Articles in Fishing

Mackerel and a poisonniere by Nancy Jenkins

I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.

Of course I snatched them up and brought them home to try a favorite Elizabeth David recipe (from “French Provincial Cooking”), one she says comes from the Breton coast, near where my fish were caught.

In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.

If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!

Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.

Soused Mackerel

Ingredients

1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

1½ cups water

Zest of an organic lemon

Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon sugar

3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Pinch of sea salt

3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs

Directions

1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.

2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.

But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.

Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper

Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”

Makes 2 main course servings, or 4  first-course servings

Ingredients

For the fish:

2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound

6 cups water

1½ cups dry white wine

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped

1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 branch celery, coarsely chopped

Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped

For the sauce:

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste

2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)

¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

For the fish:

1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.

2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.

4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.

For the sauce:

You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.

1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.

2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.

3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.

Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe's store. Credit: Greenpeace

I’m a Trader Joe’s groupie. So I was thrilled when my Hawaiian-shirt-clad friends announced that they would be purchasing all their seafood from sustainable sources by the end of 2012. The Monrovia, Calif.,-based retailer had been a target of a Greenpeace “Traitor Joe’s” campaign for its ocean-unfriendly policies, including the sale of a variety of endangered fish. With that pledge, Trader Joe’s joined the good guys.

But four months past the deadline, my glee has changed to frustration over Trader Joe’s unwillingness to say whether it has indeed gone sustainable. The retailer’s only statement on the subject, a customer update posted on its website March 27, does not address the deadline at all. Instead it lays out a number of steps it has taken in “support of our seafood goal of shifting to sustainable sources.”

Trader Joe’s says it will do the following: Stop selling swordfish caught in Southeast Asia, only sell canned yellowfin and albacore tuna caught using approved sustainable methods, set up new standards for suppliers of farmed shrimp and keep genetically engineered salmon off its shelves.  The store has also stopped selling endangered Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper. Those are all steps in the right direction. (May 30 update: Trader Joe’s, Greenpeace bury hatchet, sort of)

Trader Joe’s mum on meeting deadline

But can I go to Trader Joe’s today and pick up fish fillets for dinner without worrying about whether I am contributing to the degradation of the ocean?

Apparently not. When asked whether Trader Joe’s had met its December deadline, company spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki was mum. “Beyond the statement, there is nothing else we can say at this time,” she says.

Why the mystery? Everyone understands a missed deadline, particularly when it involves something as complex as seafood sustainability, global supply chains and the economics of food. But refusing to discuss the matter makes it look like Trader Joe’s is hiding something.

Casson Trenor, a senior seafood campaigner at Greenpeace, acknowledges Trader Joe’s is making “tremendous progress” toward saving the oceans. But he says the company’s reluctance to provide more information about its seafood sourcing policies has made it nearly impossible to determine whether the retailer is actually living up to its promises.

Casson Trenor. Credit: Greenpeace

Casson Trenor. Credit: Greenpeace

For example, he says the store is still selling items such as farmed salmon and dredged scallops that Greenpeace and other groups do not consider sustainable. Are they simply clearing out old inventory? Or are they flouting their own goals and hoping others won’t notice?

There are a lot of things to love about Trader Joe’s if you’re a foodie on a budget, a time-strapped cook (who knew broccoli slaw could taste so good?) or an aficionado of cheap wine. But unfortunately, transparency isn’t one of them. Trenor explains that a key part of Trader Joe’s success is its ability to create tasty, easy-to-use foods — such as spicy fish fillets — that aren’t available anywhere else. To prevent those products from being copied, the retailer has resisted pressure to reveal its sourcing or its suppliers.

“Trader Joe’s is all about magic and illusion,” Trenor says. “It delivers an experience that it doesn’t have to compete for because no one else can produce that product. Why would it give itself away?”

Verifying the sustainability of a seafood product requires two key pieces of information: where it was caught or farmed and how it was caught or farmed, explains Victoria Galitzine of FishWise, a Santa Cruz, Calif., organization working with the seafood industry to develop sustainable business practices. As a first step, she recommends checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has an app and pocket-sized cards with lists of ocean-friendly seafood and fish to avoid.

