I like to think that when it comes to buying and preparing food for my family I am careful, thoughtful, responsible, and well informed. But the one area that stymies and overwhelms me time and again is seafood.
I love fish, and would easily give up eating meat before I would seafood. So it bothers me that I can’t seem to keep up with the latest information and recommendations relating to safety, health, and sustainability of fresh seafood — not to mention the proliferation of new types with names like basa and swai (both are Southeast Asian river-farmed catfish). And then there’s the skyrocketing cost.
For these reasons, I jumped at the chance to attend a recent information session at McCaffrey’s Princeton on that very subject. The talk-with-tasting was presented by Saidur Rehman, the market’s lead seafood manager. It was organized by Dorothy Mullen, the founder of The Suppers Programs, the Princeton-based nonprofit that serves people with different kinds of food-driven diagnoses.
“The food we make together at Suppers is not just delicious, it’s therapeutic,” Mullen says. But, she acknowledges, most of her clients “do not have the time or wherewithal to always cook that way.” She continues: “While I personally buy most food at the Whole Earth Center and farm markets in season, Suppers has to deal with the reality that most people buy food at conventional grocery stores. We want to help them make the best choices they can with what’s available. McCaffrey’s is doing an increasingly good job of making healthier choices available.”
I can relate to that dilemma. As a card-carrying member of Slow Food since 1999, I subscribe to its philosophy that all food should conform to these three parameters: It should be good – that is, of quality, flavorsome and healthy; it should be produced in a way that does not harm the environment; and it should be fair – fair to consumers by having accessible prices, and fair to producers by providing adequate working conditions and pay. I feel reasonably comfortable that my food purchases conform, within reason, to these lofty goals.
Except when it comes to fish. In an ideal world, I would consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app every time I’m at the fish counter. In reality, my purchases are increasingly impulsive and highly influenced by price point. I refuse to pay $24.99 a pound for anything, period. I am wary of farm-raised fish, and since I don’t have the time or patience to research whether every species and or brand is raised sustainably or not, I simply avoid all of it.
Conventional wisdom holds that the answer is to find a source that you can rely upon to match your standards. Well that, too, is easier said than done. Early on in my food writing career, I interviewed several independent fishmongers who all said basically the same thing: We sell what our customers want to buy. It was then and still is up to the consumer to do the homework. Even that paragon of correctness that is Whole Foods, which built its empire (and prices) on the assurance that they will do the vetting for you, has been taken to task for their murky oversight of suppliers, acknowledging to CNBC that their program “has natural limitations and ultimately…and has to be built on some amount of trust between us and our suppliers.”
Princeton’s Whole Earth Center, being a one-unit, locally owned store, has the advantage there. It stocks a limited amount of seafood in its freezer case. Longtime marketing manager Fran McManus says that their decision-making priorities are: “Wild-caught, family-owned, and local.” The store recently brought in several products from Wild for Salmon. “It’s a young couple in Pennsylvania who own a fishing boat in Alaska. We are so happy with their product and their story that we have pretty much replaced all of our frozen fish with their products,” she says.
My own and only fish-buying certainty for the last 15 years has been to buy Alaskan fish. That state had the foresight to ban the farming of finfish from the get-go. (Shellfish farming is allowed.) I buy fresh Alaskan fish whenever I can afford it, and purchase canned Alaskan salmon the rest of the time (which means almost always).
In my opinion, canned Alaskan salmon is not only safe and healthful, it’s also delicious, and, well, ridiculously cheap. I grew up eating it regularly, so my taste for it is ingrained. In my family, it was transformed into my grandmother’s homey casserole that also features Saltine crackers, celery, and hard-boiled eggs all bound with an uncooked egg, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce.
Rehman, speaking that night on behalf of McCaffrey’s (with which he’s been affiliated since the store opened 24 years ago), pointed out where that company draws its line in the sand. GMO fish, like the genetically altered salmon that the U.S. recently approved, “will never reach our doors,” he assured the overflow group of 60 or so. Nor, he vows, will shrimp or seafood of any kind imported from China.
Vietnamese shrimp, on the other hand, passes muster because, he claims, “Vietnamese shrimp is mostly from U.S.-run companies, and they have good rules.”
McCaffrey’s sells a lot of tilapia, which Rehman says is popular with children and seniors because of its mild taste. Yet, I discovered, 70 percent of global tilapia production comes from China. An FDA report states that these fish “are often raised in ponds where they feed on waste from poultry and livestock.”
I asked Rehman to recommend species that are local — fished off New Jersey’s Atlantic coast — that are both inexpensive and underappreciated. “Silver hake, in season,” he replied. Silver hake is another name for whiting, and is a close relative of cod. It’s caught off our waters most abundantly in December and January, but is used year-round in frozen fish sticks and nuggets.
Many restaurants’ battered fried fish sandwiches feature whiting/hake, which can easily replace haddock or cod in a recipe. (Another hake — red hake, also called ling — is also abundant locally.)
Faith Bahadurian, a Princeton food writer and restaurant reviewer who blogs at NJ Spice, is a longtime proponent of locally caught fish, having grown up with a father and brother who loved to fish, including in Carnegie Lake for sunfish and eels. Bahadurian created a recipe for Jersey hake that’s based on one by Paul Bocuse. The white fillets are baked in a hot (450 degree) oven with shallots, olive oil, white wine, and salt and pepper and get a last minute splash of heavy cream that transforms the pan drippings into a luxurious sauce.
A relatively new option for buying sustainable New Jersey seafood is based on the model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. And is similarly priced. Heritage Shellfish Company is a partnership of three local shellfish farms that, among other products, raise proprietary clams in the state’s bays and estuaries. The partnership offers a CSF, i.e. Community Supported Fishing. Just like with CSAs, customers make a season-long commitment to buy prepaid shares of seafood.
The Heritage website specifies that their fish and seafood are, “New Jersey landed, responsibly caught, or in the case of clams and oysters, New Jersey-farmed products whenever possible. An occasional ‘guest fish’ from the region may be offered, or a species from another regional CSF (like North Carolina shrimp).”
For 2016, the weekly catch will be delivered to one of three host pick-up sites, two of which are in the greater Princeton area. One is Rutgers Gardens Farm Market on Ryders Lane in New Brunswick, and the other is Simonson Farms on Dey Road in Cranbury. The Heritage Shellfish website is also a good source for recipes. One, for steamed clams Cajun style, combines butter, garlic, beer, and Cajun seasonings. (New Jersey is a leading source of hard clams.)
One revelation I took away from the McCaffrey’s session was that for all of us, where we fall on the issues surrounding the buying and consumption of fish is probably in exact alignment with our views on politics, science, and technology. Do you consider government oversight and regulation reliable (as Mr. Rehman does), or does it go too far (as many commercial fisherfolk attest), or not far enough (as I do)? Where do you stand on climate change? Do you accept it as sound science and a reality, or an overblown scare tactic? Do you view technologies like genetic modification a sound advancement that improves availability and price point, or as unnatural tampering with nature that’s unproven to be safe?
As I stated at the outset, I wish I were more diligent about keeping on top of the latest and most unbiased information, as much as that may be a Sisyphean task. Meantime, I’ll attempt to consult more often that gold-standard resource: Monterrey Bay’s seafood app and its state-by-state purchasing guides (seafoodwatch.org).
If I’m concerned about mercury levels in a particular fish — and we all should be, especially pregnant women and those responsible for feeding children — I’ll google “Natural Resources Defense Council wallet card” to download a PDF of its helpful buying guide.