When Steve DeLeonardis, the owner of the Corner Store restaurants on Cape Cod, heard about the new FDA-approved name for spiny dogfish, he immediately created a new menu item — “SharkRito.”
“Cape shark” has been an alternative moniker for the Cape’s ubiquitous groundfish for some time, but it gained local popularity when the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance adopted it last year.
“We’re on the Cape, and there’s been all this buzz about the great whites down here,” said DeLeonardis, who operates restaurants in Orleans and Chatham.
“We have a younger, hip demo here that responds well to what we’re doing.”
He debuted the SharkRito at his Orleans location in mid-June and, despite the fact that the fish-filled burrito is available only on Fridays, he’s already selling 20 to 30 pounds a week.
The SharkRito is just the latest in ongoing efforts by New England seafood interests to expand the culinary taste of Americans. Their goal is to support the ecological management of aquatic life while stabilizing the income of fishermen and others who work in the field.
DeLeonardis connected with local fishermen through the alliance, which recently has launched a sales campaign aimed at promoting cape shark to US distributors and major users like university systems.
The alliance will spend about $50,000 over the next two years working with several partners, including the University of New England, which is gathering nutritional information about the fish; Sea to Table, a Brooklyn-based seafood company that is leading the sales push; and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which will create promotional events and develop product surveys for potential buyers.
Since 2009, the institute has been promoting local “under-loved” fish like cape shark through its “Out of the Blue” project.
The program introduces restaurateurs and others in the food service industry to local sustainable fish species. In addition to cape shark, its current list of “backyard fish” — because they’re “caught in your own backyard” — includes Acadian redfish, Atlantic mackerel, whiting, and Atlantic pollock.
So far, some results are encouraging, said James Benson, the sustainable seafood project manager at the institute. Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that, between 2009 and 2013 (the last year data is available), New England Acadian redfish landings increased from about 3 million pounds per year to nearly 8 million.
But cape shark has not yet caught on yet, with prices holding steady at around 20 cents per pound for the last seven years.
(Fortunately for local fishermen, the fish is popular in Europe where it is known by other names, including “rock salmon,” and is prominent in dishes such as Great Britain’s famous fish and chips.)
Just getting Americans to try something outside of their old favorites — such as tuna, salmon, and cod — is difficult, said John Sackton, publisher of Seafood.com in Lexington.
“It’s getting consumers to expand their horizons,” said Michael Leviton, chef/owner of Lumiere in Newton and Area Four in Cambridge.
“It’s getting them to be a little adventurous,” he added.
With some “backyard” fish, there also are problems involved with processing. Because cape shark is smaller than more popular species, chefs have to put more work into gathering less meat.
“The yield on a cape shark is not the same as on a cod,” said Nancy Civetta, communications director with the fishermen’s alliance. “These are 8-pound fish,” compared to Atlantic cod that could weigh in at 11 to 25 pounds.
Cape shark catches also involve extra work for fishermen in handling. Because a shark urinates through its skin, there can be a strong ammonia taste associated with the fish.
Allowing the fish to bleed out on board the boat after catching, rather than just throwing it on ice, eliminates unwanted tastes and odors.
DeLeonardis said it took some time for him to figure out the best way to serve cape shark.
“In the kitchen, I had to refine the process,” he said. “It’s not just trimming it and frying it up.”
To make the SharkRito, DeLeonardis soaks the trimmed fish in milk, and marinates it for at least two hours.
Then he dredges the pieces through seasoned flour, pan fries them for about a minute per side, and services it on a tortilla with Asian slaw, and sweet chili aioli.
“Then roll it up and chow down,” he said. “The response has been amazing.”
Correction: The story was updated to correct the title of James Benson, the sustainable seafood project manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Also, the size of New England Acadian redfish landings was incorrectly stated. Landings increased from 3 million pounds per year in 2009 to nearly 8 million pounds per year in 2013.