Trader Joe’s says it is in the process of enhancing its package labeling to include information on species’ Latin names; origin; and catch or production method. But until that happens, I will need to ask my friendly sales clerk whether that frozen yellowfin tuna from Fiji was caught using a long-line or purse seine equipped with a “fish aggregating device, or FAD.” If the answer is yes to the FAD, it’s on the red list and off my grill.

“Asking questions demonstrates to the retailers that its customers care about the environmental performance of its seafood and eventually those messages will trickle up the chain of command to the decision-makers who can affect significant change,” Galitzine says.

I can also support retailers who are clearly ocean-friendly. In mid-May, Greenpeace will publish its annual Seafood Sustainability Scorecard ranking grocery stores by their sustainable seafood practices. Last year, the top scores went to Safeway and Whole Foods while Trader Joe’s ranked 15 out of 20.

Trenor wouldn’t say whether Trader Joe’s will be getting a better grade this year. However, if Greenpeace finds a large gap between Trader Joe’s promises and its delivery, he is not ruling out a revival of its “Traitor Joe’s” campaign.

“Trader Joe’s did make a promise to Greenpeace and other groups and that’s why we suspended our campaign,” he says. “The time is up. The question now is did they actually do what they said they were going to do?”

Top photo: A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe’s store. Credit: Greenpeace

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A spoonful of Oona caviar. Credit: Tropenhaus Frutigen

Anyone who’s ever traveled in the Swiss Alps will know that farming there is nothing new. Wherever you go, you will see doe-eyed, moleskin-brown cows grazing vertiginous, brilliant green, manicured hillsides, their fragrant milk destined for great wheels of hard mountain cheese. But fish farming? It sounds unlikely — a bit like salmon farming in the Yemen — but it’s true.

The story began with the Lötschberg rail tunnel, which enters the Alps at Frutigen in the heart of the Bernese Oberland and emerges the other side at Raron in the Valais.

The tunnel is the latest example of the Swiss flair for engineering. As often happens when tunneling in the Alps, the project hit a few snags. Chief among these was the water runoff from rain and melting snow, which filters through the limestone layers to the tunnel below. Thanks to the geothermal effect, the water is warmed on its descent through the mountain to a rather comfortable 64 F. To channel it directly into the local river would have played havoc with the wild fish population, accustomed to an icy alpine torrent.

The solution came from engineer Peter Hufschmied, head of site management for the tunnel and a keen angler. Instead of expending energy in cooling down the water before allowing it to run off, why not take advantage of the warmth to raise fish? Simultaneously, they would use any surplus energy to heat greenhouses where tropical plants and fruits would grow. A perfect  – and perfectly sustainable — solution.

The Tropenhaus in Frutigen was born, a pilot project was put in place in 2002, and by 2005 the first sturgeon were introduced. The original Swiss caviar, christened Oona (a word with Celtic roots suggesting “unique” or “extraordinary”), was harvested in the winter of 2011-12. Now leading Swiss chefs such as Heiko Nieder at the Dolder Grand in Zürich, Werner Rothen of Restaurant Schöngrün at the Paul Klee Centre in Bern, and Ivo Adam of Restaurant Seven in Ascona on Lake Maggiore can’t get enough of it.

At least 27 different sturgeon species are raised or fished for caviar. From these, the Tropenhaus chose the Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser baerii. It’s a strange and wonderful beast, light gray to brown in color with five rows of bony plates along its back and sides; an elongated, upturned snout; and a kind of four-pronged goatee beard. In captivity, the females of the species will mature at approximately 6 years of age, which makes them an economic proposition for farming. (Wild Siberian sturgeon needs at least 20 years to reach maturity.)

Once mature, the females are stunned and killed, the sac of roe is lifted out and set aside and the fish is deftly filleted. The fillets — firm, dense and devoid of bones — feature on the menus of the two on-site Tropenhaus restaurants and are also sold to restaurants and shops (including select branches of the Swiss retailer Coop, which is also the Tropenhaus’ main shareholder). Some fillets are sold fresh, others are smoked to create a delicacy not unlike smoked eel.

Harvesting roe for caviar a simple process

Considering the mystique surrounding caviar, the process for making it seems simple, at least as demonstrated by caviar-meister Tobias Felix. Clad in a hairnet, overalls, a plastic apron and white boots and equipped with surgical mask and latex gloves, he looks like a cross between an astronaut and a surgeon.

