sustainable seafood watch guides

the Monterey Bay Aquarium has released their yearly Seafood Watch guides, including regional guides to consuming seafood in the US, and downloadable pocket-sized ones to print out and take with you. the guides recommend which fish and shellfish are caught and managed sustainably, and which to avoid, in terms of both conservation and health concerns (such as overfishing and mercury levels). the guides include information on which fishing methods are preferable, such as farmed vs. wild caught, environmentally responsible (hook and line, harpooning, trolling) vs. damaging techniques with a lot of bycatch (e.g. dredging, trawling, purse seining).

fish is often touted as a good source of lean protein, low in saturated fat, and fatty fish in particular provide needed omega-3's (like salmon, mackerel, and herring). but of course, between rising levels of mercury, PCBs, and other organic pollutants, and conservation issues, commercial fishing is not a particularly sustainable enterprise. overfishing and marine habitat destruction are particularly damaging consequences of the seafood industry.

for those of us who still want to include seafood in our diets, the guides recommend wild Alaskan salmon, farmed catfish, farmed shellfish, striped bass, and sardines (among others), while discouraging the consumption of farmed salmon, Chilean seabass, Atlantic cod, orange roughy, shark, and imported sturgeon. the recommendations for some fish, like tuna, vary according to where they're caught and by what method -- farmed US sturgeon are fine, but not wild-caught Caspian, tuna as long as it was caught by trolling, but not longline, American farmed tilapia but not Chinese.

like most foods, it requires more than changing consumer habits to rein in an industry and protect environmental resources, but this kind of information is incredibly useful in allowing us to make informed decisions. i've been including more herring and sardines in my diet, as they're high in calcium and omega-3's, low on the food chain, sustainably caught, and really tasty.

last week, i experimented with a bastardized take on the traditional Sicilian pasta con sardine, using diced canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, and fennel seed (rather than the traditional fresh fennel, dried currants, and pignoli). this recipe is more of a cross between the traditional recipe and pasta puttanesca (another favorite with anchovies, olives, and capers).

pasta sauce with tomatoes, sardines, and fennel

1 cup onion, sliced or diced (about one small onion, or 1/2 a large onion)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tsp fennel seed, whole
2 whole sardines, cured and packed in oil (you could use fresh too), lightly rinsed
1 28 oz. can diced organic tomatoes
1-2 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
fresh-grated parmesan (optional)

heat the oil over medium-high heat, and sautee the onions until translucent. sprinkle on a little sea salt to release the liquid faster, then add the garlic and fennel seeds. sautee for another minute or two, then add the sardines. mashup up the sardines with a wooden spoon -- they won't entirely dissolve but they should disintegrate into smaller pieces throughout the pan. once the sardine pieces have broken up evenly, add the tomatoes. bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer on low for 15-20 minutes. you can mash the tomato chunks with the back of your spoon to break them down faster. when the sauce has reduced somewhat (it should be thicker but not a paste), add salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve over al dente pasta (such as spaghetti, linguine, or fettucine). add grated cheese if desired (i never eat parmesan over puttanesca, but it was good with the sardine sauce).

i actually made this to accompany baked polenta cutlets, as polenta is supposed to complement fish. it was good, but perhaps slightly better with pasta. you could also try making it with crushed tomatoes, or even tomato sauce for a quicker cooking time. the flavor of the fennel really enhances the sardines, but you definitely have to like the taste of cured, briny fish!

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