Alaska Pollock

Chances are you may have eaten Alaska pollock without even knowing it. That fish sandwich at your favorite restaurant or the imitation crab meat you put on your salad is likely made from Alaska pollock. Alaska pollock is often ranked as one of the top five seafood species consumed in the United States.

Alaska pollock has been the gold standard for sustainability for years. Since 2001, U.S. commercial landings of Alaska pollock have been well over 2.6 billion pounds each year on a sustainable basis. Pollock fishing has minimal impact on habitat. The fishery is a trawl fishery, meaning that large nets are pulled through the ocean above the ocean floor in an effort to avoid damaging the seabed. Pollock swim in giant schools well above the ocean floor. The pollock fishery is one of the cleanest fisheries in the world. Nearly 99 percent of the nets are filled with pollock, making for minimal by-catch.

I was lucky to be aboard a pollock trawler owned by Trident, one of Hy-Vee’s partners in sustainable Alaskan seafood.  The ship was the Island Enterprise. We visited with the captain and he showed us the sophisticated sonar and computer systems on board. All this equipment helps the trawler crew hone in on the pollock schools and helps them guide their nets to avoid bycatch. It also allows them to fish faster and more efficiently. The ship fished around the clock and only stopped to unload; we were lucky enough to catch it while it was in port for a few hours. This ship catches the fish and processes it onboard; the fish is frozen within hours of the catch.  When they are full they go to port, unload and go back out.

These efficiencies make it seem that the pollock don’t really have a chance, and the reality is they don’t.  If not for a strong commitment to sustainability, the pollock stocks could easily be wiped out by these large ships. But thanks to great management by the state of Alaska, these massive boats can pull in large amounts of fish year after year. Pollock is the most important fish that you probably didn’t know about! Maybe you’ve eaten it and never thought twice about it.

You can cook a raw piece of pollock like you would cod or haddock. You will be surprised at what great natural flavor it has. It’s delicious in fish tacos. And when you’re enjoying it, know you are eating a fish that is sustainably harvested in a way that preserves the species and the ocean it’s caught in.

Salmon Is In the Home Stretch

The annual Alaska salmon run is in the home stretch and the time to buy fresh Alaska salmon is nearing the finish line. Summer is a great time to enjoy the bounty of Alaskan salmon. The spring brings us Copper River sockeye and king salmon, June and July bring the bounty of Bristol Bay sockeye and late July and early August bring keta salmon to the table. So here we are in late August and the sockeye are harder to find and the keta have moved up the rivers.  So where does a fresh salmon aficionado turn to this time of year?  Coho salmon is the cure for your Alaska salmon addiction.

The coho is the late summer run that is worth the wait. Every salmon species has its unique traits and the Alaska coho is no different. Typically coho salmon can be caught from late June through early October, but the biggest commercial runs occur in mid-August and September. I remember catching coho on July 4 in Alaska, but they were just beginning to show up in the area at that time. Since it comes late in the summer, the coho helps fill the demand for Alaskan salmon as sockeye and keta end their runs.

Coho salmon are similar to king salmon in taste, color and texture. Coho can be distinguished by their orange red meat color. They are the second-largest salmon, behind just the king salmon, so they make excellent steaks and fillets. They have a relatively high fat content which makes them great for grilling and smoking. They are my second-favorite salmon next to the king.  You should start to see this outstanding fresh salmon at your local Hy-Vee. The end of summer also means we’re nearing the end of fresh salmon. Nothing compares to fresh Alaskan salmon, and this may be your last chance to get some before fall closes the door on the great Alaska salmon run.

Alaska Travels: Featuring Alaska Crab

For the last five years, Hy-Vee has partnered with Trident Seafoods to supply Hy-Vee with Alaska crab. Each year Trident and Hy-Vee have committed to a contest among Hy-Vee seafood managers to promote Alaskan crab. The winners of the contest get to travel to Seattle where Trident is headquartered and tour Trident facilities over the course of three days. I have been lucky enough to be able to take this trip 4 of the last 5 years, including this year.

Last week, we were treated to a tour of the F/V PINNACLE, an Alaskan crab boat. It was docked in Seattle because it only catches crab and was being prepped for the upcoming season. Most crab boats switch over to salmon tendering during the summer to make extra money, but this beautiful ship stayed home. Standing on the deck of the PINNACLE was a real treat. To see how the crab are caught on TV is one thing; to see how they are caught on the deck of a boat is another. I gained instant respect for crab fishermen the minute the crab boat captain Jim handed me a spool of rope that crab fishermen toss into crab pots hundreds of times a day.  Needless to say, the 100-pound spool left me wondering how these guys do this job under such adverse conditions. The pay is good, but the danger is real. Standing by the coiler you can see how so many things can go wrong when the wind is blowing and the waves are rolling.  We talked to crab captains and listened to their stories of past failures and successes. I found it interesting that they were just as interested in how we sell crab as we were in how they catch it. We are all part of a big seafood family and each of us has our role.