First, taking care not to damage the precious eggs, he gently coaxes and massages them through a wire mesh, leaving behind the membrane that surrounds them. Next, he rinses the eggs in cold water, drains them in a fine-meshed sieve and painstakingly picks out impurities with tweezers. At this stage, the eggs are a dull grayish-black; only when he adds the carefully calculated measure of salt will they take on their characteristic glossy sheen. The newly salted caviar is promptly transferred into custom-made tins, which are sealed hermetically. The entire process takes 15 minutes from start to finish.

Picture 1 of 5

A Tropenhaus team member with a sturgeon. Credit: Tropenhaus Frutigen

For the final step, the tin is embedded in a sleek, black sphere, which in turn is enclosed in a solid chunk of glass resembling an ice cube, made at the Hergiswil glass factory on Lace Lucerne, an ultra-chic piece of packaging that won a coveted Red Dot Design award in 2012.

The likelihood of Swiss caviar coming to a table anywhere near you is probably slim. “The quantities are tiny (production in the first year was around 300 kilograms, 700 pounds) and for the moment we are focusing just on Switzerland,” admits marketing manager Andreas Schmid. But there are ambitious plans afoot: Production is set to increase tenfold, and then they will consider the export market.

Even farmed, Swiss caviar will never be cheap; that’s at least part of its mystique. (Thirty grams or 1 ounce of Oona costs 144 Swiss francs, or $155 U.S.) But now that caviar from wild fish is out of bounds due to a disastrous combination of damming, overfishing, pollution and poaching, farmed caviar is increasingly meeting demand for this prized product. Sturgeon is already raised on fish farms all over the world, from France, Spain and Italy to Russia, China, Canada and the United States.

Now Switzerland has joined the ranks.

Top photo: A spoonful of Oona caviar. Credit: Tropenhaus Frutigen

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Pan-seared striped bass with lime-basil butter Credit: Kathy Hunt

Like most cooks and food lovers, I’ve been eagerly anticipating spring’s bounty. Asparagus, morel mushrooms, ramps and rhubarb all return to markets and my dinner table. So, too, does the East Coast’s favorite sport fish, striped bass.

Found in ocean, rivers and estuaries from Canada to Louisiana, this long, silver, horizontally striped fish has been an American favorite since colonial times. In those days the fish could grow as long as 6 feet and weigh more than 100 pounds. In addition to being a big catch, it was a plentiful one. So great were its numbers that early settlers used striped bass for fertilizer as well as for food.

Unfortunately, popularity does not always translate into prosperity. By enriching their crops with striped bass, the colonists seriously depleted the striped bass population. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to ban this mulching practice to preserve the dwindling fish supply.

Centuries later, in the 1980s, overfishing brought another severe decline. Today, though, thanks to severe fishing restrictions and their strict management, this fish has largely rebounded. Although you won’t see those 100 pounders in markets — they primarily carry small, farmed striped bass — you can enjoy this fish from the wild once again.

Also called striper, greenhead and, in the Chesapeake Bay area, rockfish, striped bass is renowned for its spunky nature. In fact, its scrappiness and the resulting challenge of the catch are part of its great allure.

“This is not a fish for beginners or the faint of heart. It’s a very fast, hard fighting fish, a worthy opponent and delicious,” retired vintner and avid angler Frank Wilmer says. A native of southeastern Pennsylvania, Wilmer reels in striped bass off the surf on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.

With a feisty spirit comes a voracious appetite. This fish consumes plankton, shrimp, clams, crabs, eels and medium-sized fish such as menhaden. Its diverse diet undoubtedly contributes to its unique, sweet flavor and firm, moderately fat, moist flesh.

Its appealing texture and taste have earned striped bass many fans. Valley Forge Audubon naturalist Vince Smith considers it one of the best tasting fish. “I think of it as a cross between bluefish and weakfish. It has a dark, fat layer like bluefish, but not the heavy taste,” Smith says.

Striped bass any way you like it

What makes striped bass such a boon to fishermen and cooks is its versatility. After catching and cleaning it, you can prepare it in myriad ways.

For Smith, grilling is the best method. “I love to cook it on the grill with just a little salt. Leave it skin side down, then flip to finish,” he says.

