By Mike Lintal
Community-supported is the buzzphrase du jour. What started with community-supported agriculture, where individuals buy a share of goods straight from a farm, has slowly trickled through the alphabet. Now we have community-supported brewing, community-supported chocolate, community-supported dairy, and even community-supported energy. Anyone for some fresh-from-the-wind-farm kilowatts?
My current favorite is community-supported fishery, and Sitka Salmon Shares in particular. SSS claims to have the highest-quality wild salmon, halibut and black cod from the icy waters of Southeast Alaska, and based on my first delivery of halibut, they’re not lying!
SSS is based out of Galesburg, Ill., and what sets them apart is not only the exceptional quality of their fish, but the level of care they give their product from the moment it’s hooked until it ends up cooked on your plate.
By purchasing a share, your money supports communities of independent, small-boat fishing families. You know not only the type of fish but also who caught it; salmon caught by this guy instantly tastes 10%-20% better – right?
“The boat-to-plate commitment also comes back to the fishermen we work with,” said SSS’ Helen Schnoes. “As one of them said, ‘All fish in the water are the same. It’s what you do once it’s on the boat that makes all the difference.’ This is where the individual care of our fishermen becomes like an artisanal craft. And it’s that attention that produces the quality that can be hard — especially in the Midwest — to find outside of the Pacific Northwest.”
If you’ve done community-supported before, the fish-delivery process might deviate a little from your expected norm. The fish is delivered monthly; deliveries are scheduled a few days in advance, to an address you designate. If it’s a “Fish Steward” home, leave a cooler on the porch and they’ll drop it in; if it’s an office, they tell you the time and you provide the cooler.
Not only do you know what’s coming and from whom, but SSS also provides recipes and cooking tips for the seafood while it’s en route. This removes all of the fear of what to do with the product. (I wish someone had done that for me the first time I got kohlrabi in a farmshare box.)
To that point, SSS provided a lovely suggestion with this month’s halibut, to poach the fish in olive oil. Having never attempted this, but armed with a recent windfall of EVOO, I set out determined to conquer this new challenge.
Long story short, it was easier than I thought, and the best halibut I have EVER tasted (trumping grilled, seared and poached). I’ve always learned toward the grill and skillet when it comes to cooking fish, but I’m looking forward to trying their recipes with at least a portion of my monthly share.
“The expansion of the recipe program taps into another aspect of the whole community-supported-fishery notion: We consumers coming together to appreciate, learn, and geek out over some great food,” Schnoes said. “This can mean going to your foodie extreme or realizing the simple beauty of pan-seared salmon with salt and pepper that you can throw together without thinking any night of the week.”
Farm-to-table is an alluring concept. Most of the best restaurants around the country feature at least a couple things on their menus that are locally sourced and/or farm-to-table. The challenges are keeping the time as short as possible from farm to table, and cost.
From southeastern Alaska to central Illinois is a practical outer limit for farm-to-table. And because of the way these fish are caught, kept and transported, that figures into the cost. Figure $20 a pound for an SSS share. That’s not a bargain price, but it is a fair price.
SSS services the Midwest exclusively, and is the only non-Canadian option for us landlocked types living more than a few hundred miles from the sea. There are many more community-supported fisheries along both coasts; LocalCatch.org is a great resource for this and has a really nice map.
You might wonder what getting a chunk of halibut in a cooler once a month has to do with travel, or even more remotely, travel insurance. It’s this: I think I can taste Alaska in every bite of my halibut. Now I need to visit Alaska, just to be sure.
Today, Alaskan halibut. Tomorrow, Ethopian coffee. That’s just the way it goes.
Mike Lintal is an avid beer hunter, seeker of tasty treats and Event Coordinator at The Chopping Block in Chicago.