During a cooking demonstration at The New England Aquarium, Margaret Romagnoli gingerly lifted a large, slippery wolf fish up so that the audience could see its startled expression. Then Franco Romagnoli nailed an eel to a plank and pulled off the skin with a pair of pliers he took from his back pocket.
The message was clear. Eel and wolf fish, as well as a long list of other unfamiliar seafood species, are the wave of the future. The New England fishing industry is in dire trouble, and cooks are in for some big changes whether they like it or not.
A seminar to explore the deteriorating supplies of familiar seafood was held on a brisk March day in Boston at the aquarium. It was sponsored by the aquarium and the American Institute of Wine and Food -- the aquarium supplying the bitter pill and the Institute of Wine the sugar coating, which included not only the Romagnolis, but also a wine tasting and an elaborate, sophisticated fish dinner.
The escalating number of sad stories about fish and fishermen -- the disappearance of the haddock, cod and flounder as well as the personal disasters of the fishermen that parallel the farmers' problems -- are well known in the northeast. The price of fish in retail markets is exorbitant, the most familiar fillets are imported and fish restaurants often add a surcharge for haddock. Somebody, they mutter to each other, should do something.
"March to the Sea -- 3 1/2 Centuries of New England Seafood," as the seminar was called, had less to do with the past than a clear and terrifying view of the present and future. An impressive parade of experts -- scientists as well as fishermen -- proved their points with charts that plunged only downward and color slides of foreign fisheries that were doing the job better than we are. Those in the audience, most of them food professionals who will be affected by the change, listened solemnly.
Twenty years ago it was easy to lay the blame. During the 1960s and '70s, the villains of dwindling stocks were the foriegn fleets and their factory ships that scooped up everything until the 200-mile limit became law. But now the American fleet has grown to such numbers that it surpasses those bad old days and stocks have not had a chance to recover.
Edgar Bowman, fisheries biologist for Northeast Fisheries Center in Woods Hole, Mass., addressed the topic, "What's Really Out There" and concluded that supplies were as bad as he had ever seen them. Cooperation between the fishing industry and the scientists is essential and so far their relationship has been confrontational. The American fisherman has always been independent and stubborn, and now his future will depend on drastic change.
According to the Gene Connors, a ship's captain and fisherman for 40 years, the profile of the New England fleet will have to grow from small independent boats to 70- and 80-footers equipped to process at sea while the catch is at peak perfection. "Right now, our seafood industry is in the dark ages," he said.
Fish farming, which is so successful in other countries, sounds like a solution for more supplies of fish and shellfish. But Judith McDowell Capuzzo, a zoologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said that finding space along our shores for aquaculture is difficult. Most of it is jealously guarded for recreational use and some small aquaculture companies on Cape Cod have been forced out of business by the sports fishermen.
Halfway through the session, the audience packed away its notes to take a break for lunch. The lecture sessions took place on Discovery, a ship-like construction attached to the main aquarium by a gangway and a ramp. The sun was bright, glinting off the new skyscrapers in Boston's financial district on one side and the choppy water of Boston Harbor on the other. The Chart House restaurant, a quaint colonial commercial building that is the oldest still standing on the waterfront, was a short walk from the aquarium. John Hancock once had offices there and the lunch was one he might have eaten -- finnan haddie in a cream sauce and baked apple.
But the day meant serious business and the waiter came by -- not with coffee, but the message that the seminar would resume in five minutes.
More gloom and doom, particularly when R. Woodman Harris, a marketing expert for imitation crab flakes, gave us a profile of the American fish consumer. He loves tuna best (canned, of course) and only eats fresh fish in a restaurant when he doesn't have to cook it and smell up the house. How is this cautious one going to spring for skate wings?
Where was the good news? The lighter side of a bad problem? The upbeat ending? The most optimistic information was given by John Prescott, director of the aquarium. "There are 300,000 invertebrates in the world's waters and most of them are edible." Certainly the fishing industry will find something in great supply that the American consumer will take to with enthusiasm.
Finally the part of the program organized by the American Institute of Wine and Food began and troubled brows were smoothed with more digestible information. The entire seminar audience trooped off Discovery and entered the main building of the aquarium for a cooking class, to admire the captive fish in tanks and sample a few of them as hors d'oeuvres.
The Romagnolis are television cooks, cookbook writers and Boston-area restaurateurs. They selected recipes from their Italian repertoire that used species underutilized here but common in the Mediterranean. Small squid (frozen from California and available in all supermarkets) were stuffed and braised in a white wine sauce, and the eels were cut in 3-inch pieces, sauteed briefly in oil and cooked Venetian style with tomatoes and peas.