Frank Wilmer concurs. “My buddies and I prepare striped bass by scaling them, slicing them laterally about 4-5 times on each side, sprinkling them with jerk seasoning and grilling them whole until well done. Never had fish done any better,” he says.

In addition to being grilled, its firm, oily flesh responds beautifully to baking, braising, broiling, deep- and pan-frying, poaching, roasting, sautéing, searing and steaming. The luscious, juicy meat goes well with ingredients such as artichoke, garlic, parsley, potatoes, scallions, shallots, thyme, tomatoes, white wine vinegar and port wine.

Because this fish possesses such a rich, lovely flavor, I tend to keep the preparations simple and the extra ingredients to a minimum. If I’m fortunate enough to have a whole striper, I stuff it with shallots or pearl onions, slices of lemon or orange and fresh thyme. I then roast it for 20 minutes or until done. Fillets I usually grill, sauté, sear or pan-fry. I then splash lemon juice, Tabasco or soy sauce on top and serve them alongside fresh cauliflower, corn, beets or greens.

Along with its vivaciousness, taste and versatility, striped bass has sustainability on its side. Hook-and-line caught striped bass from the U.S. Atlantic is considered a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. The milder, smaller, farmed striped bass also receives this coveted rating.

Among my angler friends optimism remains high for a good striped bass season. I hope they’re correct. For cooks like me who love the full-bodied flavor of the wild fish but rely upon others to catch it, it would be quite disappointing if their predictions turn out to be just another fish tale.

Pan-Seared Striped Bass with Lime-Basil Butter

Serves 4

Ingredients

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

Juice of ½ lime

Grated zest of 1 lime

1½ tablespoons fresh basil, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 (4- to 6-ounce) striped bass fillets

Sea salt

Ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a small bowl, mix together the butter, juice, zest and basil. Set aside.

2. In a large, nonstick pan, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Season the striped bass fillets with salt and black pepper to taste.

3. Once the oil has heated, place the fillets in the pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the flesh has browned slightly. Turn the fillets over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the other side has browned and the center has turned opaque. During the last 30 seconds of cooking, dot the tops of the fillets with equal amounts of lime-basil butter. Remove the fillets from the pan and serve immediately.

Top photo: Pan-seared striped bass with lime-basil butter Credit: Kathy Hunt

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When Wine Taste Best app

Where do chefs eat? As culinary professionals have become celebrities, their favorite haunts have attracted more attention. Want to know where Ludo Lefebvre gets his favorite pancakes?  Or where to find the best sushi, according to Danny Bowein (of Mission Chinese fame)? ChefsFeed has the answers, and a bit more. With thousands of high-end to hole-in-the-wall restaurant recommendations straight from the mouths of the country’s best chefs, you’ll learn where they love to go, and most important, what they like to order. There are currently 20 different cities on the app, with at least 20 chefs per city. The app is very user-friendly, with a little smiling face (usually) of the chef and photos of his or her recommended dishes. You can click on the dish and get details about the restaurant and also why the chef likes it. This has got to be one of the best ways to hunt down a meal. The icon is pretty cool, too.

Available for free on iTunes

Split the bill without pain

No, Splitsville is not an app that will supply you with text-message breakup lines. Rather, it is an app that will help you split a restaurant bill.  Sure, when there’s just two of you it’s easy —  excuse yourself to the restroom and hope the other person pays. But what to do if you have an odd number of people dining? Simply open up this little bad boy, enter the total amount (plus tip, of course) then enter the number of diners, and the app will do the rest. Of course, so will a calculator. Here’s the difference: If you arrived only in time for dessert whilst your friends feasted on steak and lobster, you will not have to pay for their surf and turf gluttony. Specify that your crème brûlée only cost you $15 and the app will adjust accordingly, charging your friends for their share while you pay for what you had. Never again will you feel cheated by a tab because your buddy ordered one more beer than you. It will be accounted for, and it will be fair — Splitsville will make sure of it.

Available for free on iTunes

Find sustainable fish choices

Seafood Watch has changed the way I buy fish. I refer to it for “ocean-friendly” advice every time I go out to buy seafood, especially at stores where I don’t have a friendly fishmonger to chat with. A bit of an admission as well: I sometimes purchase frozen seafood at Costco, and this app has kept me from many a fish-buying mistake. Made by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the app brings you the most current recommendations for sustainable seafood and sushi, along with complete information about how each species should be fished or farmed. It is very simple to use and categorizes seafood as “best choice,” “good alternative” or “avoid,” with alternative options in the “avoid” section. When you delve into the app, you’ll notice the wealth of information available — everything from farming practices to where you can find a particular type of fish nearby. The sushi guide goes a bit further by providing the Japanese name as well as the English. This is an app worth downloading. All the information provided can also be found at www.seafoodwatch.org.

