If someone were to serve you a meal labeled "trash fish" would you eat it? Probably not. But you would be missing out. Trash fish, as underappreciated and undervalued types of fish are often called, are some of the tastiest species in the waters. But they are part of the nearly forty percent of the world's total catch that is discarded (aka, bycatch) before it even reaches the shore. That kind of food waste is hard to swallow.
What Is "Trash" Fish?
Despite the name, trash fish aren't garbage at all. They are most often simply good fish that have yet to find a market. Lingcod, for example, is just as buttery and seductive as halibut but you'd be hard pressed to find it on many menus, mainly for lack of PR. Turns out, we eaters have a strong proclivity for the familiar and are very hesitant to try fish that don't come with a name we know. While up to as many as five hundred species of fish are sold globally, ten types of fish represent ninety percent of the total amount of seafood consumed in the United States. Just four of those -shrimp, salmon, tuna (mostly canned) and tilapia -make up the majority of the seafood that we eat. The majority of the other species? Often fishermen and -women can't even give them away. As a result, fishermen are forced to devote precious cargo space to the species proven to sell, and the remainder are either made into the crew's dinner or discarded.
It's a practice that needlessly depletes the oceans of perfectly good fish and our growing population of perfectly good food. We need to end the concept of trash fish and enjoy all of the bounty the sea has to offer, rather than just focusing our forks on a select number of over-fished varieties.
Efforts are being made to change the image of trash fish. Some are starting with the name, preferring to call them "unloved" rather than trash. Better marketing is certainly a step in the right direction.
But education around these species is really the key for changing their perception from trash to treasure. And what better way to educate than through the palate? Chefs are doing just that by putting a wider variety of species on their menus to expose eaters to the tasty possibilities of these lesser-known varieties. Since 2013 Chefs Collaborative, a group of sustainably minded kitchen professionals, have hosted "Trash Fish" dinners to show case the undervalued species by turning unpopular varieties into praise-winning meals. According to the organization, "The goal of Trash Fish dinners is to show that there's no such thing as so-called "trash fish.""
It wasn't long ago that many varieties of seafood, such as lobster, that are now prized as delicacies were considered trash fish - good for paupers and prisoners alone. It wasn't until the 1950s that lobster took on its present day luster. Before that it was considered the cockroach of the ocean and a sign of poverty to be seen eating it. It wasn't until the advent of train travel that inland passengers, unfamiliar with the reputation of the crustacean, enjoyed the lobster dishes they were served on board and began to demand it after their trip, creating word-of-mouth buzz that carried the seafood to new heights.
For food, perception is everything and it is often culturally biased. If you grew up eating something, you don't question it. Skate wing, for example, is a very common dish in France. Served meunière style with butter and capers, it's a bistro menu staple. But the fish is commonly thrown away in the US - not because it tastes bad or is bad for you, but simply because it doesn't have the street cred of salmon. Yet.
Eat All of the Fishes
As eaters broaden their seafood repertoire, the concept of trash fish will become a non-issue. Be a part of the solution. Here's how:
Talk to your fish monger: Whether you buy from a small fish market or your grocery store, start a dialogue with the person who sells you fish. Ask what's fresh, what they like. Don't know how to cook it? Ask. After a while your monger will know your tastes and you won't have to know the fish to know it's going to be good.
Trust your chef: Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and put your taste buds in the hands of a professional. They are trained to make things taste great. Let them. They very well may turn you on to your new favorite thing.
Buy direct: If you're lucky enough to live in an area that has fishermen or -women at your farmers' market or selling at road-side stands, lap up your good luck and a tasty dinner.
Join a CSF (Community Supported Fishery): Like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, CSF members pay at the beginning of the season for a share of the weekly harvest. CSFs are popping up all along the east and west coasts as a promising model that benefits captains and crews, the sea population and eaters.
Be a Do Good Eater
When you try different types of fish, you'll not only be getting a delicious dinner, you'll be creating a more sustainable future for our oceans. Eliminate the concept of trash fish and you do a lot of good. You:
- Diffuse demand. Focusing our taste buds on just a few varieties of fish puts a lot of pressure on the fish stock and can easily push it near or into extinction. Enjoying different kinds of fish gives depleted stocks a chance to recover and populations to grow.
- Make fishing more profitable. Many fishing communities struggle to survive under the pressure of such tightly defined markets. Buying all that they haul supports their work more fully.
- Respect seasonal fluctuations. Just like produce, not all fish are in season all of the time. By being responsive to seasonal changes we give stocks a chance to recover.
- Respond to ecosystem changes. Fish are wild animals that don't always run as predicted. By broadening demand we give fishers the flexibility to land what is abundant in their area.
Open up delicious opportunities. Open up your mind and your taste buds will thank you.
Recipe: Fish in Papillote
Cooking an unfamiliar fish? This method has you covered. It's a great recipe to use with a wide variety of fish from thin, delicate filets to thick, fatty fish steaks. So it's a terrific technique that you can count on no matter what the captain hauls in.
Sealing fish in a sheet of parchment paper captures all of the delicious flavor. You can change up this recipe by adding any one of the flavoring options listed.
This recipe makes one parchment pouch but you can use the template to assemble as many as you like. Throwing a dinner party? You can assemble them ahead of time, place them on cookie sheets and refrigerate for up to an hour. Serve up dinner with a nice hunk of fresh bread for sopping up all of the tasty juices that this cooking method renders.
1-1/4 pound piece of fish
One of the flavoring options listed below
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh bread (optional)
Special equipment: 1-15" piece of parchment paper
Flavoring options (choose one per pouch):
1 tablespoon herb butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon fresh tender herbs such as tarragon, parsley, dill or cilantro
1 tablespoon white wine, 1 teaspoon olive oil, pinch of dried thyme
1 tablespoon lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, 1 slice of red onion
1 tablespoon lemon juice, 4 pitted and sliced Kalamata olives, 1 teaspoon capers, pinch of dried oregano
1 tablespoon white wine, 1 teaspoon butter, 1/4 cup julienned carrots, zucchini and summer squash
Preheat oven to 375.
Fold parchment in half and then open it up. Place the fish on the parchment, just to the side of the seam. Season the fish with salt and pepper. Add the flavoring ingredients of your choice by sprinkling or piling them right on top of the fish.
Fold the parchment over top of the fish so that the ends of the paper meet. Beginning at one corner, firmly fold the edge of the parchment halves over each other in 1-inch pleats to seal the halves into a pouch.
Arrange the pouch on a cookie sheet and place in the oven. Bake until the pouch is brown and puffed and the fish is cooked through, about 11-13 minutes. Transfer the pouch to a dinner plate and cut through the top with a sharp knife (be careful not to let the escaping steam burn you). Serve the fish in the pouch, accompanied by a hunk of fresh bread if you like.