Belgian Mussels with Ale

Mussels are a shellfish that don’t get nearly enough praise.  Not only are they delicious, they are also incredibly nutritious, affordable, and sustainably farm raised.  With only a handful of ingredients, mussels can go from fridge to table in under 15 minutes.  They are just as high in protein as red meat, but way lower in fat, saturated fat, and calories.  Mussels are loaded with healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, B Vitamins, and essential minerals.  And, I can always find live mussels in the grocery store for four to five dollars per pound (but there are several mussel farms in Washington State, so I’m sure they aren’t as easy to locate in other parts of the country).


mussels growing wild on a rock

Don’t confuse shellfish farming for fish farming.  Farmed fish (especially salmon) pollute the environment, consume vast quantities of fish meal. threaten wild fish, and contain contaminants.  Farmed shellfish, on the other hand, are incredibly low impact.  Because farmed mussels filter feed from seawater, no fish meal or oils are required to feed them.  Diseases are rare, so no chemicals or drugs are required to treat them.  They are grown almost identically to how they would naturally grow in the wild and this makes them incredibly healthy and environmentally friendly.

But enough about that, lets get down to cooking them!  Cooking mussels is ridiculously easy. They only take a few minutes  and they let you know the minute they are done (they open up).  This is a traditional Belgian recipe using Belgian ale, but honestly, any type of good quality beer would work fine.  The beer really compliments the brininess of the mussels in this recipe, so don’t leave it out!  We bought a big bottle so we could drink what was left with our dinner.

This is the bottle of beer I used for this recipe

This is the bottle of beer I used for this recipe

Belgian Mussels with Ale

  • 3-4 pounds of live mussels
  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 1 medium shallot, chopped
  • 1 bulb of fennel, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 TBSP fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 1/4 cup Chimay, or other Belgian ale
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 TBSP fresh parsley, chopped

Soak the mussels in a large pot or bucket of water for about 20 minutes prior to cooking to purge them of any sand, then rinse them, scrub them, and remove their “beards,” the hairy parts that are sticking out of their shells.  If any mussels are opened at this point, throw them away.  Healthy live mussels will be shut tight.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a large skillet or stock pot (one that has a lid) over medium heat.  Add shallots, fennel, salt and thyme and saute until soft and translucent (3-5 minutes).  Pour in the ale and bring to a boil.  Add the mussels and cover with the lid.

Cook covered for about 5 minutes, or until mussels begin to open.  Remove the lid and remove any opened mussels with a slotted spoon and place them in a separate bowl.  As every mussel opens, remove it immediately.  After ten minutes, throw away any mussels that haven’t opened.  Add another tablespoon of butter and some pepper to the sauce left in the pan and raise the heat to medium-high, stirring constantly until the liquid is slightly reduced, about 3-5 minutes.  Turn off the heat and stir in the fresh parsley.

Pour the sauce from the pan over the mussels and serve immediately with a loaf of crusty bread.

mussels with ale 2

This recipe serves 4 to 8 people, depending on how many other dishes you are serving

Cheers to this lovely little bivalve for being so healthy and delicious!  It was a huge hit with my family and our dinner guests.


Community Supported Fisheries: The Future of Family Fishing?

Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) is a concept that is growing and spreading across the country as a way for small-scale farmers to connect directly with consumers. Generally, the way C.S.A. works is that an individual can buy a share of the season’s harvest from the farmer before the growing season begins. The revenue from those sold shares covers operational costs for the farm, and when crops become available they are picked up by the shareholder in weekly or bi-weekly installments.

An example of a weekly CSA delivery, photo by Steven Walling

The farmer benefits from this arrangement, incurring less risk throughout the season, increasing revenue by eliminating a middleman, and decreasing the need for the farmer to compete with industrialized agribusinesses. The consumer, meanwhile, receives fresh locally grown produce and gets to participate directly with the farm and farmers that grow their food. Kind of a win-win situation that could potentially rescue our nation’s small family farms from impending extinction.