Available on iTunes and for Android for free

Drink wine by a biodynamic calendar

There is a growing opinion within the wine industry that wines taste better on certain days of the biodynamic calendar. Basically, with biodynamics, everything is dictated by the moon. The most common theory is, if the moon’s gravitational pull influences the ocean’s tide, it must also affect water in the soil and even sap within plants, which in turn can affect growth and flavor. There is a specific type of day depending on what phase the moon is in, they are: fruit, flower, leaf or root. For wine the best days to drink (and in fact transfer from tank to barrel) are said to be fruit and flower days. These days were originally used as guide for planting and sowing crops, but have more recently been extended into the wine world. Only a few blessed souls, however, have the ability to look at the moon and know what type of day it is. For the rest of us, there are two apps. BioGarden is a very cute biodynamic calendar app with little cartoon fruits and vegetables that tell you what type of day it is. You can scroll along from side to side quite easily and plan your biodynamic (drinking) calendar months in advance. When Wine Tastes Best is based off the biodynamic booklet of the same name. This is much more detailed, and actually tells you on the hour when the day type changes. It is set up a bit more seriously, and there is a free version that doesn’t allow you to look ahead in the week. Rest assured, neither app will ask you to bury your phone on the third full moon of the year.

Biogarden is $2.99 on iTunes

When Wine Taste Best is free or $2.99 on iTunes

Top image: BioGarden app. Courtesy of Summersun Corp

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seafood display

Eat more fish. That’s one of the prerequisites of the Mediterranean diet. We all know fish is good for us, yet Americans eat less than 16 pounds a year, man, woman and child. And for a lot of us, this sumptuous route to a healthy diet is simply unheard of. Astonishingly, there are people in this country who have never tasted fish.

Well, I was lucky. I grew up and learned to eat and cook in New England, on the coast of Maine where fish and seafood are considered a normal, customary part of each week’s menu. We weren’t Catholics, but we still ate fish on Fridays, possibly because there was a greater selection on that day. And of course we ate Maine lobster, scallops and crab. But the chef d’oeuvre of my mother’s kitchen was baked stuffed haddock, which I loved so much that later, when I went away to school, my mother always made it for that first welcome-home supper of vacation. She stuffed the whole fish with something like poultry stuffing — sagey, bread-crumby, oniony, thymey, peppery, and delicious — and then served it with a white sauce with sliced hard-boiled eggs in it. This doesn’t sound as enticing now as it was back then; tastes change with time, but I think if my mother were alive now and made that for me, I would tuck into it with just as much gusto as I did when I was 15.

Explore beyond tuna and shrimp

I’ve always been perplexed at the indifference so many Americans, especially those away from the coasts, display toward seafood. Tuna is our favorite fish, but the greatest quantity we consume by far is canned. That’s a good thing, too, because canned tuna is mostly albacore and not the gravely endangered bluefin. Shrimp is our second favorite and that’s not good because, as delicious as some shrimp can be, most are raised on vast shrimp farms by environmentally destructive, highly questionable practices that yield a tasteless lump of rubbery resistant flesh, good as a foil for cocktail sauce and not much else. If you can get wild shrimp, fantastic! But most of us can’t.

Home cooks steer away from fish because it’s expensive and they don’t know how to prepare it, and then it stinks up the kitchen. Tasteless frozen pre-cooked shrimp and canned tuna require no preparation, which may be a large part of their appeal. Why bother with anything else?

Bother for these reasons: a) because any seafood made at home will be cheaper and probably tastier than in a restaurant; b) because it’s actually very easy to prepare; and c) because, the greatest selling point, it is unassailably good for you. Despite some popular beliefs that fish contains harmful amounts of mercury, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded in a meta-analysis back in 2006 (published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., or JAMA) the health risks from consuming fish are unsubstantiated and have been greatly exaggerated. A much greater risk, said Dr. Eric Rimm, co-author of the study, “is in store for those who avoid fish entirely.”

