Monday, July 29, 2013

Your Children And The Mercury Issue

"I don't eat a lot of seafood because its high in mercury, especially salmon and tuna.  In fact, I don't let my kids ever eat it because mercury poisoning can really harm them."  I hear this a lot, much more than I would like to, for sure.  Usually it's coming from young or expecting mothers and I really can't blame them for being concerned about their children's health.  Unfortunately though, they are doing more harm to their children and themselves when they avoid eating ocean fish.  The mercury issue is a real issue in my industry because the misinformation that is floating out there is wrongfully swaying people away from consuming healthy seafood.  Where did it all go wrong?

The mercury issue, or more directly, mercury poisoning caused by consuming seafood,  really started to gain attention in the 50's and 60's.  It was during this time that Minamata Bay was the source of many cases of mercury poisoning due to seafood in Japan.  The toxic metal plagued the local community that was consuming fish that was caught in the Bay and children were especially affected.  The Bay had been polluted by wastewater and the dumping of heavy metals, especially mercury by-products.  The result, a community was nearly destroyed by consuming seafood from a specific area that was polluted by the surrounding businesses in the community.  This event spawned studies, specifically two main studies that took place in the Faroe Islands and Seychelles.  In the Faroe study it was found that the people were eating a large amount of large ocean species such as shark and whale and children were having adverse affects, such as lowered I.Q.  The Seychelles study produced different results.  The children who were consuming a large amount of smaller ocean species such as snapper and mackerel were gaining 3-5 points on average to their I.Q.  Why the difference?  It is important to note that families in the Faroe's were eating mostly pilot whale and large sharks, while children in the Seychelles were consuming mostly tunas, jacks, and other smaller fish.  So why is this important?  The answer and the key to the solution of the mercury riddle can be found in the secrets unlocked by one word: Selenium.

Selenium is essential for many of the body's functions and has powerful anti-oxidant and cancer preventing qualities.  It fosters growth and development of the brain, especially in children, and is important in the daily function of the brain, heart, and immune system.  Ocean fish are one of the richest sources of selenium and constitute 17 of the top 25 sources found in our diet.  Put it this way: without enough selenium, you risk cancer, liver diseases, autism, Alzheimer's, diabetes, brain tumors, asthma, and much more.  Our bodies need selenium.  Here is where the mercury comes into play:  Many of the fish that we consume in the U.S. are very rich in selenium but have trace amounts of mercury.  If you go to page 3 here you will be able to take a glimpse of the ratios of mercury to selenium in a list of popular fish species.  Mercury binds to selenium and inhibits its use to our bodies.  However, in most of the fish we consume in this country, the selenium parts far outnumber the mercury. This translates in a net gain of selenium when consuming seafood, with the resulting mercury levels being a non-factor.

One way to look at it is you have an empty basket (your body) that you fill up with apples.  Those apples (selenium) come with worms (mercury) unfortunately.  Lets say that you purchased 40 apples.  With those 40 apples came 10 worms.  The worms attached to the apples and you lost 10 of the apples, this is like mercury attaching to beneficial selenium which is a negative for your body.  However, that still leaves you with 30 apples (selenium) so your body still makes out in the positive and you have plenty enough apples to make that pie!  When consuming fish with traces of mercury, the mercury will attach to the selenium and render it ineffective. However, there is more selenium than mercury in most of the fish we eat, so your body will still end up in the positive when it comes to the mercury/selenium consumption ratio.  The actual process that is taking place in your body is much more complex than this simple example, but the truth of the matter is that many species of fish and shellfish contain much higher amounts of selenium than mercury.  This is an important ratio, because when it comes to consuming seafood, as long as you are not eating whale or large sharks, your body is profiting from the experience.

I recommend you taking a look at Professor Nick Ralston's work to learn more about the studies done in this area.  It's important for us to look past the dogma of "seafood is bad for your children, seafood can give you mercury poisoning," and really understand where this ideology came from and why it might be at odds with real, contemporary science-based research.  I agree with Professor Ralston that we need a paradigm shift in this country from 'you can't eat too much ocean fish because its bad for you' to 'you can't eat too much ocean fish because you just can't get enough'.  


