Friday, December 12, 2008

What's Up With the Seafood Watch?

(Mackerel photo by Amy Groark, kindly shared via a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License.)

If anybody is actually reading this on a regular basis, you might have noticed that I'm adding Seafood Watch ratings to my seafood recipes. I decided to do this after seeing some discussion on sustainable fish choices in some of the comments on Beyond Salmon, home of my sometimes-teacher and blogging role model Helen Rennie (aka, The Fish Queen).

I'm trying to live by the the idea that every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want to live in*. The money we spend on food is one area where we have the most access to alternatives, and where our choices have the most impact.

Each of us has to decide:

Which issues are important to us:
- ecology
- local vs. global economies
- food security
- animal treatment
- health & safety
- tradition
- social justice / fair trade
- etc.

How we should support those values:
- giving up a food vs. eating less of it
- changing our consumption of specific foods vs. focusing our attention on how they're produced, where, and by whom
- opting out of something entirely vs. using our dollar votes and voices to influence how it's made, sold, etc.
- which businesses (both manufacturers and retailers) we should support

How strictly we want to adhere to those choices:
- religiously
- carefully
- whenever practical
- more often than not
- better than we used to (i.e., the baby steps approach)

I strongly believe that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Nobody can decide for you, and nobody else should.

Not that it's wrong to put forward an argument for your own position. But nobody else is qualified to analyze your values and personal situation and decide what's right for you. And anyone who claims that there is only one right way has something to gain by having you adopt that way**.

Making a conscious decision on how to spend your food dollars takes a lot of research. But don't let that scare you off! Learning where your food comes from and how it's produced is empowering; it means that your choices are really your choices. Here are a few topics you might want to read about:
- conventional vs. organic production (and certified organic vs. not certified but meeting many or all requirements)
- pastured vs. grain-fed/industrial animal products
- local vs. non-local production (i.e., "food miles")
- monocultures and biodiversity
- social justice in the production and distribution of food
- globalization

After you educate yourself on these topics and examine your values, most of the decisions you make are going to be pretty straight-forward. They may not be easy or convenient, but they'll be pretty easy to formulate, ex: "I'm going to start buying fair trade coffee".

However, when it comes to choosing seafood, things gets more complicated. The impact your seafood purchases depends on the species, how it's fished, and where it comes from. And that means that you have to make a LOT more choices than just conventional eggs vs. cage-free.

So, in the interests of helping you make informed decisions about voting with your food dollars, I'm going to be posting the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch ratings for any seafood dishes I post. That rating assumes that the reader is buying their seafood in the US. Those of you in other countries may want to consult one of the buying guides from The Seafood Choices Alliance.

Now, I would like to make two things clear:

1) I am posting the ratings as an informational tool, not to imply what you "should" be doing. The choice is yours. I'm not going to judge you for making choices different from mine, and I'm not going to give you any brownie points for making more extreme choices than I do.

Anyone who educates themselves on the issues and makes an informed, honest choice based on their own values and circumstances has my respect, no matter where that choice falls on the spectrum.

2) This blog is NOT the place to debate issues of what people should eat, whether for health or ethical reasons. By all means, have that discussion, but take it to another venue.

* that's the subtitle of The Better World Shopping Guide. We received it as a housewarming gift from our awesome real estate agent, Ken Sazama, and I highly recommend them both.

** a quote from Shakira (a dancer in Illinois, not the Columbian singer)

Shrimp with Vanilla Bean Butter

This recipe was inspired by a lobster dish I had at Legal Sea Foods a couple of years ago. It was absolutely brilliant, but, unfortunately, was a special, and I haven't seen it since. Here is my version, adapted for serving at home.

It's fast, it's easy, it's tasty, and it will impress your guests!


As with many of my recipes, the ingredients matter. This recipe is especially sensitive to quality, so don't skimp!

