Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A fish story and a disgustingly healthy casserole

The U.S. government wants Americans to eat more than twice as much salmon and some other seafood, and less meat and poultry.
The advice comes from the seventh edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recently issued by the departments of agriculture and health. It seems just as applicable to those other North Americans who live north of the 49th parallel.

A heart-healthy casserole, with rice, salmon, four mixed vegetables, topped by canned tomatoes.
The advice might be a little disconcerting to half the people in the United States, and at least one Canadian, my wife. A survey a few years ago found that half of all Americans don’t like eating salmon, because they said it tastes “too fishy.” That’s a complaint that Joan has occasionally voiced. But Joan tolerates salmon because it’s so healthy, and sometimes even enjoys it.

As for me, I grew up not only loving the taste of salmon, but even more, enjoying the thrill of fishing and catching them. Salmon fresh from the ocean, sliced into stakes, and pan fried in real butter is a taste experience as good as it gets. Unfortunately, it’s also a totally unhealthy way to eat fish—but who knew that 65 years ago?

So let’s talk about why it’s so important to eat seafood; and how the joy I had catching and eating salmon led to a disgustingly healthy casserole dish that overpowers the too-fishy taste of salmon.

 More specifically, the new Guidelines urge eating seafood that is high in a pair of omega-3 fatty acids, known as EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic, if anyone actually cares to know). The list of food that makes the cut reads “salmon, anchovies, herring sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (but not king mackerel, which is high in mercury).” An appendix shows that four types of salmon have the most EPA and DHA with the least mercury. They are Atlantic, Chinook (aka Spring, King and Tyee), and Coho. The Chinook are the big, pink fish, prized for their size by sports fishermen, one of whom was Bing Crosby. The biggest ever caught weighed 126 pounds. Anchovies, herring and shad have at least as much EPA and DHA, but with a little more mercury. The prized, deeper red and more costly Sockeye have only about half as much EPA and DHA, while shrimp has as little at 5% as much as the top-rated salmon.

The government wants American to eat at least eight ounces of seafood every week. They now eat only 3.5 ounces per week. That figure is likely about the same for most Canadians—but probably greater for those on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

While eating more fish, the Guidelines call for eating less total food. That reflects the fact that most of the seven billion people in this world suffer from malnutrition; half because they don’t have enough to eat, and the rest of us because we eat too much. And the thing the Guidelines say to eat less of is meat and poultry, too much of it is saturated with heart-clogging saturated fat.

We are told to eat a variety of seafood. Salmon is the big thing in our house, but we also eat tuna frequently, and cod, ocean perch, and sardines sometimes.

There is a good reason to eat more of this type of seafood. It cuts your risk of being killed by heart trouble. According to the Guidelines, “Consumption of about eight ounce per week of a variety of seafood, which provides an average consumption of 250 mg per day of EPA and DHA, is associated with reduced cardiac deaths among individuals with and without pre-existing cardiovascular disease.”

For more detail, you can download the excellent, 130-page Dietary Guidelines for Americans at It’s free. Look at appendix 11 to see which seafood is the heart healthiest.

If you really care to know all the great things about salmon, you can download from the World’s Healthiest Foods, a 14,00-word essay that draws on some 60 studies by food and nutrition researchers ( It’s also free. WHF ranks salmon as a “superior” food not only because of the EPA and DHA, but also “because of its great ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, and its healthy supportive balance of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats [the MUFAS AND PUFAS). All of which is said to help reduce the risk of inflammation and “maintain the integrity of our immune and circulatory systems.” WHF ranks salmon as an “excellent source of selenium, a very good source of protein, niacin, and vitamin B12, and a good source of phosphorous, magnesium and vitamin B6.

The WHF claims that eating salmon will reduce the risk of virtually every type of heart trouble: heart attack, stroke, fatal heart arrhythmia, high blood pressure, inflammation, and deep vein thrombosis. It also cites studies claiming that eating salmon by itself, or sometimes in combination with fruits, vegetables or grain, offers a wide range of other benefits: reduced risks of colon and prostate cancer, diabetes, macular degenerations, dry eyes, obesity, sunburn and age-related dementia. Seafood is thought to help improve mood, relieve depression, avoid violent behaviour and improve mental ability. It has long been noted as brain food, and some anthropologists claims that eating seafood is how we humans originally got our big brains, which set us apart from the chimps and the apes.

How valid are all these amazing claims? Who knows? But we can be confident that salmon can help avoid heart trouble, that it’s safe to eat, and perhaps some of those extra claims are valid. But stick to wild salmon. It tastes much better than farm fish, and is probably healthier.

(With apologies to a rollicking Newfoundland folk song.)

The house on the rural west coast where I was raised perched on the brow of a hill. At the foot of the hill was the Pacific shore, strewn with big driftwood logs, stumps and other battered wood; a pebble beach when the tide was high but with sharp, barnacle-crusted boulders when it was low; and our family yacht, a 14-foot, clinker-built rowboat. A mile or more offshore, directly opposite our house, was the largest and most easterly of four islands. And when the salmon were running, from May to September, near the rocky easterly point of that island was usually the best place to catch Coho, one of the four types of salmon rated heart-healthiest by the new Guidelines.

