It wasn’t that long ago when shopping for fish seemed uncomplicated. As a little girl in New York, I remember following my mother’s cravings to the fish markets, which often meant a trip to Chinatown. For me, that was as an adventure unto itself, seeing the rows and rows of endless varieties, whole, with their shiny eyes and glistening tails on beds of ice. If you had a craving for virtually any fish, it could be found, and with a point of a finger, you could select your specimen. My mother guided me, showed me how to find the freshest fish, and that night for dinner, we would feast.
These days, it’s not as simple. The seas have been overfished. We are aware of toxins that have leached our oceans. I wonder if some of you, like me, sometimes feel intimidated by the constantly changing seascape of information – it can be hard to keep up! You may remember how I made mistakes, and how I learned valuable lessons in shopping for sustainable seafood. Now I use guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Pocket Guide every time I visit my fishmonger.
Earlier this week, I was welcomed by Whole Foods Market to chat with the fishmongers at my local store. Whole Foods has taken a big step in their recent announcement to no longer carry red-rated wild-caught seafood. What does this mean for a consumer like you and me? For me, it means being able to shop for fish in good conscience, knowing that my local Whole Foods Market has eliminated species suffering from overfishing or that current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats. It means knowing that even if I may be craving a red rated fish, my local fishmonger can guide me in finding the perfect substitute. It means knowing that the fish I prepare for dinner is a safe and sustainable choice.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing one of Whole Foods Market’s seafood experts, Carrie Brownstein. I asked her recently for her tips on shopping for seafood and what to look for when selecting a good fish market. I hope you find the Q&A as helpful as I have, and have also noted (in italics) tidbits that I learned from my local fishmongers during my visit.
Q&A with Whole Foods Market Seafood Expert, Carrie Brownstein
Carrie Brownstein develops standards to guide seafood purchasing for the Company’s stores throughout the United States, Canada, and the UK. She analyzes critical issues in both ocean fisheries and aquaculture and works with producers to develop solutions that encourage greater sustainability in theseafood marketplace. Prior to joining Whole Foods Market, Carrie worked as an independent consultant for the Marine Stewardship Council, Environmental Defense, the Seafood Choices Alliance, and The Ocean Conservancy, and for five years as the research and outreach coordinator for the Blue Ocean Institute’s seafood sustainability program. Her family has been in the seafood businesssince 1909, and she did her graduate work in fisheries management. Check out Carrie’s blog.
My mother always told me to look for clear eyes and firm flesh when shopping for fish. What other tips should we look for when shopping for seafood? And if the fish is not whole, how do we know if a fillet or cut is at its freshest?
Your mother was spot-on with her tips. You should also look for skin that is shiny and metallic, in addition to being firm. If you’re buying a fillet, see if there’s any liquid on the fish. If there is, it should be clear. Just like the whole fish, the skin should be shiny and metallic. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your fishmonger to smell the fish – believe it or not, they get asked this on a daily basis. The fish should smell fresh and sea-like, not fishy or pungent.
[When selecting fillets, look for clear flesh, steering clear of fillets that may have odd discoloration, like a purple tinge. The flesh should be nice and firm. And absolutely smell the fish, this is the best indicator of freshness!]
Are there any industry generalizations as to when is the best time to shop for fish at your local market?
There are some sayings that restaurants and fish markets all get their fish on particular days and so you should only buy fish at that time or it won’t be fresh. Fortunately, those kinds of rules don’t apply at Whole Foods Market because we own our own seafood facilities and can bring fish into our stores fresh 5-6 days a week.
[I love that each Whole Foods store and their respective departments have their own buyers sourcing from local providers. This makes a huge difference in the seafood I might find here in the Bay Area from the ones you might find in your part of the country. It allows them to really know their fish and to provide local species for us to enjoy, making it even fresher than varieties that are shipped from far and wide. Also, I appreciate how they offer MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified fish, meaning they can track not only where a fish is from, but when it is caught and how long it is in transit.]
I know that when I buy my fish, I ideally want to cook it the very same day. But are there any fish that may last longer in the refrigerator? What are your tips for storing fish at home (e.g. length of time, packaging)?
One tip is to keep your fish in a bowl, on ice, in the back of the refrigerator, where it’s coldest. It’s fine to cook it the next day, provided you’re buying it from a reputable market where it’s actually fresh. Make sure you ask if your market allows sale of fish that has been treated with preservatives like phosphates or sulfites, or permits fish to be treated with Carbon Monoxide to make fish appear fresher than it actually is. We prohibit these preservatives and treatments at Whole Foods Market. One other thing…consider frozen fish as well. Personally, I purchase a fair amount of frozen fish and keep it in my freezer until I’m ready to cook it. Frozen fish has unnecessarily gotten a bad rap, but it’s actually excellent because it’s frozen right when it’s caught so the freshness is locked in. Sushi, which people enjoy in restaurants and often think is the “freshest” fish, has been frozen. Whole Foods Market has a large variety of frozen store brand and vacuum packed seafood including Pacific Cod, Dover Sole, Alaskan Salmon, crab cakes, etc.
