The Alfiero family sells some of the freshest seafood in the world from their iconic Portland market. They share how to cook it.
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
Excerpted from Harbor Fish Market Cookbook by Nick, Rian, and Kathleen Alfiero; Down East Books, Rockport, Maine; hardcover, 144 pages, $29.99.
Nine Custom House Wharf in Portland has been the site of a fish market since sometime in the late 1800s. It became the Harbor Fish Market when the Alfiero family purchased it in 1966, a joint venture between Ben Alfiero Sr., and his older brother John Alfiero. John handed over the reins to Ben in 1975, and through the next few years, Ben’s three sons, Nick, Ben Jr., and Mike, joined in. They worked as a team of three brothers and father until Ben Sr. retired in 2000.
Once the three brothers were involved, the market started expanding. In the early 1980s, restaurants were becoming more popular destinations as the appreciation of good food spread. Harbor Fish started selling more rare species to restaurants always on the lookout for the dish that could set them apart.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, with Ben’s wife Gloria in the kitchen, the Alfieros had already been exposed to a lot of these exotic species in their youth, so they knew how to entice their local chefs with species like squid, tuna, and monkfish. Their upbringing also inspired them to impart to the public that good food is important to health and well-being, and that’s been the philosophical backbone of the market through the decades.
Business thrived through the 80s, as fish was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. The Alfieros moved their processing operation to a larger facility on Commercial Street to add the capacity for larger customers like A&P, Grand Union, ShopRite, and distributors in Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, and other locations. They even added a second retail location in Portland’s North Deering.
As conservation efforts increased in the late 1980s, wide cutbacks hit the seafood industry, and Harbor Fish refocused their wholesale operation, continuing to serve a national range of clientele, while compacting the physical processing and distribution back to the original (newly expanded) Custom House Wharf location. After a fire claimed the North Deering retail location, the entire operation — wholesale and retail — remains housed today at 9 Custom House Wharf, run by a family born and raised in Portland, who still won’t sell anything they wouldn’t bring home themselves.
The owners of Harbor Fish Market share their tips for keeping seafood fresh:
To keep lobster meat, crabmeat, fish fillets, steaks, or scallops for a few hours or overnight, put your product in a watertight container like a zip-closing plastic bag, and place the bag into a bowl of ice cubes. Then put that bowl in the fridge. In most cases, product will keep for a day, or even two. The important factor is to have ice surrounding your product as much as possible.
Never keep shellfish (clams, oysters, mussels), which should be tightly closed and therefore alive, in standing water. We usually put them in a plastic bag in a bowl, in the refrigerator, but without ice. Though bivalves don’t breathe air, we’ve had more success when there are a couple of holes poked in the bag.
Lobsters must simply be kept cold to stay alive out of salt water. They can sometimes make it two or three days kept directly in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. You can also keep them in an iced cooler. (Keep the lobsters separate from the ice! They will “drown” in fresh water as the ice melts. And no, you can’t keep them in a filled bathtub. Sheesh.)
Freezing seafood can be a little tricky as most home freezers aren’t very consistent, so to avoid freezer burn, we don’t recommend keeping your frozen seafood for a very long
time (really not longer than a week or two). Put your fish in a zip-closing plastic bag, and add a touch of water (salty water, or brine, is even better) before freezing. It’s good to freeze fish in smaller portions so that it freezes more quickly. Add a little milk to lobster or crab meat before freezing. We don’t recommend freezing whole lobster without proper equipment, so cook your lobster and simply freeze the meat picked out of the shell.
In general, it’s important to trust your fish supplier. Harbor Fish Market always uses unadulterated fish, with no extenders, chemicals, or preservatives. And they always label the fish carefully to be sold accurately. Hopefully your fish supplier works the same way. The best way to know is by reputation and consistency. Also, and this seems obvious, but it must be said, follow your instincts! Is your fish market’s staff knowledgeable? Is the market clean? Does it smell good or bad? A well-run market will smell more like the ocean and less “like fish.” Go to someone you consistently have good experiences with. Word of mouth is king!
Remember the following when purchasing fish at your local market:
The trick to buying fresh fish is to use your senses. The nose tells all. Fresh fish should have almost no odor, or smell faintly of the ocean. It should certainly not have any offensive odor. When you get your fish home, it can develop a slight odor from being packed, but a quick rinse under cold water should clarify the situation.
You can follow visual cues, as well. Fillets should be bright and shiny. The flesh should be translucent, and should never appear dull or dry. Whole fish should have clear (not cloudy) eyes, a freshly cleaned (even a little bloody) belly cavity, and lively red (not brown or pale) gills.
It’s also good to touch the fish when the occasion allows. The flesh should feel plump and firm to the touch, never mushy or saggy.
