Friday, September 26, 2008

Riding the Waves with Catalina Offshore Products

File this under adventures in food shopping -- because at Catalina Offshore Products you won't find beautiful counter displays of seafood; aisles of seafood-compatible condiments, crackers and seasonings; or bottles of wine to complement your planned meal. It's a 16,000-square-foot warehouse on a small street alongside railroad tracks near Morena Blvd. and the 8 freeway.


What will you find, once you go through the doors leading from the business's busy office into the large chilly warehouse? A practical, price-conscious seafood lover's idea of nirvana. Catalina Offshore Products is a wholesaler to restaurants, caterers and other businesses around the country, even around the world. They've been around for more than 25 years, beginning when founder Dave Rudie, a professional sea urchin (uni) diver, and his wife Kathy started processing the uni and seaweed he caught. The business has since expanded to include fresh seafood caught in the waters of San Diego and Baja California, as well as frozen seafood (primarily for sushi restaurants) from Japan and elsewhere around the world. The emphasis is on sustainable fishing and providing the highest possible quality and freshness.

When I visited this week, I was met by Tommy Gomes, who handles sales, buying and public relations for the company. He's been there for ages and is a member of a family that came to San Diego from Portugal in 1892 and has been fishing in San Diego since that time. He lives, of course, in Pt. Loma (a Pt. Loma High School grad). Tommy's a wealth of information and a great guy who welcomes individual walk-in customers so long as they understand that:

  • there may be a wait before he can help you
  • there may be forklifts traveling around the warehouse floor that you need to keep away from
  • there may be lot of activity in terms of trimming fish, cleaning sea urchin, cleaning the premises, packing boxes
  • it's a working processing plant so there may be blood and other goopy things
  • most of what is sold is fresh catch so you have to be flexible with your order and willing to take what's in stock at the moment (get to know Tommy and you can call in with your order and just pick it up)
  • and that Tommy prefers to work with folks who are nice, courteous and patient
The benefit to being that perfect customer? You'll get ridiculously fresh, delicious seafood at even more ridiculously low prices compared to places like Whole Foods (whom they sell to) and Pt. Loma Seafood. And, you'll be in good company. Local police and firefighters are big shoppers here. Active military in uniform are positively drooled over. And regular folks are embraced as treasured customers.

Two weeks or so away from the commencement of lobster season, the warehouse was prepping for the arrival of the crustaceans, with men busily organizing styrofoam boxes and hay-like packing material. It was relatively calm so Tommy gave me the tour, showing me enormous refrigeration rooms behind stainless steel barn-size doors. In one, were several whole yellowtail from Mexico, a shark and a salmon from Nova Scotia.




There was a magnificent bluefin tuna as well and that was claimed within moments by Russell Hawkins, chef at the Escondido restaurant Tango. The fish was taken to a large cutting table and quickly trimmed to its essence for the young chef.


Another refrigeration room was filled with 20,000 salmon heads -- soon to total 140,00 -- for lobster fisherman in anticipation of the season opening.

Just outside the refrigeration rooms were deep chest freezers. These were primarily holding imported specialty seafood from Japan for sushi restaurants -- sushi-grade salmon, monkfish liver, masago, farm-raised hamashi. Another chest held frozen Croatian toro, a bluefin tuna from the Atlantic prized for its combination of color and high fat content (usually you get only one or the other).

In a nearby room were large long tanks, one filled with colorful abalone.


One of the most fascinating areas in the warehouse was where the uni was being processed. I had missed the early morning cleaning of the sea urchin, but Tommy showed me white pails filled with what he calls "uni goop." Once a source of irritation because it clogged the drains as it was being thrown out, Tommy decided to start selling it as chum for sport fishermen.


The area was now spotless so Tommy took me into a little room where mostly women were seated at several tables for two. In front of them were piles of uni of various shapes, colors and sizes. The women were weighing and sorting the uni into more uniform piles, the best of which -- the largest and most deeply colored and with the best texture and firmness -- would go to sushi restaurant customers. They were packed in delicate little wooden trays for shipping.


Of course, I was looking for seafood for myself, specifically ingredients for an easy cioppino I was planning. Tommy brought over several cooked and frozen crab claws.

Next, he pulled together a bag of hand-picked diver scallops from Mexico and a handful of magnificently plump wild Mexican white shrimp.


Finally, he brought me a grouper fillet.

The cioppino was marvelous. A few weeks ago I had needed to use up various vegetables before traveling to San Francisco, so I roasted heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, garlic and onions with lots of olive oil until they were cooked through and caramelized. I put all that in a saucepan in which I had sauteed more onion and garlic and then added a can of plum tomatoes, salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes and, at the very end, chopped herbs from my garden. Then I took a stick blender to the mixture and pulsed it until it was just slightly chunky. I had a helping that night with pasta and stored the rest in two small containers that went into the freezer. That's what I pulled out for dinner, heating the sauce up in a large Le Creuset pot, adding another chopped tomato and a couple of slices of lemon. That's it. Once that heated, I started adding the seafood, beginning with the crab claws and one-inch pieces of grouper. After a few minutes of letting it simmer, covered, I then added the shrimp and scallops, also toasting a sour dough roll (for dunking, of course). It took very little time and actually was one of the best versions of it I've made.


If cioppino's not your thing and you're curious about the grouper, a firm, white-meat fish, I have a recipe for you from Catalina Offshore Products. Tommy pulls together a lot of recipes for seafood that you can find on a wall in the main office.

Baked Grouper with Wild Mushrooms

8 tbl. extra virgin olive oil, divided
in half
1/2 lb. chanterelle mushrooms cut in 1/4" slices

1/2 lb. Portobello mushrooms, cut in 1/4" slices

1/2 lb. oyster mushrooms, cut in 1/4" slices

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tbl. tomato paste
1 tbl. thyme leaves

4 grouper fillets (5 oz. each)
Salt & pepper to taste
1 1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup coarsely chopped Italian parsley


Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a 12- to 14-inch oven proof saucepan heat 4 tablespoons of the oil until smoking. Add the mushrooms and garlic and saute 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and thyme and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Remove the mixture to a bowl and set aside.

Season the fish well with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining oil in the same pan and add the fish. Saute until deep golden brown on the first side. Carefully turn the fish, add the wine and return the mushroom mixture to the pan. Put the pan into the oven and cook for 4 minutes until the fish is cooked through. Remove from oven, sprinkle with parsley and serve. Serves 4.

Catalina Offshore Products is located at 5202 Lovelock St.

Hours for walk-ins are Monday through Friday from 9 to 2 and Saturday from 9 to 11:30. Make Tommy happy and bring in a cooler or ice chest with ice packs or bags of ice to fill with your purchases.

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