As you might imagine, people often ask me what species of fish are the best to eat in terms of environmental and health concerns. I usually respond by saying, “OK, how much free time do you have? Are you sitting down? Do you have access to the internet? Do you have a cold compress for your forehead? Are next-of-kin present and available to care for you if you keel over from information overload and/or frustration?”

Grills just wanna have fun.

Photo: iStockphoto

If the answer to all of the above questions is yes, then it’s time to play “Do You Really Want to Grill a Fish? Are You Sure??”

It may seem like a game of luck and chance, but knowing a little bit about your subject — including where to get reliable information — can stack the cards in your favor.

After I get informed consent from the person who wants to know about fish, I explain that we have to consider three separate issues: Is it a fish that will survive the grilling process, or will it fall apart on the grill? (If it doesn’t pass this test, there’s no point going forward.) Is it safe to eat from a mercury/PCB/pollution perspective? Is it a good choice from an environmental standpoint, e.g., is it overfished? I’m assuming that if you’re reading this article, that is an important consideration for you.

If you haven’t given up on the whole idea after contemplating researching these three questions, here are some answers.

Fish that can deal with the grill

Some fish can be cut into steaks (i.e., cross-sections), such as tuna, salmon, mahi-mahi, and swordfish, and these are easy to cook directly on the grill. Swordfish, however, is a non-starter from both a health and environmental perspective, so that’s out. The others have some limitations too — more on that in a bit.

Fish that can be grilled in fillet form (i.e., length-wise sections) include trout, salmon, catfish, and red snapper — but red snapper is another no-go on both counts, and some salmon should be avoided. By the way, using a “fish basket” can make cooking a fillet easier than cooking the fish directly on the grill itself.

Shrimp and scallops are a good choice for the grill, especially if you load several onto a skewer — it’s easier than turning them one at a time and reduces the chances of their slipping through the grill and being lost to the fire.

Some fish can also be cooked on a wooden plank, such as salmon. Not only does this make the fish easier to manipulate, but a plank made of alderwood or cedar can impart some of its flavor during the cooking process. Be sure to follow instructions for pre-soaking the plank — and if you can, buy one that’s certified as sustainably harvested.

If you don’t have a grill, or just don’t feel like cooking outdoors (if it’s raining, say, or you get the itch to grill in the middle of winter) you can also use a grill pan, a heavy-duty frying pan with raised ridges that will lift the fish off the surface and leave grill marks. I recently bought a copy of Grill Pan Cookbook: Great Recipes for Stovetop Grilling; I haven’t cooked out of it yet, so I can’t offer an opinion on the recipes, but I noticed that it included recipes for tuna and salmon (as well as for many fish that are poor choices, environmentally speaking).

Health issues to consider

Packed with protein and generally heart-healthy, fish can be really good for you — but if it’s polluted, that same fish can be dangerous to consume. This is especially true for women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and children, as mercury and other contaminants can lead to birth defects and nerve damage.

The Oceans Alive website, a project of Environmental Defense, includes a useful list of health advisories that tells whether species are contaminated with PCBs, mercury, dioxin, and/or pesticides. It also lists how many meals per month one can safely eat of each fish depending upon whether one is a man, woman, or child. I have to say, I was quite shocked to see how many species — including bluefish and striped bass — clocked in at zero. It was very depressing, considering that I already had a pretty bleak view of things.

Many factors go into determining how each fish ranks. For example, the method of capture matters; some species are safer to eat if they are line-caught, because fish caught using lines tend to be younger and have had less time to accumulate mercury in their bodies than their older kin. It really pays to look up each species individually.

Of the fish I mentioned above that can stand up well on the grill, swordfish and red snapper should be avoided. Bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon also don’t make the cut. Mahi-mahi should be limited to no more than twice a month for young children, and three times a month for older children.

Which species are environmentally sound?

Still with us? Congratulations! You have made it to the third level! Now we can discuss fish that you can eat with the least impact on the environment.

This is actually an incredibly complex question, encompassing overfishing, habitat damage, aquaculture, bycatch, disease, pollution, and more. The answers can vary according to season, locality, and even whether scientists think they have a good handle on estimating the health of certain fish populations to begin with.

You can carry a wallet guide, which is handy but limited. For more information about a greater variety of species and subspecies, look at the longer lists available on the Monterey Bay Aquarium website in the Seafood Watch section and on the Oceans Alive website.

In fact, Oceans Alive provides a list that superimposes environmentally sound choices over the consumption advisories for different species.

Of the fish that swim to the top of these lists, some good choices for grilling are catfish, wild Alaskan salmon, and skipjack tuna from Hawaii or California. (Other species of tuna are not good choices for now.) Shrimp harvested in America and Canada are also an excellent choice, as are scallops.

The recipes

If you’ve made it this far and you still want to grill a fish, here are some great recipes.

Whenever I have a question about a grilling technique or want a recipe, I turn to the books by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, such as License to Grill, The Thrill of the Grill, Let the Flames Begin, and Big Flavors of the Hot Sun. Their books on salads, pickles, and sides (Lettuce in Your Kitchen, Quick Pickles, and Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys, and Chow-Chows) are excellent as well, and their propensity for cringe-worthy puns would give the Grist staff a run for its money.

Thanks to Doe Coover for arranging permission to reprint the following recipes, which are both from The Thrill of the Grill: Techniques, Recipes, and Down-Home Barbecue; to Frances Kennedy for her work getting them to me, and to Chris and John for being so generous with their time and advice over the years.

Grilled Tuna Steak with Nectarine-Red Onion Relish
Serves 4 as a main course, medium-high “heat” (i.e., spiciness)

Four 8-10 ounce boneless tuna steaks, 1 inch thick
4 tablespoons salad oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper (white is best) to taste

Lightly rub the tuna steaks with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill the tuna steaks 4-5 minutes per side over a medium-hot fire, being careful not to overcook them. Check for doneness by bending a steak gently and peering inside it, looking for a slight translucence in the center. Remove the steaks from the grill and place them on top of the relish.

Nectarine-Red Onion Relish
Makes about 3 cups

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
6 ripe but firm nectarines, peeled and cut into 8 slices each*
1 medium red onion, sliced into long, thin pieces
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup julienned fresh basil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 lime)
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and toss them gently. It works best if you use a stainless steel bowl much larger than you would think you would need for this recipe so you get some real mixing action as you toss. This will be a slightly runny relish, as the solids and liquids mix but do not combine. Keep chilled until ready to serve. This relish will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 2 weeks.

*It’s best to use fruit that is super-ripe, but if you use under-ripe fruit, add 1 teaspoon of sugar to compensate for the lack of sugar in the fruit.

Grilled Salmon Steak with Watercress, Ginger, and Sesame
Serves 4 as a main course, medium-high “heat” (i.e., spiciness)

Four 12-ounce salmon steaks (1 to 1-1/2 inches thick)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

2 bunches watercress, separated, washed, and dried
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

For the vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked white pepper to taste

4 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted in a single layer in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes

Rub the salmon steaks on both sides with the peanut oil and sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste. Over a medium-hot fire, grill the steaks 5 to 6 minutes per side. Remove them from the grill.

Meanwhile, in a salad bowl, combine the watercress and sliced onion. In another bowl, combine all the vinaigrette ingredients and mix well. Pour the vinaigrette onto the watercress-onion mixture and toss lightly.

Arrange the dressed watercress on a platter and place the salmon steaks on top. Sprinkle the steaks liberally with the toasted sesame seeds.