Sea to Table: Ocean State Tautog

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Beer Pairing

With chowder, beer seems to be a natural. And for all things seafood, you can’t go wrong with the Narragansett Lager. The malty smoothness and crisp refreshment of the lager pairs well with most fish dishes, and is even used in a lot of fish preparations, such as in making batters and in cooking mussels. The Narragansett Lager is also the “Official Beer of the Clam,” but maybe it can be the beer of the tog as well![/colored_box][/one_third]
[two_third last=”yes”] T autog fishing hits its stride in the fall and as we reported last month in CAM-RI, keepers have been biting at the Watch Hill Lighthouse in Westerly, Ragged Limb Ledge near Newport and General Rock in North Kingstown, not to mention Fishers Island Sound close to the Clumps. Like quahog, tautog is a Native American word in the Narragansett language, so that’s what we Rhodys call this tricky bottom-feeder, known as blackfish in NY and elsewhere.

While tautog are challenging, being strong fighters and sticking close to craggy rocks, it’s worth the wait and effort. Nicknamed “tog,” the tautoga onitis feeds only on shellfish, particularly mussels and hermit or green crabs, making their “meat” sweet to the taste. The tautog’s flesh is firm and lean and, like monkfish, can sometimes be prepared or known as “poor-man’s lobster”…delicious simply baked, grilled, or even boiled and buttered. But many a RI angler prefer their tautog in a chowder and have their own special recipe to serve their friends and families, as Mike Wade of Watch Hill Outfitters is known to do…and his tops all others.

“I cook here at the store all the time,” Mike said. “When people come in I’ll say, ‘Would you like some fish or some chowder’ or whatever I’m making that day. We all fish and we all have recipes from our families. It’s not a competition as much as a sharing of our favorite things.”

Togs have been described as a less expensive red snapper, but tautog is getting up there in price too. Th ere is such high demand for tautog that not only are they fetching over $10/ lb as a delicacy in urban markets like New York City and Philadelphia, but there is also a growing black market trade in poaching live tautog and selling them at high prices to Asian markets where they are desired as sushi or even kept in tanks and cooked to order like lobster, especially the undersized fish (14” and below) that fit as a single filet on a plate. The good news is that some say tautog is a fish that actually tastes better aft er rigor mortis has passed, but still within a day or so, when the flesh has relaxed. Yet others disagree. “It’s hard to believe that any fish would not taste better fresh,” says Mike Wade.

This was the subject of some online notice and debate when it was stated on national television by Alton Brown, host of Iron Chef America, when Chef Michael Cimarusti of Providence Restaurant–ironically located in Los Angeles–beat Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, renowned for his delicate sushi as well as unusual and unusually delicious fish preparations during Battle Blackfish. While all Rhody anglers know that blackfish is the other name for our local tautog, we had to wonder why in the world a restaurant in LA would be named Providence. Turns out that Chef Michael Cimarusti spent his childhood summers in Narragansett and remembers fishing almost every weekend.

His menu at Providence brings back these fond memories by focusing on seafood and includes seasonal New England favorites including Rhode Island wild fluke, wild striped bass from Massachusetts, and wild Maine lobster, among other specials and signature dishes. Chef Michael also recently opened what he calls a “New England-style Clam Shack in LA.” Named “Connie and Ted’s” for the grandparents who took him fishing in RI, it is an homage to the foods of his childhood and features steamers and stuffi es (using our famous Quahog clams and linguica-breadcrumb stuffi ng), as well as “Chowda.”

“The earliest versions of chowder would have included fin fish over shellfish,” Chef Michael writes in the LA TImes. “Early recipes call for salt pork, which differs from bacon mainly because it is not smoked. Potatoes became common in chowders only in the last 150 years or so.”

Chef Michael continues, “We all think we know that Manhattan-style chowder is tomato-based and New England chowder is cream-based. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find more regional variations.” He is quick to point out the Rhode Island version is clear, thank you very much. “There are also tomato-based chowders that hail from New England, likely due to the large number of Italian and Portuguese immigrants that have crewed the region’s fishing boats for generations.”

You can get all three chowders at Connie and Ted’s, but so far, no tautog chowder.

Besides, it’s still in LA…(“Michael, this is your mother speaking, come home!”) Luckily, we are not at a loss for our own local chowder houses, clam shacks and fine seafood restaurants serving Rhode Island chowders and fishermen’s stews, from Iggy’s roadside in Narragansett to the Ocean House resort in Watch Hill. We have to say, however, our favorite tog chowder so far, is our own Mike Wade’s, the who’s who of WHO.

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