Heard the jaw-dropping news? The world is quickly running out of fish. Especially the types a lot of us like to chow down on. Nearly half the world’s marine life has been wiped out in the past 50 years, so act now or kiss your sushi dinners good-bye. (Also: the planet.) We investigated, and it turns out global survival and delicious seafood are possible if we’re smart about what we eat. Here, pre-eminent food writer Mark Bittman teaches you how to hunt for your next great meal.
contributor Mark Bittmanc
Without question, fish is the most nutritious animal we can eat, and by far the most varied in flavor and texture. But once you know that humankind has decimated the wild population, you don’t have to be a Greenpeace raft captain to feel conflicted about consuming it. Do we really want to be the generation so obsessed with gastronomic pleasure that we exterminate the Pacific? We can do better—not only for the future of our oceans but for the future of our appetites. There really are plenty of other fish in the sea: sustainable fish, regret-free fish, delicious and abundant fish that in some cases are such invasive species, it’s actually virtuous to murder them. With just a few modest substitutions, you can do your part for the planet while still eating like a king.
Easy on the Shrimp, Go Big on Mussels
I know how great shrimp tastes, but an awful lot of it is farmed under repellent conditions, and much of that by actual slave labor. (In Southeast Asia, fishing-boat captains have been known to kidnap indigent men, forcing them to work for no pay and holding them in cages between shifts.) And the wild stocks of the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico are mostly trawled, a destructive method. Better to look for something else, and that something else is mussels. They’re sustainably farmed. (If you’re lucky you can buy wild, and those are even better.) They’re also inexpensive, delicious, and incredibly easy to cook. One pound per person is adequate, though an extra pound among three or four people will get eaten.
Old-Fashioned Mussel Boil
Wash mussels well, removing any beards if present. (You’ll know what a beard is when you see it.) Steam about ten minutes in a covered pot with 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 dried chile, and 1/2 cup dry white wine. While mussels are cooking, melt 1 stick (for four people) butter in a small saucepan and stir in lime juice, lime zest, and Sriracha or other hot sauce to taste. Garnish with coarsely chopped cilantro and serve with the dipping sauce.
Bluefin Tuna Is Brought to You by the Devil. But… Mackerel Is Holy
A majestic creature prized for its fatty texture and luscious flavor, bluefin is coveted like no other tuna. It’s also in trouble like no other tuna: By some estimates its Pacific population has declined by more than 90 percent, and multiple environmental groups want it to be named an endangered species. Fortunately there’s mackerel, tuna’s smaller cousin. Mackerel, too, is dark-fleshed and fat-laden, and it’s crave-worthy raw, poached, pickled, or broiled.
Make small diagonal slashes on the skin side of a fillet, then sprinkle both sides with some salt. (This is an old Japanese technique that does wonders for texture and flavor.) While the broiler preheats and the fish sits, make a dipping sauce of 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon mirin or honey, 2 teaspoons grated ginger, and the juice of 1/2 lime. Broil until the fish is browned and just barely firm, less than five minutes. Serve with cooked short-grain rice and the dipping sauce, garnished with pickled ginger or cilantro and a couple of lime wedges.
Okay, but can I at least eat canned tuna?
Sorry, Charlie, but canned tuna—unless it’s the pricey sustainable brands like Wild Planet and Raincoast (whose albacore tuna is line-caught)—is best avoided. I stay away, especially, from the big three: Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, and StarKist, all of which have been accused of both unsustainable fishing and unfair labor practices. On the bright side, canned salmon is usually all right. As are the fish that come in rectangular tins: sardines, anchovies, smoked oysters, cooked octopus, and so on.
Eat This Fish, Before It Eats Everything
You know the lionfish. You’ve seen it in aquariums. It’s the one that looks like a swimming pincushion, covered in venomous spikes. It’s also so invasive, and so detrimental to native species, that fishery-management people can’t figure out how to contain it—parts of Florida actually hold lionfish derbies, where divers compete to kill as many as they can. For fans of tropical white fish like grouper, this is an invitation to feast. Lionfish fillets tend to be small, but the meat is sturdy and mild, which allows it to stand up to blackening. Figure on four to six ounces (at least two fillets) per person.
