Be it fear of mercury, fear of cooking fish, or something else, only 1 in 10 Americans are eating the recommended dose of seafood.
Omega-3 fatty acids are so beneficial for health, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and playing a critical role in fetal brain development during pregnancy, that the American Heart Association and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating fish at least twice weekly — at least 8 ounces total. So why are only 1 in 10 Americans meeting that goal?
One reason is concern about mercury contamination, but the benefits of regular fish consumption outweigh any potential risks if you avoid the high-mercury king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish. Another reason is that many people simply aren’t sure how to cook fish. I know from personal experience that cooking fish can seem intimidating, even if you don’t blink at cooking meat or poultry. Well, the good news is that here in the Northwest, wild Alaska salmon is king (or sockeye, or coho) and not only does it have some of the lowest mercury levels of all seafood, it’s the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids. The next-best sources are sardines, trout and anchovies, but tuna is also a good option.
The 2017 wild Alaska salmon season is in progress, and while king salmon (aka chinook) is the most prized for its rich red flesh, firm texture and high oil content, it’s also the rarest and the most expensive (especially this year, because runs are at an all-time low). Four other species of Alaska salmon to consider:
• Sockeye has rich flavor and deep red, firm-textured flesh. Runs are also down this year, but it’s still significantly less expensive than king.
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• Coho salmon has orange-red flesh, a firm texture and delicate flavor. The price tends to be similar to sockeye, but runs are predicted to be high this year, so it may be cheaper.
• Pink salmon has rosy pink flesh, a light, delicate flavor that lends itself well to sauces, and a tender texture that’s similar to trout. It’s the smallest of the four salmon, but it’s also the most abundant and the most budget-friendly.
• Keta salmon has mild flavor, firm pink flesh and a low oil content, which means it is best cooked at lower temperatures. Also a budget-friendly choice.
Fresh king salmon is available year round, and you can find the other species fresh through September or October. Frozen salmon, which offers high quality and convenience at a lower cost, is another year-round option. Tips for buying salmon or other fish:
• Fresh fish fillets should feel firm and slightly resistant to pressure from your finger. They should not feel mushy!
• Fresh fish should smell like the sea but shouldn’t smell “fishy.”
• Frozen fish should be solid with no signs of freezer burn.
• If your groceries will be in the car for a while, bring a cooler with ice to keep the fish cold.
• At home, store fresh fish in the coldest part of the fridge (in a sealed bag over a bowl of ice ideally), and cook it the day you buy it.
• If you don’t cook your fish right away, and it starts to smell “fishy,” toss it.
• Defrost frozen fish for eight to 10 hours in the refrigerator, or cook it frozen (learn how at cookitfrozen.com)
If you are a fish-cooking novice, some cooking methods have a broader margin of error than others. If you worry about ending up with overcooked fish, poaching is just the thing. By cooking fish in a seasoned liquid, you preserve moisture while infusing flavor. This works well for fatty fish like salmon and trout, as well as leaner fish like tilapia and halibut. Cooking en papillote is a way of oven poaching that’s traditionally used for delicate white fish, but I’ve used it for a whole (gutted) trout with spectacular results. I was lucky enough to receive an Emile Henry Paplliote Steamer (see photo) last year, but the traditional way is to use foil or parchment paper. Baking is the simplest dry-cooking method. (While grilling may seem appealing in the summer months, I find it’s not the easiest method for fish-cooking newbies.)
I give cooking times as guides, but there are more precise ways to check your fish for doneness. One, cook it until the center reaches 145 degrees on an instant-read or meat thermometer. Two, cut the piece of fish in the thickest part and look at the texture — it should be opaque (it’s translucent when raw) and flake easily with gentle pressure from a fork.
How to poach: To your pan, add chicken broth and/or white wine plus a little water (you’ll want enough to cover the fish), then add your desired seasonings. Some suggestions: fresh herbs (such as rosemary, tarragon, parsley, dill, cilantro, oregano, thyme), aromatics (such as garlic, onion, shallots, leeks), citrus (lemon or orange slices), vegetables (carrots, fennel) or spices (whole peppercorns or star anise pods). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Let the liquid simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes to let the flavors mingle and the liquid reduce slightly, then gently place your fish in the liquid, cover the pan and let it simmer for about six to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the fish and serve.
How to cook en papillote: Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place a large piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper in a baking dish. Arrange about ½ cup of chopped vegetables and aromatics (see above for ideas) in the center of the paper or foil. Place your piece of fish on top, then add spices, herbs or citrus slices, if desired. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of broth or wine on top, then fold the paper or foil over the fish and fold/crimp it closed to form a packet. Bake for 12-15 minutes.
How to bake: A patient recently passed along a tip she received from a friend who regularly heads down to Fishermen’s Terminal to buy whole fish for cutting into fillets. The tip was so simple that it’s genius: 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Period.