With Christmas at hand, many cooks might find farmed Arctic char a delightful option for the seven- and 13-fish-dish menus traditionally served on Christmas Eve.
The flavor of Arctic char strikes a delicate balance of the mildly sweet, freshwater taste of trout with the more robust taste of salmon. Indeed, char shares a trout ancestry with its salmon cousins. In some areas, the wild catch has been marketed as blueback trout or Quebec red trout.
"I've suggested it to a number of customers as an alternative to salmon," said McCarney, noting a good response from those who tried it. "It's less
fatty than salmon and has a nice, sweet taste."
Essentially, all of the char coming into this area is farmed. Iceland's fish farmers spent the last 10 years devising ways to nurture char, using the country's cold sea waters and geothermal springs to control conditions needed to raise this environmentally sensitive fish.
"They are farmed in above-ground tanks where farmers can control the salinity and temperature. In net pens like those used for Atlantic salmon off the coast of Maine, the char would not survive," said Marion Kaiser, president of Aquanor Marketing, the Boston firm given exclusive marketing rights to Iceland's Arctic char crop. It was a natural expansion for Aquanor, already a major supplier of farm-raised Atlantic salmon.
According to Kaiser, farmed char was offered first in Europe, where the species is better known. As production increased, it was introduced, in 1992, to the American market.
Farm-raised Arctic char are flown daily from Iceland to Boston and then to markets around the country, giving them an extended shelf life here. For best quality, of course, fresh fish should always be served as soon as possible.
As the trendy new fish on the block, farmed char achieved modest fame by being included on Clinton White House menus - most notably at a much publicized state dinner earlier this year for Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, when grilled char was served with lobster sausage.
Arctic char has been the subject of aquaculture experiments for at least 30 years in Canada, Iceland and Norway. It's been favored for farming because it grows faster, has a better feed conversion rate, and has a higher tolerance for crowding than salmon or trout.
It is being called a significant addition to an aquaculture industry that, by USDA figures, now supplies more than 15 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States.
Almost all commercial catfish, Atlantic salmon, tilapia and trout now come
from fish farms, here and abroad. More than 3,400 such fish farms are operating in the United States alone, according to government statistics.
"We've been handling (Arctic char) on-again, off-again for the past four years," said Joseph Lasprogata, purchasing director for Samuels & Son Seafood, a key supplier of area restaurants and retail stores. "It's only recently that Iceland has gotten a consistent enough supply for it to be put on restaurant menus."
Lasprogata called Arctic char "one of the best new fish products" to reach market in a long time.
"It has a little bit more flavor and a creamier texture than salmon. Also, it's not as large a filet so it's easier to handle and portion. It is similar to a salmon in shape but doesn't get quite as big," he said.
Lasprogata also said that the color of the flesh generally varies with the individual fish. "As they continue to farm it, the color probably will become more consistent, but I think the variety is attractive. Everything is so cookie-cutter any more."
The current market size, said Lasprogata, averages two to four pounds, with large char reaching six to seven pounds. The raw color range of light peach to deep salmon cooks up about the same, to a light peachy pink color.
A three-to-four-pound fish yields two filets, each weighing from 1 to 1 1/2 pounds and providing two or three generous servings. Lasprogata estimates a 70 percent edible yield from the whole, dressed fish.
Thus far, the supply and costs have kept Arctic char filets at a retail price around $9 to $10 a pound. As production increases, Lasprogata expects the price to come down closer to that of farmed salmon, which is now retailing around $8 a pound.
Char is also available at the Fresh Fields markets in Devon and North Wales, and the Philadelphia Lobster & Fish Company in the Market at Albrecht's, in Narberth.
Silver reported selling 30 to 40 pounds of char a week at the Dreshertown Shop 'n Bag. "In this neighborhood it went over very well because it's richer and creamier than salmon. I find it a little bit more delicate, a bit flakier, and not as firm as salmon," said Silver.
"I like to use a honey mustard on top of both char and salmon. Some people like to marinate it in olive oil, garlic and fresh basil or other herbs before grilling it."
Sales are near 60 pounds a week at Ippolito's Seafood, where fish is prepared and cooked for takeout as well as sold fresh.
Owner Sam D'Angelo believes the best test is in the taste.
"A lot of times people are afraid to try something new," said D'Angelo. ''That's why here we often prepare a piece of fish, in the broiler or on the grill, and let customers sample it before they buy."
Char also can be found now on menus at several area restaurants - among them the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Striped Bass, the Adam's Mark Hotel, BLT's Cobblefish, and the Blue Claw in Cape May.
Ritz-Carlton chef Troy Thompson recently featured the fish in six of seven courses (the exception being dessert) of a dinner designed to acquaint area chefs and retailers with the fish. Some char dishes were included on his Dining Room menu as well.
"It does just about anything you want it to do," said Thompson.