Unfortunately, our fisheries are headed in the same direction as the rest of our economy – fewer and fewer people owning and controlling larger and larger portions of the industry. In the case of the fishing industry, those with money are buying up permits and quota, boats are getting bigger and bigger, and the small-scale family fishing operations are finding it more and more difficult to compete.  Although it is difficult for small fishing operations to compete with factory fishing boats, the small-scale fisheries have an advantage in one way – the increasing desire that consumers have for a local connection to their food. People want to know where their food comes from and I believe this is a trend that is going to stick around.

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An example of a factory fishing boat, a factory trawler in Poland. Photo by Magnus Manske

Fishermen are beginning to catch on to the C.S.A. model now, with several C.S.F.s (community supported fisheries) now operating out of American and European fishing towns. Consumers pay for a share, or subscription, and then get weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly installments of freshly caught seafood directly from the fishermen.

Read this recent  New York Times article about how struggling fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine escaped their demise by teaming up and forming a C.S.F. in their home town.


A 16th century Flemish fishmonger painted by Joachim Beuckelaer

For the customer the advantages are plenty:

  • The freshest seafood available
  • Exposure to new species of seafood
  • Relationship with the fishermen
  • Directly support their local economy

The only disadvantage to the customer is the payment of a lump sum up front.

For the fishermen the advantages are just as enticing:

  • Set their own prices instead of being at the whim of the market/buyer
  • Eliminate the middleman
  • Fish for what is available and plentiful
  • More stability and predictability in their earnings

For the fishermen, there might also be some disadvantages:

  • Added work load of marketing and customer relations
  • May need to process their own fish (clean, filet, and freeze)
  • Time of educating their customers on cooking methods for each species

Both C.S.A.s and C.S.F.s encourage a way of life that is not only healthier for the individual, but healthier for the environment as well – EATING IN SEASON!  This means not shipping tomatoes half way around the world to be consumed by Washingtonians in the winter, and it also means not shipping farmed shrimp from Asia to be consumed at American tables.

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A fishing boat in New Zealand, selling direct off the boat

Realistically, if Zed and I were to attempt a C.S.F. operation, the entire management of it would be my responsibility, as I suspect would be the case for many fishing families.  Historically, this was often the case as well, when “fishwives” sold fish in the market while their husbands were out at sea fishing.  Honestly, at this point in my life (with little kids) I’m not sure I could handle the extra workload.  Even though I have thought about direct marketing our seafood, I think I need to wait until both kids are in school before I seriously consider an undertaking of that magnitude.  It is an interesting possibility to consider though…

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Fishwives in Copenhagen 1932, photo from Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13007 / CC-BY-SA

Just as direct sales are the history of commercial fishing and agriculture, is it possible that direct sales could also be the future?

So, I present this question to my fishing readers – does a C.S.F. sound appealing to you?  Would you be willing to put in the extra effort in order to direct market to your customers

And to my non-fishing readers – does this appeal to you?  Would you be willing to pay up front for a season of fresh local seafood?  (Obviously this business model doesn’t work so well for those of you living inland… maybe an overnight Fed-Ex delivery?)

What if these crab showed up on your doorstep?

The Prices We Pay for Protein

Seafood catches a lot of scrutiny from the media and environmental groups about sustainability, over fishing, and mercury content. Shoppers turn away from the seafood section of their grocery stores because they are confused and overwhelmed by all the contradictory information they have been bombarded with. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that fish is an important part of a healthy diet, but many people are worried about eating the “wrong” fish and unknowingly consume mercury or contributing to the over-fishing of a species.

And while all these concerns are valid, I don’t see the same degree of scrutiny being turned on other forms of protein, namely beef, pork and chicken. The Beef/Pork/Chicken “holy trinity of meats” has been a staple of American cuisine and culture since… well since there has been American cuisine and culture. But animal production and farming has come a long way (just not in the right direction) since the farming days of our ancestors.

At this point in my blog post I am going to make an assumption that all my readers are aware of the horrifying nature of factory farms, and that I don’t need to describe in detail the cruel treatment of animals. If you need an example (and you have a strong stomach), watch this video below, which shows the production of pork in some of the largest hog farms in the country.

