Caught in a rut? Lent doesn't have to mean the same old cod and tuna

Like most local fishmongers, Henry Dewey expects to sell a boat load of cod during the six-week Lenten season, which kicked off yesterday. Ditto on salmon. And tuna. And that other tried-and-true favorite, swordfish.

"Pittsburghers generally don't like to try too many new, strange things," says Mr. Dewey, co-owner of Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District. "They want something they can feel comfortable with," including when they give up meat during Lent, as devout Catholics do each Friday between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, to remind themselves of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.

Even so, Mr. Dewey and others who sell seafood for a living would like to let you in on a little secret: That's a wide, deep ocean out there. And in it, depending upon the season, there swims a whole lot of different kinds of fish. So why not try something new?

Find fish here

Here is a sampling of stores that carry fresh fish:

Benkovitz Seafoods -- 2300 Smallman St. in the Strip District, 412-263-3016.

Fondi's Fish & Poultry -- 428 Beaver St., Sewickley, 412-741-4700.

Frankstown Fish Co. -- 8500 Frankstown Road, Homewood, 412-731-4545.

Giant Eagle -- various locations (

McGinnis Sisters -- 3825 Saw Mill Run Blvd., Brentwood (412-884-2323) and 4311 Northern Pike, Monroeville, (412-858-7000).

John McGinnis & Co. -- 3759 Library Road, Castle Shannon (412-344-1450).

Penn Avenue Fish Co. -- 2208 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-434-7200.

Whole Foods Market -- 5880 Centre Ave., East Liberty, 412-441-7960.

Wholey's Market -- 1711 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-391-3737.


One relatively unsung fish that Mr. Dewey would love you to try is sablefish, or what's more commonly known as black cod.

No doubt about it: this coal-black species, which is found in the chilly, deep waters of the North Pacific, is one ugly fish. At $21.99 a pound, it's also outrageously expensive. (Fresh Boston cod, by comparison, runs $12.99 a pound.) On the plus side is black cod's velvety texture and a deep, rich flavor. Better yet, it's sustainably managed, making it a great alternative to Chilean sea bass, which has been overfished almost to commercial extinction.

Black cod also is one of the richest of all fish in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to prevent chronic heart disease and enhance brain function. So you're actually getting bang for your buck.

Still relatively new to the Pittsburgh market, black cod is probably best known -- if you know about it at all -- for its preparation by Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa of the famed restaurant Nobu, who marinates it in sake and miso. But that's how most new fishes make their way onto people's tables, says Mr. Dewey: People see it popping up on menus and then start looking for it in the seafood department.

"And," he says, "if it looks nice in the case, the adventurous cook will try it."

You'd have to be a bit bold to try one of Penn Avenue's more unusual offerings, Atlantic skate wing ($4.99 per pound whole/$19.99 per pound filleted). Looking at these speckled, kite-shaped fish, which are reminiscent of sting rays, you have to wonder where the meat is. Skate wings are composed of long strips of flesh separated by strips of cartilage that come together in an open fan shape. The average cook might have a tough time filleting one. Happily, most fishmongers will do it for you (2 pounds of wing yields about 14 ounces of meat).

The flesh, when it's cooked, puffs up and separates into little ribbons of meat that resemble thick corduroy. The taste is slightly sweet, sort of like scallops or crab. Traditional skate recipes call for dredging the wings in flour and frying them, but it can also be poached or sauted. According to the new "Fish Forever" by Paul Johnson (Wiley, $34.95), cooked skate also can be cut into thin strands to look like pasta and served as a salad.

Bronzini, the Italian word for Mediterranean sea bass, is another "in" fish that's making a splash in local restaurants and seafood markets, including Benkovitz Seafoods in the Strip, where it runs about $12.99 a pound. Often roasted or grilled with its head attached, this sweet-tasting fish is similar in appearance to a medium-sized trout.

Florida pompano, part of the Jack family of fish, is another little-known but generally available fish that's due its time in the spotlight. Moderately oily, with a sweet, delicate flavor, this saltwater fish can be fried, grilled, broiled or sauteed whole; pompano baked in parchment, a preparation that enhances the flavor of the fish by trapping the steam and savory juices inside, is another classic dish. Or, simply roast it, as Sam DiBattista, owner of the upscale restaurant Vivo in Bellevue, likes to do, and then top it with sauteed wild mushrooms or other seasonal vegetable.

