Cook Abalone at Home for a Sustainable WOW Factor!

Barely "teenage" abalone on the left, market size abalone about four years later on the right. (Photo K. Budge at The Abalone Farm in Cayucos)
Barely “teenage” abalone on the left, market size abalone about four years later on the right. (Photo K. Budge at The Abalone Farm in Cayucos)

Every so often, it’s fun to do a chef profile for my Local Flavors column in the Tribune newspaper (San Luis Obispo County, California). I ask the chefs to pick a local and/or seasonal ingredient, explain why and how they’re using it in their menus, and how cooks at home might approach the product. Most recently, Chef Leonard Gentieu of Onboard Nautical Events in Morro Bay choose abalone!

Chef Leonard uses pre-tenderized product from The Abalone Farm, located just up the highway in Cayucos. Granted, this is a pricy product (figure about $100/pound, about $55 for four tenderized steaks), but if you realize the intensive, hands-on aquaculture that goes into raising these mollusks to market size, you’ll understand why.

As I wrote in an earlier column about The Abalone Farm, “The five-year process starts with a controlled spawning, after which the larvae are moved to special tanks where the water is changed twice daily. After that, the tiny abalones spend several months in hatchery tanks. When they’re about the size of a thumbnail, they’re moved to different tanks, and when they are about an inch in size, they get moved again to the final harvest tanks. The whole process takes five years before the abalone reach a viable size – about 3- 1/2 to 4-1/2 inches in length — thanks to their diet of locally harvested California kelp and a rich seaweed variety grown on-site at The Abalone Farm.”

(Above) That "dirt" you see in the bottom of the tank are baby abalone. As they grow, they're moved into larger holding tanks (below) until they finish growing to market size in outdoor concrete tanks. (Photo K. Budge at The Abalone Farm in Cayucos)
(Above) That “dirt” you see in the bottom of the tank are baby abalone. As they grow, they’re moved into larger holding tanks until they finish growing to market size in outdoor concrete tanks (shown below). (Photos K. Budge at The Abalone Farm in Cayucos)


Although this sounds like a process that might not be environmentally sound, farmed abalone is a sustainable aquaculture process and is listed as one of the “Best Choices” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List. Though I’m partial to California or U.S. sources, country of origin doesn’t matter as much as the farming method, which should be in contained systems, not farmed on the sea floor. The latter has a fairly destructive method of razing the ocean floor for the abalone seeds.

(Here’s a link to a good read about California’s abalone history and current aquaculture efforts.)

Abalone are also pretty low maintenance in terms of inflows and outflows. In California, the abalone are typically fed kelp harvested from just offshore, plus maybe an additional supplement such as algae or dulse, a sea vegetable similar to kelp. In terms of “outflows,” let’s just say that abalone are inherently very clean creatures.

Perhaps because it’s just an expensive product, many chefs are tempted to throw the cookbook at it, but Chef Leonard prefers a simple preparation of just crushed saltines, clarified butter, and lemon juice. Luckily for home cooks, that’s also an easy way to wow your guests. Just make sure you have everything ready ahead of time so you can essentially flash sauté it – you DON’T want to overcook it!

— Katy Budge







A Line on Sustainable Seafood in Morro Bay

The original version of this article appeared in my “Local Flavors” column in the Tribune newspaper on April 9, 2015. In light of what recently happened with the West Coast sardine fishery (closed because the population has crashed), this is a look at a fishery that not only came back, but is now rated sustainable by Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council.
This article also opened my eyes to a pretty surprising statistic, which South Bay Wild notes on their website: “Currently, 90% of the fish harvested in the U.S. gets shipped overseas, while we import 80% of the fish we consume!”

By Katy Budge

If you want a line on locally caught, fresh from the boat, sustainable seafood, check out the catch from the Seitz family’s South Bay Wild.

The fish that Rob and Tiffani Seitz sell are considered West Coast groundfish. Among the species are Petrale Sole, Dover Sole, Rock Fish, Lingcod and Black Cod (aka Sablefish or Butterfish), none of which were considered sustainable a decade ago. However, thanks to years of dedicated efforts, the entire West Coast groundfishery was certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in June, 2014, and all the species within it were recently rated “Best Choices” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

In 2000, numbers of West Coast groundfish had plummeted so far that the entire fishery was declared a federal disaster. Severe restrictions were put in place as the challenging process of rebuilding the populations back to a sustainable level began.