Trident does more than just catch crab; in fact they are actually much bigger in the salmon and pollock business. We toured their smoking plant where they make products for many companies. We toured their pier 91 plant where they process pollock and test new products and recipes. No trip to Seattle would be complete without visiting the famous Pike Place Fish Market. There we were treated to fish throwing and catching along with the market’s unique take on selling seafood!

Captain Dave took us on a tour of the boat docks where the boats were gearing up for the Alaskan salmon season. He also took us to the famous Ballard Locks where the fish swim up man-made ladders to get to Lake Washington from the sea! And, of course, we got to eat a lot of great seafood along the way.

Hy-Vee’s partnership with Trident has grown tremendously over the last five years. Our annual crab promotion is something that families look forward to during the holiday season. Crab fishing starts in October, and Hy-Vee’s crab promotion starts in December. The Alaska crab story is one that starts with Trident crab fishermen, continues with Hy-Vee fishmongers and ends with you eating the best crab in the world!

Responsible Choice Alaska Halibut

March typically kicks off spring and warmer grilling weather, but in
Alaska, this marks the opening season for harvesting Pacific halibut. Braving the elements of Mother Nature, Alaska halibut long-liners make their way out in the rough waters in hopes of landing this first-of-the-season catch.

Considered the “steak of seafood,” Alaska halibut has earned its reputation as the world’s premium whitefish for its firm white, flaky texture and sweet delicate flavor. Halibut is considered one the most versatile fish, and the thick, meaty texture can hold up to a number of cooking methods and sauces. When the season opens in March, seafoodies around the country look forward to adding this prized fish to their menus, fresh seafood counters and dinner tables.

When it comes to managing fisheries, no one does it better than the state of Alaska. Many years ago, the halibut season consisted of derby-style fishing methods, meaning there were predetermined, very competitive fishing periods that were 24 to 48 hours in length, sometimes in dangerous weather conditions. Now, the International Pacific Halibut Commission meets every year to examine scientific data in an effort to ensure that this fishery can maintain a healthy stock for future generations to enjoy. Due to these tight management practices, quotas and strict harvesting method, you find Hy-Vee’s Responsible Choice logo displayed on all of our fresh Alaska halibut.

Our Responsible Choice halibut is some of the freshest you can get in the Midwest.  All of our Alaska halibut is flown in overnight from Alaska to Des Moines International Airport, where it is then delivered to Hy-Vee’s PDI Distribution center in Ankeny, Iowa. The halibut then goes through our strict USDC Inspection Program before it is ready to be shipped out to stores that very day. Depending on your store’s delivery schedule, the halibut on your plate may be less than 72 hours from being out of the water. Now that is fresh!

Seafood Education: Questions for the Fishmonger

Working as a Hy-Vee fishmonger for more than 20 years, I have received my share of customer questions. I thought I would take a moment to answer a few of the most common questions that we get day in and day out here at the Hy-Vee seafood counter.