It is not just pork being produced in this manner. It is a similar story for poultry and beef. Animals are crammed together in spaces so tight, their teeth, beaks and claws have to be removed so the animals don’t kill each other in reaction to the stress. Not only are these animals living in fear and pain for their entire lives, they are also pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, treated with pesticides, and fed low quality feed. At the ends of their lives they are often too weak and sick to even walk themselves to slaughter and the dying creatures have to be bulldozed to their death.


cows in a "confined animal feeding operation"

The goal is to produce as much meat for the least amount of money. Does this method of farming produce a high quality meat?  Absolutely not. But this is how most of the meat in the united states is produced.  When I say most, I mean almost all of it.

Before I bore my readers with too many depressing facts, I think it important to add that factory farming also has a detrimental impact on the environment. Enormous amounts of fresh water are used in the production of meat, starting with the irrigation water required to grow the grain to feed the animals. The waste from these “farms” creates methane gasses and toxic run-off that leaches into groundwater and pollutes rivers, lakes, and eventually oceans. Citizens who are unfortunate enough to live next to factory farms face higher than normal rates of illness and cancers.

Oftentimes the same consumers that are worrying about whether they are eating the right fish, or if they might be getting too much mercury, or if certain fishing methods are damaging the oceans, are turning around and grabbing a Styrofoam tray of chicken breasts, not realizing the horror story that was that chicken’s life, the drugs it contains, and the impact it had on the environment.

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chickens being raised for meat

And I don’t mean to sound like I’m writing from some morally superior high-ground, because I am often guilty of this very crime.  I admit that I have been more concerned about the origins of seafood than the origins of the other animal I eat, probably because of my family’s involvement in the fishing industry.  I don’t hesitate to ask a restaurant or grocery store where their seafood comes from, but I rarely ever ask about the source of their meats.  If I can ask about the salmon on the menu, why wouldn’t I ask about the steak?  Sure, I try to only buy “free range” chicken or “natural” beef, but in the research I’ve been doing lately I’m discovering that these terms mean very little.  I have been so shocked by the information I have gathered about factory farms that when I went grocery shopping today, I passed the meat section feeling literally queasy.

As a result, I think I have changed my views on seafood a little.  I think any wild fish is improvement over factory raised meats.  A wild fish lives out its entire life as nature intended. It swims free, grows strong, eats the same things fish have been eating for millions of years, and is subject to the law of “survival of the fittest.”  Some fish may accumulate very small quantities of contaminants like mercury in their systems, but compared to the antibiotic/hormone/pesticide cocktails that are pumped into most meats, well… I just can’t say I’m too concerned about the minuscule levels of contaminants in fish.    I still won’t touch a farmed fish, or a fish from another country, but the fisheries in the United States are so carefully managed (sometimes overly managed) that any wild fish caught in US waters is a pretty safe bet.

In short, when it comes to eating protein, I CHOOSE FISH!!!

wild salmon in Alaska, photo by Lauren Godfrey

No, I’m not going completely pescetarian, but from now on, if I eat meat it is going to be from a small local farm.  I don’t want to eat any more mystery meats.  If you would like more information and advice for avoiding factory meats and dairy products, read this article from The Huffington Post.

Do you know where your shrimp has been?

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Shrimp and prawns are some of the only seafood that I will buy in the grocery store.  I love shrimp, but alas, my husband does not fish for them, so I must resort to buying them.  But lately I have been having a really hard time finding US caught shrimp in our local grocery stores.  Even as recently as a couple years ago I could easily find a selection of shrimp from different sources; some from Asia, some from South America, Mexico, and the (more expensive) US caught option.

I always check the seafood section when I go grocery shopping, but at several different grocery stores around Bellingham I have been finding nothing but farmed shrimp from Thailand.  EVERYTHING is from Thailand.  Peeled, tail-on, cooked, raw, every option, every brand = Farmed/ Thailand.  What gives?  I understand that the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery has had a rough go of it, what with the BP oil spill and all, but I was under the impression that the industry has since made a recovery.

