If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em

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Courtesy of Phillip Foss
Phillip Foss's crisp paupiette of Asian carp in Barolo sauce.

For a few years now, the idea of eating Asian carp to slow its predicted incursion into the Great Lakes has been bandied about with varying degrees of seriousness. The carp are a hard sell: They’re unappetizingly ugly, and the peculiarities of their anatomy make it hard to harvest the meat.

But in late January, the carp caught the fancy of Chicago chef-turned-fishmonger Carl Galvan. Galvan handles sustainable and environmental fishery issues for Supreme Lobster and Seafood Company, and his Twitter feed (@ChicagoFishDude) is a virtual online fish market monitored by many of the best chefs in town. Galvan wondered what would happen if some of his boutique restaurant customers got their hands on the stuff and worked their mojo. Could they help Asian carp appeal to a larger market of eaters?

There are those who argue that creating demand for the fish will only encourage producers to keep it around. “That’s kind of a cynical way of looking at it,” Galvan says. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet. We’re at a crossroads where something has to be done immediately. Fisheries are massive operations. If we can take a dent out of the populations and allow some of the natural phytoplankton to grow back, and other species to come in, that could have a big impact.”

So he ordered about 100 pounds of the fish from Schafer Fisheries, the Midwest’s largest supplier of freshwater fish and probably the biggest handler of Asian carp, and off they went to 10 fine-dining establishments in the Chicago area, including Vie, Blackbird, SushiSamba Rio, Browntrout, and Cibo Matto.

A couple of different invasive species are grouped under the Asian carp label. Silver carp are the ones that fling themselves dramatically above the water as boats approach, but it was the less aggressive, far uglier bighead carp that Galvan chose to distribute. He didn’t tell all of his chefs what he was sending–he likes to surprise them sometimes–and the carp seemed to unnerve a few.

“So far, all I can say is that they are disgusting,” reported Paul Kahan upon receiving his share at the Publican.

“The shape was salmonlike, with a bull head,” said David Carrier from Kith & Kin. “It kind of looked like a character from Return of the Jedi.”

Worse than the bighead’s appearance is a damn near impenetrable bone structure that, given how daunting it made filleting even for the pros, might be the fish’s best defense against theoretical legions of home cooks.

“The pinbones are very strange because they run down the center, the side by the belly, and they go all the way through the tail,” said Perennial’s Ryan Poli. “When you try to take them out with tweezers, they tear the flesh.”

What’s more, the fish have a thick bloodline that runs the length of the fillet. Once the fish is skinned, this looks like a fat strip of red raw beef. Because of its unpleasant vegetal flavor it has to be cut away, further reducing the yield of usable meat. “They almost bleed like a land animal,” said Browntrout chef Sean Sanders. “It’s a very, very bloody fish.”

But how does it taste? Poli was worried about that too: “I thought, this is a giant goldfish,” he said. (Goldfish are in fact a species of carp native to Asia.) He sautéed some in a pan and poached another piece sous vide, and while it wasn’t as bad as he had expected, it didn’t seem worth the effort.

At Kith & Kin, Carrier and Andrew Brochu smoked their carp over apple wood and made a dip. They said it had a mushy, mealy texture but didn’t want to draw any conclusions about a muddy flavor they’d detected–they worried their fish had been tainted by its massive bloodline. And the bones were a bummer. “I’ll tell you what, man,” said Carrier. “We were like 30 seconds from throwing the damn thing away.”

Paul Kahan’s crew didn’t try that hard. “After a few attempts at butchering, we were adequately creeped out and will not go any further,” he e-mailed.

A couple of chefs had better luck. After cooking a piece in grapeseed oil and seasoning it with kosher salt, Paul Virant of Vie declared it “a nice piece of fish” with a “very fresh, delicate flavor” and “slightly firm.” Chris Pandel of The Bristol called it bland but saw potential: “If it wasn’t so bony it could make a good sub for whitefish.”

Phillip Foss of Lockwood gamely allowed me to film his fillet attempt. It wasn’t pretty, but after Galvan sent him deboned fillets he redeemed himself with a beautiful plate, an homage to the classic crisp paupiette of sea bass in Barolo sauce.

Wrapping the fish in thin layers of potato and searing it in clarified butter not only protected it from drying out but allowed it to shine on its own terms. And guess what? It was a luscious fish. You might imagine that Foss’ plating with pickled celery hearts, trumpet mushrooms, black garlic paste, and red wine butter sauce would be lipstick on a pig, but you’d be wrong.

Foss toyed with the idea of offering his customers a relatively simple Asian carp sandwich at around six to eight dollars. But given the specifications he asked Galvan for–100 percent boneless, skinless pieces–the cost shot up dramatically. Galvan wouldn’t quote a price per pound but explained, “Look at it this way. You’re losing 95 percent of the fish. For an 11-pound fish we got six-tenths of a pound of meat. But that’s the specific spec that Phillip wanted. It doesn’t have to be the industry norm.”

Foss wanted to go ahead anyway–and he was excited about selling Asian carp. He wasn’t going to sugarcoat it; he had no plans to call it silverfin, as some boosters are already doing. “This fish has a lot of strikes against it,” he told me. “But this is not a bad-tasting fish.” After more consideration of the cost and yield, however, Foss put the kibosh on an Asian carp dish.

Browntrout’s Sean Sanders is still wrestling with the idea. So far he’s worked with nine fish he’s bought from Galvan, paying out of his own pocket. He has misgivings about the flavor and texture, yet he’s determined to make a dish that’s menuworthy. “I still need some time to work with it,” he said. “I think eventually I’ll put it on, but it has to be something I’m really proud of.”

Excerpted from the Chicago Reader (March 25, 2010), which has since 1971 served as the city’s political conscience, cultural guide, and music authority.www.chicagoreader.com

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