For UMass diners seafood stands out in a star-studded show

Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Just before 6:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, PBS chef Joanne Weir was set up in the demonstration space at the Hampshire Dining Commons at the University of Massachusetts showing students how to make that evening’s main entrée — scallop, shrimp and crab cakes.

Along with her seafood cakes, the diners would have an impressive selection of seafood choices for their evening meal: perch with a freshly mad teriyaki sauce, lemon and parsley Alaskan cod and lightly fried pollack tossed in a sweet chili sauce among them.

These were part of a dizzying array of dinner options. Students swarmed around the circle of food stations, filling their plates with hand-tossed stir-fries and pastas, burgers and fries, gluten-free grilled cheese, cilantro grilled chicken, coconut curried cauliflower, Asian-influenced carrots and spring peas.

But at Hampshire Dining Commons, and at all of the other three dining halls at the university, seafood is the star. UMass diners consume 21 pounds of seafood per person per year. The national campus average is 14 pounds.

And, the UMass chefs are happy to point out, the seafood being eaten is lesser-known fish all caught according to guideline ensuring it is taken without harming the ocean ecosystem.

“Eating seafood is a pretty big phenomenon at UMass,” said Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass. “We’re proud we are able to serve students proteins that are good for them.”

UMass’s efforts resulted in the university being named one of 16 finalists in an international competition recently that recognized entities for responsible, innovative use of seafood.

Aside from the Alaskan salmon regularly on the menu, the majority of the white fish UMass serves come out of New England waters, if not off the coast of Massachusetts.

“We believe that stainability is important because we want the fish to still be there tomorrow,” Toong said.

He is also convinced — and his staff’s efforts have proved — that students’ taste for seafood can stretch beyond fish and chips.

“We feel that you can serve the fish, like the whole firm fish, and not just seafood tacos,” Toong said. “We have more variety (than other schools) and it tastes good.”

When Toong took over at UMass in 1998, the dining commons served fish only two or three times week. These days, it’s up to five or six times a week, while red meat’s availability has dropped.

“We ask students to eat more fish because it’s healthier for them,” he said.

Benjamin Creasi, a senior kinesiology student, for one is impressed.

“I take it for granted now, but when you think about it, it’s very luxurious,” said Creasi, who walking the perimeter of the food stations, checking out the night’s menu that Wednesday evening. “They have so many different options like white fish, cod, salmon.”

Simple is best

By dipping into the underutilized fish market of red fish, hake, pollack, UMass not only advances its stainability effort but keeps costs down.

Helping lead the charge is Chef de Cuisine Bob Bankert.

Bankert, formerly the executive chef at The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar in Newport, came to UMass roughly a year ago. He was looking to move to the area for family reasons and found UMass’s dining concept intriguing.

“They want to explore new things and stick with trends,” he said. “That was a big driving force for me to come to UMass at the end of the day. It’s not just the seafood aspect, its the whole nine yards of the buy local and using fresh products and scratch cooking that is very exciting here.”

Aside from buying local seafood, UMass gets almost 30 percent of its produce from area farmers, Bankert said, which affects the dining offerings.

“Our menu changes with the seasons and with the semesters, so obviously the popular dishes will stay on, but we do change it up every few months to keep it fresh,” he said.

Bankert says he and his staff strive to keep the fish dishes light and paired well with ingredients.

“Simple flavors are best,” he said, “whether traditional herbs, lemon and butter, or some Asian influences — nothing too complex — and really just let the freshness of the fish come through.”

Dishes are made from scratch and prepared as needed to ensure freshness, he said.

With cuts of fish that are lesser known and understanding that college dining hall seafood tends to get a bad wrap, UMass chefs brought their diners along slowly. Tasting nights, tapas-sized portions and guest chefs helped ease students into trying new things, Toong said.

“It takes a while to ask your students to eat the fish they are not familiar with, like red fish, pollack, hake fish, but sample with them and when they taste, they love it.”

For example, student now consume more bowls of cioppino — a seafood chowder of various white fishes and small shellfish, generally mussels and clams — than chicken noodle soup, Toong said.

Thumbs up

The Chef’s Table, a station along the food service circle, features innovative dishes every night, more often than not built around seafood. It is one of the first stations students see after they swipe their cards to get in. Guest chefs, like Weir, are often there, cooking and serving their creations.

Like Creasi, Kim Chittanon, a junior majoring in biochemistry, said she was surprised by the dining commons food when she arrived at UMass. She was leaving the sushi station that Wednesday evening with a California roll on her plate.

“When I first got here, yeah, I was (surprised), because I didn’t expect them to have a broad variety of cultural foods, especially at the DC.” The food, she says, caters to every nationality, and of course to seafood loves like her.

Freshman Julia Vlahopoulo favors seafood, too, but she didn’t expect to be able to eat it regularly at college.

“I love the fact that this dining hall has so many options,” Vlahopoulo said, digging into the herb-crusted cod on her plate. She noted that she had salmon for lunch. And, she gives the chefs high marks for preparation.