The problem is that Thailand’s aquaculture industry has been booming in the last few years.  Thailand is now the biggest supplier of seafood to the US, and shrimp is one of the top products imported. In fact, Thailand is now the world’s biggest supplier of shrimp.  Shrimp farming has been wildly successful in Thailand, where farmers clear mangrove forests along the coasts to make way for shrimp ponds (60% of Thailand’s mangrove forests have been cleared – read Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs).  Due to poor farming practices, like overcrowding, the use of harsh chemicals, fertilizers, and antibiotics, these ponds are often unusable after a couple years.  The farmers then abandon the polluted ponds and move on to start new ponds along the coast.

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an example of a shrimp pond, this one in South Korea

Even though Thailand has been increasing it’s environmental and health regulations, the fact is, their standards are just not the same as ours.  Don’t even get me started on their (lack of) labor laws, or the destruction done by their wild-caught shrimp fisheries.  And it’s not just Thailand – China’s fish farms have been growing at frightening speeds and they have the same disregard for environmental, labor and health regulations.

To add to the problem, only 1% of imported seafood is inspected, and only 0.1% is tested for residues of drugs that are banned in the US.  It is simply not feasible to test all seafood that comes into our country.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to eat shrimp from a country that has a reputation of feeding it’s farmed seafood with untreated animal manure and human waste (read this), I want it tested first.  And this is why I won’t eat imported shrimp, no matter how cheap it is, or any other imported seafood for that matter.  So until I find US shrimp back in the freezers at my grocery store (or even better, down in the harbor, fresh off the boat!) I will sadly not be eating any of those tasty little crustaceans, and I would advise all of you readers to do the same.  Read the fine print on the packaging – know where your seafood is coming from!

Seafood Fraud: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

I recently ordered a halibut taco, but what I was served was definitely not halibut.  It was probably tilapia, but it tasted good and it was cheap so I didn’t mind too much.  But what if I had payed good money for a swordfish steak in a nice restaurant, but I was really eating shark?  Or if I thought I was buying gulf shrimp in the grocery store, but they were really farmed shrimp from Thailand?  This is more common than you may realize.  Luckily, the practice of deliberate mislabeling seafood is being exposed through new technologies that allow the DNA of a species to be scanned and correctly identified.

I just finished reading this article, which was published in The New York Times a few days ago: New Technology Reveals Widespread Mislabeling of Fish –  The article claims that 20-25% of all seafood tested was mislabeled.  Fraud rates in certain species were as high as 70%!!!!

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Fish being processed in a factory, photo by HemaLutchoomun

With 84% of seafood eaten in the US being imported from other countries, the true identity and source of the species is often difficult to track.  Part of the solution is obviously greater monitoring and more testing and inspections.  But for those of us who live near water, perhaps more important should be a relationship with a seafood seller.  Find a local market you trust- someone who is knowledgeable about seafood- someone who buys direct from the fisherman.  Or even better, buy direct from the fisherman yourself.  This type of relationship not only gives you peace of mind, knowing you are supporting local families and businesses, but also the valuable knowledge of where your food comes from.

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Fishmonger filleting a fish, photo by Patrick

Hopefully widespread DNA testing of seafood will soon be standard, but I just feel better when I personally know where my fish came from and how it was caught.  I want to know that I’m actually getting what I’m paying for.

Eat More Seafood Part 2: You Can Afford It!

In my post, “Eat More Seafood Part 1: What to Buy”, I gave some shopping advice for finding the most sustainable and healthy seafood available.  Now I will give some tips on working seafood into your shopping list and shopping budget.  A reader recently commented , “My gut feeling is that people don’t eat enough fish because they HAVEN’T eaten much fish. It’s just not part of their dietary vernacular.” (read her full comment under my Eat Seafood page in the top bar of this page)

In order for us to eat seafood more regularly, we first need to change the way we perceive it.  Even with a fisherman for a husband and a freezer full of fish, I still tend to think of seafood as a “special occasion food” instead of an “every day food.”  I have to force myself to thaw out a fillet for lunch instead of saving it for when we have guests for dinner. Seafood doesn’t have to be a luxury food and it doesn’t have to be expensive either.

FROZEN OR CANNED:  Of course availability and prices vary greatly depending on what area of the country you live.  If you live on one of the coasts, you probably have access to fresh local seafood.  But no matter where you live, if you are on a budget, buy it frozen or canned.  Seafood is usually processed right off the docks, so chances are the frozen or canned stuff is fresher than some of the “fresh” stuff on display at the seafood counter anyway.

