“Delicious is the new environmentalism,” declares Barton Seaver on the opening page of his new cookbook, "For Cod & Country." “That’s right, environmentalism on the half shell with a bottle of Tabasco and a six-pack of beer. Count me in!”
Seaver isn’t your typical environmental advocate, though the plight of our world’s fisheries, the overfishing of many species like cod, and the massive impact we’re having on delicate ocean ecosystems are close to his heart. This chef extraordinaire is bringing sustainability to your kitchen not just to save the fish, but also to save your dinner.
Seaver’s key message: only when you really understand your ingredients can you create incredible and memorable meals with them. “I expect a lot from my food,” Seaver explains. “I expect it to yield good health, joy and to be a cause for bringing together family and building an understanding of our place in a wider community. I also expect to have fun — both when I cook and when I sit down to eat.”
When it comes to seafood — one of the healthiest sources of protein around that is also rich in cardio-protective Omega-3s, vitamin D and selenium — Seaver knows all things delicious. From Avocado-Dill Soup with Smoked Trout to Sardines with Currants and Roasted Pine Nuts, Seaver’s new cookbook offers over a hundred easy-to-follow recipes for the casual, but bold home cook. Savor his recipes and follow his three simple steps to make healthier, more delicious and sustainable seafood choices for your family.
1. Eat seafood that’s in season: Go local for freshness and taste
Seaver’s book is truly unique, with all of the recipes organized into five seasonal sections: spring, summer, fall, winter and A Separate Season for seafood available year round. These chapters help you choose seafood (and vegetables) when they’re at the peak of freshness and readily available.
“Seafood is a seasonal item,” explains Seaver. “As a chef I only wanted to use the best seafood available in any given season.” Seaver aims to bring a chef’s nuanced approach and eye for fresh ingredients to the home kitchen where, he argues, you can recreate the same depth of flavor you find in a restaurant by better understanding your ingredients at a basic level.
Seaver’s advice for shopping seasonally: don’t decide on a recipe and make a shopping list before going to the store. “Rather than demanding that specific fish be available at all times, instead go to the market and find what’s freshest, most beautiful, and best fits your budget. In doing so, you can participate in the natural, seasonal cycle of fisheries.”
By choosing the catch of the day — like halibut between March and November or king salmon in spring — you’ll stumble upon much fresher, and likely cheaper, seafood. Learn to buy seafood from a local fishmonger in the same way that you choose seasonal produce from your local farmers market. NRDC’s Eat Local guide to foods in season near you also includes fish.
Amazingly Americans only eat about 10 species of seafood, even though the ocean offers hundreds of delicious and healthy varieties. “Most consumer demand for seafood is very narrowly focused. We’re talking: cod, pollock, hake, haddock, shrimp, crab, tuna, salmon,” says Seaver. “But a really diverse and integrated fishery is going to take advantage of the huge variety of fauna that is in the ocean.”
According to a study of recipes in cookbooks published over more than a century, Seaver explains in his book, we have shifted our preferences from smaller fish to larger predatory species. This is partly because some inshore fisheries have been depleted and partly because more advanced fishing technologies have allowed fisherman to pursue larger fish that are farther from shore and higher in the food chain. Larger fish, those high in the marine food chain, require more energy to grow, both in terms of the amount of smaller fish they consume as well as the resources invested by fisherman to catch them.
With his recipes, knowledge and advice Seaver tries to coax tastes towards the “lower impact” species. Seaver encourages people to try smaller fish — like sardines, herring, and anchovies — to diversify the species we fish and minimize our consumption of over-fished large species, thereby reducing our impact on the oceans. All of these small species are also low in mercury, according to NRDC’s Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish, and much safer to eat than larger over-fished species like swordfish, shark, and tuna, which have the highest mercury content.
A popular and useful resource is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Pocket Guide that ranks the sustainability of seafood into green ‘Best Choices’, yellow ‘Good Alternatives’ and red ‘Avoid’ lists. “More and more chefs and consumers are really beginning to understand what the green list is,” says Seaver. “But what I think is severely lacking in the dialog of sustainable fisheries is a deep understanding of what the yellow and red lists are. Sustainable seafood is not about the green list. It’s about changing the fate of the species in the yellow and the red.”
To do that, we need to eat them much less, Seaver advises, and when we do to choose those certified by Marine Stewardship Council (see sidebar). Learn more about the MSC label with NRDC’s Label Lookup tool.
3. Eat smaller portions of seafood: Fill your plate with veggies for your health and the planet
It’s not just about the type of seafood you eat, but also how much seafood you eat. Many fisheries have been so degraded, Seaver explains, that “the idea of sustainable seafood is a little misguided right now.” What we must do, Seaver explains, is “to restore fisheries first before we are able to maintain them. Restoration is key.”
What can a seafood lover do to help? Manage portion size. “It’s about creating diverse and varied plates full of tastes and textures, good nutrition and culinary interests” Seaver says. “That interests people on a deeper level rather than just the perceived value of a giant slab of fish or steak.” This philosophy guides each of Seaver’s recipes, which all call for modest portions of protein and recommend hearty portions of greens.
In the end Seaver recommends enjoying everything delicious seafood provides in moderation and with reverence to the impact your food choices make. “Frankly, the meals I love the most when I cook at home are mussels. You know why? Because it takes some time to eat and I might be able to have a long enjoyable conversation with my wife,” Seaver says.
"For Cod & Country" will be in stores May 3 and is also available online.
This article was reprinted with permission from SmarterLiving.org.