Monday, July 22, 2013

Does The Label Make The Fish?

Today this article was published on how Alaskan Salmon is not sustainable enough for Wal-Mart stores or the US National Park Service's food vendors.  That's right, Alaskan Salmon, the sustainable fishery whose conservation efforts pre-date just about all "sustainable labels" has been deemed not 'green' enough for the major chain to carry.  The reason?  The fishery does not carry the specific eco-label that Wal-Mart and the Park Service demand.  Wal-Mart stores and the Park Service require that all of their seafood carry the MSC label or be evaluated positively by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Recently Alaska's seafood industry opted out of carrying the endorsements due to the costs and the belief that the Alaskan brand could stand on its own.  I would agree that the Alaskan brand is a solid one and has been representing sustainable seafood practices for years.  Alaska is the only state to have explicit seafood conservation language in its constitution.

So what is really happening here?  Is Alaskan salmon sustainable?  Should the fishery be bullied into carrying labels other than the Alaskan Seafood brand?  Yes, the wild Alaskan salmon fishery is still sustainable, and no, they should not feel any pressure to carry any brand other than their own.  I commend what Wal-Mart and the Park Service is trying to accomplish.  Providing seafood that comes from sustainably accredited sources is very important and a noble cause.  If more operations were like-minded, I believe that more fisheries would increase their efforts to become sustainable.  However, a label does not a sustainable fishery make.  The information is out there and it is free.  You can visit the website provided by NOAA, FishWatch, which does not require the fisheries to provide money for their assessment.  NOAA gathers information based on data, not dollars.  If Wal-Mart thinks that customers will only buy based on a label, they are undermining the intelligence of their customers.  I believe in providing information, not labels.  Everyone wants to make it easier, put a green sticker on it and its good.  Fisheries don't work that way.  Labels become outdated rather quickly.  Due to great efforts, species that were once in trouble are now proliferating, but if their labels aren't up to date then they can't get sold.  Ocean conservation and proper management is an intricate and difficult process, one that can not be dumbed down to a few colors.  Shopping at respectable markets that specialize in seafood may be the answer for customers looking to get the facts and not just a story, but the whole story.  I believe in procuring seafood from fisheries that practice responsible harvesting.  Whether or not they bought the label is not as important as whether or not they are sustainable.      

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

To Skin Or Not To Skin

Seared Onaga
When it comes to the question of whether to leave the skin on a fish fillet before cooking or take it off, the results prove to be very polarizing.  There just doesn't seem to be much middle ground.  The pro-skin eaters (and I am one of them) will reason that this is where the flavor is, where the fatty goodness and omegas hide, especially in salmon.  The non-skin eaters will argue that if the fish has swam in any questionable water ways, the skin is where the pollutants will accumulate.  Even if this would be true though, if you limit your intake to only one or two small servings a week, the benefits would still far outweigh any of the negatives.  Another important factor that I believe will help alleviate any worry stemming from the 'pollution theory' is that there are farmed tasty skin-on fish fillet options in which the species swim in perfectly clean, closed tank operations, such as VA Black Bass, MA Barramundi, and Icelandic Arctic Char.  There are also populations of wild fish such as striped bass (smaller fish are better), Mid-Atlantic tile fish, and North Atlantic black bass that are not known for carrying heavy traces of contaminants.  Once you have sourced healthy fish fillets, it is my recommendation that you try searing them with the skin on, unlocking all the rich flavor and crispy texture that the fish has to offer.  Here are some tips that may help you get that perfect, brown crust on your fish.  This also works with scallops, just reduce the time frame.

First, here are some types of fish that have great tasting skin: red snapper, salmon, black bass, striped bass, bronzino, tilefish, rockfish, dorade, onaga, char, and trout.

1.  Begin by taking your fillets out about 20-30 minutes ahead of time so they can reach room temp.  Sprinkle salt and pepper on the skin side.  Also take out one tblsp of butter if you wish to use it so that it will soften.

