I grew up eating fish. My family enjoyed a fish meal at least once a week, usually mackerel, salmon trout (now called steelhead) or flounder. Lox, pickled herring, smoked whitefish and sable were occasional treats.
In summer, when I caught little sunfish and perch in a local lake, my mother dutifully cleaned and pan-fried them. Yum!
My sons like fish, and fishing, too. They often took sardine sandwiches for lunch at school; I knew they would not be traded for PB&J. When they pulled a 5-pound carp from a Minnesota river, I stuffed and baked it, to the delight of dinner guests.
So it baffles me that fish remains so unloved in comparison with the other sources of animal protein: red meat and poultry.
I know all the excuses: “I don’t know what to buy.” “I don’t know how to prepare it.” “It smells up the kitchen.” “I once ate bad fish and never touched it again.”
There are ways to overcome these objections. (A decade ago, I produced a seafood cookbook with Richard Flaste to facilitate this.) And it helps to know how and why to choose certain fish and shellfish over others.
Let’s start with health. Fish is good for you, better than heart-damaging red meat and even better than lean poultry. Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, bluefish, herring and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These are polyunsaturated fatty acids that may protect against heart attacks and stroke, help control blood clotting and build cell membranes in the brain. They are also important to an infant’s visual and neurological development.
Omega-3s may also help ameliorate a variety of conditions, such as cancer, depression, inflammatory bowel disease,and autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
The best evidence for the benefits comes from studies of people who have long eaten fish, as opposed to taking supplements of omega-3s.
Nearly three decades ago, Dutch researchers published a groundbreaking study in The New England Journal of Medicine. Intrigued by the extremely low death rate from coronary heart disease among Greenland Eskimos, the Dutch team followed 872 men ages 40 to 59 for 20 years and found that those who ate as little as one or two fish meals a week had a 50 percent lower death rate from heart attacks than those who did not eat fish.
Other studies linked fish consumption to a reduced risk of strokes, although later research concluded that the lifesaving benefit was limited to people at high risk of cardiovascular disease.
Fish consumption reached a high of 16.6 pounds per person a year in 2004, and has declined slightly since, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Make sure you’re getting fresh fish, which should not smell “fishy.” The freshest fish is sold frozen, unless it comes from local waters. I avoid buying fish on Mondays because most wholesale markets are closed on Sundays and Monday’s fish is more likely to be old.
If the fish you buy is wrapped in plastic, it will become smelly unless it’s frozen right after purchase.
If you live near a coast, check out farmers’ markets or stores for locally caught fish and shellfish, which is likely to be freshest and more flavorful.
Farmed fish is not necessarily the ecological or health disaster some claim it to be. American catfish, for example, is “our most successfully farmed fish, and the process creates wetlands that birds use a lot,” Greenberg said. Farmed salmon now comes mostly from Chile, where it cannot disrupt wild populations.
Most mussels come from farms and help to clean the water they live in. They are low in fat and calories, are good sources of omega-3s and are very low in cholesterol. On the other hand, shrimp, squid and lobster are high in cholesterol.
Those concerned about cooking fish and its odoriferous aftereffect have two options: Grill it outdoors, or choose fish when you dine out or take out.
A frequent kitchen mistake is overcooking fish. It should appear a little raw when taken from the oven or stovetop, Greenberg suggested.
Some people have to be cautious about seafood. Anyone with a clear-cut allergy to any fish or shellfish, which can be life-threatening, should avoid it and learn what other varieties may cross-react.
Pregnant women are advised to limit their consumption of fish like tuna and swordfish with high levels of mercury, which can injure the developing fetal brain. But prior pregnancy restrictions on raw fish (sushi and sashimi) have been lifted, so long as the fish has been frozen at 0 to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit for at least three days to kill any parasites.