Crank your oven to its absolute max—550 degrees is not too hot—with a cast-iron pan in there from the beginning. Make a mixture of cayenne (1/2 teaspoon per 8 fillets), black pepper (at least a teaspoon), cumin (ditto), fresh thyme leaves (1 tablespoon), and pimentón (smoked paprika, at least a teaspoon). Rub that mixture onto both sides of the fish, then drizzle the fish with a few tablespoons of melted butter or warmed oil. When the pan is raging hot, add the fish to it. (Turn on every exhaust fan in the house.) Cook two minutes, then flip and cook two minutes more. Serve immediately, drizzled with a little more butter.
What fish should I avoid at all costs?
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s famous Seafood Watch list is the most widely cited source for such things, but it can be confusing. The short answer: Don’t eat bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, shark, or orange roughy; avoid unagi and Japanese hamachi at sushi bars; steer clear of any seafood from China; and see the answers to the other questions in these pages. That still leaves a lot you can eat! And with these recipes, you’ll honestly never miss the stuff you’re giving up.
Why Fish Is Worth the TroubleIf you’re already thinking that all this is too complicated and you’d rather just have a burger, hang on. From a nutritional perspective, almost everyone agrees fish is better for you than most meat: higher in beneficial fats and lower in trouble-making ones. Its “conversion ratio”—the amount of food it takes to produce edible protein—is far superior. It’s easy and fast to cook. Some of it, at least, is wild, and you don’t get more organic than that. Yes, there are issues with fish; there are issues with all food. But unless you’re vegetarian, it should be a major—and majorly healthy—part of your diet.
The One American Fish We Should All Be Eating
Catfish are ugly fuckers. Bottom-feeding, scum-sucking scavengers. But you’re not making out with them. You’re eating them. And they’re among the best-tasting, most sustainable fish you can find—white, flaky, and tender, farmed with clean and smart techniques. Pan-fry your catfish, figuring about four to six ounces per person. More if you’re in Mississippi, where everyone already eats it and loves it.
Cut fillets into pieces no more than three inches across. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper, then dredge first in flour, then in beaten egg, and finally in breadcrumbs. When you’re ready to cook, set a large skillet over medium heat and warm a combination of butter and olive oil; it should be at least 1/8-inch deep. The fat is ready when a pinch of flour sizzles. Cook the fish for two to three minutes per side, until golden. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately, with lemon wedges.
The Future Of Fish At Your Door
By now you want—and I want you to want—sustainable fish caught by small-scale wild fishers, landed in U.S. ports. Good news: What you want just arrived in the form of a company called Sea to Table. Founders Michael and Sean Dimin buy everything direct from fishers at 55 different American ports, then flash-freeze the fish and ship it to you, wherever you are in the Lower 48. (Yes, Omaha.) From Pacific cod to Acadian redfish, every fish has a story, and it’s all traceable—right down to the method of catch and the name of the captain. $5.50 to $11.50 per serving, sea2table.com
Is Your Fishmonger Lying to You?
According to the conservation group Oceana, as much as a third of all fish sold at retail may be mislabeled. Here are five common culprits to watch out for, and to ask your fishmonger about, before forking over your cash.
They Call It: Cod
It May Actually Be: Asian catfish, which should be sold at a much lower price.
They Call It: Red Snapper
It May Actually Be: Rockfish, perch, white bass, tilapia, or a number of other (good but much less expensive) fish.
They Call It: Albacore
It May Actually Be: Escolar, which makes some people sick.
They Call It: Pacific Halibut
It May Actually Be: Atlantic Halibut, which is designated as a “species of concern.”
They Call It: King Salmon
It May Actually Be: Resource-intensive farmed salmon
So does that mean all farmed fish is okay?
Well, not exactly. Trout, striped bass, and tilapia are raised well in the States, and bivalves (oysters, clams, mussels, scallops) have been successfully and sustainably farmed for thousands of years. However, farmed American salmon is a mess; carnivorous salmon devour countless smaller fish for feed and threaten the environment in ways wild fish do not. In other countries, aquaculture is even worse, overfeeding fish with antibiotics and contaminating waters (and the fish itself) with chemicals. Bottom line: Avoid farmed shrimp, salmon, hamachi, and eel.