Some people are finicky about bones in their fish. Most whitefish fillets (with the exception of cusk) are sold without bones, but fish is still processed by hand, so there is occasionally some human error. And of course many other species and cuts (salmon steaks come to mind) are deliberately left with bones in them. Most people don’t have a problem eating around the bones, but if you have a preference, we encourage you not to be shy about asking your fishmonger to double check your fillets for bones before you leave the store.
Grilled Spicy Shrimp Skewers
juice of 1 lemon
juice of 1½ limes
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons Sriracha or red pepper paste
3 to 4 cloves garlic, mashed
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 to 2 teaspoons black pepper
1 tablespoon honey
salt, to taste
1½ to 2 pounds large gulf shrimp, peeled and de-veined
Mike Alfiero shared this recipe. This dish is great either as a main course served with wild rice, as an appetizer, or laid out on a platter and served at a party.
Put the lemon and lime juice into a small bowl. Add the olive oil, Sriracha, garlic, cilantro, and pepper. Add the honey and whisk well. Add salt and set aside.
Put the shrimp in a large bowl. Pour the marinade over the shrimp. With a large spoon, mix well, making sure the shrimp are well covered. Set in the refrigerator for at least 1 to 2 hours. If using wooden skewers, soak skewers in water for 30 minutes.
Skewer the marinated shrimp, being careful not to pack them too close together. Set them on a plate. Save the extra marinade. Heat a grill to medium high. When the grill is heated, place the shrimp skewers evenly on the grate and cook 3 to 4 minutes on one side. Brush marinade onto the shrimp once before turning. Turn shrimp and cook 1 to 2 minutes and brush once more.
Serve on a platter.
Baked Stuffed Lobster
2 (1½ pound) live lobsters
1 cup cooked lobster meat
1 stick salted butter
1 sleeve Ritz crackers
1 teaspoon lobster base
1 cup fresh crabmeat
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
½ cup chopped parsley
This dish has long been a favorite of restaurants up and down the New England coast. Obviously, it’s impossible to do this without whole live lobster. This seems a good time to point out that Harbor Fish Market can ship lobsters to you if you can’t get them where you live.
It’s best to use female lobsters, because their tails have a wider diameter, making it easier to fit more stuffing in the tail. If you prefer to pick your own lobster meat for the stuffing, as we do, we sell one-claw lobsters (or culls) that you can steam and pick, usually at a lower cost than fresh lobster meat.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
First, split the lobsters, removing the intestinal sack and the intestinal vein that runs down the tail. Split the body shell and the tail shell to keep it from curling up. Save the green tomalley and set aside. Remove the claws from the split lobsters and set aside. Place the split lobsters on a baking sheet lined with foil. Melt the stick of butter and keep warm.
Chop the cooked lobster meat into bite-size chunks. Put the Ritz crackers into a large bag and crush into fine crumbs. Add the lobster base to the melted butter.
In a large bowl, combine your chopped lobster meat, crabmeat, tomalley, egg, salt, pepper, parsley, and most of the melted butter and crackers. Reserve some of the crackers for topping the finished lobster. Mix together well and spoon onto the split lobsters. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, steam the claws in a few inches of salted water for 15 minutes. Allow them to cool, crack them, and then place them back with each stuffed lobster to serve.
Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes
For the tartar sauce
¾ cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sweet relish
1½ tablespoons mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning
For the vegetable mixture
1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons chopped green pepper
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
4 tablespoons chopped shallots
For the crab cakes
8 ounces crabmeat
1 large egg
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup Italian breadcrumbs
3 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning
¼ teaspoon celery salt
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ cup vegetable oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
The thing that makes or breaks crab cakes is high quality crabmeat (Harbor Fish Market sells only handpicked crabmeat, a rarity in this mechanized age). The area of the country most known for crab cakes is Maryland, of course. This recipe is a “Mained-up” version of the classic, adding things like green peppers, shallots, and garlic. There are some tricks to making good crab cakes. The first trick is to squeeze all of the liquid out of the crabmeat. The second is to let the crab cake mixture rest for several hours or overnight to help it set.
To make the sauce:
In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, relish, mustard, honey, cayenne, lemon juice, and Old Bay Seasoning. Mix well.
To prepare the crabmeat:
In a medium-size bowl, carefully pick through the crabmeat to remove any shells. Squeeze all of the liquid out of the crabmeat. Try not to break up the lumps.
To make the vegetable mixture:
Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil, green pepper, garlic, and shallots. Simmer for several minutes to soften the vegetables. Set this mixture aside. Do not discard the liquid.
To assemble and cook the cakes:
In a separate bowl, beat the egg and then whisk in mayonnaise until well combined. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to combine. Add the Old Bay Seasoning, celery salt, red pepper flakes, and garlic powder. Add the mustard and Worcestershire sauce and stir until well combined. Add the vegetable mixture and stir.
