How many times a week are you eating salmon? I suggest you aim for at least once because the health benefits are numerous. As you may have heard, salmon contains valuable omega-3 fats (essential fats) that are easily absorbed by your body (vegetable sources of omega-3s, on the other hand, need to be converted by the body to the form naturally found in fish). These omega-3 fats are important for a number of reasons including eliminating inflammation, keeping cell walls flexible and healthy and helping to form the protective coating around nerve cells.
On top of that, salmon is also high in the amino acid tryptophan, the protein component needed for the ‘good mood neurotransmitter’ serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin. Salmon is also a great source of vitamin D, which also makes it a good winter food when we’re not getting as much vitamin D from the sun. It’s also high in protein, the hard-to-come-by mineral selenium, as well as magnesium and phosphorous.
So we’ve established that salmon is a welcome addition to a healthy diet, but don’t stop there because to get the health benefits you need to buy the right kind of salmon and it all comes down to the health of our oceans. In addition to oil spills and other toxins dumped into our seas, there is rightful concern about the sustainability of our seafood as over-fishing also takes a toll on these troubled waters. I recommend checking Seachoice.org as a means of evaluating which fish and seafood, and even which type of salmon, are sustainable and safe (hint: wild Alaskan salmon is your best bet).
Here are five suggestions on preparing this health-promoting fish that are delicious but don’t involve sugary sauces or processed foods. The best thing about these tips is that you can mix and match them, incorporating several ideas into one dish.
Cedar Plank It – This is something I discovered years ago, long before getting involved in the culinary industry, while staying at a cottage in North Eastern Ontario. The host brought out pieces of salmon on wet wooden boards, which I thought was odd. I thought it was even more odd when he stuck the salmon on the barbecue, still on the wood planks. When prepared in this manner, the planks gently burn giving the salmon a subtle smokey flavor that is unbeatable. Be sure to serve it with lots of leafy greens as the antioxidant carotenoids will help neutralize any harmful effects from the smoke.
Grill It – Salmon on the barbecue is fantastic, but many people have told me they avoid it because they find the fish sticks to the grill and falls apart. Here are a couple of tips courtesy of Derrick Riches via About.com. Marinate the fish in oil (see below) or at least rub with oil right before cooking. Make sure the grill is clean – get in there with a wire scrubber if you need to. Keep the temperature down by limiting the preheat times. Derrick says it’s the difference in temperature, the cold fish hitting the really hot grill, that causes the problem. This might be why chefs tend to let meat or fish come up to room temperature before applying heat. If the fish does stick, let it cook a little longer – sometimes you’re just attempting to move it too early.
Marinate It – Marinating meats and fish add flavor and can also add substances that prevent the formation of harmful substances that result from cooking at high temperatures. I find an olive oil-based marinade with garlic, green onion, rosemary, thyme, dill or any number of other spices works well. I always add some lemon, too, but a word of warning: Don’t go overboard on the acidic stuff like lemon, though – acids can coagulate the proteins in the delicate fish “cooking” it prematurely. This is how ceviche is prepared, a raw seafood dish that is “cooked” in acidic citrus juices (incidentally, it’s also quite delicious).
Top It – There are any number of different ways you can top salmon to make it amazingly delicious and add valuable nutrients. One of my favorites is to make an avocado chutney by cutting avocado in big chunks and adding tomato, purple onion, a squeeze of lemon and just a dash of cumin. You can get really fancy and add black beans and corn to it too. Or you could make a delicious raw salsa of tomato, onion and hot peppers (jarred salsas from the store cannot compare, nutrient-wise, to a freshly-prepared salsa). Creamy sauces with a mayonnaise base are good too (make your own mayo!), such as ones that add fresh dill or chopped onion and pickle. Even an easy pesto with herbs and olive oil adds flavor and valuable protective essential oils.
Pair It – Take advantage of the fact that salmon has a great fat profile by paring it with foods that contain fat soluble vitamins. Fat soluble vitamins don’t get absorbed or utilized as efficiently unless they’re eaten with fat. Leafy greens such as Swiss chard, kale, collards or spinach have carotenes including beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Grains, nuts and seeds all contain fat protective antioxidant vitamin E. Olive oil, broccoli and cabbage all contain fat-soluble vitamin K. Tomatoes are high in a particular carotenoid called lycopene which is better absorbed when paired with something fatty (like salmon!).
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.