This is all Nic Mink’s fault, this state I’m in. Ok, technically it’s a state I put myself in after raising forkful after forkful to my stupid face. Mr. Mink is just the middle man (and who should seriously consider going by only “The Mink,”), as the owner and operator Sitka Salmon Shares, a direct-to-consumer fish share where average joes and janes can get pristine Alaskan seafood shipped directly to them from the fishermen themselves. And because these are sourced from smaller, independent fishing operations, they spend much less time on ice on long commercial commutes. In short, you’re getting a monthly supply of some of the best damn fish caught off of American waters. I know that because I ate it, and it’s some of the best I’ve ever had.
Both of my parents are excellent cooks, and we never went to the Gulf Coast without spending one night grilling amberjack, grouper, Gulf shrimp, and red snapper that had been plucked from the ocean only hours before. There is simply no comparison between fresh fish and supermarket fish—much of which, Mink later told me, is mislabeled. The stuff you see behind the glass at Marsh often comes from overseas aquafarms, which are largely unregulated. Even in the best-case scenario, you’re looking at up to a two-week transit time between the boat and the plate in when the fish is coming to the Midwest.
So Mink decided to shorten that trip, by using the same model small farms have for years to revitalize the independent farming economy. With direct-to-consumer sales, he’s not just selling extremely fresh fish, but a quality assurance that you can’t get from even the highest-end grocery. He came to Indy by way of Butler’s Center for Urban Ecology, where he was hired a couple of years ago as an urban sustainable foods fellow. These days, he’s all about fish, selling not only the fruits of the sea but also the sustained future of Sitka fishing.
The product, however, pretty much does all the selling for itself.
For this very special CNO, the idea was simple: three courses only, one fish from each fisherman per course. All we knew is that we were going to have black cod collars (the part of the fish that connects the head to the body), Halibut, and King Salmon.
The first dish was put together by Cory Rascoe, Sous Chef at The Local using Stuart Weathers’ black cod. Or rather, it was mostly put together—my dish came to me with almost none of the elements included in other diners’ dishes. My dinner date’s plate had lots of bok choy, some popcorn, and radishes. Mine had a single, inch-long bok choy stalk, one or two radishes, and nothing else. I didn’t honestly notice while unimaginably rich, tender, cod meat, until I looked over the menu again. The cod was rich and clean, without any overwrought preparation that would distract from the purity of the fish. That was a consistent theme throughout the night. The protein itself was skillfully prepared, no doubt, but I ended up having to eat off of my tablemate’s plates to get a “fully-assembled” bite, which was delicious when I had the opportunity for it. But I don’t go to these things because I want to plate-surf my way to a complete flavor profile. Nonetheless, my enjoyment of the fish was not at all dampened.
The second course, a beautiful piece of snow-white halibut, perched atop braised kale, roasted tomatoes, morcilla (blood sausage), fish fumet (a fish bone broth), and roasted salaad turnips. This was divine, returning again to all those adjectives that denote freshness. The purity of the fish cannot be undersold—not a trace of the “low tide” background flavor that usually accompanies Midwestern fish dishes. Chef Adam Ditter’s exposure and training on fish was obvious in the perfect firmness of the fish, and the easy interplay of the lightness of the fumet with the intense iron richness of the morcilla.
Of course, the last dish is the one that stole the show. They don't call it King salmon for nothing. This was miles away from the grocery store salmon most of us are used to, not fishy, not dry or freezer burned. It didn’t flake so much as melt off of the filet. The slow-roasted protein was as soft as a pillow, bright pink, and fell apart in your mouth. What blew me away about the dish was the choice of the smoked eggplant puree, which allowed you to add the slightest hint of smokiness to the fish, or smother a bite if you wanted. They key, as always, was the balance: softness of the fish against the bite of the crunchy rice. Smokey rich eggplant puree against the bright sugar snap pea salad. It was all there.
As a purely food-based experience, the whole thing was absolutely sublime. I’ve never had Alaskan-caught fish that tasted quite as clean, pure and fresh. It was enough to make me pass on the grocery store fish—not just because of the flavor, but because of what Mink said about mislabeling and unregulated fish.
For a person who prides herself on being able to taste the diet of various farm-raised pork and beef, the dinner gave me a reason to think as seriously about my fish consumption habits. What would my food taste like if I cared as much about the origins and freshness of my seafood as I do my beef, pork and chicken. In short, I’d probably eat a lot less beef, pork and chicken. Mink’s model represents a potential new future for seafood distribution that puts the product first—which, in turn, puts the fishery and the people who need to survive first as well. And all you have to do to help is buy and eat some of the best damn fish in the world.
For more info, check out the Sitka Salmon Shares website.
Chef's Night Off Appreciation Dinner from Heather Brogden on Vimeo.We've covered CNO, the monthly popup that combines Indy's best line cooks and shows them off in the best restaurants in town. This time, instead of telling you (again) what CNO is all about, enjoy this video produced by Heather Brogden from the last CNO fan appreciation dinner.