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Rick Moonen's "Big Five" Fish Theory


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Top Chef Masters fans are familiar with Rick Moonen, for years a fixture on the NYC restaurant scene and now ensconced in Vegas. He's a proponent of sustainable practices concerning seafood, and in today's Nation's Restaurant News there's an interview in which he explains his theory of the "big five":

There are hundreds of thousands of edible biomass species in the ocean. We tend, because of confusion or level of comfort, to settle into eating just five of them. What those five are depends on the region. Tuna and salmon are pretty much on everyone’s list, the others could be halibut, grouper, cod, snapper … That mentality needs somehow to be broken so we can relieve the pressure on those big five.

It got me wondering about my "big five" -- salmon for sure, then cod, haddock, mackerel, and bluefish, I think -- and about the concept itself. At our local Whole Foods stores, for example, you can reliably expect to see tuna, salmon, cod, and tilapia, with regular appearances by halibut, sea bass, arctic char, and a few others. But chats with fishmongers there suggest that the less typical species that the article refers to as "outside-the-box fish" often don't move at all.

Of course, these preferences are all relative. When I was in Tokyo a few weeks back, the local supermarkets had piles of tuna but a much wider array of fish including a lot of what I'd call mackerel, not to mention copious eel, squid and octopus. If I wanted to get eel or baby octopus here in RI, I wouldn't even know where to look.

It makes me think that there must be quite a lot of diversity among Society members concerning seafood preferences and consumer options. What is your personal "big five"? How about at your local stores? When you leave that group of five, what do you usually get? What "out-of-the-box" fish would you love to try -- or will you avoid at all costs?

Chris Amirault

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This will be an interesting thread if people keep it honest. These types of discussions on the internet have a tendency to drift into a contest to see who can have the most unexpected list but I'm guessing, if it stays honest, Rick won't be too far off base. Personally, tuna, salmon, cod, halibut and swordfish are probably my most common choices from the ocean but none of them come close to being my most commonly eaten fish. That would be walleye from the local lakes.

Edited by Tri2Cook (log)

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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This will be an interesting thread if people keep it honest. These types of discussions on the internet have a tendency to drift into a contest to see who can have the most unexpected list but I'm guessing, if it stays honest, Rick won't be too far off base.

I agree. I was tempted to add smelt to my list, but buying them once per year doesn't really qualify.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Having grown up in Florida and now currently living in IL, I've mostly given up on seafood. I eat it occasionally, but not regularly. Never-the-less, when I do eat it, I tend to stick with Salmon, tilapia, dolphin (mahi-mahi), and catfish.

Personally, I'd like to see less Tuna, Chilean seabass and swordfish and more Barramundi.

And as far as I am concerned mackerel only has two uses: 1) bait 2) chum.

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Why no mackerel love? Too oily or fishy or something?

Let's just say too fishy. Having grown up around the Keys, if you caught a mackerel it was either used for bait or thrown in the chum bucket. No one ate it. People would look at you funny if you even suggested eating it.

I am entirely willing to admit this has caused a (possibly unjustified) life-long bias against this particular fish.

And back when I was a kid, we only ate the fish we, or our friends, caught. If it was a bad day fishing, you ate something else for dinner. If it was an incredible day fishing, you gave away your extra. There was no such concept as going to a fishmonger. I don't believe I had ever tried salmon until I was in my late teens, and even it was the result of a family friend returning from a fishing trip to Alaska.

Edited for formatting

Edited by Florida (log)
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I am entirely willing to admit this has caused a (possibly unjustified) life-long bias against this particular fish.

Therein lies Rick Moonen's biggest obstacle, I think. He rightly identifies supply chain concerns:

Chefs are happy to experiment with different kinds of fish, but the pump needs to be primed somehow. If you’re a seafood distributor, are you going to stock product that’s not going to move in 48 hours? Of course not: We’re talking about the most perishable items out there. The same is true of fisherman. They’re not going to bring in product that they can’t sell.

However, I think that these sorts of "life-long bias[es]" are really at the root of the problem. Without a massive push at the consumer level, I don't see much changing, and even with marketing (remember "monkfish, the lobster substitute"?), only relatively bland stuff like tilapia is likely to catch on.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I don't have a big five. Probably most often I pick up horse mackerel (aji), sea bream (tai), yellowtail (inada/buri) and baby clams. The high-pressure (and high-priced) item here is the bream.