  • Q: How much shrimp do I need for my party?
  • A: People will eat as much shrimp as you serve them. You can offer shrimp with almost every other appetizer and people will circle the shrimp like sharks! I suggest purchasing as much shrimp as your budget can afford, and call it good. I also suggest putting the shrimp out in stages, as opposed to putting it all out at once. This will help stretch your shrimp throughout the party as well, as guests will eat other items until the next plate comes out!
  • Q: What type of salmon do I want?
  • A: I think it depends on what types of salmon are available at that particular moment. If fresh, wild salmon is in season, then I tell customers to go wild! If we are outside of fresh salmon season, then I suggest Mt. Cook farm-raised King salmon. Another option is previously frozen Alaskan Sockeye. Of course, we always offer the Verlasso farm-raised salmon in portions and filets all year, and they are incredibly consistent in both flavor and texture.
  • Q: The sign next to the salmon says “color-added.” Is that bad?
  • A: When some people see “color-added” they think that the fish are injected with food coloring. I like to take the time to explain how the salmon actually have color added to them. Wild salmon get their color by eating krill and shrimp. Think about the color of cooked shrimp, and you will understand why salmon is red to orange in color. However, farm-raised salmon don’t get the luxury of dining on shrimp and krill. They get a food pellet that gives them everything a growing salmon needs except for a colorful flesh. The key component in shrimp and krill that gives them the vibrant color is called astaxanthin. This has to be added to the farmed salmon’s food pellets in order to get that orange color. If it was not added to their food, the flesh would be white to gray in color. The astaxanthin is added by either natural ingredients like algae and/or pulverized crustaceans, or by synthetic compounds. Either way, it allows the farm-raised product to closely resemble their wild counterparts.
  • Q: I heard on television or I read that….. (You can fill in the blank)
  • A: Every week we get people asking about a news report saying how bad a particular fish is, how bad fish from a particular country is, or how bad farmed anything is. Here’s my response: Hy-Vee hired its own U.S. Department of Commerce (USDC) lot inspector to ensure the quality, safety and integrity of the fresh seafood it buys. The USDC inspector is stationed onsite at the PDI distribution facility in Ankeny, Iowa, where he routinely checks incoming shipments of fresh seafood, ensuring that it meets Hy-Vee’s standards. Our purchasing and sustainability policy is the strictest around. Our seafood team at PDI is meticulous in its sourcing and accountability of our suppliers. Nothing gets past us. If we get tilapia from China, it has to be good. Just because the news report said all Chinese fish is bad, does not necessarily make it so. Our farm-raised fish and shrimp are raised by the best companies in the world for sustainability and environmentally friendly practices. I say TRUST us. We’ve got this. We worry about these things so you don’t have to.

It’s COOL To Be A Fishmonger

In 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began requiring supermarkets to add Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) to their packaging and signage for fish and shellfish. The intent of the law was to educate consumers on where their fish came from and whether or not it was wild or farmed. When you go to your fishmonger to buy cod, for example, the sign says “wild-caught, product of U.S.A.” The USDA felt that consumers wanted to know and had a right to know where their fish comes from. The law has since been expanded to certain meats and produce.

So what does this really mean for you when you stop into your Hy-Vee seafood department to get tonight’s dinner? As a consumer of seafood, you face a barrage of information regarding what fish to buy and what fish you shouldn’t buy. You may read a report about how a certain country has poor farming conditions or one that uses slave labor to catch seafood. You may tell yourself to avoid those countries and look for the country of origin on the label. But here is the catch: The law requires the supplier to list the country that the fish was last processed in, not the country where the fish was actually caught or farmed.

Why is this important? For example, most wild salmon is caught in Alaska, but some processors send it to China to be processed because it is cheaper to do that. Therefore they are required to put China as the country of origin even though it was caught in the U.S.A.! So the COOL can be misleading if you are looking for information on where that fish really came from. Companies are now providing more information on the label than ever before to try to clear up the confusion. You may see a label that says “salmon caught in Alaska and processed in China.” Keep in mind that Hy-Vee sells only the best seafood that is raised or caught in a responsible manner. This is the core of our Responsible Choice program and why you can shop for fish worry-free at Hy-Vee.

There are several other facets to the COOL program that are worth mentioning. If seafood is altered in any way by cooking or adding seasoning, then there is no COOL requirement for that product. That’s why you will not see any COOL on battered or encrusted seafood. The other part of the COOL law is the method of production. What if you only want farm-raised or wild fish? The label will tell you how it was caught. The label may also tell you how it was farm raised or caught. For example, was it farm-raised in a closed system or in a net pen in the ocean? Was it caught by longline or in a pot? Those specifics are not required by law, but your fishmonger should have that information if you ask, and you will always find it on my signs in my shop.

When you come into your Hy-Vee fishmonger and read the product signage, you will have a better understanding of the information provided. Keep in mind it is always best to ask the fishmonger about specific concerns you may have. We are always the best source of information on where and how your fish was harvested.

A Fresh Take On Fish

What do you consider “fresh” fish? Is it a fish you caught in the lake and took home and cooked? Is it a fish you purchased at the fish market on the coast? Is it fish you purchased at your local fishmonger? How about frozen fish in your fishmonger’s freezer section?

Maybe you don’t think of frozen fish as “fresh.” But it was caught by fishermen who employ flash-freezing techniques at sea. The fish is caught, then immediately processed and flash-frozen at its peak freshness. It then makes its way to the fishmonger’s freezer for you to take it home, thaw it in the refrigerator and serve it at its peak freshness. Only fish caught that day are considered fresher than frozen fish.

