Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and for Catholics and many Protestants, it marks the beginning of a 40-day observance of ancient traditions such as fasting and eating fish instead of meat on Fridays. It’s a period of spiritual reflection and self-restraint, and for many people, it feels like a natural time to renew their commitment to environmental stewardship: Instead of giving up coffee or booze (been there, done that), they figure, why not participate in an ecumenical carbon fast or eat more sustainably? The fact that Earth Day closely follows Easter Sunday this year makes that mindset all the more fitting.
Fish has been associated with religious holidays since pre-Christian times. By the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity, its early church calendar packed with meatless fasting days, created a huge European market for fish. And that religious hunger couldn’t be satisfied by fish farms, more sophisticated preservation methods, or better fishing boats. Then came climate change (in the form of dramatically expanded glaciation) in the 13th and 14th centuries, and its effect on the economy and the environment. (I know, I know! Is there nothing new under the sun?)
In other words, it was fish, not spices, that led to the discovery of North America, writes Brian Fagan, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World. With fish stocks off Norway and Iceland diminished by overfishing and increased winter sea ice, fishermen had to travel farther and farther west, he explains, eventually discovering the rich fishing grounds off the Nova Scotia coast.
Fish fasting has remained economically influential to this day. The Filet-O-Fish sandwich was launched on Good Friday, 1962, by Lou Groen, whose McDonald’s franchise was in Monfort Heights, Ohio, where 87 percent of the population was Catholic. Originally made from halibut, the fish used as of Jan. 25, 2013, is Alaskan pollock and carries the blue ecolabel from the Marine Stewardship Council. This is a very good thing, considering that the sandwiches are consumed at a rate of 300 million a year. Twenty-three percent of them are sold during Lent.
In general, Americans ate more seafood during Lent in 2013 than in previous years, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. After looking at sales from more than 18,000 restaurants in more than 500 cities, online food-ordering service GrubHub found that the number of people forgoing meat on Fridays during the 40-day Lenten period had increased by about 20 percent since 2011. “In addition, many churches hold fish fries on Fridays during Lent,” wrote a guest blogger at Blue Ocean Institute, “so much so that in some parts of the country there are online Fish Fry Maps” that specify times, dates, and locations of fish fries in, for example, St. Louis. The Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Map even has its own Facebook page. You’ll have to forgive my obvious prejudice—fried fish was my gateway into the food world, and just thinking about the takeout sandwiches I’m going to pick up from our local Irish bar on Friday evening makes me hungry.
There are a number of seafood guides that can help you make sustainable choices, whether in a restaurant or at the fish counter, including those from Blue Ocean Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Remember that your best options can often be found in the frozen food aisle.
If you prefer to cook and eat at home, here are enough sustainable fish recipes to get you through a Lent’s worth of Fridays, and then some. Even if you don’t observe Lent, consider them impetus for working more protein-rich seafood into your diet. If you’re interested in learning more, three books worth considering are Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainably Seafood, by Paul Johnson; Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook’s Essential Companion, by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore; and For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking, by Barton Seaver. I cook from all three books, as well as from my vast file of Gourmet recipes; you’ll find several favorites below.
Farmed clams are considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch because “unlike fish raised in farms, clams and other filter feeding shellfish do not require additional feed; they simply filter their food from the natural environment.” Chef Rick Moonen, of RM Seafood in Las Vegas, has long been one of sustainable seafood’s greatest advocates and educators. Fish Without a Doubt includes a simple, stellar version of linguine with clams along with other standouts such as catfish sloppy joes and citrus broiled shrimp.
This is a great time of year to enjoy cultivated mussels; the water is cold, and the bivalves are fat. Choose mussels that smell clean and of the ocean, but don’t worry if they aren’t tightly closed. “Farmed mussels are grown on ropes suspended from rafts, leaving them submerged underwater twenty-four hours a day,” Paul Johnson explains in Fish Forever. “This provides for a quick growing season and a tender, grit-free mussel, but mussels raised by this method tend to gape when out of the water. Check open mussels to see if they are alive by squeezing the shells together; a live mussel will react by trying to hold the closed position.” I must admit I was once a reluctant mussel consumer, but recipes such as mussels with tomato broth, spicy Thai steamed mussels, and mussels baked with parsley–garlic butter, which basically make their own sauce, brought me around. Pass the crusty bread, please.
