Here's why you should invite "trash fish" to the table. Read on for the Cinderella stories of the sea.
Branzino Mediterranean
Branzino Mediterranean
| Credit: Buckwheat Queen

Sustainability is at the top of most everyone’s consciousness lately, as it should be. And the seafood industry is taking notice, too. As technology in both fishing and aquaculture (aka, fish farming) supports greater yield and efficiency, it's increasingly important for consumers to be aware of both the quantity and the type of seafood we eat. Being mindful is critical to ensure that harvest happens at a sustainable rate, overfishing does not occur, bycatch is kept to a minimum, and that we support practices and sources that raise farmed fish right.

Whew. That sounds like a lot of responsibility. But there's actually a very simple way for us to approach the issue: diversifying what we eat. Bottom line, it’s time to invite “trash fish” over for dinner.

What is “trash fish?” According to Frank Palermo, veteran commercial seafood buyer, fishmonger, and owner of Claws Seafood Market on Long Island, New York, “Any item that is bycatch is typically considered trash fish--things that fishermen aren’t going out for but are in their nets in abundance--and sustainable by its very nature because of its availability versus consumer demand.”

So, historically, lobster was a trash fish. Once upon a time, this high-ticket luxury item was considered refuse fit only for the palates of the poor, prisoners, or servants. Yesterday's trash fish is today's priciest entree. And lobster's "rags to riches" tale is good to remember. By broadening our horizons in terms of what fish we’re willing to eat, we can discover something new and delicious. But what's more, we can play active roles in popularizing below-the-radar varieties, while helping to level out demand for more “conventional” fish that face overexposure. All this while saving money, too, since fish that float below the mainstream are cheaper.

So here’s to unlocking the sea’s greatest treasures. Let’s discover the next “lobster.”

Meet the Next Trash Fish

What’s in a name? Not a whole lot, when it comes to trash fish. Take, for instance, the Patagonian toothfish, that ugly slack-jawed denizen of the deep sea. You’ve had it before as Chilean sea bass, and admit it--you loved it. In fact, we loved it so much that it’s now woefully overfished, and we should really start looking for other types of buttery white fish to try. Don’t be deterred by handles like scup, dogfish, sand dabs, wolf eel, hake, or pollock. Be not afraid to order grunts, slimeheads, lionfish, skates, or ling cod. In the hands of knowledgeable fishmongers, who cares what they’re called as long as it’s good?

Pan-Seared and Crusted Ling Cod
Pan-Seared and Crusted Ling Cod | Photo by Allrecipes Magazine

Chefs and restaurateurs have taken the lead in supporting sustainable seafood and introducing diners to the pleasures of trash fish. Monkfish, for example, is a sustainable fish that was considered off-putting before it hit gourmet menus. Conscientiously raised branzino has also enjoyed a status bump.

Palermo talks up lionfish, which is gaining ground in New York City and coastal Floridian restaurants, and praises Asian carp as “the most underrated, invasive offering I can think of. Coming from states in the South, Asian carp has all the attributes the U.S. market is looking for: bright white and clean meat, high in protein, low in fat, mild in taste.” The flavor profile is similar to hake, which has found its way into more supermarket display cases and, therefore, home kitchens. Palermo confides, “It’s been an item we’ve been trying to get people hooked on for the last three years. It’s similar to cod but sweeter in taste, and is one of my all-time favorites. Plus, it’s wild-caught and highly sustainable.”

Sometime commercial fisherman and all-the-time chef Thomas Fazio of Fork & Fiddle and Prohibition Kitchen on Long Island agrees about hake, but adds, “I love the sustainability behind mahi-mahi--also called dolphinfish and dorado. They grow incredibly fast and are super-versatile as well.” He adds, “I would love to see more of the American market have access to blackfish (tautog) as, in my opinion, it is easily the best fillet of fish from our local waters."

Grilled Mahi-Mahi With Spicy Mango Sauce Photo by Chef John
Grilled Mahi-Mahi With Spicy Mango Sauce | Photo by Chef John

Both experts have feelings for bluefish that are as strong as its flavor. Palermo says, adamantly, “It’s 100% the most sustainable item we have in New York, but is a difficult sell because of the rich oils that give it such deep flavor.” However, he’s found that smoking it with applewood and a maple syrup glaze is a successful way to prepare this extremely inexpensive fish that has historically sold for as little as 20 cents a pound. But “it’s a lot of work,” he admits. Fazio supports this, stating that bluefish has seen “a major change in perception with people looking for a high-oil fish that can be cured or smoked easily...we’ve seen the price drive as high as $1.50 per pound.”

Also prolific are skate wings, which Sag Harbor chef Sam McCleland of The Bell & Anchor serves on the bone as a special during cold weather. “It’s a local fish and inexpensive, the flavor is mild and sweet, and the meat flaky,” he opines.

Whiting is a traditional bycatch species, a fin fish that has suffered from its low price point. “People think that because it’s cheap, it can’t possibly taste good,” says Chef David Mannes of Pasta Lovers NYC. “But it’s mild and meaty, and if you get it filleted already, there’s no labor involved. It’s actually a staple at my own Christmas Eve table each year and more chefs should use it for fish and chips.”

Fazio also sees whiting as the sleeper hit waiting to happen, and predicts ling (cod) as another up-and-comer ready to meet tilefish and blowfish on upmarket menus. He and Palermo consider scup, or porgie, the next comeback kid of trash fish of New York, and call it a “premier species of interest in sustainable seafood over the next decade.” Additionally, Palermo has seen increased demand for herring and sardines as tastes evolve toward bolder fish. Mannes, meanwhile, is open to adding anything to his menu “that will give the other fish a rest,” he says with a smile.

But professional opinions aside, the next big thing in sustainable seafood is really entirely up to us. Which fish will we launch into supper superstar status?

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