Christmas catch: summer seafood tips

Author: John Susman
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

Veteran seafood consultant John Susman is our go-to guy for questions of a hook-to-plate nature. If he doesn't know where to lay hands on the very best that swims, slithers or crawls the ocean deep, he certainly knows a grizzled bloke on a trawler who does. He also spends an admirable chunk of his time at the best seafood restaurants, here and abroad, chewing the omega-3 with the best in the game, so we've asked him for his insider's picks on what's best this Christmas.

One of the trends for this year is the recognition of the growers, regions and varieties of oysters - and, importantly, the need for oysters to be freshly opened. My pick this year is the Puglisi family's new Kinkawooka Longnose Point Specials. These oysters have just been released and are packed by the dozen in oxygenated seawater to replicate their natural environment, which results in the preservation of their natural sweetness. They've got a mild fruity and sweet flavour with a clean mineral finish - absolutely perfect with a glass of fizz. The mighty Nambucca River should also be producing some cracker rock oysters at this time. With floods earlier this year, the river system has enjoyed some massive nutrient flows. Combined with the dredging of the sandbar at the river mouth and the influx of oceanic water into the estuary, the growing conditions have been exceptional. Expect a rich and creamy oyster with a complex herbaceous flavour and long, deep aftertaste.

For punters who have the kitchen or inclination to fry whole prawns, that flush of nutrients down the rivers of the north coast of NSW has resulted in bumper harvests. While prices have crept up from the bait value of last year, I expect great supplies of sweet, delicious schoolies this summer. I've seen some retail packs from the Coffs Harbour and Clarence River Fishermen's Co-ops in the market. There will be great supplies of fresh prawns, but the integrity retained by immediate, post-harvest freezing cannot be underestimated, especially if you're going to be using them green.

With the influx of imported and farmed prawns, I think we will see the informed consumer celebrating the wild-caught king prawn. Yes, punters can expect to pay for them because of their unique flavour and texture. The initiative by the Spencer Gulf Prawn Fishermen's Association to launch Lincoln Wild Kings as a brand supported by a quality assurance will go a long way to giving buyers a great eating experience. The Spencer Gulf prawn fishery is regarded as the word's most sustainable wild prawn fishery so this summer should see the prawns gaining the rock-star status they deserve. Like many contemporary fisheries, the prawns are caught, graded, packed and super-frozen immediately. If punters can, they should ask for the frozen product and defrost them at home because most fishmongrels use tepid tap water for defrosting, which strips flavour from the prawns.

Everyone thinks they're expensive, but the southern rock lobster (better known to Tasmanians and Victorians as crayfish) is the best eating lobster on the planet, as the results of a project we undertook for the government last year showed. We surveyed 40 of the world's best restaurants, compared samples of the Australian southern rock lobster to each of the restaurants' local supplies and found the Aussie version to be vastly superior. If it's going to be an all-stops-out Christmas, I'd definitely recommend some southern rock lobsters. (If you live within spitting distance of the Sydney Fish Market, go for live 'local' eastern rock lobsters though they're harder to come by.) Luxury comes at a price but this fishery is well-regarded for its sustainability and professionalism as much as its eating quality. The southern rock lobster gets two thumbs-up.

Okay, so every second fish buyer will be serving salmon, no problems, but there are a few options that are sustainable and offer good eating. For punters wanting to ensure supply, we need to consider the volumes of seasonal wild and appropriate farmed fish. Hiramasa kingfish has dropped off the radar at the very top end of the restaurant market somewhat, but we've been working hard at the back end to improve the eating quality (changing feed protocols, swimming patterns and harvesting techniques). I've been really excited about the fish that are now coming out of the water, and by Christmas they'll be even better - with a fat content higher than the farmed salmon and a far superior base feed (higher local fish content and no land animal product or GMO ingredients), they genuinely taste better - a whole poached kingfish is the ideal centre-of-table option.

Then there's Suzuki mulloway. The two-to-three kilo fish coming out of the Cleanseas outfit at Arno Bay on South Australia's west coast, are genuinely fantastic. With sweet, clean, white flesh, they're great poached or roasted whole, and make great cutlets for grilling.

Barramundi can be tricky. There's barra and there's barra, but some of the farmed product from Wild River or Coyne Bay is genuinely fantastic. The two-to-four kilo fish are well-swum in fast-flowing seawater, giving the flesh both confirmation and integrity (that is, firm with a broad scalloping flesh, not soft and mushy like much of the brackish and freshwater product).  Again, ideal for roasting or poaching, or careful barbecuing whole. There will be no fresh wild barra at Christmas, due to fisheries closures in both Queensland, WA and the Northern Territory, but there should be plenty of frozen wild fillet. Make sure you ask for boat-processed fish - it means they've been filleted and frozen at sea.

The wild snapper run in the Spencer Gulf is prolific going into Christmas, and early indications are that there are some really big schools swimming around. These fish are typically large (four to six kilos) and are very fatty, so cooking whole, on the bone is the way to go. They're really great, especially if you're after something to bake and serve at room temperature or cold with a herby mayonnaise (a la the Susman family buffet).

November and December are the peak of the pilchard season in South Australia - both in quantity and quality (read: fat content) and there are now several guys handling them well (as opposed to the bait guys). Expect to see plenty of both fresh and sea-frozen fish. On the east coast, meanwhile, it'll also be the height of the jack (or horse) mackerel season. They're really cheap and make for great eating - the ideal fish for an escabeche entrée or a salad.

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