Growing up in Seattle, salmon was king. Literally. Alaskan king salmon appeared, baked or grilled, at so many special dinners while growing up. And waiting tables in Seattle, I witnessed the hype of the Copper River king salmon, a fish whose journey up an especially cold Alaskan river gives it a touch extra fat and oil, and thus a richer flavor.
Despite these formative salmon years, I’ve slowly come to a place where salmon and fish such as halibut or sea bass do not feature prominently in my seafood world. I’ve come to embrace the other seafoods, to even cook with them in my home. And I think you should too.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff we’ve probably all heard about. We’re overfishing the big seafood. Farmed salmon is corn-fed (usually GMO corn, although organic farmed salmon can be found). Biomagnification means the bigger fish contain higher quantities of dangerous substances such as mercury. But, and here’s the rub for food-obsessed moms like me….seafood continues to be one of the best things a pregnant woman, lactating mother, or developing brain can eat*. What’s a mother to do?
Fortunately, I’ve had good exposure to the “other seafoods”. Oliveto Restaurant in the Bay Area where I worked for a few years after college was one of the best jobs of my life. I started out expediting and waiting tables, but by the end I was regularly spending my Saturdays in the kitchen volunteering my services in exchange for instruction, experience, and confidence that money cannot buy. With Chef Paul’s guidance I made salmon meatballs and sardines in saor, I prepped squid for pasta. I killed my first live food, a tray full of soft shell crabs. I tried my first oyster. And I learned about sustainable fishing practices during Oliveto’s seafood dinners, preceded by a talk with the Monterey Fish Market’s buyer.
Fast forward five years and I’m pregnant and devouring smoked salmon like its my job. And it sort of is. I am concerned about what prenatal vitamins might suggest – that you just take a vitamin and don’t think about your daily diet. Vitamins are necessary for those who lack access to safe, healthy foods, but ideally they should be a complement to our diets. So I took my prenatals and I ate smoked salmon “seconds” (the ends and trim that taste great but look rather sad so are cheaper) and salmon roe regularly. Then I had a kid and became a full-time mom and homemaker with equally deep interests in nutrition and budgets. Here is what I have done and learned over the last few years while I’ve explored other seafoods:
– Mussels are Jamie’s favorite food, hands-down, and Travis is hugely in favor because these can be farmed (read: sustainable, no overfishing) easily and quickly (read: not too expensive) in carefully selected, clean waters (read: safe). At first I was intimidated but I’ve grown to love cooking mussels, and we always have a one pound frozen bag ready to go. I buy mussels frozen from Vital Choice Seafood because I am already ordering other quantities of seafood and because I trust the company. And note: when trying to order 5 1-lb bags of frozen mussels, do not accidentally order 1 5-lb bag of fresh, live mussels. And if you do that, don’t leave the mussels in a cooler where your three-year old can get to them and dump them out all over themselves. You’ve been warned! Alright, back to the mussels themselves…rinse them off, melt onions or shallots in butter, throw in some white wine, dump in the mussels and cover, simmering. They are done when they open up. Throw away unopened ones, garnish with lemon and parsley, and dig in. $14/lb
– Squid, or calamari are another easy source of protein that is surprisingly kid-friendly, assuming you start your kids soon enough. James especially loves the tentacles. The squid from Vital Choice only needs to have the bodies sliced into rings (keep an eye out for the translucent spine that might be left in one or two), and then pat the rings and tentacles as dry as possible, dredge with any mixture you like (my favorite: rice flour, sea salt, and toasted coconut) and then lightly brown in coconut oil. Throw onto greens, rice, whatever. I also tried grilling them, and James was a huge fan of eating them off the kebabs so it was a worthwhile experiment, but I do think the pan-fry is the better way to go. $17.33/lb
– Sardines are a perfect on the go food. I get them canned and just pop them open as needed. James will just eat them as is, or I make a basic pasta sauce of sardines, preserved lemons and olives, or i throw them on a green salad with hardboiled egg, or onto a pizza with wilted arugula. Be sure to get wild-caught sardines packed in good olive oil. $5/4.4oz can = ~$20/lb
– Salmon roe I adopted directly from Nina Planck (Real Food For Mom and Baby). She says: “Without a doubt, my favorite baby food was roe. Roe has it all for mother and baby. It’s fun, like a bright orange pea. Your baby can pick it up piece by sticky piece. When she bites down it goes pop! It’s delightfully salty and of course it’s an exemplary source of iodine and good fats. We buy frozen wild salmon roe from Alaska.” (p.194) $30/6oz container = ~$75/lb
– Lobster & Crayfish are not your average food for most people, but in Maine lobster runs $5-$7/lb and crayfish is free when it comes from Caspian Lake in the summer! For novelty, these cannot be beat. Any three year old that loves to destroy things (read: any three year old) will enjoy tearing into these crustaceans. And cooking them couldn’t be easier, just steam them for a bit and serve with melted butter (and if the butter is organic and pastured, so much the better).
My next seafood adventure will be bottarga (cured tuna or mullet roe; Weston A. Price, dentist-anthropologist-nutritionist extraordinaire, noted that dried fish eggs were available in the Peruvian highlands markets and prized by women for fertility and efficiency in childbearing). Although prohibitively expensive when imported from Italy, there is a more local bottarga available now from Florida ($20/8-lobe sack, whatever that means; I’ll know more after I order it!).
True, these are not the cheapest foods. But think of the nutrients! I’m guessing that, nutrient per dollar, these other seafoods are some of the best deals out there. Certainly a better deal than wild salmon fillets ($44/lb). And that’s something the mom and the homemaker in me values.
*Books to geek out on here include: (1) Real Food For Mom and Baby by Nina Planck, brilliant and readable breakdown of her fertility, pregnancy, and nursing diets, as well as early kiddo foods. Chock full of common sense and science. (2) Having Faith: an Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber, a riveting and frequently alarming account of the ecology of the womb and the ecology of lactation. All I can say is we owe the Inuit people and other Nothern cultures a really really really big apology. (3) Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, a great discussion of evolution and embryology. Makes me appreciate Vitamins A & D, and understand why seafood is such a brain and development food. Full disclosure: I did not actually finish this book, but I guarantee it’s worth at least a skim!