On Feb. 25th, the New England Journal of Medicine published breakthrough findings of a major clinical trial from the University of Barcelona. Its conclusive results: 30 percent of deaths from strokes, heart attacks, and other heart disease can be prevented in high-risk people simply by switching to the Mediterranean diet. The data was so compelling, the researchers ended the study early; they felt keeping the information from the public was unethical.
That the Mediterranean diet has health benefits is not news, but such definitive evidence of its specific impact on heart health is unprecedented. And in the sea (no pun intended) of deprivation-based diets out there, with their phases, zones, beaches and bellies, it's a welcome reminder of the sensible goodness of good food. Because that's what the Mediterranean diet is about: good food. Sure, as the study outlines, its mainstays are fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. But look what else is in that "yes" column: extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, eggs, low-fat cheese, dark chocolate, wine and three servings of fish per week.
Be still, my healthy heart!
Okay, we love fish, but three times a week? What about overfishing and sustainability? Is it possible to take care of our palates, hearts and the environment, all at the same time? The answer, happily, is "yes."
Chris Edelman, owner of Boston's Seafood Specialties, says strict federal regulation of today's wild fisheries makes responsible stewardship of the ocean - something he's deeply committed to - easy to achieve.
"The comeback of striped bass is an excellent success story in how these regulations work," Edleman said. "Every striped bass that comes into our warehouse is tagged and accounted for. And because of controlled monitoring and permitting, it's available almost year round. The seasons move north and south from state to state, so fish stocks are able to replenish and restock."
All of this matters to Edleman because "fish is becoming more prominent on chefs' menus, which is encouraging because it's not only delicious, it's healthy. At the same time, the educated consumer wants to do the right thing, and with declining fish stocks, it's important that chefs work closely with us about what to stay away from, what to hone in on, and why."
One of the chefs who works closely with Edleman is Larkspur's Richard Hinojosa.
"Relationships with my fish vendors are so important," Hinojosa said, "and Chris is very knowledgeable. He keeps me up to speed on what the safe, sustainable practices are, what waters the fish are coming from, and who he's buying from. Then I decide if it's something I trust and want to use for our guests. "
And not only does Hinojosa trust the wild striped bass he buys from Edleman, he loves it.
"It's the favorite fish I'm using right now. It has an incredible balance of natural sweetness and slight ocean water minerality. The skin has great flavor, and is just thick enough to get perfectly crisp," he said.
Because the richness of striped bass is so well-suited to bolder flavors, Hinojosa pan-sears his and serves it on a bed of braised cauliflower puree, with wedges of oven roasted-curried cauliflower, Madeira poached sultanas, pineapple-candied Marcona almonds and a spiced carrot nage (broth).
Add a glass of wine, chocolate for dessert, and you've practically got the whole Mediterranean diet right there.
Erick Snover, chef at Sato sushi restaurant in Edwards, loves the variety of flavor, and texture, and body the category of fish offers. "It's just so much more diverse," he said. "There's only one type of chicken, but there are so many different types of fish."
As to issues of sustainability, Snover chooses line-caught fish over trolled, and species that are plentiful over those threatened by overfishing.
For example, Sato's popular spicy tuna sashimi salad (made with chopped tuna, macadamia nuts, avocado and black pepper) features yellowfin tuna, not the rarer bigeye or bluefin. Snozer's advice for concerned consumers is simple and straightforward: shop smart. "Go to Cut here in town and ask questions. They will tell you where and how each fish was caught."
Peter Hillback, a personal chef for various lucky clients in the Vail Valley, agrees.
"As a chef, I've been cooking seasonably for a long time, but with fish that's not always possible, and sometimes frozen and refreshed is a decent alternative. When I'm in Denver, I go to Whole Foods Market - they identify each fish as either wild, farmed, or previously frozen."
According to Hillback, it can be easier to buy sustainably when you buy frozen fish, but some species stand up to the process better than others. He says turbo, a mild, firm, white fish, is one of them. "I just ate some previously frozen turbo from the Bering Sea, and it was excellent."
One preparation Hillback recommends is to place the fish fillet in a blend of clam juice, olive oil, fresh thyme, salt and pepper; cover it with tin foil; and bake in a hot oven for nine minutes. Served on a bed of pasta tossed with julienned fennel, capers, and spinach with garlic and finished with a squeeze of lemon juice, it's simple, delicious, and good for your heart.
And speaking of hearts, in case you think this whole heart-health thing is just a big fish story (sorry), know this: every researcher in the Barcelona study has switched to the Mediterranean diet.
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur, located at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com.