One of the possible solutions that emerged was a catch share program, which put a quota on the total number of fish each fisherman can catch annually. In 2006, amid concerns that those shares might be scooped up by large corporate interests, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) stepped in and bought quota rights from several individual California fishermen who wanted out of the collapsed fishery.

TNC then leased those quotas back to fishermen willing to employ methods aimed at getting the fishery back on its fins. With the aim of also keeping the local fishing industry sustainable, TNC transferred some of its quotas to the non-profit Morro Bay Community Quota Fund (formed in 2013), which makes them available to local fishermen.

Last year, the Seitzs took advantage of this program to purchase both a quota share and their F/V (fishing vessel) South Bay. Captain Rob — a commercial fisherman in Astoria, Oregon from 1992 to 2011 — and crew work the boat out of Morro Bay, using a sustainable trawling rig to catch the groundfish. Also onboard is a federal observer, who must be present at all times to monitor methods and catch sizes.

Several local restaurants source fish from the F/V South Bay, including Artisan in Paso Robles, Foremost Wine Company in San Luis Obispo, and Dutchman’s Seafood House and Giancarlo’s in Morro Bay. Individuals can purchase fresh fillets from the South Bay Wild booth at farmers’ markets in Baywood on Mondays, Paso Robles on Tuesdays, and Morro Bay on Thursdays. (One customer at the latter market explained that her husband was also a local fisherman, and remarked that “when a fisherman’s wife buys fish from another fisherman – you know it’s good!)

Only fillets are sold at the markets, but with an advance order the Seitzs will sell whole fish that they’ll break down for you. In addition, they’re setting up a web-based system that will allow you to “purchase” product as soon as it’s caught – essentially putting emailed dibs on the fish.

Overall, South Bay Wild’s business model is a “triple bottom line” approach, but that doesn’t refer to fishing lines. It’s an inclusive philosophy concerned not just with sustainable environmental practices, but also social and economic benefits.

“We’ve all worked very hard over the last decade to make this a sustainable fishery,” said Tiffani, and “we want to keep as much of our product going to locals as possible.” That approach helps keep dollars within the community, and represents South Bay Wild’s own effort to buck the surprising statistic noted on their website: “Currently, 90% of the fish harvested in the U.S. gets shipped overseas, while we import 80% of the fish we consume!”

For more information on South Bay Wild, or to sign up for their fish updates, go to

For more information about sustainable fish choices for consumers, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s listings at or the Marine Stewardship Council’s website at

Rob Seitz was also featured in the 2014 annual report The Nature Conservancy in California (digital pages 8-9).

Off with Your Heads, Pandalus platyceros!

Freshly caught spot prawns
Freshly caught spot prawns

I’d always been curious about spot prawns, the colorful wigglers I’d see from time to time in the live tank at Pier 46 Seafood Market in Templeton. They seemed at once so ethereal, so primitive, so delicate, and so … sharp!

Spot prawns, aka Pandalus platyceros, are technically shrimp, and not even prawns at all. That moniker comes from their reign as the largest member of the shrimp family — about 6-7″ long, though females can get up to 9″. The taste and texture are akin to lobster, only a bit more delicate, and they’re also listed as a “good choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which means they are a sustainable fishery.

Locally, spot prawns are associated with Santa Barbara, though they can be found from California up through Alaska. The season here is during spring and summer, so when the Facebook post went out from the market that they’d just gotten the first “batch” in, I decided to carpe prawn.

The first red flag went up when I asked the fish guy how to prepare them and he said his buddy just sucks the heads out and eats the rest raw. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Didn’t enjoy that approach with crawfish, so probably not going that route with these bigger beasts.” Then he added that you can cook them just as you normally would shrimp, so I felt better about the whole endeavor.

The second red flag went up when the fish market staff didn’t want to give me ice because it would kill the prawns. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Usually that’s what I depend on to numb Dungeness crabs before I back them. Does that then mean what I think it means?” I’ve cleaned shrimp before, but they’d always been dispatched and beheaded by the time I’d made their acquaintance.

