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

  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed
  • 3 or 4 large cloves garlic, cut into slivers
  • About 1½ pounds shrimp, 20 to 30 per pound, peeled, rinsed and patted dry
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1½ teaspoons hot paprika
  • Chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish

Warm the oil in a large skillet over low heat; there should be enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic, and cook until it turns golden, a few minutes. Raise the heat to medium high, and add the shrimp, about ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper, the cumin and paprika. Stir to blend, and continue to cook, shaking the pan once or twice and turning the shrimp once or twice, until they are pink all over and the mixture is bubbly, 5 to 10 minutes. Garnish with parsley, and serve immediately.

Slow-Grilled Sardines

Fishing method: wild caught. Avoid Atlantic sardines.

MBA rating: Best Choice

Prep time: 17 minutes
Cooking time: 13 minutes (in broiler)
Serves 4

  • 12 to 24 large sardines, gutted, with heads on (about 2 pounds)
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish
  • 2 lemons, quartered

1. Prepare a charcoal or gas grill until moderately hot, or heat a broiler until quite hot. Place the rack about 4 inches from the heat source. If you are using the broiler, put a sturdy ovenproof pan or skillet on the rack, and heat it for about 5 minutes.

2. If you use a grill: Brush the fish inside and out with the oil; sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Put the sardines on the cool side of the grill, side by side, without crowding; cover, and cook for about 10 minutesbefore checking. If the sardines are opaque and firmed up a bit, carefullymove them directly over the heat to crisp the skin on both sides, about a minute on each side. If they’re not quite ready, cover, and cook for a few more minutes. If you use the broiler: Put the sardines in the hot pan, and broil on each side for 4 or 5 minutes; it’s OK if the skin blisters and chars a bit. If your pan won’t hold all the fish, work in batches, transferring the first sardines to warmed plates. Garnish with the parsley, and serve with lemon wedges.

Pasta With Dungeness Crab

Fishing method: trap.

MBA rating: Best Choice

Prep time: 18 minutes
Cooking time: 27 minutes
Serves 4

  • Kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 12 ounces orecchiette
  • 2 cups peas, fresh or frozen
  • 1 head Bibb or Boston lettuc (about 6 ounces), cored, leaves cut into ¾-inch slices
  • 1 teaspoon minced red habanero chiles
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 pound fresh lump crabmeat picked over
  • ½ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped, plus more for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil, and salt it. Meanwhile, melt the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot, and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper; cook until the shallot begins to soften, about 5 minutes. When the water boils, add the orecchiette, and cook, following package directions, until they are just tender.

2. While the pasta is cooking, add to the skillet the peas, lettuce, chiles and white wine, and cook until the peas turn bright green and the lettuce is wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the crabmeat, mint and lemon peel to the pan, and stir well.

3. When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving some water. Add the pasta to the skillet, and continue cooking and stirring until everything is just heated through, adding pasta water if needed to moisten. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with the mint, and serve.

Longfin-Squid Stir-Fry

Fishing method: trawl.

MBA rating: Best Choice

Prep time: 26 minutes
Cooking time: 9 minutes
Serves 4

  • Cooked rice, optional
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper, sliced lengthwise into strips
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 or 4 large cleaned longfin squid (about ½ pound), cut into rings
  • ½ cup basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons peanuts or cashews
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced scallions or chives, for garnish

1. When you’re ready to cook, have all the ingredients prepared, including a serving dish and cooked rice, if you’re making any. Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the celery, bell pepper, onion, garlic and ginger. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl.

2. Add the squid to the pan, and cook for about a minute, stirring constantly. Return the vegetables to the pan, along with the basil leaves, and cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. Add the peanuts, a splash of water, the lime juice, soy sauce and sesame oil. Taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Garnish with the scallions, and serve hot, over rice.

Poached Tilapia (Or Catfish) With Ginger And Soy Sauce

Fishing method:U.S. farmed.

Tilapia and catfish have mild, firm flesh that’s great for poaching.

MBA rating: Best Choice

Prep time: 28 minutes
Cooking time: 10 to 17 minutes
Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 2/3 cup sake or water
  • 4 fillets tilapia or catfish (about 1½ pounds)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped scallions, plus more for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 1 dried or fresh chile, optional

1. Put a deep, 12-inch (or larger) skillet over medium heat. Add the vegetable oil and sesame oil, along with the minced ginger and garlic; cook until sizzling, about 2 minutes.

2. Combine the sugar, soy sauce and sake in a small bowl.

3. Add fish fillets to the skillet, flesh side down. Add the soy sauce mixture, scallions, cilantro, rice vinegar and chile. Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles, but not furiously. Cook 8 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets, turning as the liquid thickens to coat the fish with a brown glaze. Add more water if the liquid looks too thick. Garnish with scallions and cilantro, and serve immediately.

MARK BITTMAN is a food writer and opinion columnist at the New York Times. He is the author of Fishand, most recently, The Food Matters Cookbook.

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First Published Tue, 2012-08-07 10:16

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