In dinner, as in life, we're now faced with a series of moral dilemmas. Most people want to do the right thing: consume fresh healthy foods without contributing to the Earth's woes or depriving a community of its economic resources.
As seafood has become a greater part of the American diet - so good for the brain, so many omega-3 fatty acids! - that means paying attention to the issues of overfishing, polluted waters, and mercury poisoning.
The sustainability tide, it seems, is turning. Chefs, cookbook authors, even restaurant chains like Long John Silver's are committing to improving the sustainability of the world's fish.
Greenpeace recently gave a passing grade to market chains including Target, Whole Foods, and Ahold USA for their environmentally sound seafood purchasing practices.
Amanda Brossard, a onetime biologist with the Department of Fish and Game in Alaska, and her husband, Alaska fisherman Murat Aritan, opened Otolith, a sustainable seafood store in Northern Liberties in July, translating their expertise into a business they believe in. Aritan still travels back to Alaska to fish a few months a year and eventually hopes to sell his catch at the store. At the moment, they are selling all Alaskan fish from other fishermen and small processors.
"We're seeing lots of customers coming into our store who just don't want to be part of the problem," says Brossard.
Restaurant diners have grown more vocal about their seafood choices and their impact on the environment. "Over the last couple of years, I've seen the demand grow among customers who are looking for sustainable fish," says Michael Stollenwerk, chef/owner of Little Fish in Queen Village, where all the seafood on the menu is sustainably sourced and most is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, a leading eco-labeling program for fish and shellfish in supermarkets and restaurants.
Yet even the best intentions are sometimes not enough to produce the right decisions. When it comes to tracking down sustainable seafood, it can be exceedingly difficult to navigate the swirl of information: What species of fish? Where does it come from? Line-caught or bottom-trawled? Wild or farmed? Trap-caught or aquaculture?
"We've all had our head in the sand for some time and there's a lot of confusion in the marketplace," says James MacKnight, owner of River & Glen, a sustainable foods purveyor based in Warminster, Bucks County.
River & Glen supplies seafood to high-end restaurants including Lacroix and the Four Seasons, and operates a retail arm that sells products online.
MacKnight, who grew up fishing in Scotland and selling salmon to local pubs, says that a major component of his mission is educating customers - from chefs and servers to home cooks - about the issues.
MacKnight offers local and East Coast products, like oysters and cod, whenever possible. But he justifies the carbon miles his products travel, explaining why so much of his fish comes from Alaska: "Those fisheries are without a doubt at the forefront of sustainability, from the quality of the water to the fishing practices to the fishery management ethos. The fish are allowed to replenish and there are strict quotas for when and how much a boat can take."
He recommends that consumers start their education with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program. With its continually updated rating system, Seafood Watch offers one of the best and most widely used educational resources, and it's available in book, pocket guide, and most recently, mobile phone application form. When faced with a decision between Atlantic cod and, say, red snapper, a diner can reference the program's rating (best choice, good alternative, avoid) and quick facts about scarcity and fishing methods at the touch of an iPhone.
Newbie seafood watchers can start with some basic rules of thumb. Experts agree that certain fish, at least for the time being, are a no-no, even if they continue to appear on restaurant menus.
These include onetime staples like swordfish, monkfish and skate. Chilean sea bass, lovely though it may be, is an untenable choice. Atlantic cod likewise is to be avoided; line-caught Pacific cod is a better alternative.
On the other hand, diners can be reasonably certain that short-lived and quickly reproducing species like clams, squid, mussels, and shrimp are good choices. Otolith sells spot prawns, a Pacific coast delicacy trap-caught in what is considered the most ecologically sound shrimp fishery in the United States. Domestically farmed tilapia cultivated in closed-system freshwater ponds is also a recommended option.
Another approach to eating more sustainably is cultivating a taste for more plentiful species like mackerel, sardines and sablefish (black cod), all labeled "best choice" by Seafood Watch. The win-win with these fish is that not only are they abundant at sea but they all contain high amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Mackerel and sable come from exceedingly clean, far-offshore waters. Sardines have the added bonus of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and many other minerals, making them a nutritionist's dream food.
American diners tend to shy away from these fish because they have a stronger flavor and their oily texture can be off-putting to a flounder-trained palate. Sometimes, though, it's a matter of finding the right preparation that complements their intensity. "Many of these strong-flavored fish work best when fried or paired with stronger-flavor sauces like mustard," Stollenwerk of Little Fish says.
For instance, rich, earthy mackerel can be roasted in nutty miso paste and mashed into a patelike spread for crackers. Fresh whole sardines can be battered in chickpea and rice flour, cumin and cayenne and deep-fried in peanut oil. Served as Indian fritters, they pair nicely with a spicy cilantro chutney.
