NEW YORK — Like a lot of Americans, I grew up not eating much fish except canned tuna and the occasional restaurant entree.
But I've been cooking a lot of fish lately, inspired by TV food shows and the growing availability of different kinds of seafood. I've learned that fresh fish is easy to prepare and low in saturated fat and calories, while some species such as salmon and mackerel are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
And it tastes good.
"As a chef, I prefer fish over meat," said Tyler Florence, star of "Food 911" and "Tyler's Ultimate" on the Food Network. "I eat maybe two steaks a year."
Florence's new cookbook, "Eat This Book" (Clarkson Potter, 2005, $32.50), has several intriguing fish and seafood recipes including one I tried, grilled branzino with fennel and tangerines.
Branzino, also called loup de mer, is a Mediterranean sea bass that has become available to Americans in the past few years, one of several imported species showing up at fish counters here, thanks to improved methods of refrigeration and aquaculture.
Speaking of aquaculture, Florence is against it for reasons of health and taste. He called farmed salmon, for example, "one of the most disgusting products ever invented by a scientist," a "big mutant Frankenstein fish" that is fed pellets that make it grow three times as fast as fish in the wild.
Whether you agree or not, federal regulations that went into effect in April will make it easier to know what you're buying. Retailers are now required to inform shoppers of seafood's country of origin and whether it is wild or farmed.
Seafood still ranks fourth in popularity in the United States behind beef, poultry and pork, but fish consumption is rising. Americans ate 16.3 pounds of fish and seafood in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available, up from 15.6 pounds in 2002.
Among types of seafood, shrimp has overtaken canned tuna as the most popular. Others in the top 10 include salmon, pollock, catfish and tilapia, according to Steve Hedlund, associate editor of Seafood Business, a trade publication.
"You see more farmed species rising on the list," he noted. All the catfish and tilapia are farmed, as is most of the shrimp.
While chefs like Florence disdain farmed fish, concerns have been raised about the overfishing of some wild species and about mercury levels in others. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program is a useful resource for those who share such concerns.
Fortunately, fish species can be substituted for each other in many recipes, so it should be possible for people who object to some fish on environmental or other grounds — and for those living in every region of the country — to prepare fresh, healthful seafood dishes.
It should be noted that catfish and tilapia, though farmed, are on all of the environmentally friendly lists and are mild-flavored enough to take to many different preparations.
Florence says the recipe I prepared from his book can be made with "whatever fish you'd like." He likes branzino's "soft, delicate oceany flavor" and calls it his new favorite fish.
I made it once with branzino — from Greece, farmed (sorry, Tyler) — and once with striped bass caught off the Northeastern United States. The rich fish and crunchy fennel make a nice contrast, and the tangerine adds color and zip.
I paired the dish with a Mediterranean dessert from "Eat This Book," Greek yogurt with figs, dates and honey.
GRILLED BRANZINO WITH FENNEL AND TANGERINES
(Preparation and cooking, 45 minutes plus 1 hour to marinate)
4 whole branzino (about 1 pound each), filleted to yield 8 small fillets, or 4 larger fillets (6 to 8 ounces) of whatever fish you'd like (salmon, striped bass, snapper)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Put the fillets in a baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. Put the fennel seeds and peppercorns on a cutting board and whack with the bottom of a heavy pan to crack them; sprinkle the cracked spices over the fish. Remove a strip of zest from one of the tangerines with a zester or microplane and add it to the dish. Pour 1/2 cup of olive oil over the fish and let it all marinate for 1 hour.
Cut off the top and bottom ends of the tangerines so that they stand upright. Then use a knife to cut off the peels in long strips, including as much of the bitter white pith as possible. Cut between the membranes to free the sections; remove the seeds and set the sections aside in a medium bowl. Discard the membranes.
Place a large grill pan on two burners over medium-high heat; or preheat an outdoor gas or charcoal grill and get it very hot. Take a few paper towels and fold them several times to make a square. Blot a small amount of oil on the paper towels and then carefully and quickly wipe the hot grates of the grill (or the ridges of the grill pan) to create a nonstick surface. Sprinkle the fish with salt. Put it on the grill and cook, turning once, until just cooked through but a little translucent in the center, 4 to 5 minutes total for thinner fillets, 8 to 12 minutes total for thicker fillets.
To finish, take your bowl with the tangerine sections, add the fennel, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the lemon juice, parsley, fennel fronds, and salt and pepper to taste, and toss. Arrange the salad on a platter, put the fish on top, and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
GREEK YOGURT WITH A FIG, DATE AND HONEY SWIRL
(Start to finish 20 minutes)
6 figs, fresh or dried, quartered
6 dates, pitted
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups plain yogurt, preferably Greek (see note)
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
Put the figs, dates, honey, water, lemon juice and cinnamon stick in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer, partially covered, for about 10 minutes, until the fruit is soft. Set that aside and let it cool slightly. Discard the cinnamon stick.
Meanwhile, toast the nuts in a saute pan over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until fragrant. Transfer to a plate to cool, then roughly chop.
To serve, spoon about 1/2 cup yogurt onto a dessert plate or bowl and spoon some of the warm fruit over it. Sprinkle with nuts and garnish with mint leaves. Plate up 3 more desserts the same way and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: Greek yogurt is thicker and less sour than regular plain yogurt.