Chef Barton Seaver wants people to know that fish are not just for eating; they're valuable to the ecosystem as well.
In his new cookbook, For Cod and Country: Simple. Delicious. Sustainable., Seaver highlights the importance of sustainable seafood to the long-term viability of our environment and our diets.
On a trip to the Maine Avenue Fish Market in Washington, D.C., — the oldest, continuously operating fish market in the United States — Seaver offers Weekend Edition Sunday Host Liane Hansen some tips for picking out the best seafood.
"I always look at the eyes," Seaver says, examining a display of bluefish. Look for fish with clear eyes that aren't sunken in — that "still look like they're looking at you, inviting you to dinner." Also, he says, pay attention to the gills to make sure they are clear of mucus and buildup, which can indicate the fish isn't fresh.
Seaver's also a big advocate of farm-raised shellfish, like clams, mussels and oysters. He says they're a tasty way to eat sustainable seafood.
"I think across the board it's our patriotic duty to eat as many of those as we can," he says. "I mean, environmentalism on the half shell with a six pack of beer and a bottle of Tabasco—That sounds right!"
A local delicacy was on display at the fish market — blue crabs. They're a great example of how a species can recover from overfishing, Seaver says.
He points out the variations of red on the pinchers of the mature female crabs. "Over the past decade or so," he says, "those haven't been around ... So to see that deep, rich, red hue color of a big, large female — that's breeding at the highest capacity. That's a good sign."
But he cautions that people shouldn't assume a particular type of seafood is bountiful just because they see it in front of them at the supermarket.
"We don't see a fish disappearing until it's gone," he says, like cod fish — which he says has dropped to unprecedented low levels. "Yet there's still cod in the supermarket," he says.
"The bounty in front of us often belies the real truth under the water."
LIANE HANSEN, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
W: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking." Barton Seaver, it's really nice to meet you.
M: You as well. It's an honor to be here with you.
HANSEN: You open the book with a series of essays. In one you lay out your philosophy for sustainable seafood. You write: We fail to understand that fish are valuable as fish, not just as seafood. Will you explain what you mean by that.
M: Seafood is by and large how most of us interact with our oceans. And we've just grown to this very complacent point where we think that we're very much entitled to seafood. And part of sustainability is really understanding that fish are valuable to the ecosystem as well. They're a functioning and necessary part of how and why the oceans work. And they're not just there for our taking.
HANSEN: Well, we are in the middle of a fish market, surrounded by fresh shrimp and jumbo crabs and the octopus I saw. Why don't you show us, how do you shop for fish?
M: All right. Let's take a walk.
HANSEN: So, we're standing in front of ice-contained flounder in the front and bluefish in the back. So, what would you look for, say, in those bluefish in the back? How would you know that it's good?
M: It's a little bit of a toss-up. There's no universal rules. But I always look at the eyes. And on this one in particular, this bluefish, it's got nice clean gills. The gills are nice and clean, free of that slime and the mucus that can form on them. But those eyes still look like they're looking at you, inviting you to dinner. Well, more or less inviting themselves to dinner is really what it's about.
HANSEN: Yeah, they are. Those eyes are looking right at me.
M: Inviting themselves to dinner.
HANSEN: What is Arctic char? I've seen it on menus. I have no idea what kind of fish this is.
M: Arctic char is one of my favorite fish. It represents one of the farmed species, aquaculture, that's really by and large done very right. And what I love about it is it's such an easy sell. I call it salmon light because it has that same flavor and color and that richness to it with a little bit less fat so the flavor is a little bit lighter, a little bit more almost angular in a way. Wonderful cooking fish.
HANSEN: You have a recipe for Arctic char in your book, I believe. It's with cherry tomatoes and olive oil.
M: Yeah. You know, that's such an easy dish. Just a cast steel pan, a good amount of olive oil, a couple of cloves of crushed garlic; season the oil with that garlic, get those flavors all in there and sort of permeating through the oil; a handful of cherry tomatoes in there. A couple of pieces of Arctic char right on top of the tomatoes, throw the whole thing under a very hot broiler. The skin of the char will crisp as the steam from the tomatoes gently cooks the char from the bottom side and the tomatoes will burst open and sort of emulsify with that oil to become this thick, rich sauce that's just sweet and acidic from the tomatoes and fatty and rich from the oil. Simple meal, 10 minutes, no prep, done.
HANSEN: I'm going to have to apologize to our listeners for my stomach growling during this entire interview. You're such a poet with words about seafood that you've made me very hungry.
M: Well, luckily they have some fried fish sandwiches right over here. Maybe a crab cake.
HANSEN: Now, where do you stand on the farm-raised versus wild-caught fish?
M: I mean, environmentalism on the half shell with a six-pack of beer and a bottle of Tabasco - that sounds right.
HANSEN: Let's go take a look at some of those blue crabs.
M: There's some beauties over there.
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M: You see some of these crabs right here, and they're all after me. As soon as I put my finger anywhere near them, they want to pinch me. But some of these crabs are covered in seaweed, in growth, and that's from the overwintering. These crabs have yet to molt their skin. In a good year, a crab will shed its skin four times in order to grow, and that's where we get soft-shell crabs from. So, this really represents the very first of the season's crabs.
HANSEN: Now, the difference is - I mean, there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven bins of crab uncooked here and there's some cooked crabs down at the end - medium, jumbo, large, quite a bounty here and very colorful.
M: Over the past decade or so, those haven't been around. We've been dredging them out during the winter and they have never come to fruition. So, to see that deep, rich red hue color of a big large female that's breeding at highest capacity, that's a good sign.
HANSEN: You have a recipe for crab and corn toast.
M: Yeah. It's just crab simmered in a little bit of cream with some corn, the natural corn starches thickening that cream. Season it with Old Bay. Put on top of a nice piece of toasted whole grain bread. It's almost like a creamed chipped beef of the Chesapeake Bay. A creamed crab.
HANSEN: So, what is the key to cooking seafood well?
M: Ninety percent of cooking good seafood is buying good seafood. If you don't buy a good piece of fish, there's absolutely nothing I can do, no recipe I can write, no tips, tricks, techniques I can teach you, that will ever make up for that lack of quality. So, a good fish meal starts right here at the market.
HANSEN: Think about the middle of the country, you know, where fresh seafood in terms of the kind we can get here in Washington is not available. How does one maintain a sustainable seafood diet in a place where there's not really that kind of fish?
M: Eating locally is a part of this dialogue but it's not the purpose and it's not the whole lexicon of it. People in the Midwest, even people here in Washington, D.C., that cannot afford to come down and eat this pristine fresh seafood or participate in this market - crabmeat: $24 a pound; king crabs, oysters - these are expensive. But sustainable seafood is available in the freezer aisle. Sustainable seafood is available in the canned fish aisle - canned pink salmon, sardines, anchovies, canned mackerel make some of the most delicious and compelling meals that I think are in my book and yet these are accessible. In every corner bodega, in every box store in America, in every convenience store to everyone at every economic level.
HANSEN: We've been talking with Barton Seaver at the Maine Avenue Fish Market. His new cookbook is called "For Cod and Country." Thanks for the tour.
M: Well, thanks. I appreciate having you down in one of our very favorite places, the fish market.
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HANSEN: For more ways to select and cook seafood sustainably, head to our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.