I'll be the first to admit it: Ever since I wrote Bottomfeeder, a n exposé of the parlous state of the global fisheries and the sketchiness of much of the aquaculture industry, a trip to the seafood counter has been an occasion fraught with anxiety.
That sushi-grade toro? Tempting — but it was cut from the belly of a bluefin tuna, a species driven to the brink of collapse by overfishing. Those farmed salmon fillets? They owe their pleasingly pinkish hue to chemical colorants and are raised in net-pens that contaminate the ocean floor and pass sea lice on to the remaining stocks of wild salmon. Marlin and swordfish steaks? Thick, meaty, overfished — and so laden with mercury that you might as well be sucking on a cracked thermometer. And don't get me started on the barbecue-ready farmed shrimp. I've visited India and seen the antibiotic-spiked ponds they're raised in.
Yet, in spite of all I've learned, I always come back to the virtues of protein plucked from our rivers, lakes and oceans. Sea fish are nature's richest source of omega-3 fatty acids, shellfish brim with brain-boosting minerals and there's nothing as satisfyingly delicious as trout or whitefish that you've pulled out of fresh water and prepared over a grill of your own stoking. The catch, for an ecologically minded host, is sorting out what kind of fish makes for a dinner that is as decent as it is delicious.
It can be hard enough choosing among the 350-plus species of fish and seafood available in North America, let alone remembering to ask your fishmonger whether his scallops are diver-gathered rather than dragged. Fortunately, there's more guidance available than ever for the befuddled piscivore. Greenpeace has worked hard to convince major Canadian retailers to pull red listed seafood like Chilean seabass, orange roughy and shark off shelves, and stores in the Loblaw and Overwaitea chains have made great strides in switching to sustainably sourced species (though they still have a long way to go when it comes to salmon farmed in net-pens (which can't contain disease), antibiotic-laden farmed tropical shrimp and overfished Atlantic groundfish such as sole and halibut. Retailers that adhere to Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program, which rates sustainable seafood, can be found in most major cities, and high-profile restaurateurs, among them Jason Bangerter of Toronto's Luma, Robert Clark of Vancouver's C Restaurant and Paul Rogalski of Calgary's Rouge, have committed to keeping overfished species off their menus. And if you're lucky enough to live near an ethical fishmonger, like Toronto's Hooked or Vancouver's The Daily Catch, shopping becomes a no-brainer: Everything on the board is sustainable.
So, what should a fish-lover who's planning a summer feast be looking for at the market? First, look for fish that's low on the food chain — the closer you are to oysters, sardines and herring and the farther you are from endangered (and mercury-heavy) tuna, swordfish and shark species, the better. (If only a premium, centre-of-the-plate protein will do, rosy-fleshed farmed Arctic char and wild-caught pink salmon, available in burger form for grilling in many supermarkets, are currently good choices.)
Also pay attention to the way your fish is caught: Traps and pots (for lobsters, crabs), and purse seines (for sardines, anchovies and herring) are tried-and-true low-tech methods with little bycatch of non-targeted species, while bottom-raking trawls (often used to catch Atlantic sole, cod and halibut) are the oceans' weapons of mass destruction.
Finally, it's always best to buy as locally possible. Some of the heaviest environmental impacts of the fisheries come from the fossil fuels burned in shipping them from distant bodies of water. This summer, Ontarians should be looking for lake whitefish from lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, as well as yellow perch and pickerel from Lake Erie, while Quebeckers and Atlantic Canadians should be snapping up trap-caught northern shrimp and purse-seined capelin and mackerel. Farmed oysters, mussels and clams — the ultimate examples of maritime terroir — are an excellent choice wherever you happen to be.
Here's what I'll be shopping for this summer: smoked mackerel and Matane shrimp from the Gaspé Peninsula, as well as Arctic char and rainbow trout raised in inland farms. And, because my hometown of Montreal has a large Portuguese community, I'll be attending at least one sardinhada, or sardine grill, when the oily smoke fills the alleys of the Plateau.
When it comes to seafood, though, I have to admit there's nowhere like the West Coast: While the Pacific faces challenges from overfishing, it remains Poseidon's bounteous kingdom compared to the heavily plundered Atlantic. If I pay a visit to my family in Vancouver this summer, I'll have my pick of sustainably sourced seafood to feast on: sweet-fleshed Dungeness crab, juicy spot prawns, diver-caught sea urchins and butter-fleshed sablefish, preferably marinated in the lees of sake.