Mr. DiBattista says, "Even restaurants can get in a rut" and offer their customers the same-old, same-old. But he thinks people who like fish are usually willing to try new things. "You just have to take what's available and do something interesting with it."

Just as mild -- and seemingly more popular by the minute -- is tilapia. The industry describes this fish as a cross between catfish and sole, making it a favorite with kids and others who eschew fishy-tasting fish. But it's real appeal may lie in its price: farm-raised in more than 50 countries, it typically sells for less than $8 a pound.

It's also very versatile, notes Louise Liu, culinary concepts coordinator for Whole Foods Markets' Mid-Atlantic region. All you really need is to season tilapia with a little salt and pepper, and broil or pan fry it in a little butter.

Nontraditional fishes aren't available just at boutique markets: Giant Eagle, which expects to double the amount of fish it sells on Fridays during Lent, has had a lot of success with its wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, a fish with a deep red-colored flesh and beautiful silver skin. According to Ed Steinmetz, vice president of meat, seafood and prepared foods merchandising, farm-raised king salmon from Canada and wild cod from Iceland are also picking up in popularity. Both cost about $10 a pound on special.

Wholey's Fish Market in the Strip, which typically enjoys a 20 percent jump in fish sales during Lent, is another that can't keep up with Pittsburghers' demand for salmon; on the "craziest" day of Lent, Good Friday, the store has been so busy that it sells out. Yet cod and flounder, says owner Sam Wholey, are still the most popular fishes.

Pittsburghers do buy literally tons of seafood this time of year. Benkovitz Seafoods in the Strip, which released a media advisory about the "frenzy" expected there this week, will be cranking out not just traditional fish sandwiches but also prepared foods ranging from seafood lasagna to sushi.

Maybe for some people the issue is not so much being afraid to try a new fish but figuring out how to cook it. Giant Eagle not only feels your pain but has a solution: its "value added" category of pre-marinated and/or pre-breaded seafood.

While fish is a favorite menu item, notes director of seafood Rich Castle, consumers are often hesitant to cook it in their own kitchens, especially when they feel they have to do it from scratch. These oven- or fry-ready entrees aim to relieve some of that angst.

Among the biggest sellers are the store-made salmon burgers, which come in four varieties, and Japanese-style panko-breaded cod. The "easy-peel" wild American Gulf shrimp -- deveined with the shell split open all the way down the back -- is another huge hit.

McGinnis Sisters in Brentwood and Monroeville is another operation that aims to take the guesswork out of Lenten cooking by offering a variety of "take-and-bake" dishes in addition to their fresh fish and seafood. Choices include everything from macadamia coconut mahi-mahi and pecan-crusted trout to lemon-parmesan tilapia. For smaller appetites, the store is offering mini cod bites (3 ounces for 99 cents).

If you'd rather just "take," the food store also has for the first time a hand-breaded mako shark steak sandwich, which is served "island style" with homemade coleslaw.

In case you're wondering, mako shark -- considered among the best-tasting sharks -- has a mild flavor and texture similar to swordfish.

It should be noted that large fish such as swordfish are to be consumed in moderation as they can contain mercury, a controversial subject that recently flared up in the news after a New York Times story on high mercury levels in bluefin tuna.

Yet because fish is an excellent source of protein, and also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids that benefit heart health, groups such as the American Heart Association still recommend eating up to 8 ounces at least once a week.

The government and other groups track fish with highest levels of mercury, a list that includes swordfish, tilefish, shark, orange roughy and king mackerel. (For a complete list, visit

"As with anything, you just need to do it with moderation," says Ms. Liu. "The benefits still outweigh the dangers."

Then again, with fish prices going the way of gasoline, it's probably not too hard to cut back to acceptable levels.

A boom in ethanol production has caused many farmers to plant fewer soybeans -- a key feed for many species of fish -- in favor of more corn. That, in turn, has sharply increased the cost of raising fish. Fuel costs for fishermen and product that is flown or trucked in has also increased. Cod, by way of example, has nearly doubled in price since the late '80s.

"It's supply and demand," says Mr. Castle of Giant Eagle.



  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • Crushed red pepper
  • 3 tablespoons chopped green onion
  • 1 pound black cod fillets

Combine orange juice and honey. Add crushed red pepper to taste, and chopped green onion. Add fish fillets and marinate for 15 minutes to 3 hours.

Place fish in roasting pan and roast in a 425-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until fish flakes.

Serves 2.

-- Henry Dewey, co-owner Penn Avenue Fish Co.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-263-1419. First Published February 7, 2008 5:00 AM


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