“My parents have a restaurant, so I know what’s cooked well and what’s not,” Vlahopoulos said, “and generally the seafood is pretty good. ”

Everyone love sushi

The amount of seafood consumed at UMass gets a boost in part by the students’ large sushi appetites. The sushi bars at all four dining commons are popular attractions. Toong estimated that his staff serve roughly 4,000 made-to-order rolls a day across campus. Out of safety concerns, only cooked seafood is used. Most popular at the shrimp and California rolls, followed closely by a smoked salmon roll, he says.

The sushi chefs also have been known to get creative, sometimes feature a steak or chicken teriyaki roll.

“It’s crazy that a college dining common can have sushi that’s like so fresh and so good,” said Christian Watson, a sophomore psychology major. “You would think that with college dining, sushi would be kind of iffy. It’s delicious. Everyone loves it.”

His favorite dish, though, is the shrimp scampi, which always draws a long line at the Pasta Pronto food station. “It’s awesome,” he said.

For $8 for breakfast, $10.50 for lunch, or $13 for dinner, the public can join the students in sampling the dining commonses’ offerings. For those who want to try making some of the dishes at home, Bankert provided the following recipes.

Sarah Moomaw can be reached at

Redfish with Shitake
 Mushrooms & Scallions

Serves 4

1 pound redfish filets (hake, pollack or perch can be substituted)

4 ounces shitake mushrooms, sliced

1 carrot, peeled and julienned

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 bunch scallions, sliced

1 tablespoon black sesame seeds

½ cup teriyaki sauce (bottled, or recipe following)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Heat a saute pan over medium heat. Add half of the canola oil, carrots, and mushrooms. Season with half of the salt and pepper. Saute for 4-5 minutes, or until the mushrooms and carrots are tender.

3. Place the redfish filets on a baking sheet, brush with the remaining canola oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and bake for 8-10 minutes or until the fish is fully cooked.

4. Remove fish from the oven and top with carrots and mushrooms. Spoon the sauce over the top (only 1-2 tablespoons per filet is needed) and garnish with the scallions and sesame seeds.

Serve with brown rice.

Teriyaki sauce

½ cup reduced sodium soy sauce

¼ cup water

2 tablespoon mirin rice wine

1 small onion, diced

1 tablespoon ginger, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons brown sugar

Pinch cornstarch


1. In a sauce pot combine all ingredients and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then turn off heat and let it steep.

2. Strain out the ginger, garlic, and onions and return the sauce to the stove and bring back to a simmer.

3. Stir together a small amount of cornstarch with enough water to dissolve it. Whisk into the sauce a little at a time until it is slightly thickened.


Serves 4 to 6

2 teaspoons canola oil

1 small bulb fennel, sliced thin

1 onion, sliced thin

4 cloves garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon black pepper

8 ounce can diced tomatoes

¼ cup white wine

6 ounces clam juice

2 bay leaves

1 pound mussels, washed and cleaned

8 littleneck clams, washed and cleaned

½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

½ pound pollock or haddock filets, cut into large pieces

Parsley, chopped

1. In a pot over medium heat, add the canola oil, fennel, onion, garlic, pepper flakes, and black pepper. Cook for 5-7 minutes until fragrant and onions are translucent.

2. Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the white wine, tomatoes, clam juice, and bay leaf. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes.

3. Add the littleneck clams and bring back to a simmer. Cook until they start to open (about 10-15 minutes). Add the mussels, haddock, and shrimp and cook until the mussels are open and the haddock and shrimp are cooked.

4. Ladle into deep soup bowls and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with rustic country bread.

Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon
 with Spring vegetables
 and Caper vinaigrette

Serves 6

2 pound Sockeye salmon (about 5 ounce portions)

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ pound thin asparagus, stems removes, cut into thirds

½ pound ramps, cleaned and chopped into large pieces

4 cloves garlic (or 1 stalk spring garlic), sliced thin

½ pound grape tomatoes, cut in half

½ pound fingerling potatoes, sliced into thin rounds

1 can (10 ounce) artichoke hearts, quartered

¼ cup white wine

¼ cup water

2 tablespoon butter

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

½ cup caper vinaigrette (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Place the sliced potatoes in a small pot and top with water. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 4-5 minutes once they start to simmer. Strain water and reserve potatoes.

2. Place salmon on a baking sheet and brush with canola oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and bake for 8-10 minutes, or until done. Sockeye salmon is great cooked to a medium temperature, so it’s still pink inside.

3. While the salmon is cooking, heat a saute pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil, garlic, asparagus, and ramps and saute for 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Turn the heat up to high and add the grape tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and cooked fingerling potatoes. Saute for another 2-3 minutes.

5. Add the white wine and water, and bring to a simmer. Cook until the liquid is reduced by about half.

6. Toss in the butter and chopped herbs and turn off heat.

7. Serve family style on a large platter with the vegetables on the bottom, fish on top, and the vinaigrette poured over both the salmon and vegetables.

Caper Vinaigrette

¼ cup white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons capers, chopped

½ cup olive oil

1. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the vinegar, Dijon, and capers.

2. Slowly drizzle in olive oil while whisking to emulsify the vinaigrette.

3. Chopped herbs — any combination of parsley, chives, basil, and thyme will work.


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