Former chef Barton Seaver has been cooking from the sea since he was a little kid. Now he’s a National Geographic explorer working to re-establish healthy oceans and author of For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What does it mean to buy fish in season?
Barton Seaver: Most of the fish that we eat are available to us year-round. However, just like vegetables, each fish has a season in which it is the most plump, flavorful, juicy, and available, and is the cheapest. That’s something we’ve largely forgotten about seafood, but it’s something that is worth celebrating; just as much as the first strawberry of spring or asparagus, so too is that first plump, rich salmon coming back up into the streams.
LRK: Which fish are best in the spring?
BS: Many of our favorites really become available. It’s halibut and sablefish season in Alaska; the beginning of the legendary salmon runs on the West Coast; blue crabs, both hard-shell and soft-shell, over on my coast, the East Coast; the shad runs of the Connecticut River in New England; and squid are really available year-round as well. When those fish are delivered as fresh as they can be in the spring, the flesh is just pristine and pure with all the flavors and the aromas. It takes so little to cook them; it’s so easy, it’s so much fun and cheap.
LRK: I would imagine herring and sardines have the same kind of treatment?
BS: Absolutely -- and mackerel, one of my favorites, especially Spanish mackerel. There are a couple of different kinds of mackerel from Boston: chub and Spanish. But Spanish has the most dense flesh and it stands up well to a nice sauté or being made into a taco, something like that. It’s just a wonderful rich flavorful fish that takes on the flavors of lime and pico de gallo well and stands up to the fatty richness of guacamole. It’s a marvellously malleable flavor and something really worth eating. These are some of the very best fish for us in terms of omega-3 content, they can be low in toxicity and environmental toxins -- which is methylmercury -- and really all around good eating.
LRK: These are small fish too, so these little fish tend to be much less likely to have problems with toxicity?
BS: Yes. Biotoxins such as methylmercury and PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyl] are aggregated through simply eating. A small fish eats less than a big fish over the course of its lifetime, and it’s just as simple an equation as that. It also depends on where they’re caught and the life cycle of each fish. There’s no steady, fast rule to this, but by and large, the smaller the fish the better. I don’t mean baby fish; let them grow up. But the fish that are naturally smaller are usually better for us.
LRK: Let’s go to the flipside of fresh: How about canned?
BS: I love thinking inside the can. Canned fish really represents not only some of the most economically viable meals, some of the best-for-us meals that we can find with seafood, but also some of the most sustainable as well. This is often a surprise to people.
Certainly tuna has its battles to fight, and there are sides to that, but canned tuna can be a really wonderful, sustainable, healthy product, especially when you start talking about pole-caught albacore or skipjack tunas -- the chunk light varieties usually include those two species. These are some of the wonderful, perfectly sustainable options that we have that are low in methylmercury.
Then look at some of the other canned products: sardines, mackerel, herring, pink salmon, clams, mussels, oysters, and my favorite, anchovies. I mean these are nearly across the board some of the very best things we should be eating. And talk about ease of Tuesday night, when you’re coming home from ballet and soccer and you’ve got a report due. Pull out two 7-ounce cans of pink salmon; drain it off; add a little bit of mayonnaise, fresh dill, bread crumbs, and lemon juice; throw it in the oven under a broiler; and in 10 minutes you’ve got a beautiful, pink, salmon cake, crisp and crunchy on one side, soft and moist all the way throughout, perfectly cooked. You’ve got your protein portion for four people for $4 or $5, you’re ready to roll with your broccoli and there you go.
LRK: Salmon is an easy sell. But sardines? Not easy. Sell me on canned sardines.
BS: Funny enough, our tastes are so subjugated to generational preference. Sardines were one of the most popular fish that we had in America; older generations just loved them. There’s nothing better than a sardine, especially to me, with those lightly smoked varieties packed in olive oil where the oil inside of the can takes on those luscious hues, the aroma of the smoke and the slight acid of the fish.
Use that oil in the vinaigrette itself: Mix it maybe with just a little bit of red wine vinegar and a spritz of lemon juice to really freshen it up, and whisk it with a little bit of mustard so you have this nice emulsified dressing with all of those flavors. Take some light spring greens with a little bit of spice to them, such as young mustard kale and arugula, and you mix it lightly with this vinaigrette. Maybe add some dried figs over the top and just a few of these filets of the sardine. Talk about an easy lunchtime meal -- just throw that together. It’s the Midwest nicoise.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.