When Anne Fletcher was growing up, seafood was fish sticks or canned tuna. And, she admits, her mother still talks about how "fishy" seafood smells.
Today, anything fishy can inspire foreboding. Fletcher believes it's not safety concerns, but unfamiliarity, that makes people avoid fish.Because of religious practices, many people are familiar with fish on Fridays and church-sponsored fish fries - especially during Lent. Yet others are unsure about how to cook seafood in healthful ways.
Fletcher, a registered dietitian who lives in southern Minnesota, is traveling to promote seafood as an alternative to higher-fat protein foods. A recent talk in Pittsburgh was sponsored by Long John Silver's, which recently introduced baked fish to its menu; in the past the fast-food restaurant's menu was heavy on fried fish.
Families who already eat fish might have it every week or so; Fletcher would like to see poultry - with the skin removed - and fish become the mainstays and red meat the occasional dish.
"I'm not opposed to red meats, but they are higher in fat than either fish or chicken," she says.
Fletcher was editing the Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter when much of the positive research about fish came to light. Soon she discovered that most seafood recipes hadn't kept pace with findings that suggested that Americans reduce fat and cholesterol in their diets.
Many of the dishes took a healthful food - fish - and doused it in heavy, high-fat sauces.
She says fast-food seafood restaurants didn't help, either, by giving the diner a glob of tartar sauce whose fat content could equal the accompanying french fries.
The situation motivated Fletcher to write "Eat Fish, Live Better" (Harper & Row, 1989), a nutrition guidebook that includes 75 recipes that meet her criteria for nutrient-dense foods.
"I know you're tired of hearing the shoulds and should-nots," she told more than 50 senior citizens attending her free nutrition seminar. "For once the experts are telling us we can eat more of something."
That something is seafood. More people must be taking the advice because she says seafood consumption has increased almost 25 percent in the past decade.
Still, she sees work to be done. Some of it begins with young children such as Fletcher's own sons, 7 and 3 1/2. She admits her husband "likes fish but doesn't love it."
She proposes introducing your family to salmonburgers - "My boys eat them in buns with ketchup on them."
She says she's "not out to convert anyone" but to help those who want to change their diet. The challenge is cutout for her: educating cooks attempting to cook seafood for the first time - or the second . . . after a culinary disaster.
Learning to cook fish can be especially important to older people, many of whom are trying to avoid weight gains and lower their fat and cholesterol. Lifestyle changes - a healthier diet, more exercise - can slow the aging process and sometimes even reverse heart disease, she says.
Along with eating more fish, she advises switching to low-fat dairy products and leaner meats.
Lower calories are a plus for seafood. For example, she says a serving of cod, sole or perch has 105 calories as compared to the 190 calories in round steak, a relatively lean red meat.
Eating six servings of grains and five servings of fruits and vegetables daily is also part of her equation for living longer.
"Go for the green and the orange," she tells senior citizens, and when it comes to breads, eat whole-grain rather than refined.
Fletcher divides seafood into two types: finfish like cod, flounder and haddock and shellfish such as shrimp, clams and lobster. Although shrimp and lobster are moderately high in cholesterol, she recommends them because they are low in total fat. And, like most fish, they contain omega-3s, the polyunsaturated fatty acids that may protect against heart disease by interfering with buildup of plaques that can narrow and clog blood vessels.
Too many cooks treat fish as they would red meat or poultry, she says. They overcook it until it is dry and tasteless.
She gives a simple rule of thumb for baking fish: Preheat the oven for 450 degrees. Then apply the 10-minutes-an-inch rule. For example, if a fish fillet is 1 1/4-inch thick, it should cook for about 12 minutes - 6 minutes on each side.
Fish frozen? Don't thaw. Double the time. When cooked, finfish will flake with a fork and turn from translucent to opaque or white.
The same timing applies to poaching, broiling or steaming fish (but not microwaving). Measure at the thickest part, tucking under tail ends to assure even thickness. It's done if the center part just starts to flake.
Writing in the National Fisheries Institute's "Seafood Source" publication, Fletcher gives tips on two methods gaining popularity with a health-conscious public:
Broiling: Fillets under 1-inch thick do not have to be turned. Place fish that are 1-inch thick or less from 2 to 4 inches from heat source; place thicker pieces 5 to 6 inches away. Baste frequently with an oil-based marinade.
Using the 10-minute rule, cook one side for half the total cooking time, basting once or twice, then continue broiling and basting the other side.
Stir-frying: Stir-fry shellfish or small pieces of fish with an assortment of colorful vegetables. Shrimp and scallops are easy to cook this way. If using fish, make sure it's a firm-fleshed finfish such as halibut, tuna, shark, grouper or monkfish. Coat the bottom and sides of a wok or large skillet with vegetable oil. Add raw seafood and toss gently to coat on all sides, until about three-quarters cooked - approximately 2 to 4 minutes. Remove to a warm platter, then stir-fry the vegetables and make a light sauce, if desired. Return the seafood to the skillet and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer.
Although Fletcher says baking, poaching, broiling and steaming are the preferred methods, frying is also OK occasionally. Even fried fish are lower in fat than many meats.
Fletcher doesn't discount any food or cooking method. Like most dietitians, she stresses moderation.
She recalls her mother teasing her when she downed a piece of cake with a low-cal soda. But that tradeoff still makes sense to her today.
"I like ice cream sundaes, but I don't eat them every day," she says. "The same goes for fried fish."