2.  Get your pan hot before hand, setting the temp to med-high to high.  Use a cast iron or steel pan for best results.

3.  Pat the fish dry, the entire fillet, with a paper towel to remove moisture.  I have also seen it recommended to use a butter knife to scrape excess moisture.
Crispy Black Bass

3.  Make 2 or 3 scores in the skin to help with keeping the fillet flat, be careful not to cut too deeply.  You will need a sharp knife for this.

4.  Pour oil into the center of the pan.  Let it get hot, but if it starts to smoke remove the pan from the heat until it stops smoking.

5.  Once the pan and oil is hot, place the fish skin side down in the oil.  Move the pan around once the fillet is flat so that the fillet does not stick.  You just want to give it an initial jiggle to prevent sticking.

6.  Season the fish fillet with salt and pepper.  The heat should be on medium-high for thinner fillets, medium for thicker fillets.

7.  Seconds after putting the fillet in the pan you will want to give it a gentle, yet firm press with a fish/metal spatula to keep the fillet flat to the pan.  It will want to curl on you, so be sure to do this quickly and hold it for about 30-45 seconds, or until the fillet relaxes.  You want to keep it flat so that your skin will crisp evenly.

8.  Let the fish cook, depending on the thickness of the fillet, for about 5-8 minutes.  When you see that the sides of the fish are beginning to cook and you can shake the pan and the fillet moves, it is about time to turn the fillet.

9.  Using the spatula, scrape the fillet from the bottom of the pan to dislodge it and gently turn the fillet over so the flesh side is touching the pan.

10.  The flesh side will not take as long to cook usually only about 2-3minutes depending on the thickness.  As soon as the you flip the fish, get your softened tblsp of butter and place it in the hot pan.  As the butter melts, tilt the pan and spoon the melted butter over the fish.  Repeat this process until the fish is entirely cooked.

If you are serving the fish with any sauce, place the sauce under the fish so the skin is not saturated.  You want to serve it immediately, so don't let it sit too long.  And of course, you want to serve it skin facing up, so you can show off your super culinary skills!        

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Waiting On Gulf Shrimp Season

The next time you are in the market for wild caught, Gulf brown shrimp you may notice a higher price tag.  Gulf shrimp season has been delayed this year, causing prices to rise as inventories of frozen shrimp are depleted.  Alabama shrimp season partially opened on June 21st, a few weeks later than the usual opening.  Alabama Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship cited cooler water temperatures and heavy rain as the natural forces that are retarding the growth of shrimp to legal size.  The scene in the Gulf of Mexico, namely Texas, is even worse.  That season will not open until July 15th.  Right now governing agencies are allowing the species to grow to a larger, marketable size in order to prevent waste from throwing undersized shrimp back into the water.

Wild caught, domestic brown shrimp are one of the most sustainable shrimp options in the market, and one of the tastiest.  Other options are not as soundly harvested or as delicious.  Recently, non-domestic, imported farmed shrimp operations have faced allegations of human trafficking and deplorable working conditions for employees.  Unfortunately, in many of these cases, such allegations have proved to be true.  This news has caused many to switch to domestic wild caught shrimp for their dietary needs, putting even more pressure and demand on the industry.  It also doesn't help the situation that Gulf brown shrimp is also one of the tastiest shrimp on the market.  Black Restaurant Group selected this particular species of shrimp as the standard to be offered at each of our restaurants after taste testing several varieties.  Wild brown shrimp offer a crisp texture and distinctly sweet shellfish flavor and are great in many different cooking preparations including sauteing, grilling, and frying.  Even after freezing they remain firm with an assertive, delicious flavor.

There is a silver lining to all of this though.  Delaying the season will allow the shrimp to grow, meaning when harvest really gets going the shrimp should average larger sizes bringing the price down on bigger shrimp.   You won't see these results until the fall though, and for the meantime prices could go even higher.  So be patient and wait out the storm so to speak.  My advice would be to add some inexpensive clams or mussels to your shrimp dish, using a little less shrimp while still getting your fix and keeping your wallet fat.  The worst thing you could do is switch to an imported farm raised shrimp to save a few bucks.  You would not only be supporting a sustainably questionable operation, but also you might find that, while keeping a few dollars in your wallet,
you missed the boat on a lot of flavor.