I used to buy more salmon, but I've lost my enthusiasm for the farmed variety, and I find yellowtail fills the same place in the menu, cheaper and with better quality. In fact I brought home a 4lb yellowtail earlier this evening, and I'm grieving in my heart 'cos I had to chop the tail off so it'll fit diagonally across my oven :shock:

It's a shame about mackerel's image. It's popular (well, was when I lived there) in the UK, hot-smoked (and sold cold), in which form it also makes a great pate. Here, fat autumn mackerel, salt-grilled, are a delicious treat.

QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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However, I think that these sorts of "life-long bias[es]" are really at the root of the problem. Without a massive push at the consumer level, I don't see much changing, and even with marketing (remember "monkfish, the lobster substitute"?), only relatively bland stuff like tilapia is likely to catch on.

Seafood is an odd beast though. While I am normally a very adventurist eater, I shun seafood. I very rarely order it at restaurants and I'll willingly and vocally avoid it when someone else is cooking it. I have relatively no trust in it. For me, seafood is a gamble and I literally do not gamble. I know I am not the only one with this opinion.

However, one of the things I noted above is that I would like to see less of some fish for the exact reason you give above. If tuna is unavailable to purchase, but you want fish, you'll have to buy something else and that is where your fishmonger steps in. Of course, this will never happen.

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Its hard to find good fish here in New Haven, CT. Whole Foods has improved the situation, but do sell the Big Five as their main products. My personal favorites are wild Alaskan salmon (MSC certified, if possible), mahi mahi, rainbow trout, striped bass, and sardines (canned or fresh).

I am surprised to see Whole Foods sell Atlantic Cod given how insanely over fished it is. The company tries to give an image of social responsibility, but this says otherwise.

Dan

"Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea." --Pythagoras.

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I used to live in the Philadelphia area where bushels of crabs were a very regular occurrence (some earliest memories are chasing crabs in the yard with my cousins). Now I live in Madison, WI and fish is pretty rare for me to eat. It's very expensive so I really don't eat much of it. If I lived in a place where it was less expensive, I'd probably have a big five but I don't. There are really only three places I know of to get fish around here: Whole Foods, Seafood Center, and a Seafood Center satellite in my co-op. These three are pretty good, but very pricey.

That said, I usually eat cheap stuff like shrimp, mussels, and squid, all of which are cheap. Baby octopus every once in a while is nice and inexpensive but I don't usually want to bother braising it so I rarely eat it though it is available. When its fish I usually go for trout (pretty cheap) or whole fish like sea bream (I like to chop it into chunks for fish curry) or even a whole snapper if I want to splurge (very rare). Tuna is usually too expensive and I don't buy much salmon. I like walleye but even that can be pricey (usually I either just eat it at a fish fry or catch it myself which is all too rare). When it's around (it is now), I'll have grilled sardines once or twice. I wish I had a top five and that I could eat more fish.

I have to say though that going over this list my access to a variety of seafood is pretty good. There's always squid, frequently octopus, always walleye and perch in addition to the usuals like tuna, salmon, cod, tilapia. Whole fish can be had and sometimes there is roe (usually salmon, but sometimes flying fish). The Seafood Center (I usually shop at its satellite down the street from me) does a really good job bringing a variety of things in; whether people take advantage of that variety I don't know.

nunc est bibendum...

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Counting fish only, I consume tilapia, mullet, tuna and snapper, in that order. All seafood would include squid, shrimp and octopus. Squid would actually be my no.1 purchase by weight.

I agree it would be nice to have a bit more variety but my first worry would be relieving pressure from overfished areas and species, not necessarily discovering some currently ignored, delicious variety of shark, and I think the way to do that (from the perspective of feeding an ever larger, wealthier world population) is more and better fish farming.

Or am I nuts?

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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Living in Oklahoma, my "big five" is actually a "big one." I can reliably get high-quality red snapper at my Asian supermarket, so when I want fish, that's what I get. They also have Tilapia (live and dead), Catfish (ditto), and a dozen or so other varieties I have never heard of (maybe the English translation is wrong on some of them).