Even the ultra-conservative American Heart Assn. suggests two seafood meals a week, and the Mediterranean diet recommends “at least” two or three servings weekly for everyone, including children.

“I could never get my kid to eat fish.” I hear you, loud and clear.

Fish for small-fry

Try this: Make fish fingers or nuggets by cutting up some halibut (or salmon grouper, mahi-mahi or the like). Kids love anything fried and crunchy, that they can eat with their hands. Set up three bowls, one with flour in it, one with a well-beaten egg or two, and one with good unflavored bread crumbs seasoned with a pinch of salt and, if your kids will tolerate greenery, some very finely minced parsley. Have a skillet with a skiff of olive oil in the bottom (2 tablespoons or so, depending on the size of the pan) ready to go on the stove.

Now dip each fish finger into the flour, rolling it to coat thoroughly, and shake off the excess. Dip the flour-coated fish into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off. Put the egg-coated fish into the bowl with the breadcrumbs and roll it around, pressing on all sides so the breadcrumbs adhere. When all your fish fingers are done, set the skillet over medium heat and as soon as the oil is hot, add the fish fingers in a single layer—do it in two or more batches if you have to. Fry until crisp and brown on one side, then turn and fry on the other. By the time the bread-crumb coating is toasty brown, the inside will be cooked through. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges to squeeze on top.

Fish recipe with no fishy smell

Here’s another, only slightly more complicated treatment for those of you who worry about smelling the house up with fishy odors. For each serving, take a square sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the center, then set a piece of firm-textured fish (see the suggestions above) on it. Add a few disks of carrot and potato, blanched until just starting to tenderize, a slender ring of a smallish red onion, a few slices of zucchini, and perhaps a sliver of red pepper, green chili pepper or a couple of very small grape tomatoes. Fresh herbs are also nice with this—chives, thyme sprigs, or coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil. Sprinkle another teaspoon of oil over the top, add a genteel spritz of lemon juice, and then pull the corners of the foil up and twist them to seal, making a loose packet. Set the packets on a tray and transfer the tray to a preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is done and the carrot and potato slices are tender. Serve in the packets — no fuss, no muss, no cleanup, and no fishy smell in the kitchen.

The message from the Mediterranean? Fish is good for you, it’s simple and easy to prepare, and, as those Harvard researchers determined, the health risks are minimal compared to the benefits. Farmed fish or wild (and the greatest percentage of our seafood consumption these days comes from aquaculture), it’s all to the good.

Top photo: Seafood display. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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northeastern fishing

As the Northeast struggles to get back on its feet after the roar of Sandy, so are the fishermen feeling the aftereffects of that wild storm. The hurricane blasted them. Fishermen up and down the coast lost their docks, their boats and their waterfront. Restaurants too paid a high price. So many of them are still digging out. Although Mary Cleaver, owner of The Green Table in New York City, lost power for several days, she managed to save at least 1,500 pounds of food to give to Saint John’s Bread and Life Soup Kitchen. Others did the same.

That said, as the fishermen get back to work and return to their boats, and the restaurants bail out their kitchens and reopen their doors, many chefs have made a commitment to help fishermen in the Northeast and New England by serving their fish. Fisherman and dock owner, Jared Auerbach encouraged people in a blog post to add Northeast and New England fish to their menus to support the effort. New York restaurants such as Cleaver’s The Green Table ABC Kitchen, Mark Murphy’s Ditch Plains  and Fred’s at Barney’s  were some of the first to offer Northeastern fish on their menus to help fishermen affected by Hurricane Sandy. They were joined by Michel Nischan and Jon Vaast at The Dressing Table in Connecticut, Lonnie Zoeller of Vinoteca in Washington, D.C., and Amos Watts of Jax Fish House in Denver.

These days we all want to know where the things we consume come from, including food. Fish is no different. The easiest way to know where your fish is sourced is to know your fishermen or at the least know the distributor who will know your fishermen and where your fish comes from.

Help finding local seafood, wherever you are

Sea to Table  in Brooklyn, N.Y., is helping both fishermen and restaurants to get fresh local seafood from the dock to market and on the table the next day. This is an important job especially now in the immediate aftermath of Sandy.

