Americans today have a tendency to be squeamish about our food. We generally prefer our dinner to no longer resemble the animal it came from. We mentally and physically divide the “good” parts from the “gross” parts. A recent “This American Life” episode horrified listeners by suggesting that it is possible that some calamari may in fact be pig bung.
But what if we adjusted our thinking? What if we revisited the cultures whose food we’ve adapted into this great melting pot of a country and noted how they did it? What if we could taste more and waste less? Now, I’m not suggesting you make a run for pig bung (although you should check out the podcast). No, we’re looking at an easier leap: the whole fish. More specifically, “The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Can Make You Healthier, Sexier and Help Save the Ocean“, a new TED e-book by Maria Finn. (TED books are published by the same group responsible for TED talks.)
In discussing her guidebook, Finn pointed out the inherent contradiction between the world’s hunger problem and the amount of food wasted daily. Furthermore, Finn discussed the dubious habit of chucking the most nutrient-rich parts – the very parts, she explains, that provide “mega doses of omega-3’s, serotonin highs, increased stamina and all sorts of other benefits to ramp up your sex life and vastly improve your health.”
All over the world, using all the bits and pieces of seafood is common. Finn talked about how the Italians distill the remnants of anchovies into a golden liquid that is delicious on pasta, especially tossed with a little lemon. Diners don’t have to stare fish heads in the eyes, but can use them to make stock. “It’s not as funky as people think it is,” she continued, pointing out the trend among “super hip” chefs to utilize as much of the animal as possible.
Finn’s passion stems from her own time spent on fishing boats and working for Alaska’s Dept. of Fish & Game. She’s seen salmon run – she’s snorkeled with them, seen them spawn and die. She’s since left Alaska behind, but is now based on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, appropriately staying connected to the sea.
The rapid expansion of fish farms over the past several years threatens wild fish populations as disease increases and biodiversity falls. To this end, in addition to greater efficiency of food use, the most sustainable fisheries tend to be the healthiest: for example, the aforementioned anchovies, sardines, herring and wild salmon all present very healthy food options to consumers.
Unsure what to do with sardines? Pop’em on some toasted bread with goat cheese and arugula, Finn suggests. You can make fish “bacon” out of salmon skin, fish “salt” out of bones – the more local the better. Buying tilapia from your neighborhood fisherman means cleaner water and healthier fish than buying it imported from China. Finn eschews anything that’s been vacuum-packed. “Freshest is best,” she says. “I virtually never eat shrimp.”
“The Whole Fish” offers recipes from 25 chefs along with Finn’s unique tales of adventure. Suggestions include really easy “starter” ideas and more labor-intensive ones as cooks graduate to using the whole fish with greater confidence. Less waste, more taste, plus better health, an improved environment and a sexier life overall? It really does sound like the whole deal.