In terms of a powerful lever you can push in our food system to tip it towards “sustainable”, you can’t get much bigger than choosing fish. It’s also one of earth’s healthiest protein sources, so we nutritionists love to put it on the pedestal of ultimate healthy eating.
But how to choose and what are the myths surrounding sustainable seafood?
Awash in a maze of murky decisions (Which species? Troll or pole? Farmed or wild? Fresh or frozen?), seafood can be daunting to navigate. So for Earth Day, I chatted with ocean advocate and visionary seafood chef Barton Seaver, whose cookbook For Cod and Country dishes up sustainable seafood that somehow manages to be dazzling, delicious, yet totally doable for the home chef. Trust me, you’ll be hooked.
If you do one thing for Earth Day today, spend some time thinking blue (oceans, that is) instead of green, with my list of Myth Busters below.
Myth 1: Don’t shop at big chains if you want sustainable.
Truth: Big-box retailers are helping make sustainable seafood more available to all Americans.
Call it the rise of responsible retail. “Many well-known retailers have made strong commitments in recent years to selling only product that meets rigorous standards,” notes Seaver. “This is a great boon for consumers, as we become able to trust retailers to have nothing but the right ingredients for sale. However, that does not absolve us of our responsibility to be well-informed and to demand answers to questions of where our seafood is caught, how it is caught, and who caught it.”
Kate’s Tip: Support Target, Safeway, Wegmans and Whole Foods. A new Greenpeace report ranked them in that order for being the top retail outlets in the country for sustainable seafood.
Myth 2: Decide on a fish recipe and make a shopping list.
Truth: Be open to the catch of the day.
Truth be told, I was busted on this one myself. While I love the idea of people planning a healthy meal they can feel good about, Barton’s logic is sound: “Consumers too often head to the seafood counter with pre-ordained expectations: we tend to find a recipe online and then go to the seafood market to find what the recipe tells us to buy. Rather than demanding that specific fish be available at all times, we should instead go to the market and find what’s freshest, most beautiful, and best fits our budget. In doing so, consumers can participate in the natural, seasonal cycle of fisheries.” A better strategy? Adopt the same approach you use when you hit the farmer’s market: see what’s in season and what’s freshest. Your reward will likely be that you’ll enjoy the unexpected.
Kate’s Tip: Ask your fishmonger how to prepare a new fish. Or pair an unfamiliar fish with your favorite fish marinade, fresh chopped herbs and olive oil, or spice rub and stick under the broiler (for thinner fish) or on the grill (for thicker fish or kebobs.)
Myth 3: Farmed fish are bad.
Truth: Farmed fish must be part of the sustainability solution.
While things like wild Alaskan Salmon and regionally caught “Best Choice” fish on seafood guides are fantastic, the reality is that ocean catch has remained static since the 1980s in the face of a growing global population. “As our population grows, the oceans and their wild bounty can no longer afford us all of the protein that we need, and overall, farmed seafood represents an incredible opportunity to feed the world without fishing our oceans bare,” explains Barton, who’s also a National Geographic Fellow and deeply involved with ocean conservation efforts.
My personal prediction is that the next wave of seafood guides won’t simply lump all farmed fish in one “bad” pile, but make distinctions based on individual practices, and Barton seems to agree. “As with all things, it’s hard to paint aquaculture with a broad brushstroke of good or bad. Some of the species that we farm most often such as Atlantic salmon and shrimp, have had some very deleterious effects on our environment. Yet, even within those categories, some companies and farms are making great progress toward developing farming methods that not only produce delicious product but also do so in a way that’s environmentally responsible. Other species that are commonly farmed such as bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters), catfish, and barramundi, are exceptional examples of how we can gain delicious protein with minimal impact on the environments that produce them.”
Kate’s Tip: Choose from many of the farm raised “Best Choices” on the sustainable seafood guides-and if you are buying farmed salmon, consider the different environmental regulations of each country (in my opinion, Norway is one of the best.)
Myth 4: Sustainable seafood is a luxury for the rich.
Truth: Sustainable seafood provides some of the most affordable, high quality protein bargains in the grocery store.
This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions of all: that some of the best seafood for you and the planet is available only to those with large food budgets. In fact, the opposite is true. “Sustainable seafood definitely doesn’t have to be expensive,” Barton says. “In fact, some of the very best options we have – canned sardines, anchovies, pink salmon, mussels, clams, oysters – are relatively cheap, are available nearly everywhere and to everyone at all economic levels.”
Kate’s Tip: Feeling bold? Enjoy canned sardines right out of the can, like my husband does. Or mash a couple sardines in your next tomato sauce for deeper taste and better health. I love Wild Planet because they come in BPA free cans and are sustainably fished in the Pacific Northwest. Make salmon burgers or a salmon melt from canned salmon, or try Barton’s bold and delicious Clams and Mussels en Escabeche (see recipe at end on the side of this post).
Myth 5: The fish counter is the best place for sustainable seafood.
Truth: The freezer and inner aisles are the best place for sustainable seafood.
