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Rick Moonen's "Big Five" Fish Theory

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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.

I was recently in London for a week and mackerel was on just about every restaurant's menu, something you would never see in the US.

When I first moved to the Chicago area about 5 years ago, our local Whole Foods had a pretty diverse fish selection, but it's gotten a lot narrower recently as their fish section focuses more on semi prepared pre marinated tilipa/salmon/halibut/etc.

We also have a lot of ethnic markets here that have a very wide variety of fish at low prices, but I have had quality issues the few times I've tried them.

A coupel of personl favorites are turbot (pretty easily available here) and skate (not so much).

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The real problem is seafood is still predominantly a wild food and this is not going to be sustainable for much longer. Look at the American diet 200 years ago as far as meat goes. It was vastly more diverse including everything from turtle to bear to pigeon. Now, we have the "Big 3" of meats, chicken, beef & pork with everything else pretty much being a rounding error. Someone in Moonen's place could have made a similar argument back then and it has been tragic the species that were brought to the brink of extinction due to overhunting. However, looking at it in hindsight, it's often hard for people in the current age to imagine what the big deal was back then.

PS: I am a guy.

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Ditto. Monterey Bay is *the* place to go if you want to try to eat seafood that are somewhat sustainably harvested. They I believe they have a handy little pocket folding card your can print to take with you to the fish store, about what's a good choice, what's a reasonable substitute, and what's really endangered. The card doesn't cover everything, though, so if you have an iphone or a blackberry or whatever with web access, bookmark the site for a quick search right there at the fish counter.

I particularly like that they give you all the different names for various fish, so you can figure out what it is that you're looking at there in the case.

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I'd be more adventurous if there was a longer list of fish that were available, fresh, sustainable, and affordable. The last one has been a bigger influence lately. My fishmonger has fish ranging from around $7 / lb to over $30 / lb. Anything approaching the high end is going to be more of a special occasion purchase for me.

My list lately has included trout, black bass, sea bream/dorade, and occasionally arctic char. For a while I was buying tillapia, but the quality was inconsistent.

Notes from the underbelly

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For me, it's pretty much "big one." Until a few weeks ago, we ate black drum once a week. Occasionally we'd have fresh shrimp another night. I only buy directly from the fishers at out farmers market, and they don't sell a wide variety.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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There's a review in this weekend's New York Times Book Review of a book called FOUR FISH: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg. The reviewer is Sam Sifton, the Times restaurant critic. Among other things, he calls out the Monterey card:

Along the way, Greenberg raises real-life ethical questions of the sort to haunt a diner’s dreams, the kind of questions that will not be easily answered by looking at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood-watch card. In truth, he shows, there is rarely such a thing as a good wild fish for any of us to eat, at least not if all of us eat it.

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

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It was a very interesting review -- I love reading just about anything Sam Sifton writes -- and sounds like a book worth reading.

It's hard not to study this issue in detail without coming to the conclusion that there is very little we can eat besides plants that are grown on a small scale, in a sustainable way, that isn't going to contribute to the depletion of other species. And the impact of what you grow also depends on other factors, like where your water comes from, whether the land benefits wildlife by being cropland, what the surrounding landscape is like -- all kinds of issues.

The bottom line is that there are too many of us, no matter where in the world we are talking about. And our ability to cause devastation has increased to a point where it would be laughable if it weren't tragic. As a species, we take over new territory and exploit it. That's what we've always done, that's why we've been so successful. At least until now.

So it's true that trying to choose fish that is somewhat sustainable according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is, in the end, perhaps a wasted and futile endeavor. I'm certainly aware of that every day that I purchase food; I know that time is running out, and it's just going to be a question of how bad things will get in my lifetime.

But that doesn't stop me from trying to make the most thoughtful decisions I can. These days the history of my food probably matters more to me than how it is prepared. These things are so basic, so essential, so primal: the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. And yet our culture now takes those things for granted, turns them into commodities, convenience items, things to rush past on the way to something more entertaining.

There aren't any easy answers; but I think it's worth thinking about the question, one meal at a time.

