- Environmental Health -

Conscious Catch

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Chef Rick Moonen celebrates the ocean’s sustainable bounty.

Rick Moonen has been passionate about sustainable seafood for a long time: “Twenty years ago, I was telling people, ‘We’re going to kill every last swordfish if we don’t do something now,’” the renowned chef recalls. “I was seeing the quality degrade as boats were traveling farther and farther out to find any fish. What they did end up finding was scrawny, and it took so long to get back to shore that it was slimy. I also kept reading the science saying that swordfish were heading toward extinction, and all I could think was, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something?’”

Someone — or rather, a lot of someones — eventually did, and in the late 1990s, Moonen began working with SeaWeb, an international ocean conservation group, on its “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign. The initiative aimed to persuade fine-dining chefs nationwide to stop serving swordfish, and their efforts gradually allowed the species to rebound.

But just because swordfish were in a better place didn’t mean Moonen could rest easy. As one of the country’s leading seafood chefs, Moonen — who made his name at New York City’s Oceana and The Water Club — felt he had a responsibility to help people understand that “sustainable” has to be a way of life. So, in 2001, he was one of the first restaurateurs to sign on to the Seafood Choices Alliance, a SeaWeb initiative that continues to advocate for sustainable practices in the seafood industry.

“Some days I feel like the guy in the middle of Park Avenue, thumping on my Bible and talking to traffic, but it’s just that important to me,” the ­longtime New Yorker told me during a recent phone interview from Las Vegas, where he’s currently leading RM Seafood at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. “We don’t have to destroy the oceans and drive every species to commercial extinction.”

Moonen is now spreading that gospel beyond industry insiders to the average home cook. His book, Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook’s Essential Companion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), which he penned with the help of veteran cookbook editor Roy Finamore, makes preparing sustainable, delicious seafood easier than ever.

“Every morning, Roy and I would meet with nothing but a pencil and a pad at Whole Foods and see what they had. Then we’d carry the ingredients up to his tiny New York City apartment, to his four-burner stove with a single oven,” he recalls. “It was really important that it wasn’t me, Rick Moonen, with a crazy million-dollar kitchen and all kinds of prep cooks and dishwashers at Oceana — it had to be the kind of kitchen that everyone has.”

As they developed their recipes, Moonen and Finamore also came up with a few guidelines and simple, delicious dishes that the at-home cook can make, regardless of what’s available or in season. One of those guidelines? Start with mussels.

Mussels are not only inexpensive (typically around $5 or $6 a pound), they’re also a perfect, sustainable choice, Moonen explains. Farmed mussels — the only ones you’re likely to see — actually clean the water as they filter-feed on microscopic creatures. Plus, they’re really easy to cook.

“You know how much people like those turkeys with the little pop-out timers that springs up when the bird is done? Mussels have the same thing going for them,” he says. “You put them in the pot, close the lid, and when they’re ready, they spring open! Are they done yet? Closed: No. Open: Yes. What’s so scary about cooking seafood now?”

Shellfish aren’t just easy to prepare; they also deliver a lot of flavor. “They’re like little parcels of the ocean,” Moonen says. “And once you do a couple pots of mussels, try them with rice, a little saffron and a couple sausages for a paella. Paella sounds hard, right? But once you build up your confidence by making mussels a few times, it isn’t hard at all.”

Moonen hopes that once you’re more comfortable cooking seafood, you’ll also feel a more personal connection to the ocean and begin advocating for ­sustainable choices at your local market, too. Maybe you’ll even join him in the middle of Park Avenue, haranguing the traffic (at least figuratively). But, no matter how you choose to participate in Moonen’s mission, his delicious seafood dishes will sustain you — and our fragile oceans — along the way.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated nine times for James Beard Foundation awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies. Her new book is Drink This: Wine Made Simple (Ballantine, 2009).

WEB EXTRA!

Classic Steamed Mussels

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 6 tbs. minced shallots
  • 1 tbs. minced garlic
  • 2 lbs. mussels, scrubbed and debearded
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup bottled clam juice
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 2 tbs. Dijon mustard
  • 2/3 cup chopped mixed fresh parsley and mint

Heat a deep, wide pot over high heat. When the pot is good and hot, add the oil, shallots and garlic, and cook for 30 seconds, stirring. Add the mussels, wine and clam juice, and immediately slap on the lid and shake the pot. Cook, shaking the pot often, until the mussels open, about four minutes (the larger the mussels are, the longer they will take to cook). Transfer the mussels to a large bowl with a large spider or slotted spoon, and cover them with a kitchen towel to keep them warm. Reduce the heat to medium-high. Reduce the liquid by half, then turn off the heat. Whisk in the lemon juice, mustard and half the herbs. Add the mussels (and any juices in the bowl) back to the pot and stir well, then divide the mussels and sauce among four big soup plates. Garnish with the remaining herbs and serve immediately with bread to sop up the juices.

WEB EXTRA!

Paella

Serves four

  • 4 chicken thighs (about 1 3/4 pounds)
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
  • 2 tbs. olive oil
  • 1/2 pound Spanish chorizo, casings removed, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 tbs. chopped garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. saffron threads
  • 1 1/2 cups long-grain rice (don’t use converted)
  • 1 bouillon cube (optional)
  • 1 ripe tomato, chopped
  • 2 cups water
  • 12 littleneck clams, scrubbed
  • 4 (3-ounce) pieces black sea bass, about 1 inch thick, skin on*
  • 1 pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded
  • 1 cup frozen peas, rinsed under hot water to defrost
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

Heat a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan’s hot, add the oil and chicken. Brown the chicken well on both sides. Remove the chicken to a plate. If the chicken has released a lot of fat, spoon some out; you want about 3 tablespoons left in the pan.

Add the chorizo and sauté, stirring, until it browns, about four minutes. Add the onion and sauté, stirring, until it becomes translucent, about three minutes. Add the garlic and saffron and sauté, stirring, for about one minute, until fragrant. Add the rice and stir. Crumble in the bouillon cube, if using, add the tomato, and pour in the water. Stir, return the chicken to the skillet, and bring to a simmer.

Bury the clams in the rice, hinge down. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, season the fish with salt and pepper. Add the mussels to the pan, pushing them hinge down into the rice, then add the fish, skin side up. Cover the pan and cook for 10 minutes. Scatter the peas over the rice, cover again, and cook for two minutes. Turn off the heat and let the paella rest for 15 minutes.

Garnish with parsley and serve right from the skillet.

*You could replace the sea bass with rouget, striped bass, dorade or even sea scallops.