Read The Mix
By Beth Dooley
Anyone with childhood memories of dropping a line off the dock or reeling in a feisty trout knows the romance of fishing, the patient and uncertain hours, the surprise and excitement of a strike. There is the myth of braving the elements to fetch dinner from perilous waters to catch the last wild meat.
But, while our imaginations are limitless, our oceans, lakes and rivers are not. It turns out that 32 percent of the global fish stocks are overexploited or depleted, and about 90 percent of the larger fish, such as tuna and marlin, have been nearly fished out. Even cod, once plentiful, has been thinned to near oblivion. Add to this the pollutants we’ve dumped in our waters. The high levels of mercury in Atlantic halibut, king mackerel, sea bass, swordfish and the high levels of PCB’s in farmed salmon and Chilean tilapia, have made all of these choices unsafe for pregnant women and young children.
Yet, fish is tasty as well as a terrific source of protein, low in calories and fat, and it’s high in heart- healthy Omega-3s. In its revised United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines, the U.S. government just upped the recommended consumption of seafood to eight ounces per week (about twice as much as most of us consume). Deciding what fish to dish is, well, a slippery issue. Casson Trenor, who works with Greenpeace on seafood issues admitted it can be confusing.
Unlike meat, eggs and dairy, there are no USDA organic standards for fish, especially wild ocean creatures. Watchdog groups, such as The Marine Stewardship Council, the National Office of Sustainable Fisheries and Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, provide helpful consumer guidelines. But it’s much easier and more expedient to buy fish from people you can trust. “It all comes down to honesty and experience,” said Chris Nelson, a fishmonger at Coastal Seafoods in Minneapolis. “I’ve been selling fish since 1998 and so have become familiar with a lot of the issues.”
The healthiest and best tasting fish are wild, but there is simply not enough to go around. It’s a treat, not an everyday food. “Wild fish, like tuna and salmon, should be line-caught,” says Nelson. “This is labor intensive and expensive. But this method is far better than netting or trawling that brings in more tuna for market but destroys other fish and sea life in the process. Pole and line-caught tuna from Hawaii is a very good choice.”
Salmon from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, where fisheries are generally well-managed, is also a good bet. Aaron Nytroe, meat and seafood buyer for the Wedge Co-op, buys salmon directly from Nerka, an Alaskan salmon fishery that operates in the Marine Stewardship Council’s certified Alaskan waters. The salmon are processed on the boat and immediately frozen at 35 degrees, the key to stabilizing texture and taste; in fact, using this method, this fish is actually superior to fresh.
No doubt, to meet the growing demand for fish, we’ve had to domesticate finned animals as we have those with legs. Done right, aquaculture improves the environment. Take Star Prairie Trout Farm, just outside the Twin Cities in Wisconsin. Its cold spring water provides an ideal natural habitat for trout. “Exceptionally high water quality is required for fish culture, and so it makes sense for us to keep it clean,” said Nate Wendt of Star Prairie. Star Prairie processes its fish on-premise and delivers it to Coastal, the Twin Cities natural food co-ops, and restaurants like the Birchwood Café and Lucia’s (among others), reasonably priced and ready to go.
Tilapia, a fast-growing fish, holds promise for the future. It doesn’t require much room and does well in tanks. Several green house operations have begun raising tilapia in a closed system that uses the fish water to fertilize herbs, lettuces and greens. These plants filtrate the water that is then returned to the fish. To date, however, these farms are not processing the fish on-premise.
Big lake trout are a good regional alternative to salmon. Nytroe works with Lou’s Fish House north of Duluth on Superior’s shore, where lake trout and white fish are delivered straight off the boat for processing and delivery. Coastal sources white fish and herring from fisheries in the Great Lakes. Both fishmongers source walleye from neighboring Canada.
Once you’ve navigated these waters, know that choosing fresh, good-tasting fish is an easy task. Bad fish smells bad. Don’t rely on sight alone. If in doubt, do the sniff-the-fish test. Fish and shellfish have a short shelf life, so buy only what you intend to cook and enjoy within a day. Once you get seafood home, the best way to store it is in the coldest part of the refrigerator (usually at the back of the top shelf).
One of the best tools for quickly sautéing delicate fillets is a nonstick pan for easy flipping. Use a thin, angled spatula with a curved tip to flip the fish. Sturdy firm fish, such as salmon and trout, can be cooked directly on the grill. Just be sure the grates are well-oiled. Cook delicate walleye and whitefish on a piece of well-greased aluminum foil or in a “grill basket.”
The best way to eat fish is on the beach as shore lunch (straight from the water to the frying pan over an open fire). But, when land-locked, check out these recipes.
Beth Doley is a Twin Cities-based food writer and cookbook author.