Get the biggest shrimp you can find and afford. The larger shrimp will have a crunchier, crisper texture, more like that of a lobster tail. They are pricey, but it's worth it. I wait until they go on sale and then buy a bag or two. No matter what size you buy, be sure they still have their shells on. The toasty flavor that you get by cooking the shrimp in their shells is integral to this dish!

Don't substitute vanilla extract for the vanilla bean. It won't work.

And, for the love of the food gods, do not, I repeat: NOT, use margarine or other butter substitutes. You have been warned...

One substitution I can recommend is to use lobster tails (broiled in their shells) instead of the shrimp. You're on your own for cooking instructions, though; I hear it's hard to cook them through without drying them out.

Shrimp with Vanilla Bean Butter
Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as an appetizer

Prep: 5 minutes, not including thawing time
Cooking: 4 minutes


12 oz to 1 lb. shrimp, still in their shells
Olive oil or clarified butter for brushing (less than 1 Tbsp)

3 Tbsp butter
1-inch length of vanilla bean
salt to taste (optional)


- If the shrimp are still frozen, thaw them, but do not remove the shells. It's safest to thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. I usually thaw them in a bath of cool water on the kitchen counter, changing the water once or twice, and removing any ice that forms. However, that method does NOT meet food safety guidelines. I warned you, so you'd be trying it at your own risk.

- Preheat your broiler or grill on high.

- Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise, and scrape out all the tiny seeds, and place the seeds in a small microwaveable bowl or sauce dish.

- Add the butter, and microwave on the lowest power setting (try defrost!) until melted and warmed, but not spattering. Stir to mix.

(Feel free to melt the butter using the method of your choice. You can also clarify the butter for fancier presentation, but that's optional, and I prefer the flavor of non-clarified butter.)

- Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels, and place on a broiler pan or grilling skewers. Brush or spray with oil to lightly coat the shrimp, paying attention any exposed flesh.

- Broil/grill the shrimp 4-6" from the heating element, turning once, until the flesh is just opaque, and the shells are toasted, about 2 minutes per side.

The exact color of the toasted shells is up to your personal prefernce: they may have a few light brown toasty spots on them, or be somewhat blackened. The only important thing is that the flesh is fully opaque, but not dried out, and that the shells give off a nice, toasty flavor.

Serve in the shells, with dipping butter on the side.

Serving Tips:

Accompaniments: This is amazing with pan-grilled asparagus (recipe coming soon). Keep any starch accompaniments relatively neutral: creamy mashed potatoes without herbs, pasta with butter, or just some good bread. I love the idea of the texture of a creamy risotto with this, but risotto isn't really risotto without the cheese, which would clash with the vanilla... (Maybe a garlic-and cheese-free pseudo-risotto should be my next experiment...)

Wine Pairings: This is absolutely perfect for a Viognier. If this is a celebratory dinner, a decent dry champagne-style sparkling white would also work well. I am a fan of Korbel; it's not in the same league as Veuve Clicquot, but it's a very nice wine, and a good deal for the price ($12-15).

Presentation: If you really, really want to, you can shell the shrimp before serving, but they look so much nicer in their shells! It's not hard for the guests to shell them at the table: pull the meat out by hand (make sure they've cooled enough to handle), or use your fork to lift the meat out from the shell, and your knife to cut it free at the base of the tail.

For formal presentation, you can sever the meat from tail before serving (don't pull the meat out of the shell, just use a sharp knife to slice through it where it meets the tip of the tail), or provide finger bowls of lemon water and small towels or napkins.

Seafood Watch:
(Note: the rating only applies to seafood purchased in the US. Readers from other countries may want to try the Seafood Choices Alliance)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Score: Avoid

Shrimp is listed as a "good alternative" if it's produced in the US or Canada (farmed or wild), but the vast majority of shrimp you'll find is produced in supermarkets is imported, which is on the "avoid" list. Your fishmonger may be able to get you domestic shrimp, as well as lots of other tasty seafood.