Getting the most out of seafood
Versatile proteins improve food costs and liven up menus.
When planning out menus, chefs shopping for seafood might ask themselves not only “What’s good today,” but also “What’s good three or four different ways?”
Versatility is a critical factor when selecting proteins. By choosing seafood that can be grilled, fried, broiled or baked, restaurateurs and chefs can satisfy consumer demands for choice and variety, enable the kitchen staff to show their creativity and keep costs in line.
Christopher Marlow, who together with his family owns The Golden Lion Cafe in Flagler Beach, Florida, says versatility is one of the several factors he considers when choosing proteins. “It all comes down to numbers,” he says. “At the end of the day, what will improve food cost and how many ways can we use this item.”
For example, one whole fresh fish can be used in four different ways. Marlow says the restaurant buys whole fresh Atlantic salmon or black grouper which are butchered on-site. The center cut is featured in the day’s fresh catch entrée, which is served with garlic cheddar mashed potatoes or island-style rice and jumbo asparagus. Another 6-ounce piece is grilled or blackened and served on a ciabatta roll with a side of coleslaw for the Fresh Catch of the Day sandwich.
Then, scraps of the fish are used in tacos. “Fresh fish tacos are super popular,” says Marlow. Finally, the kitchen utilizes the carcass to prepare a broth for fresh fish chowder.
A fish’s multiple applications can help an operator to respond to consumer demand for both variety and freshness. “If you have a product that’s versatile and you use it in three or four menu items, you know it’s fresh because you are getting it every day instead of several times a week,” Marlow says.
Tilapia is another fish whose versatility lends itself to multiple uses. “Texturally, tilapia is very nice,” says Eric Silverstein, founder of The Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas. “It’s flaky, but it works fried, and it’s not going to overpower your dish. You can add flavor by seasoning it, or you can grill it as well.”
The Peached Tortilla offers tilapia in fish tacos in the restaurant, two food trucks and its catering operations.
Silverstein says salmon is another versatile fish which works well in a catering environment. Consumers are looking for a familiar fish presented with different flavors so the catering menu features such variations as Napa salmon with Chinese five-spice and brown sugar rub and orange zest; and ginger salmon with soy-ginger glaze and citrus Brussels slaw.
“You are ultimately going to have to amend the menu to accommodate the consumer,” Silverstein says. “So, if we know the flavor profile the consumer wants, we try to match it and calculate the cost that works for us.”
Sheila Lucero, executive chef of Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar in Denver, cites salmon and tuna as being examples of versatile fish. Both can be grilled, seared and poached, or eaten raw. Crudo, a raw fish presentation, is becoming more popular now with the warm weather, she says.
“You barely manipulate the fish, and with a nice citrus acidity and olive oil, the flavor really comes through,” she says. “The minimalist touches complement the dish.”
Recent menu items at Jax Fish House include spicy ahi tuna poke with sriracha mayo, scallion, wasabi tobiko and togarashi cracker served as a starter; and grilled ahi tuna with coconut lemongrass rice, enoki mushroom slaw, serrano, soy caramel and house-pickled ginger as a main dish.
Lucero says versatility is important for several reasons. “Cost is something we have to be held to, but having fun and being able to take a piece of fish in a different direction allows you to keep it on the menu,” she says. “We get bored with cooking it the same way. But if guests really like the fish, we can make it interesting for them.”
It helps to have trained, creative chefs in the kitchen, says Jack Gilmore, owner and chef of Salt Traders Coastal Cooking in Round Rock, Texas. “The versatility is having creative kitchen folks look at whatever comes in the back door and just honor it,” he says.
Gilmore says his kitchen staff works with a range of fish. A recent chalkboard special, Simple Grilled Fish, featured such options as redfish, amberjack, haddock and bluefish. “We call suppliers and say, 'Send us everything you’ve got. We’ll pickle it, fry it, bake it, ceviche it, poke it,’” he says.
Today’s consumers prefer lighter, more healthful grilled fish, he adds. “They’re looking for fresher, more natural, less frying,” he says. “We can accommodate anybody with anything we have.”
But while creativity has no limits, kitchen space might. “We have a small grill but a lot of fire space and a lot of burners,” says Jay Garrison, executive chef for Hank’s on the Hill, which is one of the locations of Hank’s Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C.
Garrison says the menu always features at least one white fish which can be pan roasted with the skin on. One recent selection was white fish with quinoa and green garlic pesto. “It fits the bill for healthy and light,” he says.
Seasonality also plays a role in protein selection. Soft-shell crab was in season recently, so Hank’s on the Hill served pan-seared soft-shell crab with red pepper sauce with capers and grits cakes; soft-shell crab over sautéed bok choy and asparagus with roasted corn salad and beurre blanc; and a soft-shell crab club with tomato, onion, and remoulade.
It’s always a good idea to select a protein, especially seafood, that has culinary versatility because it helps keep costs down and consumer interest up, experts say. “People come in because they want fresh seafood,” Garrison says. “Just figuring out ways to limit how I’m going to do it is a challenge.”
Allied content by Penton Restaurant Group