Commercial fisherman go out to sea for days, maybe even weeks. So is that fresh? How about the fresh, not-frozen fish at the seafood counter? That fish comes from the fisherman who then sells his fish to a processor who then packs and ships the fish by truck or air to the fish market. Is this fresh? Technically it is because it has never been frozen. But it could be several days and maybe even a week since it was swimming in the water.

Hy-Vee is too far from a coast to be able to fetch same-day-caught fish. Since we are not close to any ocean, we have to rely on frozen fish to maintain quality. Our fresh fish has to be flown in and is then inspected for quality and freshness. After that, it’s sent to Hy-Vee stores to be bought by you. Hy-Vee has been selling previously frozen fish in the fish case for years.

All of our shrimp, crab and lobster come in frozen and we thaw them for sale. It’s the only way for those items to maintain quality. Wild-caught salmon comes in fresh during the season from May through October. Outside of those months, you are usually going to get previously frozen fish. Farm-raised fish comes in fresh in most cases, but it sometimes comes in previously frozen as well.

In my opinion, frozen fish is often a better choice.

By freezing fish on board the fishing vessels, fishermen lock in the quality at its peak. Plus, it does not require expensive shipping to get the fish to its final destination. It can be trucked to the store rather than flown. That means that your fish will be less expensive than fresh-flown fish.

There are times when customers just want to have that fresh Alaskan King salmon, and you can get it. However, when I traveled to Alaska and caught my own salmon, it was immediately flash frozen in a vacuum-packed sealed bag. When I pulled that fish out six months later and thawed it in the fridge, it still smelled like the sea and was as flavorful as the fish we ate that day we caught it.

Here are some recommendations for your next trip to the Hy-Vee fishmonger:

  1. Read the signs and know what is fresh and what is previously frozen. Not all frozen fish is better than fresh. Ask your Hy-Vee fishmonger for suggestions and information on when to buy frozen fish and when to buy never frozen fish.
  2. Know your seasons for fresh fish. Know when to expect fresh, flown-in fish and when to expect previously frozen fish in the case. Ask the fishmonger when they get deliveries and show up on those days.
  3. Thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator. Remove it from the vacuum-sealed package first. Never thaw it on the counter.
  4. Don’t refreeze fish that has been thawed. Cook it and then freeze it if you have to. The quality will diminish substantially if you refreeze raw fish.

Perfect Partners

clearspringsfoodsPartners in sustainability: That’s the best way to describe Hy-Vee and Clear Springs Foods. Hy-Vee has one of the best responsible seafood programs in place, and Clear Springs Foods is one of the leaders in sustainable aquaculture. Clear Springs was started in 1966 and has grown into the leading producer of premium rainbow trout. It is an employee-owned company as is Hy-Vee, making them perfect partners.

Clear Springs maintains total control of its trout from egg to market. The company has its own research facilities, hatcheries, production farms, processing facilities and trucking company to make sure it is the only one to touch your trout before the fish get to market.

More than 70 percent of all rainbow trout raised in the U.S. is grown in a 30-mile stretch along the Snake River in southern Idaho’s Magic Valley. Clear Springs is responsible for about 60 percent of that. Trout are raised in concrete raceways and are fed by an automated feeding system. Why would Clear Springs raise fish here? Because of the water! Magic Valley is home to thousands of natural springs that produce pure, clean oxygenated water at a constant temperature of 58 degrees. All of these factors combine to create ideal conditions for trout.

Clear Springs is also a steward of the environment. It monitors the quality of the water in not only its facility but also the aquifers and river that supply the facility’s water. The company practices good fish welfare and uses bird-friendly netting over its runways. Clear Springs manufactures its own fish meal and is focused on finding plant-based proteins to help negate the need for fish meal.

But what does all this mean for our customers? It means that when you buy Clear Springs trout at your local Hy-Vee you will get great tasting, boneless fish that was raised in a responsible manner. Clear Springs trout is labeled Hy-Vee Responsible Choice and is Green Rated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. You can purchase this mild flaky fish in either a boneless fillet or as a whole fish. Stop by your local Hy-Vee fresh seafood department and purchase some delicious trout from one of our partners in responsible seafood.

Wild about Alaskan Salmon

Alaskan Salmon

World Oceans Day is on June 8, and the theme is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet.” The United States does an excellent job at managing its fishery resources, and among the coastal states, Alaska stands tall.

Abundant – that’s the word I would choose to describe Alaskan salmon.