Undeterred, I brought the four spot prawns immediately home, albeit flinching every time they flinched in their plastic bag on the passenger side floor. My reflexive flinching continued as I brought them in and put them in the sink. I was sure they were plotting their escape – cue the Annie Hall lobster scene. Yes, I was mildly on edge thanks to these not so shrimpy shrimp. I’m not proud of that, but at least give me credit for admitting it.

The third red flag went up when I started looking on the internet about how to deal with spot prawns and starting reading things like this:
“… unless you’ve grown up down south on the bayou where processing shrimp is second nature, catching and cleaning these alien-like critters can be a little intimidating.”
“It’s not for the squeamish, but it’s not difficult.”
“Watch out for the sharp telson on the tail, it can nick you when they start thrashing about.”

I learned two main points in doing this research.

1) Spot prawns should be as fresh as possible when you cook them (or eat them raw), because once they die they excrete an enzyme from their heads that spreads through the body and starts to soften the meat. Well, that would explain the no ice protocol from the market.

2) In order to clean the prawns, you must first remove the heads by holding their head in one hand and the body in the other and giving a good twist. Actually, I take that back … FIRST, you have to PICK THEM UP! (Reference “flinching” above.)

Clearly, it was time to pull on the big girl pants and step up to the prawn. There was no way I was reaching into the bag to pick one up, but I managed to overcome that hurdle with the help of some kitchen tongs. Taking a deep breath, and I grabbed its body with one hand and slowly put down the tongs. Uttering only a little bit of high-pitched squealing, I grabbed the shrimp’s head with my other hand and twisted!

Darn if it didn’t go just like all those websites said it would, and once I’d snapped that first little head off I felt invincible! Good thing, because I still had three to go, but after that, it all came down to some garlic/ginger butter, white basmati rice and a nice crisp white Rhône.

Gleaning the County’s Bounty for the County’s Hungry

gleaners_webCome on, admit it. At some point in your life you’ve exuberantly purchased a six-pack (or two) of zucchini starts in the spring, and six months later your friends and neighbors are fearfully hiding from you because you’re always looking to pawn off zucchini the size of small canoes.

Examples of such overabundance exist wherever food is grown – from backyard gardens to large commercial scale operations. The sad fact is that much of that food goes entirely to waste, with some estimates putting the figure at one-third of all the food grown worldwide. True, some is loss to pests or other field conditions, but most is just left to rot because it’s not cosmetically up to par for market (consumers want perfect looking produce) or because the infrastructure is insufficient for getting it to market.

Enter the concept of gleaning. The verb “to glean” is typically applied to information or to agriculture. In the case of the latter, Merriam-Webster defines it as such: “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers,” “to pick up after a reaper,” “to strip (as a field) of the leavings of reapers.”

Basically then, gleaners are picking up leftovers, waste, what others don’t want and/or can’t harvest, and redistributing it to those in need. Think of it as the agricultural version of Robin Hood, without the rich/poor thing, the archery, and the tights. It’s a concept that has been steadily gaining worldwide steam, especially as we face not only the challenges of feeding people but also the challenges of dwindling natural resources.

In San Luis ObispoCounty, agriculture is a predominant industry, so it’s an avoidable given that there is food waste. Enter GleanSLO, a grassroots effort that started in 2010 as Backyard Harvest. Now operating under the auspices of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, GleanSLO coordinates food growers willing to have their produce gleaned – whether private gardens or commercial operations – with volunteer gleaners. Once gleaned, the fresh produce is distributed via the Food Bank to needy county residents.

The success of the GleanSLO program is pretty impressive. In 2010, 22,000 pounds of food were harvested that would have otherwise gone to waste. In 2011, it was 37, 988 pounds. In 2012, 99,165 pounds. So far, just as of this writing in April 2013, 39,919 pounds of produce have been harvested and distributed to needy people in the community … my community.

I recently went on my first glean, and will definitely be doing it again. On a beautiful spring morning, I met up with the two GleanSLO coordinators and a handful of other volunteers (ranging from retired to grade school age) at an orchard in rural Nipomo. The property was set back on the hills, which afforded us all a stunning panoramic view of the coastline as we plucked, picked, and pulled 1,945 pounds of oranges over the next two hours.