The star of the afternoon was the wolf fish -- also known as ocean catfish, also dogfish, also whitefish. The Romagnolis cut it into steaks, braised it briefly with tomato and white wine, and enriched the sauce with egg yolk and lemon juice. Each dish was accompanied by a wine recommended by Boston wine critic Anthony Spinazzola.
A wine tasting began an hour before the dinner and unfamiliar fish were upscaled with wines chosen by Spinazzola. Serving tables were spotted throughout the aquarium to keep the guests moving from one impressive tank of fish and shellfish to another and finally up and down the spiral ramp that wraps around the central cylindrical tank that is at least four stories high.
Sardines canned in Maine were paired with vinho verde from Portugal. Ocean pout -- an abundant, but little-known white-fleshed fish -- was being served in a chowder with watercress and chives. Phyllo leaves were wrapped around skate and served with chablis. Further on were mussels steamed with olive oil and and wine, and scungilli, which is really New England whelk, appeared in a salad.
In one dark alcove before an active tank of schooling fish that flickered constantly, the Gloucester Fishermen's wives dispensed generous servings of the small native shrimp that has been particularly abundant this year. They had been tossed quickly in garlic and oil and came with a message that the low price paid their husbands was unfair.
The relaxed members of the seminar moved languidly through the dark halls to watch the fish, sip and snack. It was an enervating day, but now they only had a four-course dinner and five fine wines to look forward to. The disquieting problems of the fishing industry could wait until tomorrow. Ocean pout, whelk, and wolf fish -- we're ready. Here are the recipes of Franco and Margaret Romagnoli. VENETIAL EELS AND PEAS (BISATO E BISI) (4 servings)
1 3/4 pound eels, skinned
Flour for dredging
5 sprigs Italian parsley
1 garlic clove, peeled
1/3 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups peeled plum tomatoes, fresh or canned, seeded
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
10-ounce box frozen tiny peas
Cut the eels in 2- or 3-inch pieces and dredge them in flour. Mince the parsley leaves and garlic together and saute' them 1 to 2 minutes in oil. (If you have a top-of-the-stove Italian earthenware casserole, use it for this dish.)
Add eels to the oil and brown them briefly on all sides; cut the tomatoes in chunks and add to the eels. Add salt and pepper, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up remaining tomato solids.
Remove the eels to a serving dish. Add the peas to the tomato sauce and cook at a low boil about 5 minutes, or until peas are tender. Pour sauce and peas over the eels. Serve with slices of hot Italian bread. WOLF FISH SARDINIAN STYLE (GATTUCCIO ALLA SARDEGNOLA) (6 servings)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
6 anchovy fillets
4 peeled plum tomatoes and their juices
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 pounds fresh wolf fish steaks
2 beef bouillon cubes
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup dry white wine
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons lemon juice
FOR THE BATTUTO:
1 medium onion
1 celery stalk with leaves
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
Place battuto ingredients of onion, carrot, celery, thyme and bay leaves in the container of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process to a pure'e. Heat the olive oil, add the battuto, and saute' until golden. Add sliced mushrooms. Mash anchovy fillets with a fork and add them. Add the tomatoes, mashing them up a bit, and then add salt, pepper and fish. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Dissolve the bouillon cubes in the warm water, and add them to the sauce with the wine. Cook 15 minutes, or until the fish flakes and the sauce has condensed a bit. Remove the fish to a warm platter. Beat the egg yolks, add the lemon juice to them, and then add the mixture to the sauce in the pan, stirring constantly. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes, or until smooth and slightly thickened. Pour over the fish and serve. STUFFED SQUID (SEPPIE RIPIENE) 4 servings)
2 pounds small to medium squid (the Romagnolis used frozen California squid, defrosted)
2 1/2 salted anchovies or 5 canned fillets
3 garlic cloves
1 cup loosely packed parsley leaves
2 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Clean the squid. If using salted anchovies, fillet them; if using canned, drain them. Finely chop together the tentacles, anchovies, 1 garlic clove, parsley and capers. Put the mixture into a bowl and combine it with bread crumbs and enough oil to make a paste.
Stuff the bodies of each squid with a scant teaspoon of stuffing. Skewer them shut. Save any remaining filling. Put the rest of the oil into a frying pan large enough to accommodate the squid in one layer. Saute' remaining 2 garlic cloves in the oil until golden and discard the cloves. Let the oil cool a moment, then add the stuffed squid to the pan along with any remaining filling. Cook gently 8 to 10 minutes, partially covered. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until the wine has evaporated.
Transfer the squid and sauce to a pan small enough for their new shrunken size. Add just enough warm water barely to cover, cover the pan, bring to a gentle boil. Cook 10 minutes. Uncover, adjust seasonings if necessary and boil another 10 minutes. Serve warm with linguine or cold as an antipasto.