There's a been a slow trickle of sustainable-fish cookbooks wafting in on the tide over the past few years. Two thousand three saw One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish, the Smithsonian's sustainable-seafood cookbook, which gets famous chefs from all around the country to contribute recipes. The book is rather superficial, but those were early days, when it was thought best not to overwhelm a mainstream audience with too much detail. In 2006 came Rob DeBorde's Fish on a First-Name Basis, which coalesced entymology, biological/zoological information, historical anecdotes, and a lot more in-depth information about how fish is caught or cultured (feed, conditions, geography, economics). The recipes are less exciting, and book is written in a flirty, familial tone that verges on the unattractive, but the information comes across clearly and essentially.  

This year's verbosely titled addition to our sustainable seafood library, Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood, comes from Alice Waters' fishmonger, Paul Johnson, and washed up yesterday on the bookstore’s doorstep. Paul Johnson created the Bay Area-based Monterey Fish Market in 1979 and has been a longtime promoter of sustainably captured fish and ocean conservation. His customers—among them Thomas Keller, Paul Bertolli, Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Traci DesJardins, and Michael Mina—don’t just buy his fish because it’s hip or socially conscious: the proof is in the pudding, and Johnson’s pudding is good. 

So what about the book? It starts with the promise to examine the effects that a global market has wrought on local food systems. Unfortunately, other than a helpful seasonal chart, the introductory material is all fairly superficial and provides little insight into the complexities of the problem. Other than general suggestions—buy local, buy in season, look for glistening eyes as a sign of freshness—which are probably things you already know, the only truly informative chapter is the Fishing and Aquaculture Methods Appendix, which explains the difference between gill-netting, trolling, brailing, setting weirs, and other technical terms.

The book is organized by fish species, and each chapter opens with a short paragraph on how to choose sustainably fished exemplars when you’re out shopping. While this, too, stops short of thorough, it’s followed by—the book’s high point—some really terrific recipes, like steamed clams with prosciutto and garlic, sautéed shad roe with Meyer lemon relish, Creole crayfish risotto, making clear who cooks for Johnson on his days off (see list of luminaries above). Ultimately, Johnson’s book is great if what you’re looking for is a cookbook with sustainable sourcing suggestions. However, those lured into believing that the book will be a “definitive guide” to understanding the seafood chains linked by the global market and a map on how to navigate through its rough waters might find themselves feeling a little…washed up.

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007