Maybe it is human nature to do something in the moment that seems like a grand idea and not be aware of the implications down the road. How a decision or action can alter the future and create unforeseen issues…
The blue catfish or “bluecat” as it is known by was introduced to the Virginia and Chesapeake Bay tributaries during the 1970s as game fish. Who knew the fish would actually compete? Now present in every Chesapeake Bay tributary these fish can grow up to 100 pounds and live up to 20 years. Native to the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio river basins they were a healthy part of the ecosystem; however, this is not the case in the Chesapeake Bay region.
The bluecat is like the Zena the Warrior Princess of the Chesapeake Bay slaying everything in its path but in the case of the fish and unlike Zena, eating everything in its path too. These ferocious invasive predators dine on nearly any fish, frogs, yes adorable frogs, as well as crayfish. The catfish were the last non-native species introduced to the tributaries till scientists learned the negative effects.
The most positive aspect is that these catfish are delicious! Over the past couple years Whole Foods and Wegmans have begun selling these local fish. They can also be found on some menus throughout the Metropolitan area. This is a trend I hope continues since there is a shocking amount of 90 million bluecat throughout the Bay!
Chef Mackenzie Kitburi of the Metropolitan area started Capital Taste Food Group in 2014 with a sustainable food practice angle. Curating dinners like the incredible one I attended. The Bay dinner featured a 7-course seafood meal and guest speakers on the Chesapeake Bay.
“As chefs we can make a difference,” Chef Mackenzie said during his welcome remarks.
Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, Nick DiPasquale, and his wife first asked to join me at my table. I was delighted to know he was one of the speakers and was lucky enough to hear a briefing of his talk before he addressed the audience. Soon after Wendy Stuart with the Wide Net Project joined our table too. Wendy, along with Sharon Feuer, started the Wide Net Project, which has built a market for these catfish by providing free fish to hunger relief organizations.
“The restoration of the watershed is pushing the bubble of the ecosystem,” Nick said about the importance of restoring the Bay and how every day is an experiment to learn new and better ways of protecting the tributaries. He said how when they notice grasses beginning to grow back in areas that they worked it means the ecosystem is beginning to grow back and be strong again.
Chef Mackenzie, Chef Daniel Perron of Whaley’s and Chef James Martin Ball of Oyamel created the dynamic seafood dishes. Flying Dog Brewery based in Frederick, MD supplied their craft brews and other both mocktails and cocktails were served throughout the evening to keep us hydrated.
The evening kicked off with Chef Mackenzie’s raw Chesapeake Bay Oyster topped with pickled shallot and Old Bay. I was first introduced to oysters when I moved to the East Cost in 2001. This California Girl has always had an adventurous palate, I am up for…almost anything. The second I had my first raw oyster, I was hooked (No pun intended, then again, oysters aren’t hooked, are they?;).
The Chesapeake Oyster was like taking a bite of the Bay. I love how after you swallow an oyster it finishes with a taste of the water source they are from. Some are saltier where others have a subtle creamy sweetness. The pickled shallot added a vinegar tartness that balanced well with the classic seasoning.
Old Bay: For more than 75 years this savory spice has been a signature of Maryland. Seafood is not the same without it in this region. Did you know its original name was “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning?” It takes less time to catch crabs and boil them with Old Bay than to say its old name!
The second and third course were two different Spanish Mackerel dishes. The first created by Chef James creatively incorporated strawberry consommé along with crisp jicama and tomatillo. Consommé is a type of clear soup made from stock or bouillon that has been clarified and he did this using strawberries to add a subtle sweetness to the dish. Incredible balance of heat, spice and sweetness. Loved. Every. Bite.
The second Spanish Mackerel dish was by Chef Daniel; made with peanut, beans mint, radish and chile. The textures and spices were well-balanced. The peanut flavor came effortlessly through. Creaminess paired well with this type of fish and the mint added a brightness on your palate.
The second speaker was Vice President of Congressional Seafood, Nick Sughrue. He discussed how Congressional Seafood has been affiliated with the Chesapeake Bay and the restaurants and stores that sell this delicious fish to the public.
“I think we are going to win. I’m hopeful,” Nick said in regards to fighting the war with the overpopulated bluecat.
The third course was Bluefish made by Chef Mackenzie with squash, tomato and garlic scapes. Garlic scapes are the flower bud of the garlic plant and have the same taste as the garlic itself. Not only is garlic known to strengthen your immune system but adds a depth of flavor to dishes the way onions and lemon can add that depth.
Sugar Toads. No, we did not dine on real toads. This is the name they gave a species of blowfish to market it better to the public. Personally, I think it would confuse the public more than sell them on ordering it at a restaurant or buying these cute little guys from a seafood market. The first bite I took was full of bones until told the trick was to hold the tail like a shrimp and slowly drag the meat off the bone with your front teeth. The fish meat itself had a delicious dense texture and well-seasoned with carrot kimchi, sweet soy glaze and benne seeds. Chef Daniel did a brilliant job with this unique fish.
The fifth course was the bluecat created by Chef Mackenzie. He topped the fish with a tangy black garlic sauce and the smoothest spiced beet sauce. Beets are one of my food weaknesses especially when turned into a sauce. Bluecat truly is a delectable fish; balance of flakiness and dense meat and the sauces showcased his true talent as a chef.
Lucky number seven was the whole grilled perch by Chef Mackenzie. The fish rested on pesto and topped with fresh herbs. I grew up eating ribs so I value having to work for your food and getting a little messy. Bones or not this was an epic way to end this magical dinner.
Chef Mackenzie is sitting on a food group gold mine by combining sustainable food practices with the culinary arts. Beyond impressed with his dinner and excited to see the impact this has on not only informing the public but inspiring people to take action.