.” If anything, they might be looking to update a signature dish using a more sustainable fish or try something new entirely.  I think the more chefs and diners realize that truly sustainable eating is built on a foundation of variety, the better off our oceans will be.  We really have so much diversity in local waters, and we should celebrate all of it rather than loving some of it to death.

TF: You might be aware that a new management system went into effect a year and a half ago for bottom dwelling species like cod, haddock, flounder and pollock – New England best sellers. Over the past year and a half, have you noticed any changes that have affected your business? E.g. In how much seafood is available, price fluctuations, diversity of species, size of fish?

MU: I haven’t noticed a lot of changes in the past, but I think the current crisis with cod will certainly impact the restaurant industry in 2012 and probably after that.  In the meantime, I will encourage my clients to give cod a break and try some other delicious fishes–like hake, for instance. I think that in the long run management programs like catch shares will prove to be effective in New England as they have been in other fishing communities in the U.S.  It is my hope that this can be done without excessive consolidation.  In addition to employing more people, using less fuels and generating less bycatch, our small boat operators are a wealth of knowledge and history that would be an irreparable loss.

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

Mark's fresh shell bean and clam stew - looks delicious! (Photo credit: Mark Usewicz)

MU: Before we moved to New York, my wife and I lived in Cambridge, Mass for over a decade.  We started spending parts of our summers in Wellfleet back then, and we maintain this tradition today.  There are many things to love about Wellfleet, not least of which is its shellfish. Our wonderful friends Pat and Barbara Woodbury farm what I think are the best clams in the world. This is a simple, hearty and delicious winter meal. At home I freeze fresh shell beans in the summer to use year round, but you can use cooked dried or canned beans here.

Fresh Shell Bean & Clam Stew

24 Littleneck Clams, Scrubbed
1 Cup Fresh Cranberry Beans or cooked Cannelini Beans (drained if canned)
3 Bay Leaves
½ Cup Chopped Onion
1 Cup Chopped Tomato
2 Cloves Garlic, sliced thin
½ Jalapeno, seeds removed and chopped
½ Cup White Wine
½ bunch Swiss Chard, leaves only, washed and coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1 tsp. Butter
1 Lemon, juiced
1 Tbsp. Chopped Parsley
Salt and Pepper

1. Place the cranberry beans in a pot with one bay leaf and a pinch of salt.  Add water just to cover.  Bring the beans to a simmer and cook until tender.  Keep the beans in the cooking liquid and set aside.

2. In a wide heavy pan heat the olive oil over medium heat with the jalapeno and garlic.  When they begin to sizzle add the onion and cook until soft and translucent.  You do not want them to brown.  Add the tomato and remaining bay leaves.  Season with salt and cook for 3 – 5 minutes (or until the tomato begins to release some of its liquid.)

3. Turn the heat up to high and put the swiss chard leaves in the pan followed by the clams, white wine and the beans with their liquid.  (If using canned beans use water here, not the liquid from the can.)  Cover the pan and allow to cook.

4. After 5 minutes remove the lid and take out any clams that have opened and set aside. Cover the pan again and check for open clams every minute or so.

5. When all the clams have opened add the butter, lemon juice, and parsely to the bean- chard mixture.  Season to taste with s & p.  Add the clams back to the pan and serve with toasted bread.


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