According to the Seafood Watch, “most Pacific halibut is caught with bottom longlines that cause little habitat damage and have low levels of accidental catch. The Pacific halibut fisheries of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington are certified as sustainable to the standard of the Marine Stewardship Council.” Phew! Halibut has such a mild flavor, it’s a great introduction for people who are leery of “fishy fish.” Los Angeles chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have an irresistible recipe for halibut Veracruzana on Monterey Bay’s website, and wrapping halibut fillets in large romaine leaves à la Gourmet makes for foolproof cooking.
Wild Atlantic populations are at record levels because of effective fishery management and strong conservation actions, notes the Seafood Watch. That’s wonderful news, because with its rich flavor and a large, firm flake, striped bass—whether wild or sustainably farmed—is super-versatile in the kitchen. If you’re nervous about cooking a fish whole, it’s a great one to experiment with; its moderate fat content keeps it moist, and even if you overcook it slightly, an easy sauce or a fresh salsa will save the day. Here’s a Seafood Watch recipe for whole striped bass with avocado salsa verde. As for fillets, chef and National Geographic fellow Barton Seaver pairs them with Southwestern flavors, and seared sea bass with fresh herbs and lemon is so easy and delicious it’s been in my go-to fish file for more than 15 years.
How could I let you go without a great comfort-food recipe? That is what so many of us secretly yearn for this time of year, when the days are lengthening yet spring still seems far away. So here’s my one and only tuna noodle casserole recipe, from Roy Andries De Groot’s Feasts for All Seasons. You won’t find a crumbled potato-chip topping or a cream of mushroom soup: Instead, as I wrote a few years back, this is one of those dishes that simultaneously is bright and mellow, spare and rich. It is still a pantry standby. These days, though, I make it with the best eco-friendly canned tuna I’ve ever had, from American Tuna, a company formed by six pole-and-line fishing families in San Diego, Calif., in 2005. Available at some high-end supermarkets and directly from the company, the fish is flavorful, and the cans, incidentally, are BPA-free. You can substitute canned wild salmon or lightly cooked fresh fish. The recipe, which serves four, can be halved, but the leftovers are delicious for lunch.
Tuna Noodle Surprise (aka Lemon-Cream Spaghetti With Fish Stuffing)
Adapted from Feasts for All Seasons, by Roy Andries De Groot (Alfred A. Knopf, 1966)
¾ to 1 pound thin spaghetti (spaghettini is ideal; capellini is too thin and overcooks in a nanosecond)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cans (6 or 7 ounces each) sustainable tuna packed in oil (such as American Tuna brand or canned boneless, skinless wild salmon), drained
1 stick unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish
1 pint sour cream
Juice of 2 lemons
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Cook the pasta in about 4 quarts of rapidly boiling salted water. When it tastes al dente (that is, firmly chewy), drain. Meanwhile, flake or chunk the tuna, and melt the butter.
In a bowl, stir together the sour cream, lemon juice, and melted butter; season with salt and pepper. Butter a large, shallow baking dish, and put about ⅔ of the drained pasta in it, lifting it up and spreading it with a fork to make sure it doesn’t pack down. On top, put the fish as a single layer. Cover loosely with the rest of the pasta. Pour the sour cream sauce over the pasta and, with the fork, but without disturbing the layer of fish, lift it slightly here and there to encourage sauce to run down.
Set the casserole, uncovered, in the oven, and bake just long enough to get everything piping hot and bubbly, usually about 20 minutes. Bring the casserole to the table, and plunge the serving spoon straight down, so that each person gets the proper proportion of pasta, fish, and sauce.