For the 61 million practicing Catholics in the United States, the Lenten season means Fridays full of fish fries, tuna casseroles and other meat-free dishes.
The word Lent comes from “lengten,” meaning spring. It is the 40-day period, excluding Sundays, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. It is a period for penance and a time to remember Jesus’ time fasting and praying in the wilderness.
During Lent, many people deny themselves something they enjoy or focus on improving something to attain spiritual growth. In the Catholic Church, people 14 and older must abstain from meat on all Fridays, in honor of the passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Many, though, choose to abstain for the whole Lenten season.
As a result, many local restaurants see an increase in demand for their fish dishes during this time.
“We always, particularly on Fridays, see a huge increase,” said Brian Brink, kitchen manager at Everett’s Restaurant and Lounge.
“We sell a lot of salmon, but it increases during those times,” Brink said.
Andy Sasser, kitchen manager at Chris McD’s,agrees. “Of course on Fridays, and all throughout the Lenten season, you just see more fish,” he said.
Because of the increase in seafood demand, Brink at times has to increase the number of shipments per week. On average, Brink said he orders 20 to 25 pounds of salmon for a weekend. During Lent, he may place an order twice a week.
For the other fish Everett’s serves, such as orange roughy and tuna, he may increase shipment orders from two to three a week.
For Sasser, who receives shipments of fish three times a week, the Lenten fish demand does not force him to order more often, but to increase the quantity of his orders.
Phil Krupa, vice president and co-owner of Fabulous Fish Co., which ships to Columbia restaurants including Chris McD’s and Trattoria Strada Nova, said he sees a noticeable increase in Columbia restaurants’ fish orders.
“I would say it’s about a 25 percent increase,” Krupa said. “In our business, 10 percent is major.”
Fabulous Fish Co., based in St. Louis, travels twice a week to Columbia. During Lent, though, it may take more trips, Krupa said.
“If the demand’s there, we definitely go,” Krupa said.
Peio Aramburu, head chef at Trattoria Strada Nova, said although he regularly sells a lot of fish, he is expecting an increase of fish orders not only because of Lent, but also because of the Atkins’ diet .
With increased amounts of fish in restaurants, freshness of the fish becomes an issue. To ensure freshness, restaurants order fish several times a week, rather than bulk ordering.
“I go through a lot of seafood,” Aramburu said. “I order three times a week, which is the maximum you can order in this town.”
Aramburu, who receives shipments every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, said in the last 50 years, the fish market in Columbia has improved greatly.
Even though Columbia is in the middle of the country, it does not take long to ship fish here. Sasser said the fish travels from New York to Chicago to St. Louis to Columbia in about a one-day period.”It’s really quickly off the boats and really quickly into the middle of the country,” Sasser said.
“Over the past 10 years, they’ve gotten air freight down to such a science that we’re pretty much getting the same fish one day later as New York City or San Francisco,” Sasser said. Most problems with freshness, then, do not occur in restaurants, but in people’s homes.
Krupa said if fish is kept at 32 degrees, it has a 10-day to 12-day shelf life.
“The problem is, when most people take it home and put it in the refrigerator, the refrigerator is about 42 degrees, and for every two degrees that fish is over 32 degrees, you lose a day of shelf life,” he said.
Besides restaurants, local grocery stores are also seeing an increase in demand for fish. Pam Malone, seafood category manager for Schnucks, said the store has a fairly sizeable increase in demand.
“We see an increase in not only our seafood department, but also our sushi department,” Malone said.
Schnucks receives fish shipments daily from all over the world. Malone said the store tries to promote several different products to customers during the Lenten season, including catfish, shrimp, salmon, tilapia and flounder.
Although Missouri is landlocked, it has some fish associated with it. Malone said when she thinks of Missouri, she thinks of catfish and trout.
Aramburu agrees. He said salmon can also be considered a Missouri fish.
“We are way too far away from the Atlantic or Pacific coasts to have another fish,” he said. “Those are the three fishes people grew up with.”
While Americans eat about 15 pounds of fish a year, more than 10 pounds of that is consumed in restaurants. Fish consumption is at a high during the Lenten season and is keeping Columbia restaurants, shippers and grocery stores busy with the demand.
Picking refreshing fish
Choosing fresh fish is not always easy. Knowing what to look for, though, can help. “Fish will often look great under the counter, but you can never really tell until you can really get up close to it and see it and touch it,” Andy Sasser, kitchen manager at Chris McD’s, said. Here are some tips to make your shopping a little easier:
- Whether choosing a whole or filleted fish, smell is one of the most important indications of freshness. The fish should have a clean ocean smell to it. Any unpleasant odor coming from the fish is a sign that it’s not fresh.
- Besides smell, there are several other things you can look for when buying fish. With whole fish, the eyes and flesh can give you clues to its freshness. The eyes should be clear and bulging, not sunken and cloudy. Skin should be bright and shiny, with close fitting scales.
“In a fresh fish, everything’s going to be very brilliant, very shiny,” said Peio Aramburu, head chef at Trattoria Strada Nova. It should be moist and a little slippery. A whitish film on the surface indicates dehydration.
- The flesh should be resilient and firm to the touch. “If you press it with your finger, it should bounce back,” Sasser said.
- The fish’s gills should be reddish and damp, not sticky, and the tail should be stiff.
- The fillets should be neat and trim. They should have firm skin and be packed closely together.
- Coloring should be even, with no darkened areas. White fish should have a white translucent color with no discolorations.
- Frozen fillets should be hard, with no signs of thawing. Make sure the packaging is not damaged and that there is no evidence of freezer burn.
To keep fish fresh as long as possible, always pack it in ice.
“The whole key to keeping fish fresh is keeping it as close to 32 degrees as possible,” Phil Krupa, vice president and co-owner of Fabulous Fish Co., said. “I don’t care if it’s 10 degrees outside or 90 degrees. Pack it in ice.”
Because fish fillets are already cleaned and ready to cook, the freshness of the fish is harder to discern without the skin and eyes.
Savory Asian salmon
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 4 salmon fillets, 1 to 1 1/4 pounds
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons brown or white sugar
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
- Lots of freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a shallow baking pan with a teaspoon of vegetable oil. Place the salmon (if it has a skin, place it skin side up) in the baking dish. Combine remaining oil, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, vinegar and black pepper. Stir to dissolve sugar and pour over salmon. Place salmon in the oven and bake for about 15 or 20 minutes. Salmon is done when it is opaque throughout.
Serve with rice and brussels sprouts or snow peas or side dish of your choice.