Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Vaughn’s Halibut over Provencal Bean Stew—The Risks and Rewards of Eating Seafood

Vaughn's Halibut over Provencal Bean Stew.

When shopping, check your guide for "mercury content" and avoid "over fished" selections.

Put seared halibut over the simmering bean stew and place in oven.

My son Vaughn is a wonderful cook. I occasionally have to cut out a few tablespoons of butter from his recipes but other than that, his dishes always surprise and delight me. So when he told me about his latest favorite recipe, I was anxious to publish it.

As I began to write about this fish recipe, I realized that it’s just not that simple. There is so much to say about eating seafood from the standpoint of health and other issues. So I think I’ll just address some popular concerns.

What are the benefits of eating fish?

Fish is a good source of protein, niacin, vitamin B6, B12, phosphorous, selenium and of course, omega 3 essential fatty acid.

The American Heart Association says that fish offers benefits in heart health and recommends fish for the prevention of heart disease, the number one cause of death in the US. A new study from Loma Linda University in California shows that both walnuts AND fish products in the diet are needed to lower the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). This study shows that fish and walnuts have different benefits. Walnuts reduce cholesterol levels while fish causes a decrease in blood triglyceride levels and an increase in beneficial HDL. So vegan diets that depend solely on getting their omega 3 fatty acids from nuts and seeds may not get these added benefits. There’s a lot more to discuss on vegan diets and cardiac health so I will save that for another day.

Is fish safe to eat? What’s the story on mercury? Can you eat fish if you are pregnant?

All seafood has some level of mercury which could pose a risk to pregnant women and young children. However, studies show that for optimum fetal growth and development, moms-to-be would benefit from the omega-3s that you can get from eating fish. So this is quite a conundrum. You need these fish omega-3’s for proper fetal brain development but you need to be careful not to expose your fetus to mercury! To address this, the FDA recommends that pregnant women limit their consumption to 12 ounces per week and to select low mercury fish.

I found a comprehensive list of fish ranging from “least mercury” to “avoid eating” on . I believe their recommendations for eating and avoiding certain fish are directed towards women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, but I would think all of us want to pay attention to the levels of mercury in our food.

Examples of “least mercury” include; butterfish, clams, herring, oysters, salmon, scallops, shrimp, pacific sole and calamari. These should be limited to two servings per week. They recommend that pregnant women limit “moderate mercury” fish to six servings a month.

Examples of “moderate mercury fish” are: Alaskan cod, halibut, lobster, mahi mahi, and canned chunk light or skipjack tuna. They recommend limiting “high mercury” fish to three or less servings per month. A few examples of “high mercury” fish include grouper, Chilean sea bass, canned albacore tuna and yellowfin tuna. The “highest mercury” fish on the list include orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish and ahi tuna and there advice is to avoid eating these completely. For the complete list, go to

Of course, there are also very good non fish sources of omega3, as many vegan and vegetarian moms and their healthy babies will attest to. But this is, after all, an article on fish so I’ll address that at another time.

What about cholesterol?

Most fish is pretty low in cholesterol (about .5 mg to 1 mg of cholesterol per gram of fish) but some shellfish, like shrimp, are higher. Only 6 ounces of shrimp will get you to the American Heart association’s recommended daily limit of 300 mg of cholesterol. Oysters and scallops are much less. Being mindful of portion size, shellfish can be a good, low calorie, low fat source of protein, especially if you don’t fry them up and dip them in a mayonnaise based tartar sauce!

What’s better, wild caught or farmed fish?

Farmed fish are raised in smaller, confined areas making them more susceptible to disease. To prevent this, they are given antibiotics which eventually end up in us making us more antibiotic resistant. Some farmed fish are fed chemical dyes to make them look more like wild fish. Commercial fish feeds are different from what fish eat in the wild which can affect the fatty acid profile of the farmed fish. This may decrease their beneficial omega 3 content. Some also report that farmed fish have higher levels of PCBs, (chemicals that have serious long term health consequences). Many farmed fish in your supermarket are from other countries that may have different standards than we do. All in all, I prefer fresh, wild caught fish.
Aren’t some fish “over-fished”? How do I know what these are?
Because of the increasing consumption of fish, many fish populations are in serious decline. You can make a difference by carefully selecting what you eat and avoiding certain species like Atlantic cod, monkfish, orange roughy, and swordfish, to name a few. For a full list of the best choices and the fish to avoid, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood watch “pocket guide” at .


Seafood can be a healthful part of your diet, providing protein and important nutrients like omega 3 fatty acid. Pregnant women should be careful to limit their consumption and to avoid high mercury fish. Unlike farmed fish, wild caught fish is free of antibiotics, chemical dyes, has lower PCB levels and may a have higher omega 3 content. To be more conscious of the severe decline of many species of seafood, pay attention to the Monterey bay aquarium, “Seafood Watch” guide when selecting fish in a supermarket or a restaurant.

So I went to the market with my “Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish” and the “Seafood Watch” guide in hand. Paying particular attention to where the fish was from and whether it was “wild caught”, I selected Pacific Halibut which is not over fished and only has a “moderate” mercury content. Sounds like a bit of trouble (and I did drive the poor guy behind the counter a little nuts) but in the end, we had a delicious, healthy and socially conscious meal!


Vaughn’s Halibut over Provencal Bean Stew [serves 2]

12 ounces of halibut fillets [cut into two thick fillets]

Marinade for Fish

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice and 1 tablespoon lemon zest
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 large pinches of black pepper

Bean Stew

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, seeds removed and chopped
1/2 cup large pimento green olives, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 can white cannellini beans
1 cup white wine or dry vermouth
1/4 cup of fresh parsley, chopped

Marinate the halibut in a combination of lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, salt and pepper for 30 minutes to two hours. In an oven proof skillet, sauté onion in 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, olives, garlic and seasonings and continue to sauté for another minute or so. Add beans and wine or vermouth and mix well. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and crack the lid and cook on the stove for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat up a smaller, non-stick skillet and cook the fish for about 1 minute a side.( The fish should have enough oil from the marinade on it so you may not need any additional oil in the pan). After the bean stew has cooked for 25 minutes, place the fish over the beans and immediately put the skillet, uncovered, in the preheated oven for 15 minutes or until the fish is cooked. Halibut cooks (and dries out) quickly so don’t over cook it. Carefully remove the skillet from the oven (and remember the handle is still hot once it’s on the stove – I forgot and burned my arm!). Place the beans and fish in two individual bowls or casserole dishes and garnish each dish with 2 tablespoons of parsley.

Per serving: 588 calories, 24 g fat, 3.1 g saturated fat, 54mg cholesterol, 40.6 g carbohydrates, 9.5 g fiber, 1 g omega 3 and 1.4 g omega 6.

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