During the languid summer months when the salmon were running, I was the main fish catcher in our family, from the time I was 11 or 12 until I left home at 18. Dad, when younger, had been a cowboy who rode Brahma bulls in the small-town rodeos of Southern Alberta, and wasn’t really thrilled about riding a rowboat. When my younger brother took out the boat it was more often not to fish but to row several miles up the coast to visit the girl he eventually married.

My fishing mentor was Nells Strom, who worked at a sawmill at New Westminster in the winter, and in the summer rowed some 40 miles in a driftwood rowboat to his tiny driftwood cabin on the island. It was then the only inhabited building on any of the four islands, which are now studded with substantial houses. Nells sawed and planed lumber from driftwood cedar, which he used to build his boat, without the help of power tools. He sold his salmon to wives in the houses that straggled along the dirt road and potholes that served as our coastal highway. He pronounced the fish just as it is spelt. “Any sal-mon today, Mrs. Smith?” Nells sometimes took me fishing and taught me his secrets of catching the Coho.

Our fishing gear was primitive. No rod, no reel, no nylon line, no net to land the fish. What we had we wrapped in a short, V-notched board: less than a hundred feet of heavy, cod linen line, attached to about three feet of “piano” wire, attached to about a six-inch metal flasher, another two or three feet of piano wire, and finally the lure and hook, aptly called a spoon. One or two small lead sinkers kept the gear at the appropriate, shallow depth as I trolled for salmon.

As I rowed, about 50 feet of line and gear trailed from a willow or other supple stick jammed upright in the gunwale. More line was coiled at the bottom of the boat and the end was securely fastened so no fish could run away with all the gear. If I rowed as hard as I could, the flasher (or dodger) could be seen rising to the surface. Otherwise, as I rowed, the willow stick gently undulated back and forth with each pull of the oars.

I knew I had a Coho when the stick was suddenly bent flat. Quickly the line was untwisted from the stick to run through my fingers with just enough pressure to tire the fish as it ran for its life. When the fish tired, the line was slowly hauled in, hand over hand, until the fish again began to run, the line once more lightly braked as it ran through my fingers. A good fighting Coho, weighing as much as 10 pounds but more typically four to six, would dramatically leap from the water and angrily splash its tail. It usually took 20 minutes to an hour to get a tired fish beside the hull, ready to be flipped aboard. At first I landed our fish by sticking fingers up the gills; eventually we acquired a gaff.

Nells arrived at our house one day to ask if I would like to join him in a hand logging operation. But that was the year that I left home for the life of a newspaper man in the big city, and I had left just a couple of weeks earlier.

We managed somehow to avoid killing ourselves with our salmon stakes unhealthily fried in butter. In the late fall and winter months when there were no salmon to catch, we frequently ate canned salmon, sometimes fish that Mom had canned but more often canned salmon from the store. Mom made a casserole dish with canned salmon that was one of my favourites. It still is. But I have modified it to make it even healthier and to try to overpower the “too fishy” taste.

Other than the name and the rice, there is there nothing remotely Chinese or even oriental about this dish. But it’s difficult to find a more nutritious, delicious, heart-healthy, easy-to-make meal than this. I’ve modified it from how my mother prepared it, by adding salsa sauce, mixed vegetables rather than just peas, and Canola oil to enhance the “bio-availability” of the health benefits of tomatoes.

1.5 cups rice.
3 cans (213 grams or 7.5 ounces each) of salmon. Be sure to use the liquid. Use Coho if you can find it; it’s a red fish with better flavour than pink salmon and more heart-healthy than costly Sockeye. Use pink salmon if you can’t find Coho.
1 cup salsa sauce. Use hot or medium hot sauce if you want to maximize overpowering the fishy taste. And you can serve it with some ketchup, which also helps.
1 can (796 Ml, 28 oz) diced no added salt tomatoes.
2 tbs canola or olive oil
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables. The packaged frozen vegetables I like includes peas, carrots, whole kernel corn, green beans and lima beans.

Cook the rice. Partially pre-cook the mixed frozen vegetables. I place them in a glass bowl with perhaps a quarter-cup of water and nuke them in the microwave for about seven minutes. Drain off any remaining water. Add oil to tomatoes and mix. Place rice in a oven-proof, lightly greased casserole dish. We use a vegetable oil spray. Add layer of salmon, layer of vegetables, and top with the tomatoes and oil. Bake at 3500 F. for 45 minutes.

Nutrition notes
We’ve already covered the great health benefits of salmon. Tomatoes are also one of the world’s healthiest foods, especially when cooked with a little oil. “Eating tomato-based products every day should be a part of a healthy diet,” say researchers at The Prostate Centre, Princess Margaret Hospital, Canada’s leading cancer research hospital. (See my blog, Tomato’s Journey, April 29, 2010.) As for the vegetables, nutritionists tell us to eat a rainbow of different colours. There is red, green, yellow and white in the frozen carrots, green beans, corn and lima beans.

This dish makes six servings; three meals for Joan and me. Each serving has almost four ounces of salmon—well on your way to the recommended eight ounces per week.

TAGS. Seafood. Salmon. Coho. Omega-3 fatty acids. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Cardiovascular health.

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