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In my experience, the challenge isn't finding something exotic, it's finding something that isn't endangered or full of mercury. Clearly the list of fish and seafood is shrinking for all of us unless we start eating smaller size fish and try new kinds. The east coast seems to have a bigger variety of fish and bivalves than the west coast; when I go east and check out major seafood markets I'm always amazed. Bluefish would be in my top five, but it is rarely shipped west any more. Salmon was always at the top of the list, but the price for Pacific wild fresh salmon has soared and availability of CA salmon has evaporated. I love fresh ahi tuna, but the price is high and I don't think it's healthy, so that's become an infrequent treat as well. The most versatile fish and the one I buy the most is Black Cod (aka Sablefish or Butterfish.) I use it where-ever I might have once used Atlantic cod. The price is usually under $13 per lb, it's wild and fresh, neither threatened or unhealthy. It's hard to grill, because it's so delicate, but it is great for fish tacos and other things, and it is mild and rich. For grilling I like a whole trout. Farmed American and Canadian trout is supposedly one of the few farmed fish that has no down side. I also am partial to grilled fresh sardines, but, despite their being dirt cheap, very few markets have fresh sardines on a regular basis here. And not all vendors are willing to clean them, and I really don't like cleaning fish, especially a dozen little ones.

As for shellfish/crustacea, I often buy wild gulf shrimp. I'm not sure why it is still available here, but it is. And local oysters, which are now being sold at the Farmer's market. The hardshell clams here just don't measure up to east coast clams. Local mussels are so-so. Dungeness crab is still pretty good when the price goes down during the season and you can buy live crabs in Chinatown or Ranch 99, but cooking and eating crab is a lot of work and the rest of my family doesn't care about it, so I end up buying it far less than I think I will.

I don't like squid or octopus, and I just can't stand tilapia.

Edited by Katie Meadow (log)
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When I was spearfishing my typical catch was grouper, snappers, there are several species that live on the reef and hogfish along with an occasional sheepshead or cobia. My typical table fare now will include salmon, tuna, grouper snapper, wahoo, cobia and mahi. I love spanish mackerel, it's great on the smoker, but don't see it in my fish markets and unless I'm going out fishing for them they are not available.

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Aw, this thread is breakin' my heart. IF my lovely central gulf coastal waters weren't befouled at present, I'd be fishing for and eating my favorites: speckled trout (aka spotted sea trout, Cynoscion nebulosis), lemonfish (aka cobia or ling, Rachycentron canadum), redfish (red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus), sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus, and red/mangrove/vermillion snapper (though this is just scraping the surface, and I'm fortunate to eat dozens of other fishes...)

At present, I'm sticking to wild-caught, freshwater catfish from inland marshes & waterways, with a smattering of sac au lait (crappie, calico bass, etc).

Wild caught shrimp are getting harder to find & more expensive in south LA, but I understand it's due to the more remunerative opportunities in oil-spill cleanup work and because BP's payments to fishermen have begun to flow more freely. Here's a map of the closed/open fishing grounds in coastal LA, for both recreational & commercial fisheries--it'll give you an idea of why it's getting harder to find fresh local seafood: http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/oilspill/

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We're pretty much down to just Atlantic haddock, mackerel, wild Alaskan salmon, and the occasional blue marlin steak. I keep meaning to try butterfish -- thanks for the reminder about tacos. Lots of other fish is available at our local fishmonger, but most of it is not sustainable. I'm not a huge tilapia fan myself.

However, we do quite well with shellfish: wild Maine and Gulf shrimp in season, the occasional fresh Maine crabmeat, oysters, mussels, and lots of lobster. We're hoping our friends in the Gulf will be back on their shrimp boats soon!

BTW, I have discovered that blue marlin poaches beautifully -- an excellent substitute for tuna in a Salad Nicoise. Not quite as rich, but very tasty. I can never find Alaskan albacore tuna, and am tempted to order it online...

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The only fish I really buy to cook at home is Salmon...it seems to be the only thing that really moves in the local supermarkets and usually looks freshest. In the past year I have bought catfish fillets, dry packed scallops, and tilapia. I used to have an Asian market that would "let" me buy the narrow end of a Tuna side as a roast, it was great to sear and serve cold and they had to cut it off a fresh side from the cooler :smile:

when do we all start eating Big Head Carp?