Two hours. 1,945 pounds of fresh produce. Fresh air. Getting to see beautiful rural properties. Exercise. Meeting new people with community spirit. Helping to feed healthy food to hungry people. Doesn’t get much better than that!


When Life Gives You Onion Waste … Repurpose it!


There’s a lot of buzz about “sustainability,” but a recent panel discussion on January 23 (the latest event in the lecture series sponsored by Cal Poly’s CAFESCenter for Sustainability) proved that it’s here to stay – not just because it’s better for the planet, but because it can also offer businesses some significant savings to their bottom line. Indeed, one of the three tenets of sustainability is based on economic viability (the other two are the environment and social equity). If a practice is not profitable, ultimately it is not sustainable in the market place.

Jocelyn Gretz, the Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager for Rio Farms/Gill’s Onions, was one of the presenters at “Paths to Sustainability in Food and Agriculture.” She discussed several ways that these family-owned and – operated companies are introducing sustainable practices, but among the most striking had to do with truck tires and onion juice.

Gill’s Onions, established in 1983 and based in Oxnard, CA, is “one of the largest processors of fresh-cut onions in the country.” In an effort to improve fuel efficiency in its fleet of 15 freight liners, they replaced the standard, side-by-side dual wheels with heavy duty super single tires. This action paired with upgrades to their new diesel fuel injection engines, lighter weight aluminum trailers and other improvements in their fleet has decreased enough drag for the company to realize an annual 90,000 gallon savings on their diesel usage!

Another effort the company made towards sustainability involved some cutting edge technology. As anyone who has cut an onion knows, you have to cut off both ends and remove the outer skin before you get to the usable part. Now extrapolate that into an operation the size of Gill’s – that’s a whole lotta onion waste, 300,000 pounds a day, to be precise. However, by making a significant investment ($10.8 million) in their Waste to Energy project, Gill’s was quite literally able to turn trash to treasure.

Here’s a very, very, quick thumbnail sketch of how the Advanced Energy Recovery System (AERS) works … first, all the liquid is extracted from the onion waste, resulting in dry “onion cake” that can be used as cattle feed, and it turns out that it’s a fairly nutritious one at that. The leftover onion juice – or as Gretz called it, “OJ” – then goes into an anaerobic environment where bacteria digest it and creates enough biogas to supply 100% of the company’s baseline electricity needs. Who knew that when life gives you onion waste, you can make cattle feed and renewable electricity out of it?! For more information on Gill’s Sustainability efforts, visit, or contact Nikki Rodoni, Director of Sustainability, Gills Onions (

(Thanks to Jocelyn for her input to this post!)

Sustainability Message in Vegas?

The den of iniquity otherwise known asLas Vegas might seem an odd place for lessons on sustainability. Yet there, in the middle of all things Vegas, sits the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay, and no, it has nothing to do with card sharks.

This impressive facility is North America’s only predator-based aquarium, which means that although sharks are the main event, you’ll also see crocodiles and Komodo Dragons, piranhas and pythons, lionfish and stingrays. Over all, it’s got a fairly small footprint compared to other aquariums, “only” 95,000 square feet, but it still manages to sport over 2000 animals and 100 different species of sharks.

From the get go, messages about sustainability are everywhere. The visitor “passport” has tear-out guides for buying both sushi and seafood, signs at several points encourage and explain the need for paying attention to fisheries, and – a big AND– this place is big on hosting school groups and educating them about our oceans.

 The Shark Reef Aquarium also has a major wow factor going on with their reef tunnel. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like – a glass tunnel going right through the tank showcasing the reef exhibit. There are sharks swimming to the left of you, sharks to the right of you, sharks above you. Okay, usually not all at once, and there are several other species roaming about as well, but you get the point.

For anyone that knows me, you will be quite amazed that I managed to keep my heart rate below 200 bpm while in the tunnel. Yes, I have a lifelong shark phobia, and before you get started … it predates Jaws by many years; you will not be able to talk me out of it; and no, I really do not like those new, freakish, helium-filled, radio-powered shark balloons

However, although I have an utter and abject fear of sharks, I also have an immense amount of respect and admiration for them. It did become mesmerizing to watch these stunning creatures glide around me. We were both in our own elements of air and water, and although just yards apart, we are worlds apart in terms of the sheer experience of existence.

