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Calling All Cod!

October 19, 2006 By:
Ethel Hofman, JE Feature
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"A happy fish is a tasty fish." That's the word from Karol Rzepkowski, the dynamic managing director of Johnson Seafarms Ltd. Along with a team of world-renowned scientists employing groundbreaking techniques, this company located in the heart of the Shetland Islands has become the world's first producers of organic cod. These sustainable, farmed cod are raised to meet consumer demands -- and that means both organic and natural, two trends that are healthy, consumer-driven and apparently here to stay.

What's a happy fish got to do with sustainable marine farming? Rzepkowski is serious: "We want to provide our fish with a good quality of life. Cod love to chew, so we give them toys, such as coconut hemp ropes with seaweed threaded through. They love it. Then we designed large rubber tubes to play in -- narrow and pliable enough so that they can't get caught inside and get injured." (The design created by local fisherman, Robert Williamson, has been patented, and is now sold to fish farms all over the world.)

Obviously, Karol is a dedicated environmentalist, so it follows that Johnson Seafarms works closely with the Marine Conservation Society, the Organic Food Federation, and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and Soil Association. All of these organizations check that the organic cod fisheries not only meet -- but far exceed -- the most stringent environmental standards. The 100 percent sustainable, organic cod won the prestigious "Supreme Award," which recognizes the overall, top food and drink products in Scotland, and is certified by the Organic Food Federation.

The fish feed is made from the off-cuts of herring and mackerel caught for human consumption, without using any hormones, dyes, pesticides or chemicals. Everything in the environment and the food is organic, making this a revolutionary program in aquaculture. And so that the fish remain tasty to the consumer, the cod are harvested, without stress, by stunning them.

The fresh organic cod, under the trade name No-Catch--Just Cod, can reach the consumer within two to three days of harvesting, unlike wild cod, which is frozen at sea and which may take five to 10 days to reach the market.

Wild cod is almost unavailable in fish markets worldwide because stocks from the ocean are on the verge of completely disappearing. In 1992, the world's largest fishing grounds -- the Grand Banks, off Canada -- were closed after being fished out. The same fate looms for the North Sea and European oceans, despite strict controls over cod fishing. The cod you see in our markets is almost all farm-raised.

Rzepkowski was determined to go a step further. Convinced that there's a market for organic cod, he obtained almost 30 million pounds sterling from the European Union to fund a sophisticated, high-tech operation producing organic, farmed cod. His aim was to set the cages in the unpolluted, salty, cold waters of Shetland.

Curious to see how organic cod are raised, my husband Walter and I drove out to the cod farms located in Vidlin, a tiny seashore village about 20 miles from Lerwick, Shetland's capital. The countryside is picturesque and tranquil. The sun was shining in a cloudless blue sky.

Approaching the contemporary administrative office building, we could see lush green fields patched with wild golden irises stretching down to meet the voe ("inlet"), where foam-tipped waters surged toward the ocean. What better location to raise a clean, pure product whether it be lamb, produce, or in this case, cod?

Justin Watson, the Fish Health and Welfare officer, gave us a thorough overview of the operation, pointing out that unlike salmon, cod do not suffer from sea lice, so chemical treatments to prevent contamination are not needed. With wellies ("rubber boots") and life jackets, we proceeded to the loading dock where Robert Williamson was waiting in a catamaran. As we sailed 500 yards or so to three Olympic-sized cages -- each about 100 feet in diameter -- Williamson explained the methods.

The cycle begins with codlings born and reared in a hatchery. The breeding stock comes from the pristine waters off the east coast of Shetland. Williamson notes that by regularly introducing wild cod into the stock, the company is sure of a natural, healthy gene pool.

The newborn cod feed off their yolk sac for five days, until they develop mouths. Then they are fed on planktonic crustaceans, which provide all the nutrients needed. Excellent nutrition and continual-size grading avoids the cannibalism seen with cod in the wild so that survival rates are higher.

When the codlings reach an appropriate size, they are transferred to one of the nursery sea sites, where they spend about four months to grow to around 1 oz. or so. The next stage is to move them to one of the 23 sea cages, where they have ample space to thrive.

Underwater cameras constantly monitor the fish's welfare, and "just to be safe," notes Williamson, " trained divers perform daily checks." There is no attempt to accelerate the natural growth cycle, and there is no coloring in the feed. The translucent white color of the cod is entirely natural.

As we toured the facility and cages, it's obvious even to a novice that this is being done expertly and successfully in an environmentally friendly manner.

The organic cod from Johnson Seafarms Ltd. is served at leading regional restaurants, such as the Michelin-starred Martin Wisharts in Edinburgh, as well as in upscale restaurants in New York and California. It's also available in British and European supermarkets.

The cod recipes come courtesy of Johnson Seafarms Ltd. Some are a bit adapted.

I've taken the liberty to add potato and salad recipes, which go well with cod or any fish.

