Blackening meat with spices is a healthy alternative to charring, which creates cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These carcinogens are most concentrated in charred meats but can also be found in well-done meats, smoked meats, cigarette smoke, air pollution, and unvented fires.
In this recipe I blacken wild salmon. It’s a fish full of high quality protein and one of the best sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA have been shown to reduce the risk of death in general and also in particular from two of the three leading causes of death the in United States: heart disease and stroke. Wild salmon also contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants like astaxanthin, a carotenoid that gives the flesh a vibrant red color.
To keep up with consumer demand for salmon, fish farms have flourished. Most salmon sold in supermarkets and restaurants in the United States are farmed-raised and labeled Atlantic salmon. Because these fish don’t eat their natural diet, they’re missing the essential omega-3 fats that our bodies need to be healthy. They’re also missing natural color, so the fish are treated with chemical dyes to compensate.
Most farmed salmon are raised on feed made from genetically modified ingredients and they’re given antibiotics and pesticides to fight sea lice parasites and viral and bacterial diseases. (Organic farm-raised salmon may be given organic feed, which contains fewer toxins, but it’s still not a natural diet for salmon and it changes their nutritional profile.) To make matters worse, salmon farming is associated with water pollution, environmental destruction, and “very high” use of chemicals in countries that have no regulations to limit their application including those that import fish to the United States.
When it comes to salmon, eat wild varieties or none at all. Wild salmon from Alaska come from well-managed fisheries and contain low levels of contaminants. Look for chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye salmon, or Arctic char, a member of the salmon family. If you don’t have wild salmon, find another fish high in healthy fats and low in toxins.
Search the online database from the Environmental Defense Fund for the most up-to-date information on the best and worst choices in fish and seafood. Or download the Seafood Watch app and take it with you to markets and restaurants.
The blackening spice rub can be applied to almost anything: other kinds of fish; meats like chicken, pork, lamb, and beef; tempeh and tofu; and even vegetables. This recipe makes plenty, so save any extra for future use. The mixture contains smoked paprika, smoked sea salt, and dried chipotle chilies (smoked jalapeno peppers), which give dishes a grilled flavor even when you cook them on the stovetop. (Smoking chili peppers and sea salt doesn't create the same carcinogens as smoking meats and fish.) If you don’t have these ingredients on hand, you can substitute regular paprika, plain sea salt, and crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne.
This dish is naturally gluten-free. To make it dairy-free as well, skip the yogurt sauce and serve the salmon with wedges of fresh lime (or lemon) for squeezing. If your citrus is organic, grind up the zest with the other spices. Citrus zest contains flavonoids like nobiletin and tangeritin that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor effects in the body.
1 dried chipotle chili pepper, cut into pieces with a kitchen shears
1 dried Thai bird chili pepper (or substitute 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes)
1 tablespoon mixed peppercorns
1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon smoked sea salt or other sea salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds (or substitute 1 teaspoon ground cumin)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 pound wild Alaskan salmon fillet cut into 4-ounce portions
1 tablespoon coconut oil
Organic lime, zest and juice (or substitute lemon)
1 cup Greek or strained yogurt
- Add the dried chilies, peppercorns, thyme, paprika, salt, cumin, and turmeric to an electric grinder. Pulse until finely ground. Alternatively, grind with a mortar and pestle.
- Place the salmon skin-side down. Sprinkle the spice rub generously over the top. Set the fish aside to absorb the seasoning and come to room temperature before cooking.
- Stir the lime zest into the yogurt. Add enough lime juice to taste. Set it aside while you cook the salmon.
- Warm the oil in a cast iron or stainless steel skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the salmon, seasoned-side down. (If the skillet isn't hot when you add the salmon, it will stick.) Cook until the fish lifts away easily, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Flip the salmon, cover the pan, and turn off the heat. Finish cooking the fish with residual heat, about 5 to 7 minutes more, depending on the thickness of the fish. This allows the fish to be thoroughly cooked without becoming dry or over-cooked.
- Toss a salad while you wait for the salmon to finish cooking, then serve it immediately with the lime yogurt sauce.
National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. [Web page]. National Institutes of Health website. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet. Accessed July 10, 2015.
Mozaffarian D1, Lemaitre RN, King IB, Song X, Huang H, Sacks FM, Rimm EB, Wang M, Siscovick DS. Plasma phospholipid long-chain ω-3 fatty acids and total and cause-specific mortality in older adults: a cohort study. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013;158(7):515-25.
Seafood Watch. Seafood Watch Farmed Atlantic Salmon Fact Sheet April 2014. [Web page]. Seafood Watch website. http://www.seafoodwatch.org/-/m/sfw/pdf/reports/farmed_salmon_factsheet.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2015.
Seafood Watch. Salmon, Atlantic. [Web page]. Seafood Watch website.
http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/detail/517/salmon-atlantic-farmed-in-net-pens-chile-salmo-salar-oncorhynchus-tshawit?q=salmon. Accessed July 10, 2015.
Environmental Defense Fund. Salmon. [Web page]. EDF website. http://seafood.edf.org/salmon?utm_source=ggad&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=salmon&gclid=CKav0tqZ0cYCFYoTHwodqN0KcQ. Accessed July 10, 2015.
Wang L, Wang J, Fang L, Zheng Z, Zhi D, Wang S, Li S, Ho CT, Zhao H. Anticancer Activities of Citrus Peel Polymethoxyflavones Related to Angiogenesis and Others. Biomed Research International. 2014;2014:453972.