The earliest sharks appeared about 420 million years ago. Our first ancestors only date back about 2.5 million years, give or take a fossil dating. Yet, as usual, it’s our activities that are threatening sharks and countless other species on the planet.

Having said that, yes, I am all for the ban on shark finning for shark fin soup. I am the first person to defend ethnic food and cultures, but not when it comes to such wanton destruction of life. Yes, I understand the soup is a centuries-old delicacy that can bring over $50 per bowl in China. However, to get the fins, the sharks are caught, the fins are lopped off, and the maimed sharks are thrown back into the water to die. How good can that soup really taste? In fact, it’s not even the fins that give it taste – the fins just provide cartilaginous texture.

Recently, a massive shark slaughter was discovered off the coast of Columbia– in a wildlife sanctuary! It’s certainly not an isolated incident, just among the most recent. Officials reported “that as many as 2,000 sharks have been killed in a single incident for their fins. … Shark species found included hammerhead, Galapagos, and silky sharks.”

This slaughter isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening because of the law of supply and demand. If the cachet for shark fin soup goes away, sharks won’t be slaughtered for their fins. By the same token, if you find ways to use the whole shark and not litter the bottom of the sea with their carcasses, then by all means, enjoy your shark fin soup.

Wine Kegs?

Chamisal "Wine Kegs"

Lots of great things at the 2011 Earth Day Food & Wine Festival this year – char siu tacos from Porter’s Gourmet on the Go, homemade shortbread and blackberry balsamic reduction from Chaparral Gardens, only 1.75 pounds (yes, pounds) of landfill trash generated from the entire event …

Clearly, I could go on and on, but one of the coolest finds was Chamisal Vineyards’ Stainless Program, as in stainless steel wine tanks. Following a trend that’s really starting to catch inNorthern California, Chamisal (located in the Edna ValleyAVAof San Luis Obispo County) has introduced 5-gallon, re-useable kegs that hold about the equivalent of 25 750ml bottles of wine.

Yes, keg wine – get over it, this is definitely not swill – it’s Chamisal! Also, the design of the stainless tank can be gassed so that the wine stays fresh for up to three months after you tap your first glass. As Assistant Winemaker Michael Bruzus explained, “the consumer (most likely a restaurant unless an individual has a keg setup at home) will use their existing pressurized gas infrastructure for beer. We will come to the restaurant or bar and make sure the pressures are low enough to get the wines out of the keg without charging the wine.”

Nitrogen or argon are the best gases to use in this application. Though carbon dioxide will work, Bruzus noted that “the tricky part with carbon dioxide is if you use too much, you will inadvertently make the wine ‘spritzy’.”

Bruzus further justified the use of stainless tanks as offering not only numerous environmental benefits, but also cost savings in terms of packaging, waste and energy use. Each stainless keg represents …
25 fewer bottles in cases to be manufactured and shipped to the winery
25 fewer bottles to be thrown away or recycled if it had been bottled
2 corrugate paper printed boxes with inserts
50 fewer labels to be printed (front and back)
25 fewer screw caps to be manufactured and shipped
25 fewer screw caps to be thrown away or recycled if it had been bottled

The bottom line — “We are saving 30 pounds worth of material (post consumer waste) per keg!” he wrote.

Also, in terms of energy savings, “maintaining the wine in tank and filling kegs on demand saves an enormous amount of energy because the added thermal mass of glass and corrugate requires more energy to cool the same volume of wine in a tank or a keg.”

In addition, “the kegs are completely re-usable. Once you’ve emptied the keg, you simply affix a pre-addressed FedEx label to it, drop it off at a local FedEx store, and it is returned to us. When it arrives at the winery, we sanitize it and fill it back up.” Even with this system, shipping costs are reduced because a full keg of wine weighs 44 pounds as opposed to the 74 pounds that those 25 full bottles in cardboard cases would weigh.

Arguably, this treatment isn’t for every varietal, but it suits Chamisal’s existing production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay very well. In fact, the winery was already producing a stainless-only Chardonnay available by the bottle!