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Food Dude

August 16, 2012
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Iowa’s First now at Splash

By Jim Duncan

Iowa's First striped bass filet at Splash, 303 Locust St., 244-5686. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

From Wal-Mart to the smallest cafés, food businesses want more fresh and local products. One aspect of farm to fork dining has been particularly challenging in Iowa, though. State regulations discourage fresh local fish. An Asian café in Des Moines would face big fines if it tried to serve striped bass freshly caught on the Scott Street Bridge. As a result, Asians from Minneapolis, Omaha and Chicago swarm to Iowa fishing hot spots and take home vans filled with Iowa fish.

Fish farming has been challenging here, too. Startup costs are expensive, and early efforts ran into price resistance. Iowa-raised tilapia (the easiest fish to farm) didn’t attract many customers at three times the price of Chinese tilapia. Serious buyers such as Asian restaurants in Chicago did not value the walleye and trout that Iowa farmers were raising. Iowa fish farms were regulated as “industrial waste” because no one had authorized their being regulated as agriculture. The last decade produced mostly failed fish farms in Iowa.

In February this year, the Iowa House Agriculture Committee approved adding fish to the state law used to regulate feeding operations for cattle, hogs, goats, sheep and poultry. That encouraged Mark Nelson to plunge in where others had floundered. Nelson’s family founded Iowa’s First, a fish farm in Blairsburg.

“We’re fourth generation here, but we aren’t big enough to compete with the giant hog operations today. Fish make more environmental sense, too. Dealing with our fish waste requires a small percentage of acreage (for disposal lagoons) compared to what is required to raise the same amount of protein with hogs,” Nelson explained.

The Nelsons have already installed 12 large tanks in a converted hog facility. They are raising striped bass, the preferred fish of Asian restaurants in Chicago, on a soy and bone meal diet. Their first batch is large enough now for market. In a year, they plan to have 18 tanks and produce 300,000 pounds annually. Splash restaurant in Des Moines began serving Iowa’s first stripers last week and will feature them Aug. 17-25. I tried an herb encrusted whole striped bass stuffed with rosemary, vegetables and lemon. It was so fresh I could suck the amber fluid out of the eye sockets. That’s considered an extraordinary delicacy in Hong Kong and Singapore but only with very fresh fish. I also tried Splash’s pan roasted eight-ounce striped bass filet served with a relish of local peppers, corn and cucumber from Rinehart Farms. It was beautifully plated on top of Small Potato Farms potato cakes, with a sweet corn fondue made with Rinehart Farms sweet corn.

Bless you Iowa House Agriculture Committee. Never thought I’d say that.

Side Dishes

Templeton Rye brought Deirdre Capone to Templeton and Carroll for promotions earlier this month. At the distillery, the great niece of Al Capone explained that her family came to America from the southern boot of Italy, like most of Des Moines’ Italians.

“Hollywood initiated and perpetuated the myth that we were Sicilian, but we’re all from Angri in Campania,” she explained.

Capone professed a wistful longing for two lost foods of Italian America — scarmoza (“It’s a soft sheep’s milk cheese. We’d use it where most people use mozzarella“) and nduja, a spicy, spreadable salami. When told that Gateway Market makes and sells nduja, Capone immediately arranged a stop there on her way to Des Moines’ airport. She offered these Italian food tips:

“I have a Chinese and a Japanese daughter-in-law. They taught me that pine nuts from Asian markets are the best and the least expensive.”

“Use super long (spaghetti) and slurp it into your mouth — that brings out more flavor.”

“Lasagna should be more like quiche than what you normally find in America. The gravy (marinara) should only be on top.” CV

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