In my role as director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, I am often asked, “What should be for dinner?” Unfortunately, the answer is not always so easy.
Sustainable seafood is a complicated topic, one that depends on myriad variables, making a trip to the seafood counter feel like one of those SAT questions about two trains leaving the station at different times. Factor in the cost of fresh seafood per pound, and it’s understandable why some households are reluctant to experiment with cooking seafood dishes or adding them to their regular routine.
However, sometimes the best options are not in the fresh case. Fresh seafood has seasons of availability, there are price fluctuations, and there are times when what’s in the case just doesn’t inspire! The unpredictable nature of our busy lives can also make it difficult to plan a meal with highly perishable fresh seafood. Luckily, there are other aisles in which to look for the delicious bounty of the sea.
Enter the humble can.
Canned seafood represents some of the best values in any aisle of the grocery store and also some of the most delicious ingredients to be found anywhere. Canned products offer a number of virtues that benefit your wallet, your taste buds, and our oceans. A quick inventory of commonly canned species reveals a who’s who of the top of the sustainability green list: sardines, mussels, clams, oysters, crab, herring, mackerel, pink and sockeye salmons, and yes, even some species of tuna.
There are other major benefits to eating canned seafood, the first of which is that it is accessible to everyone, everywhere. Even gas stations often carry a couple options, making this affordable protein the ultimate convenience food. The extended shelf life continues that convenience factor all the way from the time of purchase until the moment your family sits to dinner.
While fresh seafood can be a bit of a hit-or-miss in terms of the quality available, canned seafood is always consistent. Much of the time the fish are processed within hours of being caught, locking in freshness and quality. And the health benefits of canned seafood are equal to those of fresh seafood. In fact, I would say they are greater in that having a consistent go-to source of fish encourages increased consumption of this heart-healthy food. Having such convenient and cost-effective protein available at a moment’s notice enables us to reduce our consumption of other less healthy proteins.
After a long day of work with little time to plan, shop for, and prepare a meal, there’s nothing more welcoming than creating a protein and omega-3 packed meal made from pantry staples to sustain you and your family.
When shopping for canned seafood you will find a huge variety of options. Keep in mind that while canned species tend towards environmentally friendly options, sustainability should still be considered. Bringing along a copy of sustainability guidelines from the Monterey Bay or New England Aquariums will help to educate your decisions. (Also check out National Geographic’s Seafood Decision Guide.)
Other factors to consider are products that are packaged in BPA-free containers (BPA is a plastic liner within cans that is considered a health risk). Also, look for products labeled low sodium—you can always add a little seasoning such as fresh herbs and spices to accentuate flavor.
When it comes to oil-pack vs. water-pack, the choice is up to you. I prefer to use oil pack as I find that the oil takes on the rich flavor of the seafood and becomes a delicious addition to the final dish. When using water-packed seafood, more often than not there is no use for the water and so it, and the flavor it has absorbed, goes down the drain.
While canned products are traditionally maligned as convenience food and not fit for fine cooking, I respectfully disagree with this interpretation. Canned pink salmon makes for excellent salmon cakes when mixed with fresh herbs and whole grain mustard (see recipe). I prefer to eat pink salmon with the bones and skin as they offer the additional benefit of high calcium. The all-too-familiar canned tuna gets a new turn in the spotlight when paired with a mayonnaise spiked with the delicious oil from the can and the enticing flavors of nutmeg and celery.
Smoked mussels make for a fine New England-style chowder, chunky with potatoes and milky broth. The convenience is easy enough to make this a new snow-day lunchtime favorite. Sardines are once again a welcome addition to the table when accentuated with the crunch of thin shaved fennel and radishes for a healthy and easy lunch. And anchovies disappear into a rush of compliments as your family devours a pasta sauce rich in flavor and omega-3s.
Choosing and preparing sustainable seafood does not have to be as mysterious as the deep, wine-dark sea. Some of the most delicious options for quick, easy, and healthy meals may already be in your pantry. So the next time you are in a pinch and need a quick meal, remember to think inside the can.
(Check out National Geographic’s Seafood Decision Guide.)