How can such a popular fish be called abundant when so many other fish in the world have been overfished? Alaska has conservation embedded in its state laws and everyone involved understands the importance of protecting its natural resources. Salmon return to Alaska every year to spawn and keep the sustainability of the stocks intact. No one is allowed to fish until enough fish have traveled up the rivers to ensure an equal return of salmon years later. The availability of salmon can vary from year to year. Some years are great and others the returning stocks are small and very little is allowed to be harvested. Lots of factors affect the salmon stocks, and Alaska uses scientific data to determine how much salmon can be harvested. It is a model that I believe all other fisheries should look up to.

Alaska is home to five commercially important species of salmon. King salmon is the largest and least abundant of the group. It is highly prized and will cost you the most at the Hy-Vee fish market, but it is definitely worth it! The thick fillets are perfect for the grill and the high oil content makes it as tasty as it is healthy. Sockeye is the second-most abundant of the salmon, but is also one of the smallest salmons. It has a bright red flesh and is usually one of the more reasonably priced of the Alaskan salmon. Coho is the second-largest of the salmon and has more of an orange flesh. These fillets make great grilling as well and are usually moderately priced. Their season tends to come later in the summer and into the fall. Keta salmon has the firmest flesh of all the Alaskan salmon and is usually much less expensive than the first three salmon. You will find Keta salmon to be very abundant in the freezer section at Hy-Vee. Last, but not least, is the Pink salmon. It is the most abundant of all the salmon and is the least expensive of all of the salmon. You will find a lot of Pink salmon in the canned fish section of Hy-Vee.

Customers ask me what is my favorite. I tell them that they call it King salmon for a reason. It is simply the best. I found this out firsthand last summer. I was very fortunate to take a fishing trip to Alaska with one of Hy-Vee’s suppliers, Trident seafood. Trident is the largest crab, pollock and salmon processor in Alaska. They treated us aboard their vessel the Annandale. I saw firsthand the true abundance of Alaskan salmon. Looking over the side of our fishing boat, it was not uncommon to see massive schools of Coho and Pink salmon rushing by! Catching my first Alaskan King salmon was a dream come true.

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Sport fishing in Alaska is just as regulated as commercial fishing is. We were only allowed one King salmon each day! This helps ensure that neither fishery causes a depletion of the natural resource.

That’s why Hy-Vee has great partnerships in place with the best Alaskan salmon producers to ensure an abundant amount of quality Alaskan salmon all summer long. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles to get excellent, fresh Alaskan salmon, just go down the street to your local Hy-Vee fish market.

Salmon season is in full swing, so take the time to try several of the species and learn which one you like best. But don’t wait too long, as the season is short and the fish are at their peak right now.

Remembering A Trip To The Gulf

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In December of 2012, I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Paul Piazza’s shrimp operation in Louisiana. It was a trip that opened my eyes to the wonders of Gulf shrimp.

Most of what I knew about shrimping in the Gulf, I learned from Forrest Gump. I was about to get a real education on the workings of a real shrimp boat. We had the opportunity to go out on a shrimping vessel and experience a small sample of a day’s work on a shrimp boat. It’s hard enough to just find and catch shrimp, but the work has only just begun after the catch.

The nets full of shrimp are dumped on the deck and the deckhands squat a position much like a baseball catcher for hours, picking and sorting the shrimp into sizes. They are quickly flash frozen right on the boat to preserve freshness and quality.

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When the boat is full, the shrimp are taken to the docks where they are quickly transported to the nearby Paul Piazza processing plants. There they are sized, sorted and packed. They have numerous quality check points throughout the automated process to make sure only the best shrimp make it to Hy-Vee.

I used to think that shrimp for the most part were all the same. I was wrong. I mean really wrong. The Paul Piazza plant owner himself cooked fresh Gulf shrimp for us. I was blown away. The flavor and texture of Gulf shrimp was like nothing I had ever had. The flavor was sweet and delicious. I was hooked.

From that day on, I told my customers that the Gulf shrimp at Hy-Vee was the best shrimp you could ever eat. Paul Piazza knows our standards are the highest in the industry and sends us only the best quality shrimp. We also carry all-natural Gulf shrimp in our service seafood cases – it has no additives or preservatives. Shrimp can spoil very quickly, so most shrimp boats treat their shrimp right away with preservatives. It is actually very rare in the shrimping industry to refrain from adding preservatives to shrimp, because it requires a higher level of care when handling the shrimp.

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Paul Piazza has several dedicated shrimp captains who catch shrimp to our expectations without using chemicals. Why do we go the extra mile to require our shrimp not be treated? For one, the shrimp taste better without the preservatives. Also, some customers can be allergic to the preservatives used on shrimp. So when you choose Gulf shrimp out of the Hy-Vee seafood case, you can be sure it’s pure, natural Gulf shrimp!