In 1996 before the Dimin family started Sea to Table, they traveled to a small island at the end of the West Indian archipelago. While on vacation they had the opportunity to watch the local fishermen using the same traditional wooden pirogues, also known as dugout canoes, that had been used for thousands of years to fish their abundant waters. Those fishermen had more fish than they knew what to do with.

An idea was spawned during that vacation. And seven years later, in 2003, the Dimin family built what they’d seen in Tobago, by seeking out sustainably managed fisheries in Alaska; the Gulf Coast; from Florida through the Carolinas to the Chesapeake Bay; and from Montauk, N.Y., through the Gulf of Maine.

What kinds of fish should we be eating?

Fish, especially salmon, herring and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. So they’re good for us. But fish, like produce, can be full of pesticides, toxins and other sorts of unhealthy matter. Tuna and swordfish have more mercury than some other fishes. Tilefish, mackerel and shark are also high in mercury. So you might want to eat these fish on a less regular basis and look to monkfish, cod, striped bass and flounder as your go-to everyday fish.

Like any other food, it’s important to know if the fish you’re eating is being fished sustainably. This means the area where the fishermen are fishing is not being over-fished.

We’re told now that “wild” fish are the healthiest fish. Recent studies of wild salmon caught off the coast of British Columbia show those fish may be infected with a virus, however, which isn’t so great.

And what about farmed fish? A 2003 report from the Environmental Working Group showed that farmed salmon in the U.S. has the highest levels of PCBs, toxic man-made chemicals. And a widely publicized study in the journal Science in January 2004 suggested that farmed Atlantic salmon had higher levels of PCBs and other toxins than wild Pacific salmon. Subsequent research has found that the health benefits of both farmed and wild salmon exceed potential risks.

More and more customers want to know where their fish is coming from. I am convinced that fresh local wild fish from small-scale fisheries is healthy and delicious.

So this is a call to action for chefs and diners not only in the Northeast and New England, but also all over: Eat and buy local fish. Ask your purveyor what’s local and fresh when you’re cooking at home, and as diners ask your server where your fish was caught.

Consider Northeastern seafood for Thanksgiving

For Thanksgiving, why not consider a stuffed fillet of monkfish? Or a fish stew that includes local mussels, wild littleneck clams, oysters and Maine lobster? You can have all the Thanksgiving Day side dishes such as smashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, sautéed green beans and a lovely kale and radicchio salad with local gorgonzola cheese. But you’d be helping the Northeast fishermen to recover after a brutal battle with Hurricane Sandy. At the very least, think fish for that special after-Thanksgiving Day party.

Sea to Table provides a direct connection with these fishermen. They know the local fishermen and the waters they fish in the Northeast and throughout the country. They are in constant communication with these fishermen and you can get more information about anything fish related from them.

Top photo: Pots on the deck of the Fishing Vessel Hard Runnin’ Tide, which fishes for lobster in the North Atlantic off the coast of Maine. Credit: Andrea Trabucco-Campos

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Chilean salmon. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Daniel Pauly, marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, says we’re close to harvesting the last wild fish from the sea. If we do, we’ll have no choice but to eat farmed fish. Figuring out how to farm sustainably without bringing unbearable pressure on wild stock seems like a wise course. Perhaps we should save wild fish for special occasions, as we do wild meat, and the rest of the time eat what’s farmed by viable methods.

A good half of all seafood consumed by Americans comes from aquaculture of some kind — shrimp, oysters, branzino, Arctic char, and of course, Atlantic salmon. Seventy-five percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully fished or overfished, says the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s time to face up to the need to farm fish sustainably.

A lesson in how to do that is dramatically present in Chile’s far south where I was a guest recently of SOTA, Salmon of the Americas, an organization that promotes Chilean salmon aquaculture. The southern third of that long nation is a coastline of spectacularly indented fjords and islands washed by deep, chilly waters surging up from Antarctica. This nutrient-rich environment is prime salmon-raising territory, as ideal as the coasts of Norway or the lochs of northwest Scotland. Although not native to the Pacific, Atlantic salmon thrive on Chile’s clean cold water and strong currents.

