By Esther Boateng
Battered. Fried. Baked. Flaked. Broiled. There’s a number of ways to prepare fish. That’s the easy part. The tricky part is how do you know which type of fish to eat for optimal health? The old acronym, SMASH, has been around since at least 1996, and stands for salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring. If you want a choice of fatty fish high in omega-3, this is a good place to start.
Most of us are aware of the benefits of including oily fish in our diet. High in protein, it provides us with a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain function, heart health, and normal growth and development in babies. Deficiencies have been linked to a host of health conditions like mood disorders, for example. Since our bodies can’t make these essential fats, we need to get it through food-based sources; that’s where fish comes in handy.
Like meat, fish is one of the easiest ways to get a healthy dose of protein into our diet. It’s also a great way to get a high concentration of omega-3 fats, especially if you consume a variety of darker, oily fish like salmon, sardines or mackerel. Oily fish has soluble forms of Vitamins A and D, as well as two important types of fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Plant foods like walnuts, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds provide another type of omega-3 called ALA, alpha-linolenic acid, which our bodies can convert to EPA and DHA, albeit inefficiently.
Even though I’m not a huge fan of seafood, I can appreciate a well-cooked piece of fresh fish. Yes, there’s an art to preparing and cooking fish, but not every meal has to meet Michelin standards. Fresh fish is always best, but you can also get good quality fish from a packet, tin (BPA free), or glass jar, like sardines for example.
Sardines are an excellent source of vitamin D, selenium, and calcium, as well as vitamin B12. They’re also one of the least contaminated sources of fish, and are lower in toxins and metals than larger predatory fish like tuna or swordfish. Sardines can be really satisfying due to their high fat and protein content. When I’m not in the mood to cook, but still want to have something nutritious to satisfy my taste buds, I turn to sardines with scrambled eggs on toast. A squeeze of lemon, plenty of herbs, and a dollop of guacamole help mask any oceanic flavors, which can be off putting if you’re not keen on seafood.
Alternatively, if you love fish, you might opt for recipes like Salmon Gravlax, a popular Scandinavian delicacy. I prefer to eat Wild Pacific salmon whenever possible; among other benefits, it has higher levels of vitamin D than farm raised salmon, which tends to be richer in omega-6 fats, due to the unnatural diets of the fish. As for choosing which type of salmon to cook, this depends on personal taste. In terms of fat content, King Salmon ranks the highest, followed by Sockeye, which has a strong flavor and firm texture, and cooks relatively quickly. Sockeye has the added benefit of astaxanthin (as-tuh-zan-thin), a potent antioxidant, which gives sockeye its red-orange color. Sliver has a milder taste and softer texture than the others.
Next up is mackerel, another exceptionally oily fish with a firm texture that flakes easily. I love the taste of all smoked foods, including hot smoked mackerel. This is the most common way to eat mackerel. The rich smoky flavor makes this a great fish to include in a fish pie, along with another easy-to-cook flakey fish such as sablefish. Mackerel, like anchovies, is a tasty way to add some saltiness to your dish.
Eating plain anchovies isn’t for everyone. I used to be one of those people who’d pick anchovies - and pineapple - off pizza, out of fear it would ‘ruin’ the taste of the pizza. If this sounds like you, you might want to try a dish like Jansson’s Temptation. Similar to a traditional fish pie, the generous portion of potatoes, onions, and cream masks the taste of anchovies and makes them less noticeable. This could also be a good way to introduce children to a variety of seafood, although some might consider anchovies a bit exotic for little ones.
As a child, I remember eating dehydrated snails on a stick. I wasn’t aware that I was eating large African snails, until my mum told me when I was 10 years old. From that moment on, I couldn’t bring myself to eat them again; I’d have images of the regular garden snail, and that put me off. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. Speaking of bliss, the last fish on the list, herring, falls into this category for people like my husband. As a child, he grew up eating pickled herrings as part of his diet, and he loves it. I eat most things, but I draw the line at this delicacy.
Pickling dates back well over a thousand years. It was originally used in Europe as a method to preserve food during the winter. If you’ve grown up with pickled herrings, it’s no big deal. If not, it’s exotic. I find the strong taste of herring coupled with salt and vinegar too overwhelming; it’s definitely an acquired taste. The good thing about herring is that it’s a small fish, and the bones are small enough to eat.
While some people tend to shy away from fat, oily fish is one of those instances where it does us more good than harm. Some people favor fish capsules for various personal reasons; each to their own. I prefer to get my nutrients from reliable whole food sources whenever possible. At times, this goes out of the window, say, when traveling, dining out, or eating at a friend’s house (although I have been known to bring my own supply of goodies). If I happen to eat fish - or any other food - that’s more harming than healing, I don’t beat myself up about it. The foods I eat, and the way I live my life 80% of the time is what counts.
Use 1 to 1.5 pounds of frozen salmon.
Freeze the salmon for a minimum of two days to make sure it’s free of parasites.
Thaw it on the day you want to use it.
½ cup of coconut sugar
1/3 cup of salt
½ tsp black or white pepper
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp juniper berries
Dr. Cowan’s Summer Savory Powder (optional)
½ lemon (optional)
- Crush black or white pepper, fennel seeds and juniper berries in a pestle and mortar, or you can use a handheld blender.
- Mix the dry ingredients together with the sugar and salt. This is your seasoning.
- Carefully de-bone the salmon with tweezers, and lightly trim the sides to remove thin, uneven edges.
- Squeeze half a lemon over the salmon. (Lemon is optional but it adds a nice fresh flavor.)
- Rub the seasoning evenly over the salmon. Be thorough and make sure you completely cover the whole surface, including the edges and skin side.
- Sprinkle coarsely chopped dill on top of the salmon.
- Transfer to a baking dish or a plate, and place in a Ziploc bag, or use plastic wrap to cover it.
- Place it flat in the fridge. Once it starts curing, the salmon will ‘leak,’ so it needs to rest on a flat surface. Make sure it’s tightly sealed.
- After 24 hours, flip it over to ensure an even curation.
- Let it rest in the fridge for 48 hours – or longer if you prefer a more salty taste.
- After 48 hours, remove it from the fridge.
- Rub or rinse off the seasoning, and dry pat the salmon.
- Remove the skin from the salmon with a sharp, flexible long knife. Now it’s ready to eat.
- Slice it ¾ of an inch or as thinly as you like. Garnish with finely chopped dill, or sprinkle with Dr. Cowan’s Summer Savory Powder.
In Sweden, gravlax is traditionally served with Knäckebröd - also known as crisp bread such as Ryvita or Wasa - or with scrambled eggs.