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VARIETIES: I was checking out the frozen seafood at my local grocery store yesterday and spotted bags of fillets of cod and tilapia.  Both were cheap, and both are sustainable.  Some other cheap choices are rockfish, rainbow trout, squid, pollock, clams (live or canned), mussels, canned salmon, canned tunacatfish, sardines, herring… I’ll stop there.  Just compare the cheap options at the store with your sustainable seafood guide of choice to make sure you aren’t supporting bad fishing or farming practices.

SOURCES: I’d recommend checking out any local seafood markets first, but if you don’t have any in your area, Trader Joe’s has a good selection of frozen and canned seafood (just bring along your pocket guides, because a lot of their seafood is NOT sustainable).  If you have COSTCO stores in your area, they are another good option, and they just pledged to only sell sustainable seafood!  I also just read that Safeway is starting a sustainable seafood program, with all sustainable seafood by 2015.  Whole Foods Markets are also a good choice for buying quality sustainable seafood, but you might have to pay a little more.  You can also order seafood online, like canned wild Alaska salmon from

SUBSTITUTION: Seafood is a protein.  Think of it the same way you think of chicken or beef or pork.  You probably have some type of meat on your grocery list, so switch out one type of meat for some type of seafood.  If you usually purchase pork chops, instead buy a fillet of cod.  Buy some squid (calamari) to go on your spaghetti instead of meatballs.  Top your caesar salad with a can of salmon instead of grilled chicken.  Don’t think of it as adding on to your grocery list, think of it as substituting.  I guarantee that you will feel healthier, your budget shouldn’t be affected, and you will have  peace of mind knowing that you are eating a super-healthy, sustainable protein that was NOT raised on a crowded feed lot.

♦My next and last post in this little series will be advice for making quick, simple meals with the seafood you bring home.  I’ll share some of the recipes I make for my family on a regular basis, and if anyone else out there has any recipe ideas for this next post, please share!♦

Eat More Seafood Part 1: What to Buy

As I stated in my last post, Americans are not eating enough seafood-an average of only 3.5 ounces a week, when we should be eating at least 8 ounces a week.  From my perspective I see three obstacles keeping many people from eating seafood regularly. 1: They are intimidated by headlines of fish shortages and and mercury warnings and don’t know what they should or shouldn’t be buying.  2: They think they can’t afford it.  3:  They don’t know how to prep it or cook it.

This week I am going to focus on what to buy.  The goal is to find seafood that is plentiful in the oceans, fished or harvested in a low-impact manner, and low in mercury and other contaminants.  Luckily you have many options, especially if you live on the west coast (the other benefit to living on a coast is the availability of fresh markets where you can by locally, or even directly from the fishermen).


Here are the main points to remember (it’s really very simple):

  1. Buy American: US fisheries are better managed and have more environmental and labor regulations than other countries.  Because of the rigid fishing regulations in the US, if you see a fish for sale that was wild caught in the US, you can feel good about eating it.  If a species of fish is considered “overfished”, it won’t be caught and you won’t see in on the market.  Boycotting wild US caught fish only hurts the fishermen who catch it!  West cost waters are cleaner and Alaskan waters are the cleanest (Alaska also has the best managed fisheries).  
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photo by Jeremy Keith

  • Read the Labels: If you’re at the grocery store, fish market, or restaurant and you can’t tell where the seafood is from, or how it was caught, ask someone.  Don’t be afraid to ask your grocer or chef where their seafood comes from, and if they don’t know, don’t buy it!
  • Don’t buy Farmed Salmon: If you aren’t clear on the reason for this, read some of my previous post like “Out of Control Sea Lice”, “My Discussion with a Salmon Farmer”, “Study Shows: Fish Farms Harm Wild Sockeye”.  If a fish is labelled “Atlantic Salmon,” it is farmed.  Make sure it says “Wild.”

I know there is a lot of info out there to sift through, but hopefully this will help you select a few types of seafood that you can enjoy eating with a clean conscience.

In my next post, I will explain how to eat the 2-3 recommended servings a week of seafood without changing your grocery budget.