Most people are shocked to learn that, due to the highly perishable nature of seafood, retailers end up throwing away about 30% of the product that enters the store. Thirty percent! “One of the other powerful levers consumers can exercise is to buy seafood in the frozen aisle,” suggests Barton. “Frozen seafood has evolved by leaps and bounds in terms of quality, and now represents not only a great value, but oftentimes some of the best product in the store… it’s most often processed and flash-frozen within just a few hours of capture, and has no waste. In addition, it’s super easy for the home-cook. Are you thinking of having salmon tonight for dinner? Great! Before you leave for work in the morning, pull out the number of filets of Alaskan sockeye salmon that you need from the freezer. Put them on a plate in the refrigerator, and by the time you get home in the evening, the fish will be thawed out, pristinely fresh, and ready to cook.”
Kate’s Tip: Do just what Barton suggested. Or pull out frozen barramundi from your freezer in the morning and grill up fresh fish tacos that night in no time! A corn tortilla, shredded cabbage, diced tomatoes, cilantro, chili powder dusting and a squirt of lime-heaven. Check out another amazing barramundi recipe from his new book below (see end of post).
Myth 6: I can’t serve my baby seafood; I’ll do it when they’re older.
Truth: Seafood can be a food for the high chair.
Can fish be a food for the high chair? Absolutely. “It’s really a matter of exposure and preference. Kids all over the world, in most cultures other than our own, eat lots of seafood from a very early age. In America, we train our children’s palates toward a traditional American diet. So my suggestion for parents of young children would be train the palates of your little ones to prefer seafood. This is just what my parents did for me when I was growing up.”
“For parents of slightly older children who have already developed preferences and possibly picky habits, I’d say that education and learning always begins with exposure. A can of pink salmon, drained, mixed with a little mayo covered with thin slices of good cheddar cheese placed on whole grain bread and thrown under the broiler makes a delicious meal that most kids, I would imagine, would get pretty into. It’s full of protein, fiber, calcium, omega-3s—and it tastes amazing. In fact, I’ll probably make that for dinner tonight!”
Kate’s Tip: If your child has no history of asthma or allergies, try putting crab, fish, shrimp on your baby’s high chair to begin to expose her to the taste and textures of the ocean as early as 8 months (be sure it is fully cooked and deboned). With toddlers, serve fish for the family meal twice a week to reap immediate health benefits, and lay the foundation of a lifetime of healthy eating.
Myth 7: Sustainable Seafood will save our oceans.
Truth: We will never save the oceans by eating sustainable seafood alone.
Here’s where the green really overlaps with lean; a plant based diet, with smaller amounts of sustainable seafood, is the ideal for optimal health and weight. “The most important thing consumers can do to create change is to eat more vegetables. On the whole, we Americans need to introduce a greater diversity of calories into our diets. And by eating a lot of vegetables and a small, but adequate, and enjoyable portion of seafood, we not only help to sustain the oceans, but we also create a more human-sustaining diet.”
Kate’s Tip: Serve smaller portions of seafood and savor it alongside generous portions of plant foods – fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains – for a lean and green diet that helps you save green as well.
Clams and Mussels en Escabeche
By Chef Barton Seaver
- 24 littleneck clams, rinsed thoroughly (discard any that won’t close)
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded (discard any that won’t close)
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 carrot, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
- 1 bunch scallions, chopped (white and green parts kept separated)
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- zest of 1 lemon, removed in strips with a peeler
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- 3 tablespoons chopped
- fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 loaf crusty bread such as baguette, sliced and gently toasted
- Step 1 To open the clams, place them in a small pot with the wine and bring to a boil. Cover and steam until all the shells have opened, about 5 minutes. Discard any clams that haven’t opened. Remove the clams from the pot, leaving the cooking liquid, and extract the meat from the shells. Reserve half the shells.
- Step 2 Add the mussels to the pot and repeat the process, again reserving half the shells.
- Step 3 Strain the broth by allowing it to sit undisturbed for a few minutes so any grit falls to the bottom. Gently pour off the clear liquid from the top and save 1 cup of the broth for the marinade.
For the marinade
- Step 1 Put the olive oil in a small pot with the carrot, scallion whites, and garlic. Simmer over medium heat until the carrot slices begin to soften, about 3 minutes.
- Step 2 Add the paprika and coriander and cook for another minute.
- Step 3 Add the lemon zest and simmer for another 3 minutes.
- Step 4 Add the reserved cooking broth and vinegar and bring to a boil.
- Step 5 Reduce by about half, then add the parsley and clam and mussel meat. Stir to mix well.
- Step 6 Let cool to lukewarm, then refrigerate covered for at least 1 hour and up to overnight (they taste much better if you let them marinate overnight). Stir the mixture as it cools so that everything marinates evenly.
- Step 7 Serve the clams and mussels by placing a spoonful of the mixture in each shell, then set the clams in a serving dish and pour any remaining marinade over them. Let the mixture come to room temperature before serving to get the most flavor from the dish. Serve with toasted bread.
Serves 4 as an appetizer.