A little bit at a time, gently stir the wet mixture into the crabmeat. This part takes some patience because you really want to avoid breaking up the lump meat. Form the mixture into cakes or patties. Ideally, refrigerate for several hours or overnight. When ready to cook, in a large skillet, preheat the vegetable oil on medium-high heat. Add the crab cakes and fry until brown and turn once. Do the same on the other side until it browns.
The thicker the cake, the longer it takes, usually 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove the cakes and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste and serve with tartar sauce on the side.
8 scallops sliced into thin discs (silver dollar size, 4 cuts)
juice of 1 lemon
juice of ½ lime
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
pinch of dill
Ceviche is a method of taking very fresh raw fish or scallops and adding citrus and spices for a marinade. The best scallop is the inshore Maine scallop, harvested in the winter months. They come in to the market still quivering, as small boats in Down East Maine drag them daily. The so-called “diver scallop” is so rare that is it not really a market item. Great scallops are dredged every day.
Put the scallops in a bowl. Add the lemon juice, lime juice, and olive oil. Add the salt and pepper and dill. Allow scallops to marinate for 15 minutes. Arrange on a plate, and garnish with a sprig of dill or wedge of lemon or lime, if desired.
¼ cup salted butter
2 cups cooked lobster meat
1 cup cream
1 tablespoon flour
¼ cup milk
pinch of sugar
pinch of paprika
salt and pepper, to taste
4 homemade biscuits
This is a very old New England recipe. Nick Alfiero was a young, newly married man, working part time at the fish market and going to the University of Southern Maine. He would get a bit of lobster meat and, thankfully, he could afford to make the biscuits and sauce, so it was a bit of a cheap hearty meal in those lean days. It also impressed his bride that it had so much lobster — which she loves! This is a rich meal that is not heart healthy, so feel free to make substitutions. As is often said, good health means moderation, so maybe once in a while you can afford to enjoy a delicious dish made with some butter and cream! This recipe calls for homemade biscuits, but it’s ok to bend to time constraints and use Bisquick Mix, and they always come out of the oven perfectly.
Melt the butter in a large skillet; add the lobster meat and heat. Add the cream and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook until it thickens. Add the milk while stirring. Add the sugar, paprika, salt, and pepper. Serve over split homemade biscuits.
Black Pepper Encrusted Scallops
2 tablespoons coarse black pepper
24 (10-20 count) fresh scallops, rinsed
3 tablespoons olive oil
large pinch of salt
This is one of those dishes that is quick and easy to make, with hardly any preparation needed. And it is elegant! The simplicity of the scallop means this dish should be the last thing you do before serving. This means you can always do a more complicated vegetable or starch side dish to go with the scallops. Try roasted Brussels sprouts with roasted red baby potatoes as an accompaniment.
Add the pepper to a small bowl. Place the top and bottom of each scallop in the pepper to encrust it. Add the olive oil and salt to a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot (3 or 4 minutes later), add the scallops and turn heat to high. Sear for 2 or 3 minutes (or until just brown) per side.
Linguine with Clam Sauce
1½ to 2 dozen top neck clams, or 1 pound drained, chopped clams, liquid reserved
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
pinch of salt
pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon clam base
1∕3 box linguine
1 dozen count neck clams (or mahogany clams)
¼ cup white wine
Is there a more classic Italian seafood dish than linguine alle vongole? This is a quick and romantic dish that every man who cooks should know how to prepare for the woman in his life. It’s guaranteed to impress the person he loves! The clam base in this recipe is commercially available concentrated clam juice, analogous to chicken or beef bouillon. If you can’t find any, the dish can be made without it. The trick here is to cook the clams separately so the juice of the cooked clams doesn’t make the sauce too watery. As with any sautéed dish, you want to cook the garlic slowly so it won’t burn or brown. Serve this dish with a great white wine, some crusty bread with a side salad, and you are a hero!
Boil the water in a pot to cook the linguine. Shuck the top-neck clams out of the shells into a colander and let the juice drain into a bowl. Save the clam liquor. Chop the meat into small chunks, and put aside.
In a large sauté pan, add the olive oil. Sauté the garlic in the pan (be careful not to burn the garlic). Put the top neck clams in the pan and stir. Add the parsley, salt lightly, and add pepper to taste. Add the clam base and half of the clam liquor (or all of the reserved liquid from packaged chopped clams).
Put the linguine in the pot and cook until al dente. While this cooking process is happening, put the count neck clams in a separate sauté pan with white wine and ½ teaspoon of the clam base and cover, heating until clams open. Strain the pasta and plate. Pour the chopped clams over the pasta along with the juice from the steamed clams. Place the open clams on the pasta.