Less exotic but equally conscientious options abound in the form of farmed arctic char, catfish and American rainbow trout. Just about any of the above can be diced to form fish burgers or croquettes in place of tuna and salmon.
Simply substituting another fish for the usual cod or halibut fillet can make for a more sustainable meal while introducing intriguing new flavors to the table. At Little Fish, Stollenwerk serves skin-on fillets of mild Japanese black bass (suzuki), with sauteed butternut squash, brussels sprout leaves, and slivers of bacon. He embellishes the plate with finely shaved tart green apple and a touch of shallot cream sauce.
What's more, there's no need to give up well-loved fish like salmon, halibut, and cod if sustainable products are close at hand.
At Otolith, owners Aritan and Brossard count among their offerings line-caught Pacific cod, Alaskan wild-caught salmon, and a canned sockeye salmon that's pressure-cooked and processed in a small Alaskan plant.
Otolith guarantees sustainability through its owners' high standards for harvest method, fishery management, and distribution. "We're not anti-broker, but there's a lot of bundling in seafood distribution and we think it's very important to know where your seafood is coming from," Brossard says, adding that as a consumer, she would not rely on the Seafood Watch guide alone.
River & Glen also sells wild Alaskan salmon, Pacific halibut, true Blue Point oysters, and black cod. For MacKnight, who spent much of his childhood fishing from the river and selling his catch to chefs in his small town, the relationships among purveyor, fisherman, and chef or consumer are key to ensuring a quality product and staying true to his commitment to people, planet and profits.
It's fairly common for MacKnight to talk to fishermen at sea as they procure the company's products. "Trust and communication are critical to ensuring that the fish is fresh, they're not overfished, and the ocean floor isn't disturbed," MacKnight says. "There's no quick fix here, but for people who are interested and curious, it starts with making better decisions."
Saving the World's Fish: Guidelines for Choosing
Choose seafood caught by sustainable fishing methods that don't harm essential fish habitat or kill juvenile animals. Hook and line, trap, pot, and harpoon are almost always good methods.
Choose seafood raised by sustainable aquaculture methods that don't spread disease, pollute, or use wild fish for food.
Support small-boat fishermen who use sustainable methods of fishing.
Shop at stores that label their seafood as to where it was captured or cultured and whether it was wild or aquacultured.
Buy seafood that carries the Marine Stewardship Council or Fishwise point-of-purchase sustainable seafood label.
Eat more seafood that is short-lived and reproduces quickly: Squid, clams, mussels, oysters and scallops, anchovies, herring, sardines, smelts, mahimahi, and wild salmon are a few examples.
Try a new fish. Consumer demand plays a big part in overfishing and encouraging non-sustainable aquaculture.
- Adapted from Fish Forever by Paul Johnson (Wiley, 2007)
Japanese Black Bass With Brussels Sprouts, Winter Squash, Bacon, and Shaved Apple
Makes 4 servings
2 pounds Japanese black
bass fillets, skin on
Salt and pepper
8 ounces thick-cut bacon,
sliced into lardons
1 small butternut squash,
peeled and cut into large
1 pint brussels sprouts,
cored and leaves
Salt and pepper
1 shallot, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 ounces whole-grain
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 green apple
Juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Cut the bass into 4 portions (each approximately 8 ounces), season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
2. In a saute pan over medium heat, cook the bacon. Once most of the fat is rendered and the bacon is almost fully cooked, add the squash and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender. Add the brussels sprout leaves and cook for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.
3. In a small saucepan, combine the sliced shallot and wine. Bring to a boil and reduce until almost dry. Add the heavy cream and reduce by half again until the mixture has a saucelike consistency. Remove pan from heat and stir in the whole-grain mustard. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.
4. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over high heat. Set the bass fillets in the pan, skin side down. Cook for 3 minutes, then flip and cook for another 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 2 minutes, tenting with foil to keep the fish warm.
5. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the apple. Discard skin and peel the flesh into fine shavings. Toss with lemon juice and olive oil.
6. To serve, spoon some of the brussels sprouts and squash onto the center of each plate. Set a piece of bass skin side up over the vegetables. Spoon some of the mustard sauce around the plate, and top with apple shavings.
Per serving: 786 calories, 52 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 53 grams fat, 172 milligrams cholesterol, 904 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Baked Mackerel Rillettes
Makes 12 hors d'oeuvre servings
1/2 cup white miso paste
1 tablespoon Asian toasted
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons tamari or light
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
4 small Atlantic or Spanish
mackerel (about 1/2 pound
apiece), gutted, scaled,
1 teaspoon Old Bay
Pinch of salt
Juice of half a lemon
1 shallot, finely chopped
4 black peppercorns,
1/2 cup sour cream or
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1. Whisk together miso, sesame oil, sugar, tamari, and vinegar. Coat fish with the mixture, inside and out. Wrap fish individually in greased aluminum foil (or, alternatively, place in a baking dish with a tight-fitting cover). Marinate, refrigerated, overnight (or for at least 4 hours).