Chile’s salmon saga

Salmon farming is relatively new in Chile, but in just a couple of decades the country surged to second place in salmon production, rivaling only Norway. Then, in 2007, a calamitous epidemic of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) broke out, decimating farms and threatening Chile’s industry with complete collapse. By 2009, production had dropped by almost 60%, and Wal-Mart, a major buyer, turned to Norwegian suppliers. Chilean processors closed their doors, fish farms shut down and thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Such a scenario was predictable, observers said. Chile had become an international scandal, notorious throughout the tightly knit world of salmon aquaculture for crowded cages, polluted waters and abundant use of antibiotics and pesticides, including those banned by the United States and other countries. In 2005, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) censured Chilean salmon operations. But producers were on a financial roll. “In the middle of a party, it’s difficult to communicate that something’s not right,” says Adolfo Avial, an industry consultant who sounded an early warning. “They didn’t want to see the problem.”

I was expecting the worst as I headed south from Santiago, Chile’s capital. I’ve visited salmon farms in the past, in Maine (a state that vaunts rigid environmental regulations for fish farming) and in Scotland’s extreme northwest. In both places I was impressed by the concern for environmental issues. Salmon farmers on both sides of the Atlantic have adopted more sustainable practices, combating disease through inoculation rather than medication, strengthening barriers between farms and the open ocean, and cutting back radically on the amount of wild fish necessary to provide meal and oil for salmon diets.

How Chile’s industry came back from the brink

What I found in Chile was an incredible story of the rebirth of a moribund industry. If it took disaster to bring Chilean salmon producers to their senses, the remarkable part of the story is the rapid recovery. On my weeklong visit to areas around Puerto Montt, I followed the salmon cycle, from the hatchery where eggs spawn, through the developing smolt stage, to sea cages and finally, two years after spawning, to the plant where mature fish are processed, filleted, thoroughly deboned, sometimes smoked and then flown to Miami where fish arrive within 18 hours.

Salmon quality, whether live fish leaping in cages or glistening rosy fillets on assembly lines, was impressive, as were the biosecurity measures employed. Everywhere, our group donned protective gear similar to that worn by plant workers, stepping through sanitizing pools, sometimes not daring to breathe to protect the atmosphere. This striking reform distinguishes Chile from more relaxed standards I’ve seen elsewhere. Other reforms were less visible: cage density, for instance, is reduced from 23 kilos per square meter to less than 14 kilos, so fish mortality has dropped from 15% to 0.2% per month, and growth rate has improved. Another important change: Fish are no longer transferred from cage to cage, mixing up different year classes and making it impossible to trace problems back to their source. Just as with humans, this kind of promiscuity is infectious.

ISA, which researchers compare to human influenza — omnipresent but seldom infectious — is no longer virulent in Chile in part because of biosecurity, and also because fish eggs, a suspected disease vector, are no longer imported, and the fish are inoculated against ISA and other diseases.

The end result is a bigger and better industry providing consumers with a product that is not just safe and inexpensive, but also delicious. The driving financial impetus, in other words, is product quality, and here Chile is clearly a leader. The salmon I saw and tasted was first-rate. If this keeps up, Chile’s salmon revival is guaranteed.

And if we fish-lovers hold the wild catch for truly special occasions, we’ll be a step closer to saving our oceans as well.

Chilean Salmon Fillets With Almond-Caper Sauce

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1 head garlic

4 boneless fillets (about 8 ounces each) of Chilean salmon

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (Chilean, if available)

¾ cup dry white wine, preferably a Chilean viognier or sauvignon blanc

1 small onion, chopped

1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped

4 tablespoons salt-packed capers, well rinsed and dried

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Separate the individual cloves of garlic but do not peel them. Set the cloves on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes.

3. Sprinkle the fish fillets on both sides with salt and pepper.

4. Use a little of the oil to grease an ovenproof baking dish, then arrange the fish steaks side by side in the dish and pour the wine and remaining olive oil over them. Cover the dish and transfer to the oven to bake for 20 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, peel the garlic and chop the cloves. Combine the chopped garlic with the almonds and the onion in the bowl of a food processor. Add 3 tablespoons of the capers and pulse briefly, just to crush the ingredients and mix well — but do not make a paste.

6. When the salmon is done, remove the fish from the baking dish and keep warm on a platter. Bring the broth left in the baking dish to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Stir in the almond paste and simmer until the sauce is thick. Top the fish with the sauce and garnish with the remaining capers.

Photo: Chilean salmon. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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