[My local fishmongers agree. They also recommend cooking the fish no longer than two days after purchase. Be sure to ask when purchasing.]
How do I know if a fish monger is reputable? What should I look for in a good fish market?
Your fishmonger should be able to answer basic questions such as:
- For wild-caught fish, ask:
- In what specific fishery was it caught—what ocean body
- What specific fishing method was used to the catch the fish?
- Is the fish MSC-rated? If not, is it rated by the Blue Ocean Institute or Monterey Bay Aquarium? What’s the rating? (Whole Foods Market does not sell red-rated wild seafood.)
- For farm-raised fish, ask:
- What specific farm is it from?
- What practices do they use on the farm? Do they have standards for what practices they’ll allow? And if so, how do they verify that? For example, Whole Foods Market has an extensive set of standards for farmed seafood and requires annual third-party audits to ensure that that the standards are being met.
- Do you permit any preservatives likephosphates or sulfites to be used? Do they allow treatments, such as CarbonMonoxide, to make fish appear fresher? (These are against our strict standards.)
- A good fish market should be completely transparent in how they procure their products. It should be made clear to the customer if the fish at the counter has been well-vetted to determine if it’s been caught or farmed responsibly and how it was sourced.
[According to my local fishmonger, more and more customers are aware of making ecologically sound choices and ask these questions all the time. Consumers are especially concerned with farm-raised fish. They really pride themselves on understanding where each fish at the counter comes from and that they come from well-vetted sources. Just as I was interviewing the fishmongers, a customer shared that she always carries her Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Guide!]
Are there any other services agood fishmonger may provide that most consumers do not know about or take advantage of?
These skilled pros can cut to order, de-vein and de-bone your fish, or even offer some tasty recipes. Some of them may even have culinary backgrounds.
[Don’t be afraid to ask for something you may not see at the counter. Need some fish heads for a seafood stock? They will be more than happy to provide that for you. They even have delicious prepared seafood – my local store just introduced their house-made ceviche!]
If I only had five questions to ask my fishmonger, what should they be?
1. For wild-caught fish: Is this fish MSC-certified or rated Green or Yellow with the Blue Ocean Institute or Monterey Bay Aquarium?
2. Where and how was this fish caught?
3. For farm-raised fish: Where and how was this fish farmed?
4. Do you allow preservatives to be used on your fish?
5. When was this fish caught?
What are your options when your fish favorites are now red-rated?
If you’re a fan of grey sole, check out Dover sole. It’s rated yellow by BOI and MBA. Whole Foods Market doesn’t sell sturgeon anymore, but you can use trout, which carries our Responsibly Farmed logo. Miss skate wing? Try yellow-rated Atlantic flounder.
The MSC has an entire page on the web dedicated to what alternatives are available if your favorite fish are not certified with the organization: http://www.msc.org/cook-eat-enjoy/fish-to-eat
Whatever your preferred fish may be, one of my favorite ways of preparing it is en papillote, meaning cooked and served in paper. This simple method was one of the first recipes I ever posted – I just love its ease of cooking and clean up. I recently tried a version featured on the Whole Foods website, pairing one of my favorite fishes, halibut, with artichokes and tomatoes. I know you’ll love it, too.
Halibut with Artichokes and Tomatoes en Papillote
This delicious fish dish for one cooks in no time with no mess due to a very simple parchment-packet method. Serve with steamed rice or buttered pasta and a green salad. Naturally, you can make more to serve more people.
1 (5- to 6-ounce) boneless halibut fillet
1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil (omit if using artichokes packed in oil)
3 lemon slices
6 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup oil- or water-packed artichoke hearts, drained
1 tablespoon chopped parsley or basil
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange halibut in the middle of a 12- x 12-inch piece of parchment paper or foil. Drizzle both sides with oil (if using). Top with lemon and arrange tomatoes, artichoke hearts and parsley over the top and around the sides. Season all over with salt and pepper.
Fold up parchment like a package, making sure the seam is at the top, to seal the ingredients inside; tuck under the ends. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake until fish is just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer package to a plate and carefully open the parchment paper to release steam before serving.
Recipe courtesy of Whole Foods Market.