Eating fish – sustainably and well

A Guide to Fish by Hilary McNevin and Seafood by Keith Austin

By Robyn Lewis
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Guide to Fish by Hilary McNevin

Guide to Fish by Hilary McNevin [©Fairfax Books]

Seafood, Edited by Keith Austin

 

Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi is scouring our oceans, trawling for unsuspecting and especially slow-breeding fish. You sure don't know what you've got until it's gone....

Orange roughy, once an unsaleable and abundant 'junk' fish that was given a makeover in the 80s to replace the then dwindling (and now even more endangered) shark species in pub meals and on our tables, is now - a mere two decades later - itself on the 'red list', meaning in that short space of time it has been overfished and should be placed under protection.

Australia is blessed with an abundance of seafood, but increasingly some of our species are under threat, and it's time we found out what they are - and what species we can enjoy without guilt or causing further harm to them and our environment.

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have produced two fish books in 2008: Guide to Fish by Hilary McNevin, and Seafood, edited by Keith Austin. The latter was published first, and is a large paperback compilation of recipes by noted authors and cooks/chefs Gabriel Gate, Brigitte Hafner, Lauraine Jacobs, Jill Dupleix, Kathy Snowball, Fiona Smith, Stephanie Alexander, Terry Durack, Tony Tan and more.

With such a culinary lineup, one can expect some good, innovative and tantalising recipes, and Seafood does not disappoint. However I am always somewhat sceptical of cookbooks that claim to be the ultimate book to a particular food - there are as many ways to cook something as there are cooks and chefs, and styles and tastes are constantly evolving - so when that flag is raised I look for something new, and potentially enduring.

Seafood is divided into the basic standard categories: how to buy fish (is it really such a mystery in these days of refrigeration, any more than say buying meat?), soups, starters, salads and mains. The soups seem pretty standard too, but the starters get a bit more adventurous, and I look forward to trying scallop ceviche one day. I am fortunate to live right next to an oyster farm, so I confess my seafood starters normally consist of a quick trip over the road to pick up a few dozen, shucked only hours previously, and washed down with a riesling, pinot gris or semillon, depending on the weather and the day.

Salads however are another kettle of fish (pardon the pun) and it's in this sort of presentaton that I suspect many Australians, including myself, fail to make the most of our seafood. Here we find MoVida's grilled cuttlefish salad, salads of trout, of salmon, squid, sardines and even Murray cod. Experimentation would surely yield good dividends here, especially leading into summer. Yum.

The mains are varied, largely along Mediterranean or Asian themes, but with some interesting Mexican and Goan contributions. Disappointingly for a wine-lover such as myself, there is nothing on matching the various fishes and dishes to appropriate wines; white wine with fish might have been an adage back in the days when all fish was either grilled, fried or baked, and all whites were dry, medium or sweet, but those days are long past, and braised octopus, Cantonese steamed fish and fried whole sardines with olives and pinenuts deserve better (i.e. some) advice. If we still need recommendations on how to determine if a fish is fresh, then we surely need them on what wines to complement them and bring out the best of both.

Hilary McNevin's Guide to Fish takes a totally different and refreshing approach, more akin to the old classic by the late, great Alan Davidson, Mediterranean Seafood. That small paperback was part taxonomic guide, part cookbook, illustrated only with line drawings and full of Latin names. Yet in spite or because of this it became a classic, for it truly took the real mystery out of buying fish - not how fresh it is (a largely redundant question in the days of on-board snap cooling and freezing, and food police to make sure storage and transport regulations are met) but what it is and what style of cooking it is best suited to (and vice versa, when you have dish in mind and want to know what sort of fish to buy for it).

McNevin lists the key questions to ask when shopping for fish as: Is it overfished? It is long-lived or slow growing? (and thus potentially vulnerable, like the venerable orange roughy that lives to 100 and does not start to breed until it's 25-30) Is it line caught, in preference to trawler caught? (in scoop nets that catch - and usually kill - everything in their wake), and is it local? (if it is, and it's in abundance, not only will your fishmonger know, but it should be fresher and also less expensive).

Her book then lists 23 Australian species that meet these criteria, including some farmed species that should also be sought out - if you aren't used to aquacultured fish, now is the time to learn, because we'll be seeing and eating a lot more of them in the next few decades, as wild fish stocks decline.

There's a photograph of each fish, with a green fish symbol for fish that can be consumed regularly (Australian salmon, bream, calamari, flathead, leatherjacket, mullet, molloway, trevaly, witing and and yellowtail kingfish), a yellow one for those it's reasonable to consume say every few weeks, and a red one (with no recipes, of course) of those species to avoid.

There is also mention of those whose position high up the food chain (e.g. swordfish, sailfish, marlin, shark aka flake, and other large predatory fish) mean they are more likely to have high levels of mercury and other heavy metals in their flesh, consumption of which not only threatens them and their ecosystems, but potentially you.

McNevin does not claim to be a chef, although she is married to a very successful seafood one, and whilst her recipes are well within the grasp of any home cook, they are also imaginative and in many cases as professional as those in Seafood. The are certainly well researched and tested. Even my husband - more conversant with the nuances of wine than cooking - will be able to cook up a storm from this!

If your question is 'where is the good fish, simply prepared and well cooked?' the answer lies in Guide to Fish.

Not only does McNevin give wine recommendations, based for example on the oiliness or delicacy of the fish, and its flavour and texture, but beer matches as well. McNevin has worked with wine for years and is confident to recommend a range of wine styles to suit most species and recipes. The beer recommendations were provided by BeerMasons, an Australian Beer Appreciation Society. Hurrah.

Guide to Fish will be sitting on my culinary bookshelf next to my dog-eared Mediterranean Seafood for years to come - when not in the glove box of my car on guilt- and anxiety-free trips to the fishmonger or supermarket (no need to hum Joni Mitchell en route, either).

If you care about what you eat and the impact of your choices on the planet, definitely buy this book. Since its publication, deep sea fish research by CSIRO has confirmed what Hilary knows and many of us have suspected: that in the depths below the reach of long lines and commercial nets, the sea remains a glorious species-rich wonderland, but above it, it's fast becoming an empty desert. No wonder the sharks are hungry.

 

Guide to Fish by Hilary McNevin is published by Fairfax Media Publications (2008), RRP A$29.95. VisitVineyards.com and Winepros Archive subscribers can purchase Guide to Fish from our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount (postage extra).

Seafood edited by Keith Austin is published by John Fairfax Publications (2008), RRP A$29.95. Our subscribers can also purchase Seafood by Keith Austin from Seekbooks at 12.5% off RRP (plus postage).

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