The Dish on Fish from Mark Bittman with Recipes

Farmed or wild caught? Sustainable or overfished? Deciding which seafood to eat is a treacherous business. Mark Bittman guides us through the shoals with his favorite recipes

by Mark Bittman
fish image
SARDINES Compared with the ones that come in a tin, these Pacific specimens, grilled or broiled, are a taste revelation.
Photograph: Christopher Testani

Just when demand from health-conscious consumers means fresh fish is widely available—even in the landlocked Midwest—buying the right kind seems to require an advanced degree in endangered species. Fish shopping, in short, is not for sissies, and it’s fraught for anyone with an environmental conscience.

The warming of the oceans has contributed to the collapse of species of fish at the bottom of the food chain, while overfishing has helped deplete species at the top. And there have been many bumps in the road for fish farming (aquaculture) as it struggles to produce fish that people actually want to eat. Add concerns about the levels of toxins in the water, and the seafood counter has been turned into a minefield. Is cod back? Well, maybe not. Is halibut plentiful? Yes and no. Is there any tuna that won’t make me feel guilty? Yes, but it’s probably not the one that’s sold in your supermarket. The frequently updated ratings of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program help us keep up; see the MBA’s Best Choice recommendations in the recipes that follow.

My advice on what to choose: -mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, scallops), which have been cultivated since Roman times; farmed tilapia—it doesn’t taste like much, but the flavor is better than it used to be—and catfish. Fish farming has made great progress in recent years and is arguably sustainable by most measures. Stick with fish farmed in the United States.

Wild salmon is a good bet. Lobster stocks seem stable. Squid are fast growing and reproduce early and often, so they’re better able than other species to withstand heavy fishing. (These could, of course, be famous last words.) Wild-caught pink shrimp (cocktail shrimp) are also fast growers, and most crabs, including the prized Dungeness, are solid choices.

All of these easy recipes use minimal ingredients to accentuate the natural tastes and textures of the fish, and they can be prepared in good conscience.

Scallops With Pastis

Fishing method: farmed. Scallop farms, which operate in the ocean, have a low impact on marine resources, because they rarely use fertilizers, antibiotics or other chemicals that have the potential to spread into surrounding waters.

MBA rating: Best Choice

Prep time: 22 minutes
Cooking time: 18 minutes
Serves 4

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1½ pounds sea or bay scallops, membrane removed and patted dry
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped capers
  • 2 tablespoons pastis or ouzo
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted and the skillet is hot, add the scallops, a few at a time if they’re big. Turn them as they brown, allowing about 2 minutes per side (less for scallops under an inch across, somewhat more for those well over an inch). Sprinkle them with ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper as they cook; transfer them to a bowl as they finish.

2. Add the tomatoes and capers to the skillet; sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1⁄8 teaspoon pepper. Cook over medium heat until the tomatoes break down, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the pastis, and keep cooking the mixture until the alcohol has evaporated, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste, and adjust the seasoning.

3. Return the scallops to the skillet, along with the parsley. Stir to coat withthe sauce, and heat through, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Spanish-Style Pink Shrimp

Fishing method: wild caught. Pink shrimp are generally sold as cocktail shrimp, or Ebi at sushi counters.

MBA rating: Best Choice

Prep time: 28 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Serves 4

First published in the September 2012 issue

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