In 2008, actor Jeremy Piven, better known as the insanely high-strung Ari Gold from Entourage, pulled out of a Broadway play because of mercury poisoning. An avid sushi eater, he blamed his illness on some bad tuna, but the play's writer, David Mamet, was dubious, responding, “[Piven] was leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”
So what's the real deal with mercury poisoning? How much fish is safe to eat? And if you're not rollin’ in dough, how can you afford it? For the answers, we sat down with Jeff Black, Corporate Executive Chef and owner of BlackSalt seafood restaurant in Washington, D.C., one of the Washingtonian’s 100 Best Restaurants of 2011.
It's All in the Eyes (and Gills)
If you’re looking to upgrade from frozen fish sticks, try a local grocer or fish market. Just make sure to do business with the same vendor so you don’t purchase crummy fish. “When I buy fresh fish, I look at the eyes, and the gills. The gills should be red, and when you cut into the skin, it should be clean cut, with no discoloration,” Black advises. He also says you should cook fish immediately. “Don’t freeze it. When you put fish in the freezer, the water held within the cell freezes and breaks the cell walls down, which makes the fish mushy.” Also, be aware of the names of fish. There are multiple names for the same fish, often depending on the region. For example, white tuna is actually a butter fish, but some consider albacore tuna a white tuna, which can throw off consumers.
Tried These Yet?
There's more out there than canned tuna and salmon. Black recommends cobia or trigger fish, which grill easily. “You don’t need to do a whole lot with it except to add salt, pepper and olive oil.” Another option is black sea bass, which is a great substitute if you like rock fish. If you're strapped for cash, try the drum fish. “It's small, and you can get a whole fish that ranges from four to nine pounds. It's delicious off the grill. You can pan-sear it and doesn’t need a lot done to it,” he says.
If you're eating out, try something new that may be too challenging to cook at home. “The turbot fish is phenomenal. It is a bit pricey, but it is a delicate, wonderful fish.” Another great option is the sturgeon. This is a fatty fish, which also has a mild, subtle flavor.
Keepin' it Grill
Cooking fish doesn’t have to be intimidating. The most important thing is to understand how your particular cut of fish should be cooked. “Fish cooked on the bone is more flavorful than fish cooked off the bone," Black says. "If you’re a novice, don’t try a whole fish,” but if you’re up for the challenge, he suggests, “First, season the cavity and get the scales off. I generally make two to three cuts towards the head into the meat. This is mostly to heat the fish through the back bone. Spray some foil with Pam and lay it on the grill. A really easy way to check if the fish is cooking is to pull the meat up behind the head.”
For more flavor, contrast a marinade with the type of fish. “If it’s a flavorful fish, like tuna or salmon, you don’t need to do a whole lot to it,” he recommends. For lighter, flakier fish, there are a variety of marinade flavors you can add depending on your taste. “You can have Italian, Southwestern or Mediterranean,” Black notes. Italian marinades include flat-leaf parsley, tomatoes or white wine. Southwestern marinades are often made with jalapeños, cilantro or lime juice, while Mediterranean marinades use a great deal of garlic and olive oil.
If your kitchen is currently only used for grilled cheese sandwiches, start with an easier fish. Mahi-mahi is a great option because it's cooked through the entire cut. Other fish, like tuna, are fickle and require specific temperatures or they'll overcook.
Toxicity & Sustainability
If you’re still stuck on canned tuna, don’t stress. “I try not to be too elitist about fish,” Black says, but just "make sure to find tuna that has no bycatch.” Bycatch is fish caught unintentionally, and raises sustainability issues. A great canned tuna option is American Tuna, a high quality wild albacore tuna.
Mercury levels are a real concern with tuna, but Black believes that balance is key to avoiding toxicity. “I eat fish three to four times a week, but I only eat salmon three times a year. Stay away from the same fish. Also, bigger and more mature fish tend to have more mercury.” He adds, “Nothing is sustainable if everyone turns their appetite to it. The key is to mix it up.” Enhance your diet while avoiding mercury poisoning by choosing fish that are traceable, ecologically sustainable and look more appetizing than your high school’s tuna surprise.