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You Yanks have me at a 24hr disadvantage: On the left coast we don't see the Sunday Book Review until.....Sunday, so I had no idea what you were talking about until yesterday morning. Four Fish is on my library list, and no fish are on my shopping list. I'm really depressed.

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What is your personal "big five"?

In my kitchen, there are four species of fresh fish in heavy rotation:

1. farmed Atlantic salmon

2. haddock

3. mackerel

4. halibut

After that it's a tie for five:

5. ocean perch/pollock/hake/monkfish/char/trout

I now buy less top-of-the-food-chain predators like big tuna, swordfish and shark.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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This topic was on my mind last week while at a family reunion on the Florida panhandle. I stopped at a small retail fish market and saw this:


Left to right: pink snapper, grouper, farmed salmon, yellowfin tuna, scamp, red snapper, mahi-mahi; off-screen are grouper cheeks and a variety of crustaceans and bivalves (all of it except the salmon were caught or harvested near Apalachicola).

We dined at nine restaurants during the week, all featuring fin- and shellfish. Along with shrimp and oysters, grouper, mahi-mahi and salmon were ubiquitous, as was tilapia (like the salmon, farmed far, far away). At only two places was snapper available, and the single venue offering scamp (a delicious fish) was the restaurant attached to the market in the photo. Oh, that beautiful tuna? Its most likely destination is a smoker; following that, it will be chopped and made into a dip, which is served as an app almost everywhere.

(Don't be misled by the prices. This is a store that caters to vacationers staying at million-dollar beach houses. At a less posh market in Panama City, we saw red snapper for $7/pound, king mackerel for $3, mahi-mahi for $5, and grouper for $9.)

Dave Scantland
Executive director
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Like Chris, being in Oklahoma good fresh fish is hard to come by. I have all but given it up really. But when I want some decent fish I go to my local Asian hyper mart and pick up what may look good that day. There is really only one fish we will buy in the stores and that is tilapia. It seems hard to mess up tilapia, so if you get it frozen no big deal.

And this is very sad for me, coming from Seattle to have to say.....

"I eat fat back, because bacon is too lean"

-overheard from a 105 year old man

"The only time to eat diet food is while waiting for the steak to cook" - Julia Child

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I notice that the variety of fish available in Japan has plunged since supermarkets took over from specialist fish vendors. I've often tried to work out exactly which fish are the big movers...I'd have to say that even in terms of volume, tuna has a huge place in the chilled display, though that's partly because anything remotely related to it is going to get the "something-tuna" label. I suppose part of the lack of variety comes from increasing dependency on imported fish (and that's been coming ever since the 200-mile territorial waters concept became law). For the past decade, Japan has imported more fish than it catches.

So. The fish that I always buy varies a little bit, but I tend to check price and quality of sardines and mackerel first, and then start seeing if there are any other good buys. Our family packed lunches are almost always fish. I guess childhood experience dies hard...husband would eat only salmon or greenling if possible (good ole Hokkaido boy), I grew up eating snapper, mackerel, and flounder, and so my children have also grown up enjoying mackerel. Hmm, time for mackerel po' boy to hit the menu again!

What's always in the shops?

Tuna (about 2 varieties?)

Squid (seasonal variety)

Sardine (2-3 varieties)

Mackerel (2 varieties, according to season)

Salmon - salmon and salmon-trout

Yellowtail (farmed)

As salted, semi-dried fish: mackerel, horse mackerel, greenling (hokke).

For much of the year: horse mackerel, saury

Things you are likely to see even in small supermarkets, depending on region and season...but the truth is that many people no longer feel confident in cooking many of these: snapper, skipjack tuna, spanish mackerel (sawara), yellowtail - half-grown, white croaker (ishimochi), grunt (isaki), alfonsino (kinmedai), various flatfish, alaska pollock (sukesou-dara), flying fish, herring, cod.

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Well I have a couple of pretty big strikes against me as a contributor to this thread.

