by Jay Weinstein
from Fine Cooking #101, p. 68-75
Shopping at the fish counter can be confusing these days. Which fish should you buy? What kinds are safe to eat? We've all heard the warnings about dwindling fish populations and fish farming's environmental costs, not to mention the news about mercury in large fish and the health consequences it poses. What's a cook to do?
Research is good; downloadable buying charts (like those put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium) are accurate and exhaustive. ButÂ if you don't haveÂ those tools at hand, it's wise to have a fallback plan. With that in mind, here are five great-tasting sustainable fish that you can always buy (and eat) with peace of mind. They're plentiful, wild, and sustainably caught, and all have relatively low levels of mercury.
Some of these fish may be familiar (halibut) and others may not (mackerel), but all are easy to prepare and at their best when simply cooked, allowing their fresh, distinctive flavors to shine. No more wondering what to buy or how to cook it-and that's no fish story.
Why this fishCaught in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, char was never threatened because it is a fast-reproducing fish that was largely ignored during the heyday of salmon. Now that overfishing and unsustainable farming practices have turned salmon into an eco-culinary mess, char is getting its share of attention. (If you can't find it wild, farmed arctic char is a good alternative because it's raised sustainably.)
Why we love it A distant cousin of salmon and trout, char has a mild salmon-like flavor and a beautiful pink color-the result of its natural diet, which includes tiny crustaceans like pink shrimp. Arctic char takes well to virtually any cooking method, and it's hard to overcook, since its fatty texture allows a good deal of elbow room.
Learn more about arctic char
Why this fish Unlike the similarly textured Chilean sea bass, black cod is harvested from well-managed Alaskan fisheries, which impose strict catch limits to protect the species from depletion. So black cod populations are not threatened. It's different, though, for other types of cod, like Atlantic cod, whose worldwide populations have collapsed one by one, with only the northeastern United States population remaining, and Pacific cod, whose fisheries are sustainable but small.
Why we love it Called sablefish in Europe, black cod is one of the richest-tasting fish on the market. It is buttery and luxurious and nearly impossible to overcook. A cook's dream, black cod is incredibly versatile, lending itself to steaming and braising as well as roasting. It's delicious in light, delicate preparations, but can also stand up to spicy, aggressive marinades.
Learn more about black cod
Why this fish With fisheries predominantly on the eastern seaboard, striped bass has begun to rebound from overfishing in the 1980s, thanks to sensible fishing practices. As a result, its population is increasing every year. (If you can't find it wild, farmed striped bass is a good alternative because it's raised sustainably.)
Why we love it Striped bass has a delicate, almost grassy flavor that's similar to snapper but cleaner and less oily. Its delicate texture makes it well suited for sautÃ©ing, roasting, or steaming; grilling can be tricky, as the flesh tends to fall apart easily. It requires a little attention at the stove because it can quickly cross the line from juicy to overcooked. Striped bass plays well with other gentle flavors like leeks and mushrooms, or it can be a vehicle for assertive, spicy flavors, from Indian to North African.
(Learn more about striped bass)
Why this fish Pacific halibut, unlike Atlantic halibut, comes from well-managed fisheries that have not suffered the steep population decline affecting Atlantic halibut. Also, Pacific ocean temperatures are colder year-round, so the halibut isn't prey to the warm-water-loving parasites that make Atlantic halibut an iffy proposition in all but the coldest months.
Why we love it
With its delicate flavor and texture, halibut gives its best performance when barely cooked through. Overcook it, and it'll be very dry. It has a smooth, buttery texture, almost like firm custard. Its subtle flavor should not be overpowered by aggressive sauces or marinades. Halibut pairs well with tarragon and chives, potatoes, and juicy greens like spinach and Swiss chard.
(Learn more about pacific halibut)
Why this fish If ever there was a diamond in the rough, it's Atlantic mackerel. Prized by the Japanese for the robust flavor it delivers in sushi preparations, it has until recently been overlooked by American cooks, who have favored milder-tasting fish. But with its high omega-3 oil content, mackerel is a heart-healthy choice that's growing in popularity. Plus, the methods used to catch it don't damage the ocean's ecosystem, so it's a good sustainable choice.
Why we love it Mackerel's rich, strong flavor is exactly why we like it. This assertiveness pairs well with complex ingredients like miso and soy and is complemented by citrus and bright vinaigrettes. It's delicious sautÃ©ed or roasted but too oily for poaching.
(Learn more about atlantic mackerel)
Photos: Scott Phillips