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Mackerel is easily my favourite fish (salt-grilled with lemon, hells yes) but it is nearly impossible to procure. The only place I buy it is HMart, which is a ways away, so it ends up being a once-a-year treat. You can also score whole fresh yellowtail and other exciting, mysteriously cheap things there on occasion.

My big five fishes are non-sockeye salmon (coho, chinook, chum), steelhead trout, and albacore tuna. All of these are hilariously cheap compared to most fish (20 bucks a pound vs. 2) and exemplify the problem well, as they only make rare appearances at the supermarket because they don't have the name recognition that sockeye does. In Vancouver I find it totally bizarre that the restaurant market is utterly awash in sushi-grade albacore loins but good luck finding them at the supermarket. Instead the only three I am guaranteed to find anywhere is wild sockeye (which I refuse to buy), red snapper (which could be ANYTHING), and sole (the blandest fish in existence, which explains its popularity).

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We are blessed to live just North of Apalachiacola Bay and have a local fish house where most of what they sell comes from very local waters. (Yes, they have wild-caught salmon flown in.)

I can't say I have a "top 5". My most frequent purchases are local hopper shrimp and blue crab meat or soft shells. But, I usually get some sort of fish... scamp, pompano, mahi-mahi, wahoo, gag grouper, tile fish, trigger fish, sea bass of various types (the local stuff), amberjack, etc. I just pick what looks good and/or try something I've not had before. I don't like mackeral or salmon.

We get good locally farmed clams, in addition to all the nice fishies out of the Gulf.

So far, we've not seen a huge impact from the oil spill, other than oysters.

I want to do what's right with regard to sustainability. But, I also want to support our local fishermen... not the huge factory ships, but our local guys. So, I don't buy fish at Publix. I buy it at our local fish market, where I know they buy most of their fish from local fishermen.

I'd rather buy a piece of scamp, caught by a local guy in shallow waters, than a piece of Pacific halibut that's on the list of "acceptable" fish, but had to be processed by some factory and then fly 1000 miles to get to me.

I really love getting that piece of scamp that was swimming yesterday and the guy just cut and laid on the ice.

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Living on the east coast of the U.S. I have more choices than many, and I eat fish probably 2-3X per week. So I like variety. But it didn't take much reflection to recognize that, when shopping for home cooking, I do stick to a core group of fish/shellfish: cod, swordfish, trout (farm raised), scallops, and salmon (farm raised).

But that's NOT all I eat, nor my top picks if given a choice. They're what I eat most often because they're available year-round, fresh, affordable, and (arguably, except for the salmon) reasonably sustainable. And when I see other fish from the northeast, such as monkfish, skate, or haddock, I happily substitute. When seasonal fish/shellfish like halibut, turbot, Pacific salmon, Maine shrimp, etc. are available and affordable, I binge. If a friend w/ a boat catches some bluefish, please, please...but i don't like the bluefish sold retail.

There are a dwindling number of small retail fish shops around and I support them when I can. Otherwise, I'm dependent on grocery stores, too. Most identify the origin of the fish, so I try to buy fish caught in regional waters. I wish I could depend on more than my usual five.


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I'm not sure where the number 5 comes from -- I'm sure for some people it's 4, for some it's 6, and for it's 0 -- but I do agree that there's a phenomenon whereby most home cooks who cook fish understandably favor a small group of products. Even a fairly ambitious home cook is likely to hesitate before purchasing and cooking a new, untested fish when it's possible to buy something that is known to work. It's the same with meat: you just don't see much beyond beef, pork, chicken, turkey and maybe lamb. Mass-market restaurants for their parts tend to track consumer preferences.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In the UK we have a severe lack of fishmongers, and the selection in supermarkets is somewhat uninspiring. The number one thing being pushed at the moment is Vietnamese River Cobbler - I don't even know what that is!

It was only a few years ago that supermarkets did use to sell quite a bit of mackerel (And herring) which I used to buy quite a lot, rarely see it now, and when you do it's of indifferent quality.

I love animals.

They are delicious.

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Where are people buying all this stuff? Fish stores? Supermarkets? High-end stores a la Whole Foods?

My freezer, the neighbors, friends, co-workers, farmers' market (usually 2-3 vendors w/shrimp, various fishes, live blue crabs, picked crabmeat, etc), and one of the three retail seafood markets in my area of approx 5,000 ppl.

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