Seared Cod With Herb Gremolata

(Pareve)

Gremolata is a garnish of minced herbs, lemon peel and garlic. Sprinkled over fish and meat dishes, it adds refreshing, sparkling flavors. Lemon zest is only the colored part of the skin, not the white pith, which is bitter.

1 tsp. minced garlic
1 medium bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
1/3 cup olive oil, divided
1 to 11/4 lbs. cod fillets, cut in four pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
bunch of arugula, washed

In a bowl, mix the garlic, parsley, lemon juice and zest.

Mix in half the olive oil, season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Season the cod lightly with salt and pepper.

Pour the remaining oil into a medium, nonstick skillet. Heat over medium heat. Add the cod, and sear for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and continue cooking for 4 minutes, or until flakes are opaque when separated with a knife.

Spoon the gremolata over the cod. Arrange the arugula on the side.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 275; protein, 25 g; carbohydrates, 0 g; fat, 9 g; cholesterol, 61 mg; sodium, 76 mg.

Cod Provençale

(Pareve)

2 Tbsps. good olive oil
1 to 11/4 lbs. cod fillets, cut in four pieces
salt and pepper to taste
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp. garlic, minced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
4 medium mushrooms, thinly sliced
3/4 cup snipped parsley, packed
1/4 cup sliced black olives

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season the fillets with salt and pepper.

Arrange in one layer in the skillet. Sear 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until the flakes are opaque when separated with a knife. Transfer to a platter. Keep warm.

Add the onion to the skillet.

Sauté 5 minutes, or until onion is softened, not browned.

Add garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, parsley and olives.

Bring to simmer, and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon over the seared cod. Serve hot.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 213; protein, 26 g; carbohydrates, 6 g; fat, 9 g; cholesterol, 61 mg; sodium, 137 mg.

Cod on Roasted Vegetables

(Pareve)

4 medium parsnips, cleaned and sliced about 1/4-inch thick
8 baby carrots
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced about 1/4-inch thick
3 Tbsps. olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 sprigs thyme or 1 tsp. dried thyme
1 to 11/4 lbs. cod fillet cut in four pieces
3 Tbsps. margarine
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350°.

Spray a baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Place the parsnips, carrots and sweet potatoes in a large bowl. Pour on the olive oil and toss.

Arrange in the prepared baking dish. Tuck in the sprigs of thyme or sprinkle with dried thyme. Roast for 25 minutes.

Season the cod with salt and pepper. Place on top of the vegetables.

Dot with the margarine and sprinkle the lemon juice over.

Cook for 15 minutes longer, or until fish is cooked.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 453; protein, 35 g; carbohydrates, 33 g; fat, 20 g; cholesterol, 78 mg; sodium, 134 mg.

Pan-Roasted Cod With Red Wine Shallots

(Dairy or Pareve)

2 Tbsps. butter or margarine
3 Tbsps. olive oil, divided
12 medium shallots, thinly sliced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
3 Tbsps. dry kosher red wine
2 Tbsps. kosher port
1 to 11/4 lbs. cod fillets, cut in four pieces

Heat the butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

Add the shallots, and sauté for 5 minutes, or until softened but not browned. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the sugar and balsamic vinegar. Stir to mix.

Add the wine and port.

Reduce heat to low. Bring to simmer. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes to reduce liquids. Set aside and keep warm.

Season the cod fillets with salt and pepper. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a medium, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cod.

Sear for 3 to 4 minutes before turning. Reduce heat to medium. Sear 2 to 3 minutes longer, until flakes are opaque when separated with a knife.

Serve topped with the red-wined shallots.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 290; protein, 25 g; carbohydrates, 5 g; fat, 17 g; cholesterol, 76 mg; sodium, 80 mg.

Potato Gratin With Mixed Fresh Herbs

(Dairy)

2 Tbsps. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 tsp. chopped garlic
2 eggs
1 cup light cream
11/2 lbs. potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 cup shredded Gruyère cheese
1/4 cup snipped mixed fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, basil, packed
pinch of ground nutmeg
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°.

Spray a 10-inch au gratin dish with nonstick cooking spray.

Melt butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Reduce to low.

Add the onion and garlic.

Cook for 5 minutes, or until the onion and garlic are softened but not brown. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and cream.

Stir in the onion mixture, potatoes, half the cheese, the herbs and the nutmeg. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Stir to mix.

Pour into the prepared gratin dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top.

Bake in preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes, until golden brown.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 288; protein, 12 g; carbohydrates, 22 g; fat, 19 g; cholesterol, 127 mg; sodium, 98 mg.

Citrus Carrot Salad

(Pareve)

1 lb. carrots, peeled
grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 Tbsp. frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
2 Tbsps. honey, warmed
3 Tbsps. olive oil
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/4 cup dark raisins
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup sunflower seeds

Grate the carrots in the food processor, using the grater attachment.

Place in a large bowl.

Add the remaining ingredients except the sunflower seeds. Toss to mix.

Before serving, garnish with sunflower seeds.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 170; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 19 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 29 mg.

Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

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