2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place foil packets or dish on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Roast until fish is fully cooked, about 25 minutes. Chill for several hours.
3. Peel off the skin. Starting from the cavity, pry the fillets from the backbone; discard the bone. Using tweezers or fingertips, carefully remove all small bones. It's OK to break up the fillets, since the fish will be broken up to make the rillettes. If desired, trim off the dark-colored meat along the outside of the fillets (this is fine to eat, but less attractive).
4. Place the boneless fillets in a mixing bowl; season with Old Bay, salt, and lemon. Add the shallot, peppercorns, sour cream, and mayonnaise. Mix well with a fork, breaking up any large pieces. Taste for seasoning. Pack the mixture into a ramekin or small crock. Serve with toast points or crusty bread, cornichons and Dijon mustard.
Per serving: 225 calories, 14 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 51 milligrams cholesterol, 516 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Chickpea and Rice Flour-Battered Sardines
Makes 4 servings
2 cups fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 bunch scallions, white part
1-inch piece fresh ginger,
peeled and chopped
3 green Serrano chiles,
seeded or not
Juice of 2 lemons and
enough water to make
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Refined peanut oil
1/2 cup chickpea flour
1/2 cup rice flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup ice water
1 pound sardines or other
All-purpose flour or
cornstarch for dredging
1. In a blender, puree chutney ingredients together until smooth.
2. In a Dutch oven or deep fryer, heat 3 to 4 inches oil to 400 degrees.
3. While the oil is heating, make the batter: In a medium bowl, stir all the dry ingredients together well. Quickly whisk the ice water into the flour; stir a few times lightly.
4. Dredge the fish in the flour or cornstarch, then the batter. Drain the excess batter and slip the fish into the hot oil. Fry in batches, not crowding the pan, for 3 or 4 minutes, or until golden brown on all sides. Let the oil return to the correct temperature between batches.
5. Using a wire skimmer, transfer the fish to a wire rack to drain. Use the skimmer to remove any excess batter or crumbs from the oil between batches. Serve with green chutney.
Fish Burgers With Green Tartar Sauce
Makes 4 servings
For the green tartar sauce:
1/4 cup chopped cornichons
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 medium shallot, coarsely
2 cups mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
11/2 heaping tablespoons
chopped fresh dill
2 heaping tablespoons
chopped fresh chives
2 heaping tablespoons
chopped fresh flat-leaf
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground
1/4 cup olive oil
For the burgers:
4 pita breads
11/2 pounds skinless wild
salmon, char, rainbow
trout, or bluefish fillet,
chilled in the freezer for
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/2 cup diced green bell
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground white
1 large egg white, whipped
to soft peaks
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 ripe beefsteak tomato,
cored and cut into 4
Handful of tender salad
1. Drop the cornichons, capers, and shallot into a food processor. Process for a few seconds just to combine. Add the mayonnaise, mustard, herbs, lemon juice and white pepper and process for about 8 seconds to blend well. Scrape down the sides. With the motor running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream. Scrape the tartar sauce into an airtight container. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours before using.
2. Heat the broiler. Using a pastry brush or your fingers, coat each side of the pita with a thin layer of olive oil. Place on the broiler rack and broil for about 2 minutes, until brown. Turn and broil for another 2 minutes. Wrap in a kitchen towel.
3. Sharpen your knife and cut the fish into a fine dice. Place the fish in a medium bowl. Add the bell peppers, scallions, and cream and combine gently with your hands. Season with the Tabasco, salt, and white pepper. Gently fold in ¼ cup of the beaten egg white. Form into 4 patties.
4. Heat the canola oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the burgers. Lower the heat to medium and put a half-teaspoon of butter next to each burger. Cook for 3 minutes, then flip until browned. Cook for another 2 minutes, or until nicely browned on the second side.
5. Split the pita breads open. Set each burger on one pita half and top with a slab of tomato, a dollop of tartar sauce, some of the greens, and the other pita half.
by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore
Otolith, 143 W Girard Ave.; 215-426-4266; www.otolithonline.com
Alaskan Sockeye salmon sells for $15.75 per pound.
River & Glen, 390 Nina Way, Warminster; 215-442-1627; www.riverandglen.com
Sustainable Scottish salmon is $24.95 per pound.
Two recent cookbooks - "Fish Forever" by Paul Johnson (Wiley, 2007) and "Fish Without a Doubt" by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) - offer information on fishing methods, ocean habitat and tips for preparing familiar and unfamiliar seafood.