Seafood: Buying Quality and Sustainable Seafood

Gulf Coast Red Snapper

Gulf Coast Red Snapper

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Fresh Gulf Coast Red Snapper, ready to be roasted whole

You go to the grocery store with the goal to have healthy seafood for dinner. The fish behind the counter came from Asia. What’s your first reaction?

Honestly, for a really long time I immediately had a flashback of some horrid news clip I saw, probably over 10 years ago but seems like it was yesterday, of sick, dying fish in small, contaminated ponds that were being shipped off to the U.S. for our consumption. How DO you get over that awful image? Educate yourself on what’s happening NOW and do your best to get rid of past, outdated knowledge lingering in your brain.

While I was at the USPCA conference last week I attended a session led by Steve Wilson, Assistant Director of NOAA Quality and Technology. Two years ago at the Personal Chef Conference I had attended a session by NOAA, but we live in a rapidly changing world and I was eager to learn the latest information.

I prepare seafood for clients on a daily, sometimes twice daily, basis. I need to know that I’m feeding my clients the best quality seafood I can find.

So, what was one of the first things Mr. Wilson addressed? He discussed that very fear we have of the health and quality of the fish being imported from outside the United States.

The bottom line: Aquaculture (breeding, rearing, and harvesting of seafood) in Asia is being well managed and is very clean. The seafood is inspected and the fish we receive in the U.S. is safe to eat.

Seafood is one of the most traded commodities in the world. These were some interesting numbers I jotted down:

  • 91% of all the fish we consume in the U.S. is imported.
  • 60% of all the fish we consume is farm-raised. Wild caught fish just can’t keep up with the demands of seafood consumption. Demand FAR outweighs supply. Aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production.
  • 98% of the shrimp we consume is imported.

Last night I spent time learning about sourcing of seafood and I’m still ready to learn more. Learn more about where our fish comes from at FishWatch. This is a very thorough website.

Let’s get back to the fish counter…. The staff at my grocery store know me. I’m in there 2-3 times a day shopping for clients and my family. I always walk into the store knowing what I want, but chances are, I’ll be making a substitution once I ask:

  • When did you defrost this fish?
  • When did this fish come in?
  • Can I smell it?

Actually, I don’t even have to ask to smell it anymore. They see me coming, with a big, friendly smile on my face. (being grumpy and troublesome isn’t going to get you places, folks. I’ll blog about THAT one day!) They often go directly to the walk-in to get me the freshest possible offering that will work in the dish I’m making. In exchange, I know all about them as people outside their job, treat them with the respect they deserve, and honor the knowledge they hold that I don’t. And they shake their head at me silently when I’m asking for something THEY wouldn’t want to cook and eat.

My favorite way to purchase seafood is WHOLE. This way I get the WHOLE picture. I choose to purchase my fish as often as possible from Groomer’s Seafood. They are located across from the airport, have a constant supply of the very freshest seafood flown in daily and I know I’m getting the very best quality seafood that has been minimally handled. (The snappers in the pictures above came from Groomer’s Seafood and were prepared for clients over the 4th of July holiday.)

If buying whole seafood frightens you, don’t let it! You can inspect the whole fish and then say, “Please gut and scale it for me and break it down into “x” amount of fillets.”

What to look for in Quality Seafood:

  • Flesh is firm and resilient
  • Skin is shiny
  • Gills are blood red
  • Eyes are bright and clear
  • Scales adhere closely to the skin and are intact
  • Odors are pleasant and minimal

Fish that is frozen at sea is a GREAT choice if you don’t live on the coast. These fish are caught, processed, and rapidly frozen at sea, making them “fresher,” in the long haul, than the raw fish as they are waiting to be processed and sold.

NOAA will be adding a “sensory” chart in the next few months to help consumers choose the best quality seafood. I’m anxious to take a look at that. Most of us know that any ammonia smell means the fish is decaying and you should STAY AWAY from that fish. I learned from Mr. Wilson that Tuna and Mahi Mahi give off a watermelon/fruity smell as they decay.

In addition to looking for the best quality of seafood, you should also be aware of the sustainability of your selection. I’m always telling my kids, Be Kind to Mother Earth! I encourage you to download a handy pocket guide to make ocean-friendly seafood choices through the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program. They also have apps for phones that will keep you paper-free.

I blogged about my Olive Oil learning yesterday, just in case you want to learn more before you pan fry or sauté your fish in some delicious, healthy EVOO that will complement that safe, sustainable, seafood selection in your refrigerator.

Happy eating!

Chef Catherine

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