A dish of sustainable fish

by Lauraine Jacobs / 07 April, 2012
If we care about the environment, we should eat seafood that’s on the “best choice” list, says Lauraine Jacobs.

Sustainability is a buzz word of the culinary scene. When asked about their food styles, chefs usually say it’s all about cooking with fresh local seasonal ingredients that have been sustainably produced. An admirable answer, yes, but what does this mean? I hope their view of sustainability means food produced in a manner that doesn’t leave the planet in a worse state. We should each leave invisible “footprints”.

We should question the provenance of our food and our purchasing choices should lead to improvement rather than decline of the planet. Some international industrial food companies showed disregard for the environment in the latter part of the past century, so it’s pleasing we’re finally waking up to the effects of food production.

Our fishing industry is a prime example of the welcome change in direction. A Government-enforced quota system ensures our fish stocks are kept at a sustainable level.

Regular reporting and testing leads to constant adjustment of the allowable catch of any species, so it is never again overfished. In the 1980s the orange roughy catch was so extensive that stocks of this fish fell to dangerously low levels. We’ve seen little of it since, but I have been assured stocks are rising again. The Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society has just released the 2012 Best Fish Guide (which can be downloaded at their website here). This takes sustainability a step further than the Government has and considers the effect of fishing methods and practices on the ocean.

The society recommends fish should be line-caught rather than harvested in purse seine nets or by bottom trawling, and is concerned about birds, seals and other fish species, which can be injured or killed as a by-catch of commercial fishing. Forest & Bird has ranked all fish caught in New Zealand waters from “best” through to “worst” choice.

The latest fishing guide could signal a sea change for many households, as snapper and orange roughy languish at the bottom of the list, whereas anchovies, pilchards, albacore, cockles, kahawai and kina are top choices. If we consumers really care about the environment, it is up to us to start demanding the most sustainable species in supermarkets and takeaway shops. We need to get adventurous and try something different. The best news is that many of these fish are often more affordable than the “worst” choice fish.

We also tend to shy away from buying frozen fillets, but frozen fish is often the freshest you can buy. Fishing boats process fish as the catch is hauled in many miles offshore, then blast-freeze it to retain freshness. When cooking fish from frozen, defrost it in the fridge, then cook immediately.

You may be surprised how fresh it can taste. Although some people view the cooking as problematic, fish is always better underdone than cooked until it’s starting to dry out. I love my fish raw, and am always astonished when I hear about folk who send back their fish in restaurants when it’s a little undercooked in the centre. This is how it should be served.

To cook almost any fish, first sprinkle the fillets with a little flour, salt and pepper, then place in a medium-hot frying pan with a knob of butter or a splash of olive oil. Cook gently on both sides until the surface starts to brown and crisp. Serve with lemon wedges. Kahawai (near the top of the best list) is often overlooked, but it makes excellent fishcakes. This recipe works well with any fresh flaky fish.


  • 250g smoked kahawai

  • 100g fresh white fish (gurnard, trevally, blue cod)

  • 2 potatoes, boiled or steamed

  • 1 spring onion, finely chopped

  • 2 tsp freshly chopped thyme

  • few sprigs parsley, chopped

  • juice and zest of a lemon

  • 2 tbsp butter

  • 2 tbsp flour

  • ½ tsp ground cumin

  • salt and pepper

  • 1 bay leaf

  • 6 tbsp milk

  • salt and pepper

  • 1 egg

  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs

  • butter and olive oil for frying

Put the fish, potatoes, spring onion, herbs and lemon zest into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, leaving the mixture slightly chunky. Make a “panade” to bond the cakes together. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then add the flour, cumin, salt, pepper and bay leaf and stir until the fl our starts to cook. Add the milk and stir until thick and
bubbling. Add with the lemon juice to the fish mixture, then season to taste with salt and pepper and stir. Leave to cool before forming the mixture into 6 large cakes. Beat the egg, then dip each fi shcake into the egg before coating completely with panko crumbs. Refrigerate. To cook, melt a little butter in some olive oil in a heavy frying pan and gently cook the cakes on both sides until golden. Serve at once with a spicy chutney or limefl avoured mayonnaise and salad. Serves 4-6. Wine match: chardonnay.

I LOVE TO make a tasting plate for a starter when I’m entertaining, and many of my friends have been introduced to raw fish this way. Kingfish are plentiful and highly rated in the guide.


  • 200g fresh kingfish (or use gurnard, trevally or tarakihi)

  • juice and zest of a lemon

  • 2 tbsp olive oil

  • 2 tsp pink peppercorns

  • 2 tsp finely chopped parsley

  • sea salt flakes to taste

For the salad

  • 1 small cucumber

  • half a punnet of microgreens (or baby salad leaves) handful of Asian-style herbs (coriander,
    thai basil, vietnamese mint, etc)

  • 2 tsp soy sauce 1 tsp sesame oil

  • 1 tsp fish sauce

  • 6 slices cold smoked salmon

Slice the fish into paper-thin ribbons. Spread out on the serving plate and drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil. Scatter over the lemon zest, peppercorns and parsley and dust with sea salt flakes. To make the salad, cut the cucumber into fine ribbons with a potato peeler. Place in a small bowl with the washed and dried greens and herbs. Toss with the soy sauce, sesame and fish sauce. To serve, divide the fish between 6 plates. Make a small mound of the dressed salad and place alongside the fish. Finish with a slice of smoked salmon for each plate. Serves 6. Wine match: sauvignon blanc.
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