Though seafood may be difficult to handle, keep and sell properly in cafeteria settings with stringent budgets, foodservice directors diligently continue exploring new ways to captivate customers with fish while holding the line on costs.
"Here in the Northwest, salmon is still the most popular fish with students," says Tom Driscoll, director of foodservice at the University of Oregon. "We prepare it many ways, but the most popular is when we do our cedar plank salmon in our open-hearth pizza ovens. We typically make this a centerpiece of our theme meals, and the cedar adds a delicious smoky flavor."
College students have become more sophisticated about seafood, Driscoll adds. "I think sushi has officially moved from novelty to a basic staple," he explains. "Students love the portability, taste and healthful qualities.
"Another trend we see is a move toward more sustainable fish choices, such as tilapia and pollock. The mild taste of these fishes go well with more assertive flavors, such as in our Thai chili pollock or Vera Cruz tilapia. Students appreciate our efforts to use more sustainable fish and are open to trying new preparation methods and recipes."
Glenn Taylor, director of culinary services for Black Bear Dining at the University of Maine, takes an innovative approach to seafood by using a variety of sauces and by staging dining events with cultural themes.
"Instead of trying to recreate or reinvent seafood dishes, we'll have a Thai Night, a Greek Night or a Mediterranean Night," Taylor says. "We do Thai lemon grass mussels, Greek feta tilapia and Mediterranean tilapia. On Cajun Night we do catfish."
Taylor creates more options with chutneys and salsas."We have a fresh mango chutney that goes great with haddock, tilapia and scallops," he says. "We also have a honey wasabi sauce to spread over roasted salmon."
Taylor likes to roast whole fillets of salmon. He portions them out at carving stations to control costs and waste, which also saves on labor while enhancing the overall presentation.
"We also do a Peruvian sour onion fish fillet with tilapia that is very popular," he says. "We use tilapia a lot because it is a very versatile and inexpensive fish. Without a strong flavor of its own, tilapia takes on the profile of the spices or sauces that are added to it. Mussels are another student favorite."
At the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Director of Food, Nutrition and Hospitality Neal Lavender adjusts to the ailing economy by targeting certain days and certain fish.
"People shy away from seafood when the economy is hurting and prices go up," Lavender notes. "We schedule many of our fish dishes on payday Friday, when people are apt to spend a little more. We used to use trout, but traded it out due to the price."
Salmon has become Lavender's fish of choice."It holds up well; it presents well," he says. "We do a pecan encrusted salmon that is fabulous. People love it. Even here in Texas where the perception is all meat and potatoes, people are going for seafood."
Because Dallas is not too far from New Orleans, many Dallas residents share in the celebration of Mardi Gras.
"We had a Creole étouffée catfish dish and a seafood gumbo that was more of a stew," Lavender says. "We also serve healthy alternatives, like a simple Mediterranean broiled fish. We have at least three salmon dishes on our café menu. People love them and they are good sellers even in tough times."
Bill Cunningham, the hospital's chef and retail production manager, says, "Serving fresh seafood in Dallas is a challenge. It is difficult to create items that we can serve to patients and still maintain our tray costs. In our retail areas, our customers would revolt if we tried charging more than $3.95 for an entrée. We have been working diligently to find heart-healthy, cost-effective seafood items. Dallas is a beef city, but we have found seafood dishes that will not only meet nutritional guidelines set by our clinical staff and our parent company, Texas Health Resources, but also items that are popular on our menus.
"By coming up with more seafood items we were able to expand our selections and offer items that are low fat and low sodium and yet very tasty and aesthetically pleasing," Cunningham says. "We offer several variations of shrimp, salmon, tuna and tilapia to both patients and customers and are able to do so without blowing the budget by controlling portion size, using them in pastas, buying items on contract and getting creative with the accompanying sauces."
Executive Chef David McHugh at San Diego State University says seafood doesn't hold up well on a steamtable, so he takes an alternate approach."We have exhibition stations," he explains. "We recently had a small plate presentation to keep the costs down and we were sautéing scallops to order."
Other items offered at SDSU include made-to-order sushi stations with sashimi grade ahi and tilapia and jambalaya with mussel, crab or mahi mahi.
"Yellowtail tuna is a local standard here that is seared and served with an herb sauce," he says. "For salmon, mahi mahi and sole, we do a technique where we grill, bread and finish it in the oven or on a flattop to order to add a more complex flavor profile."
Not everyone is going healthy when it comes to seafood. Vinnie Livoti, foodservice liaison at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Columbia, S.C., says he is reticent to alter any of his tried-and-true, traditional seafood dishes of the Deep South. He says he sells a lot of them and doesn't get many requests to alter the menu.
"We don't change it up too much," he says. "Most of the fish is generally fried. We do a fish basket with fried shrimp, catfish, hush puppies and slaw. Shrimp and grits are big down here. We also offer a simple spinach-stuffed sole with a cream sauce."
Under the Sea
Foodservice operators are touting the health benefits of eating seafood.
There are many good reasons to eat seafood. The protein-to-fat ratio is exceptional. It is low in cholesterol and an excellent source of vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. There is now a lot of evidence that people who regularly include fish in their diets have a lower risk of unwanted weight gain.
At Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, Executive Chef Gabriel Gomez is trying to push seafood as a healthy option.
"We use shrimp in different salads and sandwiches," Gomez says. "We make a ceviche by poaching the shrimp for safety issues, then chilling them in ice water. We cut them up and mix them with onions, tomatoes, lemon juice and cilantro. There is no oil or fat. We serve this over lettuce, noodles or flour tostados. We also offer shrimp in a deli sandwich. People are looking for healthy options."
At Boise State University in Idaho, Foodervice Director Carol Ann Scott believes the health benefits of seafood are a major selling point, and her staff does its best to make sure the fish they serve is even healthier.
"We bake and broil; we don't fry," Scott says. "We do mostly tilapia and cod, sometimes salmon. The fish options on campus are very popular."
The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat fish at least twice a week. If you have heart disease, the AHA recommends a diet that contains as many omega-3 fatty acids as in one "fatty fish" meal a day. Fish high in omega-3 include salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and fresh tuna. Though canned tuna does have some omega-3 value, it's not nearly as rich as the fresh variety.
Studies show that including seafood regularly in children's diets enhances development and better learning skills. Unfortunately, seafood is not usually a kid favorite, ranking well below chicken fingers, hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs and grilled cheese.
Amy Rouse, foodservice director in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District in Alaska, says a salmon wrap was served last year in the cafeterias.
"To put it honestly, it bombed," she recalls. "It's the same as when we were kids; they know as soon as they walk in the cafeteria that fish is being served."
This year, Rouse contacted the Association of Genuine Alaskan Pollock Producers, and the switch was made from salmon to pollock. "Pollock is extremely mild and the students were very receptive to the idea," Rouse notes. "There's a spice in the breading that makes it smell like Doritos when it's being cooked. Finally we're seeing seafood gain in popularity."
The cafeterias now offer fish salads, fish tacos, fish wraps and an Alaskan poorboy sandwich, all with pollock.
At BYU-Hawaii, Chef Spencer Tan's goal is to get people to eat more healthfully.
Spencer Tan, executive chef at Brigham Young University at Hawaii, has traveled extensively, learning the culinary ways of Europe and Asia, as well as Polynesian cooking. Originally from Malaysia, Tan earned a bachelor's degree at BYU-Hawaii. He was cooking at Salt Lake Community College in Utah when his alma mater called. Now back in Hawaii, Tan is using his well-versed culinary background to get the students and staff at BYU-Hawaii to eat healthy. Seafood cooked with local flavors and ingredients is playing a big part in achieving that goal.
"Our mission statement is to provide our customers with the most nutritional meal-in every bite-by infusing rich antioxidant fresh herbs and spices in all our cooking. Antioxidants lower cholesterol. I use olive oil and limit the use of butter. Margarine should not even be in the kitchen, anybody's kitchen. Butter is at least natural, from a cow. They put chemicals in margarine for a longer shelf life, but it's not good for our bodies.
I have a garden in the kitchen. We grow herbs, spices and vegetables to complement our food. We use a lot of fresh herbs like thyme, Cuban oregano, Chinese parsley and dill. We use ginger, garlic and green onions; these all have antioxidant powers. We infuse these fresh ingredients into our food for flavor, but also for good health.
I make a Hawaiian ti leaf sandwich with mahi mahi by cooking garlic in oil, then put the mahi mahi over a ti leaf, add caramelized onions, then cover the mahi mahi with another ti leaf. We sear it on both sides, then bake it off with a little coconut milk.
Polynesian cooking is a combination of island and mainland foods. We have a ginger poached striped marlin that has very little oil and is very healthy. Using coconut milk is an island tradition.
Another healthy and popular dish is mahi mahi with maurine sauce; it's light, not creamy. First I brown the garlic, then add the fish with lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. It's not overpowering, so it retains the flavor of the fish.
We also make a lemon pepper macadamia nut encrusted mahi mahi. That's island cooking, using macadamia nuts, ti leaf and coconut milk.
Also very popular here is a dish called poke. It's yellowfin or ahi tuna that's marinated, not cooked. The marinade has aloha purple soy sauce, sesame oil and a little mirin, which is a Japanese wine. Then we add local spices from my garden like Chinese parsley, fresh ginger and pressed dill, salt and pepper. Then we add sea asparagus, which is a weed that grows in water. It can be used as a garnish, but you can also marinate it and eat it. We let it all marinate for about two hours, then just pour it on a plate. It's simple, local, traditional, healthy, delicious and beautiful-only in Hawaii.
I always enjoy cooking; it's an adventure every day. When I see all the snow you guys are shoveling, I say, ‘Good for you! Come to Oahu, the north shore; we eat well here.'"
(Editor's note: For the uninitiated, the ti plant (cordyline fruticosa or ki in Hawaiian) is a mainstay of Hawaiian life and cooking. In Hawaiian culture, the ti plant is believed to have powers as a protection against psychic evil. It was often used as a ceremonial symbol of "The Law" standing firm in the face of evil. Leaves would be rubbed or slapped against people or homes to purify them. It grows wild on the islands and is planted in many residents' yards, as well.