Fish and seafood are good for the heart and good for the brain — which is why it’s recommended that adults eat about 8 ounces of it per week, including some fish species higher in omega-3 fats, such as salmon — but most Americans don’t come close to meeting those guidelines. One reason is lack of confidence in cooking seafood. Since it remains difficult to rely on restaurants for our seafood-eating needs, isn’t it time to get comfortable with preparing it at home?
“There’s a lot of fear about cooking seafood. People are afraid they’re going to get it wrong or screw it up,” said Naomi Tomky, author of “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook.”
Many of these fears and pitfalls involve cooking time. Specifically, it’s common to overcook fish out of fear of undercooking it. “You are far more likely to get sick from an undercooked piece of chicken, but in the U.S. we really don’t have that level of comfort with fish that people might elsewhere,” Tomky said. “And if you overcook salmon, your kitchen will smell like salmon. It keeps people from falling in love with fish.”
I recently attended Tomky’s class on “Foolproof Salmon” for PCC Community Markets — via Zoom, naturally. More on the merits of online cooking classes in a moment, but first, let me rhapsodize about Tomky’s simple, can’t-mess-it-up method for cooking salmon. Namely, slow roasting. Rub a little olive oil and salt on a salmon fillet, place skin-side-down on a baking sheet, and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes at 225 degrees, or until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees. It literally could not be easier.
Smart and sustainable seafood shopping
Of course, to cook fish you have to shop for it first — and many people don’t know where to start. Is fresh better than frozen? Is this fish more sustainable than that fish? “A lot of people are scared of frozen because they think it’s the opposite of fresh, but with fish, it’s not,” Tomky said. “What matters is the time between catch and freeze, not the amount of time since it was caught.”
David Sanz, a meat and seafood merchandiser for PCC, agrees. “Fresh is always what you should try to get, but frozen, when it’s handled right, can be just as good.”
Frozen salmon is rapidly chilled immediately after it leaves the water, often directly on the boat. This retains quality and flavor.
Tomky said one major benefit of frozen fish is that you can stock up on it so you always have it available. She points out that unlike chicken or meat, a piece of fish can be safely defrosted in an hour — great if you forgot to plan dinner in advance. She said she likes to keep an eye out at farmers markets for sales on frozen fillets. “Don’t feel like you have to buy a $50 per pound, fresh-off-the-boat king salmon.”
Another way to save money when buying fish is to reconsider portion sizes. Say, a 4-ounce fillet instead of a restaurant-sized 6-to-8-ounce cut. “We have it in our heads in the U.S. that bigger is better, but I would rather eat a better quality fish in a smaller quantity, more often,” Tomky said. “To me, it’s about flavor first.”
Tomky recommends salmon as an easier-to-cook fish for newbies, and in fact, Sanz said that about 30% of PCC’s seafood sales are salmon — all wild, mostly from Alaska. Before the pandemic, many people were spending half of their food budget on dining out, but now they are cooking in more — and market data shows that seafood is the No. 2 restaurant menu item that people are missing right now. “It’s been on us to keep high-quality, sustainable seafood in our markets,” Sanz said. “It really has been on the grocery stores to feed the public.”
Aimee Simpson, PCC’s director of product sustainability, said all of PCC’s fresh, wild-caught fish is sourced according to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guidelines, which prioritize well-managed fisheries and fishing practices that cause little harm to habitats or other wildlife.
PCC also has it’s own internal standards that raise the bar further.
For example, she said PCC doesn’t sell farmed fish raised in net pens because of the threat to wild fish populations, and they pay attention to issues beyond overfishing. “We only source wild-caught fish from the U.S., due to global issues with illegal fishing and treatment of workers,” she said. Alaska harvests 90-95% of all U.S. wild salmon, catching only as much fish as the environment can handle each season.
Learning to cook — virtually
Back to the topic of online classes. If you are used to taking cooking classes in person, you might wonder how they translate to Zoom. It’s different, for sure, but still a great experience. It’s fun to see instructors’ home kitchens, personalities do shine through the computer screen, and the type-in chat feature allows for interaction. When coronavirus hit the Seattle area hard in mid-March, PCC quickly canceled its in-person classes, reemerging at the end of April with its first online class.
“I’m amazed at how fast people pivoted,” said Sephi Coyle, senior culinary school program manager for PCC. “Out of the gate, they’ve been really popular. It’s been really fun and everyone’s in it together.” She said the pivot has helped PCC stay connected with its food community while providing paid work for its instructors. “We’re trying to offer the same breadth and depth as our usual offerings.”
Another upside is the convenience — no need to fight traffic. It’s a convenience that will likely continue once gathering in groups is no longer a safety challenge — Coyle said 90% of PCC cooking class attendees said they would still be interested in online classes after the pandemic. “Some people prefer a demonstration class and online is perfect for that.”