"I marinated it with salt, sugar and diced vegetables like gravlax and it turned out wonderfully. I used a piece of it raw in a Japanese sushi roll with organic rice wrapped in nori (seaweed)."
Other courses included carpaccio of char with caviar and tomato consomme; char wrapped in Parma ham, baked in parchment and served with spaghetti squash; a sauteed medallion of char with curried lentils; and seared char with cepes.
"As a farmed fish, it is always very fresh and consistent, which a lot of other fish aren't," said Thompson.
The following recipes were developed or selected for use with Arctic char. They also may be prepared using other mild, firm, white-fleshed fish or salmon.
This recipe was created by chef Thompson for an all-char dinner. It is a variation on the traditional cured salmon preparation known as gravlax.
VEGETABLE MARINATED ARCTIC CHAR
2 Arctic char filets, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds each
1 cup coarse sea salt
1 large carrot
4 celery stalks
1 small celery root
1 small onion
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh dill
Place char filets, side by side, skin-side down, in a baking dish large enough to lay filets flat. Sprinkle quarter-cup of the salt over filets. Set aside.
Wash and trim vegetables. Using the fine grater in food processor, grate carrot, leeks, celery, celery root and onion. Combine grated vegetables in bowl with the remaining three-quarters cup of salt, the brown sugar and chopped dill. Mix thoroughly and let mixture stand until juices are released. Pour vegetable mixture, with liquid, over the fish filets. Marinate, refrigerated, for two full days.
When ready to proceed, remove char from vegetable marinade. Slice the fish straight down in quarter-inch slices, allowing five slices per appetizer portion. Makes six to eight servings.
Note: To duplicate chef Thompson's presentation, serve slices of marinated char on a bed of winter root vegetables that have been boiled tender, peeled, sliced thin, and seasoned to taste with diced shallots, olive oil, salt, pepper and minced chives.
The root vegetable bed might include two or more choices of beets, celery root, carrots, kohlrabi, large parsley root, large blue potato, black radishes, small rutabaga, and turnips. Cook each type of root vegetable separately. Brush the char with minced truffles reserved from making Truffle Vinaigrette (recipe follows) and then drizzle vinaigrette over vegetables and char.
1 teaspoon minced fresh winter truffle
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup port wine
1/4 cup Madeira
1/4 cup truffle juice (see note)
2 teaspoons champagne vinegar
1/2 cup mild salad oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Warm chopped truffle with olive oil in a small pot. Remove half of the
truffle bits and reserve for use as garnish. Add port, Madeira and truffle juice to the remaining olive oil and truffle bits.
Simmer over medium heat until reduced to about a quarter-cup. Add champagne vinegar. With whisk, or in blender, whip to emulsify mixture while slowly adding the salad oil. Add salt and pepper; adjust seasonings. Makes about one cup dressing.
Note: Truffle juice is available at specialty gourmet stores.
Several printed recipes for char are available to customers at the seafood counters of the Fresh Fields supermarkets. These recipes for char pate and grilled char filets are among them.
ARCTIC CHAR PATE
1/2 pound poached Arctic char, skin removed
4 ounces ( 1/2 cup) plain yogurt
1 teaspoon lightly whipped cream
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Sea salt to taste
Fresh dill for garnish
In processor or blender, blend char, yogurt, whipped cream and lemon juice to desired smoothness. Add pepper and salt to taste. Adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with dill sprigs. Makes four to six servings.
GRILLED ARCTIC CHAR WITH MUENSTER CHEESE
1 pound Arctic char filets (4 pieces, about 4 ounces each)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 thin slices Muenster cheese
4 teaspoons butter or canola oil
Dry the filets and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Sandwich four cheese slices between two filets, flesh sides in. Wrap the fish in buttered aluminum foil and place on a hot grill, or in the oven at 400 degrees. Grill about seven minutes on each side or bake 15 to 20 minutes until cheese has melted. Unwrap, remove skin from top filet, and serve. Makes two servings.
The delicate flavor of fennel is a good complement to the rich taste of char. This recipe is adapted from Jane Brody's Good Seafood Book (W.W. Norton).
GRILLED CHAR WITH FENNEL
4 char steaks, 1-inch thick (about 6 ounces each)
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup minced shallots
1 large fennel bulb, chopped fine (about 3 cups)
2 teaspoons frozen orange juice concentrate
2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fine fennel leaves
Heat grill or broiler to medium-hot. Sprinkle char with salt and pepper, and spray lightly with vegetable oil. Place steaks on hot grill or broiler and cook 4 to 5 minutes on each side.
Meanwhile, prepare sauce by heating olive oil in a large skillet. Saute shallots until soft, about 2 minutes. Add fennel, orange juice concentrate, and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until fennel is tender, about 5 minutes longer.
Turn off heat. Cover pan to keep sauce warm. (If made in advance, reheat sauce before serving.) Stir in parsley and fennel leaves just before serving. Place ample portions of sauce on individual serving plates with char steaks on top. Makes four servings.