Nutritional advice about fish can be hard to make heads or tails of. Studies tell us that eating more of it is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, but we're also warned that it can contain dangerous levels of contaminants, such as mercury. Then there is the damage that overfishing and aquaculture inflict on our oceans. The best strategy for navigating these murky waters? Thinking small.
Increasing our intake of little wild fish, such as anchovies and sardines, while avoiding larger predators, like tuna and swordfish, is good for our health and for the oceans, as well. Forage fish, as these plankton-eating species are known, are cleaner; because they have short life spans, pollutants don't have time to build up in their flesh. And they're more plentiful. "Forage fish are what the oceans most easily provide," says chef, writer, and sustainable-seafood advocate Barton Seaver.
When it comes to nutrition, sardines and anchovies are high in omega-3s (the fatty acids believed to be responsible for the cardiovascular benefits of eating fish) and an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and DMAE, a compound that may enhance brain function.
Today, though, very few forage fish wind up on our plates. Instead, they are used in fish oil supplements, become bait for wild tuna, or are processed into feed for animals and farmed fish. "This is a waste of a valuable resource on many different levels," says Geoff Shester, California program director at Oceana, a marine-conservation organization. "It takes seven to 25 pounds of sardines to raise one pound of farmed tuna." So, Shester contends, if we were to replace some of the farmed fish in our diets with sardines and anchovies, we would increase forage-fish populations, benefiting the marine ecosystem by boosting its food chain from the bottom up.
There is, of course, one stumbling block: Although small, strong-flavored fish are beloved in Mediterranean cultures, many Americans are wary of them. A good way to begin acquiring the taste is to use chopped anchovies as a seasoning, a stealth ingredient that adds savory, briny depth to everything from vinaigrette to tomato sauce. Or you might start with bright, piquant boquerones, the vinegar-cured white anchovies of Spain, which have a meatier texture than canned varieties. Before you know it, you'll be buying fresh sardines, which are ideal for broiling or grilling. The delicate skin becomes crisp while the flesh stays sweet and tender -- a powerful lure, indeed.