Five Things to Know When Buying Fish

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Photograph from OS2k on Flickr

Jane Black wrote a fine piece for the September issue of Boston magazine decoding the labels we all see at fish counters—"organic," "day boat," "wild" versus "farmed."

The first myth she debunks is whether it's worth paying extra for organic seafood. Black correctly points out that there are no USDA standards for farmed fish, "so the 'organic' designation can mean whatever the seller wants it to." Her hilarious conclusion: "A fish without an 'organic' label is like a fish without a bicycle." Hey, wasn't that a lyric in a U2 song?

Wild-caught vs. farm-raised fish
According to Black, wild-caught fish tastes better (as well it should, given its significantly higher price) and has firmer and fattier meat. But she correctly points out that not all wild-caught fish are created equal, that ethical considerations like overfishing often come into play when considering a wild-caught fish purchase. Her conclusion: "For superior taste, go wild. For superior taste and a clear conscience, consult Seafood Watch, then go wild—in moderation."

My friend, Esca chef and passionate fisherman Dave Pasternack, co-author of The Young Man and the Sea, concurs, but said that Seafood Watch sometimes goes overboard (pun intended) in their restrictive designations.


Is day-boat seafood as fresh as fish gets?
Not really. Just because a boat went out and came back the same day with its catch (the definition of "day boat" fishing), doesn't mean it won't spend another week in transit before it finds its way to your local fishmonger. Black concludes that if you want guaranteed fresh fish, catch it yourself. Pasternack says that when it comes to buying day boat fish (and fish in general), "I buy the man, not the fish." In other words, a trustworthy fishmonger is more important than any specific descriptor or designation.


Sashimi-grade meat comes from higher-quality fish
According to Black, fish labeled "sashimi grade" has very low bacteria counts and can be safely eaten raw. A sashimi-grade fish is just regular fish eaten soon after it's caught. As she points out, "it's often flash-frozen on the boat to keep it pristine.


Beware frozen seafood
Not necessarily, Black says. She says that most regular shrimp purchased in the Northeast [with the exception of the sweet Maine shrimp in season—Editor] are frozen and defrosted by your fishmonger, so, she says, we might as well buy the frozen bag and defrost it yourself. Pastnernack says that for his restaurant he buys (at the wholesale fish market in New York City and at twice the cost) only fresh shrimp that have never been frozen. Pasternack also points out that much of the "fresh" fish you see in fish markets has been frozen immediately after it has been caught and that, if it's carefully maintained, will suffer few deleterious effects.

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