The whole "hoof to snout" trend has been big in foodie land for a few years now, but a similar trend in seafood has been slower to take hold. With her new TED book, The Whole Fish, commercial fisherwoman-turned-food writer Maria Finn hopes to change that. In addition to championing the consumption of so-called "forage fish," such as sardines and herring, Finn espouses the benefits of eating fish "gill to adipose fin,"as a way to combat the impacts of overfishing and poor aquaculture practices. Finn saw first-hand how indigenous tribes in Alaska used every part of the salmon and began wondering when Americans lost our taste for "fishy" fish. From there she embarked on a journey that included everything from "fish bacon" (dried salmon skin) to the herring abundant near her Bay Area home. The result is a great guide to sustainable seafood consumption that's equal parts fish tale and cookbook. Finn talked to us about her adventures in fishing from her houseboat in Sausalito.
GOOD: What is your favorite forage fish?
Maria Finn: I have become a big fan of sardines over the past few years. I remember the turning point well. I was at an event where they were grilled over a wood fire and then served with preserved lemons and pickled fennel. A local restaurant, Poggio Trattoria, always has a sardine bruschetta. The sardines are pan roasted, then served with a seasonal spread, like sweet pea and mint, or white beans on grilled toast. I’ve started imitating this at home. I buy tins of Wild Planet sardines in olive oil and make a sardine on toast with whatever I have—goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes, or hummus and lemon. These fish really do make your skin glow and your hair thicker and shinier. They are delicious, sustainable, and inexpensive.
GOOD: Is there a fish that you used to dislike but have grown to love?
FINN: I used to dislike all seafood. I grew up Catholic in the Midwest and we ate fish sticks on Fridays at school. They were lukewarm wedges of something that seemed not very food-like. Though I did like the tartar sauce. When I worked as a waitress during college in a Mediterranean restaurant, my view of seafood totally changed. I tried salmon, tuna fillets, clams, and oysters for the first time. My challenge now is learning to enjoy eating herring.
I used to work on commercial fishing boats, and when we long-lined for halibut, we baited hundreds of hooks with herring. This meant cutting the fish in half, cramming the hook through their eye sockets, and squeezing their guts out. After fishing, we had to clean all the bait off the hooks, and that was even worse. So I have a visceral response to these fish. But I’m going to start catching them here in the San Francisco Bay, and I’m going to start eating them. Some chefs in the area are just starting to notice these local fish as well and they are a talented group, so I’m excited for the herring season in early spring.
GOOD: Which part of the fish that you see people often throwing away is the most valuable in terms of either taste or number of things that can be done with it?
FINN: I’ve really been enjoying using the skin, and I’ve been seeing this more and more often in restaurants. It’s now being called “fish bacon” as it’s such a fatty and tasty part of the fish. There’s a great recipe in the book for a Hot Smoked Salmon Salad, Salmon Lardons, Grain Mustard Vinaigrette by Sazerac Restaurant in Seattle. The chef fries the skin into lardons to put back onto the salad. I stretch a fillet into two meals. I remove the skin from the fillet, scrape the scales off, and rub a little sesame oil, pepper, salt, and maybe a pinch of chili flakes on it, and then bake it. So say you eat the fillet that night, the next day I make a version of Bibim-Bop—brown rice topped with a poached egg, kim chi, and strips of baked salmon skin.
GOOD: In the course of writing the book, did you come across or look into the impact of pollution on the world's fisheries?
Not too long ago I went to a presentation by people who had been on the Five Gyres
expedition. They have been traveling around the world and taking samples of plastic from the large whirlpool currents where plastics have accumulated. What I learned is that these gyres also tend to attract a lot of wildlife, and the percentage of seabirds, sea turtles, and fish that are ingesting these plastics is really high.
We still don’t know if PCBs in the plastic that the fish are ingesting are then consumed by us when we eat seafood. Scientists are studying this, but it seems that the chances of it are highly likely that we are actually eating our own plastic. The Whole Fish is not just about eating all the parts, but it’s also a metaphor for the sea web and all the interconnected eco-systems that we are a part of. We can’t just throw garbage into the ocean, or let pollutants be dumped into our rivers, and then think that’s not going to impact the seafood we eat.
GOOD: What's the most important thing people could do to help preserve fisheries?
FINN: Buy fish locally and seasonally. If possible, join a local Community Supported Fishery. These support fishermen and women who run small, family, or privately operated boats. If they have the support, they can use sustainable methods and put quality over quantity. They can take fewer fish but handle them with more care. As well, often times fish caught by really large ships, or from industrial fish farms are shipped all over the world for processing, so there’s a tremendous amount of waste. Buying from a local CSF also stops that waste.
GOOD: How do you recommend non fishy-fish lovers begin to shift their tastes? Is there a good "gateway fish" or fish part?
FINN: The collar is a good place to start. Salmon and tuna collars are showing up on bar menus around the country; they are often served deep fried or roasted and they are a great snack.
GOOD: Do you foresee something like "Fish-less Friday" equivalent to meatless Monday? Could/would something like that help to reduce pressure on the world's fisheries?
FINN: It couldn’t be a Friday, though the Catholic kids might like just having mac-n-cheese every week instead of fish sticks. Our plates should definitely be more grains and vegetables than proteins. But I think the trick is to diversify the seafood we eat. A large fillet of good fish is not cheap, so that’s really a special occasion meal. But if you use the skin for a second meal, make a soup stock from bones and the head, sprinkle salmon roe onto ramen noodles, make a salad with a few anchovies and put a sardine on your toast every once in a while, then you’re getting protein and all the wonderful health benefits of fish as well as a fun, diverse diet. We're also then eating the parts normally thrown away or forage fish that would be ground into pellets for feed. By eating this way, we can take fewer fish out of the ocean.