But the dish I look forward to the most is the one my dad takes such pleasure in making : his version of bouillabaisse, with clams and mussels and Pacific halibut in the place of rascasse, thickened with lashings of garlicky rouille.
I'm tempted to book a ticket right now.
TRY YOUR SHUCK
How to buy oysters: Nicholas Budreski of Canesp Global Distributions, S.L, in Halifax distributes hand-picked and graded shellfish to fine restaurants and sushi establishments throughout Nova Scotia. When purchasing oysters, he says, look for tightly closed shells with a deeply cupped shape (the deeper the cup, the more meat you'll find inside).
How to cook them: Oysters are best served raw on the half shell, in their own liquor — that is, the flavourful liquid that naturally pools in the shell and gives these molluscs their flavour. To shuck them, a flat-head screwdriver will do the trick. Otherwise, purchase a shucking knife, with a long, smooth pointy blade: "You want to pry open the bivalve," Budreski says, "and you do that by clipping the membrane at the pointy end and then working it open with your tool."
How to serve them: Budreski suggests lining up the bivales on long, thin plate, either side by side or interspersed with small ramekins holding condiments such as hot sauce or soy sauce. Or set them out on a large, round platter, fanned around a bowl of lemon wedges. As for an accompaniment, Budreski recommends only booze. "That's the East Coast way," he jokes.
- Deirdre Kelly
FISH FOR COMPLIMENTS
How to buy pickerel: Make sure that the pickerel's scent is fresh and that the flesh feels firm to the touch, says Nigel Finley, the Nova Scotia-born chef at Catch, a new sustainable-seafood restaurant in Toronto. Store in the refrigerator and consume within 24 hours of bringing it home.
How to cook it: Pickerel is a dense, meaty fish best cooked on the grill and seasoned with nothing more than olive oil, flaked sea salt and freshly ground pepper, Finley says. Sear it on high, then lower heat and cook for about 20 minutes.
How to serve it: Present whole grilled pickerel on a platter overtop a bed of cooked seasonal vegetables such as fresh peas or fiddleheads. The key is to arm yourself with a stainless-steel fish spatula, Finley says. Its broad, flexible head slides easily under the fish so that you can transfer it to the platter without breaking the flesh. Filet the fish at table using the sharp point of a knife, cutting behind the head, along the spine and toward the belly just on top of the bones. With a large spoon and the fish spatula, gently lift the flesh off the bones and serve. (The head is attached to the spine and should be the last thing left on the platter once the filleting is done.)
- Deirdre Kelly
Beppi's wine match: Light enough to respect the fish's delicate flavour and flaky flesh, dry riesling — Ontario's most consistently excellent white — adds stone fruit and zesty citrus to the mix. There should be a slot labelled "riesling" in every freshwater-fisherman's tackle box.
SHOW (OFF) YOUR CLAWS
How to buy Dungeness crab: According to Sinclair Philip of the Sooke Harbour House Inn in Victoria, it's best to purchase crab that's still alive. (Just watch out for the claws; always handle a live crab from the back of the shell.) A live crab should be stored in the fridge (this will help to ease its feistiness before you boil it), but don't freeze it and never put it in fresh water; that's sure to kill it.
How to cook it: To cook a live crab, fill a pot with enough water to cover it a few times over. It isn't necessary to add salt to the water, but, if you're on the coast, use sea water. Bring the water to a boil, then place the crab in the pot with the shell down and boil it for 10 minutes. Refresh under cold water before serving. "If you have seaweed, any other fish or shellfish or even Grand fir needles to flavour your cooking broth, the crab will taste even better," Philip says.
How to serve it: The best way to eat crab is with the fingers, so Philip recommends having nutcrackers and crab picks on the table for extracting meat from the legs, claws and body. The meat inside the carapace can be liberated by splitting the body in half with kitchen scissors and nudging the flesh out with your fingers and thumbs. Set out a bowl for guests' discarded shells along with individual finger bowls and plenty of napkins; sitting down to a plate of crab can be as messy as it is festive.
- Deirdre Kelly
Beppi's wine match: Sometimes oaked and sometimes not, medium-bodied pinot gris, a signature of British Columbia and Oregon, has the weight to support the meaty crab and acidity to go claw-to-claw with a splash of lemon.