First I live in dry and land-locked AZ. We may have the most number of boats registered of any state in the country (honestly, can you even believe it?), but we're not exactly a fresh fish mecca. Second, I'm highly allergic to many commonly eaten fish (like cod, haddock, halibut, flounder/sole etc) so my "Big Five" are a bit different.

Salmon, Tuna, Mahi-mahi, Shark are all favorites but all eaten very infrequently. Though not a "fish" local shrimp also makes it to our table from time to time.

"LOCAL SHRIMP IN ARIZONA?" I hear you ask... Surprisingly AZ has a growing inland shrimp farming industry. There are four shrimping operations in Arizona, all raising Mexican white shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei in brackish (salty) groundwater. The farms recycle much of the shrimping water by growing auxiliary crops of tilapia, date palms, olive trees or field crops.

If shellfish are under consideration we also get dry scallops, mussels, whole-belly shucked clams, steamers, and lobster over-nighted to us from ME or MA from time to time (special occasions), and have a friend in WA who sends us Dungeness crabs in season.

Fresh water fish and shellfish for us would include trout, catfish, and crawdads

The Big Cheese


My Blog: "The Kitchen Chronicles"

BMR on FaceBook

"The Flavor of the White Mountains"

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  • 3 weeks later...

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

The guy is such a fraud about the whole sustainability schtick, and I'm glad the judges called him out on it during Top Chef Masters during the Finale. He can talk the talk, but can't walk the walk.

Although, I wish he'd been called out earlier in Episode Six. In that episode, he won the quickfire challenge and had first pick for ingredients for Surf and Turf elimination challenge. And, he ended up picking the worst ingredient, from sustainability point of view, with monkfish when he had better options like squid.

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Bullhead, crappie, bluegill, perch, and walleye. All fresh water and local. Why? Because this is Iowa. Getting quality saltwater fish here is iffy.

My dad fished to supplement our food stores all year round. We had a fish fry once a week growing up, generally served with fried cheese balls and french fries. It was our junk meal. It was appreciated that my dad went out and actually caught our food. And, though the fillets from that fish were, most times, on the small side, it was always really good. I still don't know what he puts in his fish breading, but it's great the next day, cold, soft breading aside.'

And, yes, I eat bullhead. You just have to eat around all those tiny bones.

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I live in San Francisco. We cook seafood as often as we have beef. In order of most to least home consumption:


Salmon -- farmed or wild, sometimes smoked

Octopus -- we have a lot of takoyaki








We really only have a top 3. Everything below is nearly the same frequency. Why? I don't like salmon, but everyone else does. But I do the cooking. When I grab non-salmon for dinner, I always try and vary it up.

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  • 2 weeks later...

There's a review in this weekend's New York Times Book Review of a book called FOUR FISH: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg. The reviewer is Sam Sifton, the Times restaurant critic. Among other things, he calls out the Monterey card:

Along the way, Greenberg raises real-life ethical questions of the sort to haunt a diner’s dreams, the kind of questions that will not be easily answered by looking at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood-watch card. In truth, he shows, there is rarely such a thing as a good wild fish for any of us to eat, at least not if all of us eat it.

Having read said book and attended a lecture by Mr. Greenberg at the Pew Charitable trusts, it would appear that Mr. Moonen also read the book (or at least heard of it) and then decided to add another fish to formulate his ambiguous theory; the brief interview in no way isolates specific fish species which Mr. Greenberg's does.

Mr. Greenberg is a dedicated, prolific writer/angler and deserves credit for the # fish theory.

Mr. Moonen's theory is consistent with his spastic Top Chef performance.

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  • 10 years later...

For me I generally eat what I catch: Bass, Carp, Channel Catfish, Trout, Pike, Perch, Freshwater Drum


Living in rural Ontario, the choice in stores is terrible, not very fresh and expensive. I also like to cook fish whole (esp. Bass, Trout, Carp and Perch/panfish) and 99% of the fish are already filleted.


@Chris Amirault There is an excellent and informative book called Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe, it goes into detail about how to choose what fish and seafood to consume.


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