Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Feast on Seafood...in DC...for $20?!

As you know, I recently joined the Foreign Service.  This means that I work with an awesome bunch of people that are foodies, something to be expected from individuals who plan to make a career out of gallivanting around the world.  This means that after work and on weekends, you can find us eating our way through the District looking for the next best thing.

This past weekend a group of us headed to the Maine Avenue Fish Market to celebrate September birthdays.  Vi (one of the birthday people) recommended this and sure enough, it was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The Maine Avenue Fish Market is often referred to as "The Wharf" and sells some of the freshest seafood that the DMV (that's DC, Maryland, and Virgina for those who don't know) has to offer. 

The seafood hails from waters near the area and are transported by truck to the market.  The family-owned floating barges that float in the market today pay homage to the fishers who sailed their "buy boats" between the Wharf and Colonial Beach, Virginia.  Now that you've had your history lesson, on to the food.

I got to the market around noon and had no problem finding parking and to sweeten the pot it was free! For those who don't know this is a rarity in DC.  Vi recommended that we all meet at Captain White's Seafood stand to start the adventure.  Because I'm a worrywart, I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to find the stand but it proved to be a mecca of sorts, drawing those from various parts of the area to fresh seafood.

Since I arrived a bit before everyone, I decided to explore a bit to check out the scene and take some photos.  I was absolutely in awe, I felt like I was in the seafood area of Mercado Central in Santiago, Chile.  There were various types of whole fresh fish--tilapia, grouper, catfish, sole...just to name a few.  There were also fillets of salmon and tuna that were ready to be cooked.  In addition to the fish there were sassy live Maryland blue crabs, Alaskan and snow crab legs, and a variety of shellfish and shrimp.  I knew that the smell of Old Bay in the air coupled with the freshness of the seafood would guarantee me a good lunch.

There are three ways to purchase food at the market.  If you want to eat at the market itself, there are food stands that serve seafood and even soul food platters.  The drawback to this method is that most of the offerings, both sea and land, are fried. The major benefit however is that your food is ready and you don't have to wait for service at the seller booths nor the steam line (more on this later).  My friend Liz went this route and got a fried scallop platter that came with french fries and cole slaw.  The scallops were delicious, the batter was light, well-spiced, and a compliment to the meaty, sweet scallops.  I plan to do this next time because she was eating while I was still steaming sea critters.

The second option is to pick your food in fresh, raw form from the vendors and take it to one of the many cooking areas.  If you choose this option, workers will steam and season (with Old Bay...duh!) your seafood and call you when its done using a ticket system akin to a deli counter.  The best part is that its technically free, minus the cost of food, but remember to tip your steamer. 

The third option is of course to buy your seafood and take it home, but what fun is that?  But, if you do go down this road one perk is that if you want a whole fish, they can filet and debone it for you and oysters and clams can be shucked.

Since this was my first time at the market and I wanted the whole experience. I decided to pick my food and have it cooked at a steam station.  Here is what I ended up buying:

1 small cup of Maryland Crab Soup: $3.95
3 pieces of Steamed Conch Meat: 2.85 (Liz and I were channeling our inner Andrew Zimmern)
1 bunch of snow crab legs: 6.97
3 clams, 6 oysters, raw and shucked: $10 (I shared these with Raphael)
1 lb tiger shrimp: 10.97 (Also shared with Raphael)

Obviously the prices are pretty awesome for fresh, out of the water, local, seafood!

Anyhow, after I gathered all of my food, I took the shrimp and crab legs to the steaming station to be cooked.  During this time, I ate my soup in line...you know, an informal appetizer.  To be Maryland crab soup, I must say that this was a disappointmentI mean isn't Maryland known for all things crab?  Don't get me wrong, the soup broth had a great flavor thanks to a tomato based seafood stock which gave the Old Bay a sweet background to interact with.  There were also potatoes, carrots, and peas in the soup which were tender and had the flavor of the broth that they were swimming in.  My biggest complaint is that there was just an embarrassing amount of crab meat in this "crab soup."  Aside from that, the soup...or broth rather...was okay.

After about 15 minutes in the steam line, my number was called and I took my bounty to the eating area to rejoin the rest of my group.  I found a strawberry lemonade waiting for me thanks to Vi.  This was a very nice touch.  Not only because I forgot to purchase a drink, but also because the lemonade had bits of fresh strawberry in it.  For my personal taste it was just a wee bit too sweet, I think I would have preferred the traditional lemonade, but Liz had two of them and raved so I'm guessing I'm just not used to sugary drinks.

Finally, time to eat!  I started with the crab legs which were perfectly steamed and the crab meat had a nice sweet flavor.  Upon cracking the legs, none of the meat stuck to the shell which is one of the key signs of proper preparation and freshness, so I was pleased.  In the future, I think I will just buy my crab legs from the market (obviously due to price reasons!) and cook them at home because I think that mine are more flavorful (I steam them with beer and serve them with drawn lemon Cajun butter), but I'm not going to lie, these were yummy.

I also tried Maryland blue crab for the first time!  Oh Boy.  Before I even start, I have to thank Raphael for the patience and the crab eating lesson.  I got a male crab which supposedly has more meat that the female, but I couldn't tell--this thing was pitiful.  I cracked open a leg, then a claw, and almost threw the thing away because I was convinced I was given an a malnutritioned crab that didn't properly develop.  Raphael informed me that that the meat was in the body of the crab.  Ah-Ha! By some miracle, I got to the coveted meat!  Blue crab is very sweet with a delicate saltiness that can only come from a lifetime in the ocean.  What I don't like about blue crab is that sour and bitter tastes of the crab's innards taint the sweet (and limited) meat.  Let's just say, I'll stick to snow crab.  I felt guilty for eating little Earl, there just wasn't any meat.  With that said, I also understand why crab cakes are so expensive--it's a lot of work to get to this meat!

Onward to the shrimp.  Just like the crab legs, these babies were cooked to perfection.  Not underdone, not chewy.  Not under seasoned, but just enough Old Bay to compliment the natural flavors of the shrimp.  I think of all of the things I ate that day, this was my favorite.

Just when I thought I was wrapping my meal up, my friend Liz reminded me that I still had to try the conch meat that I bought.  I picked it out because I'd only ever had it in fritters so I wanted to try the meat before it got incorporated in anything else.  The conch themselves are already steamed (that's how they get them out of the shell) so they had no seasoning, thus no flavor and were cold and the texuture was really thick and chewy.  Long story short:  I will contine to eat them in fritter form.

To end the meal, Raphael and I did a few oyster and clam shots.  I bought the clams because I never had raw clams and wanted to try, it wasn't my favorite not because of taste, but because of texture.  The raw oysters were okay, but I have personally had better oysters at McCormick and Schmicks and in Puerto Rico.  However, I'll just be thankful I can still have oysters given the situation in the Gulf.

If you can't tell this was an awesome outing!  I clearly ate anything that once moved in the sea, and enjoyed doing so, especially with such great company on a mild, almost-fall day in DC.

If you want to check out the market for yourself, head over to 1100 Maine Avenue SW.  It's a quick drive from Arlington, and the closest metro stop is Smithsonian (blue/orange lines).


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