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updated: 2/22/2012 11:17 AM

Getting hooked on nutrient-filled salmon

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  • Salmon makes the news nearly every day with studies supporting previous studies that its omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients are good for you.

      Salmon makes the news nearly every day with studies supporting previous studies that its omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients are good for you.

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The proliferation of articles proclaiming salmon's health benefits seems outnumbered only by the collection of recipes for cooking salmon.

Salmon makes the news nearly every day with studies supporting previous studies that its omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients (protein, potassium, selenium and vitamin B12) are good for your heart and can protect against Alzheimer's disease and various cancers. Omega-3s have been shown to improve protein metabolism (which according to 2012's "The Men's Health Diet" means faster muscle growth) and improve mood and brain function.

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So why aren't you eating salmon?

If it's because don't know wild from farmed, Atlantic from Pacific, I'm here to set things straight. If it's because you don't like it, or think you don't, I've got recipes that will surely change your mind.

Wild at heart

Those same studies that tout salmon as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids also point out that wild salmon contains more omega-3 than farmed salmon. It's just the nature of the beast, or fish in this case, that a wild salmon forced to bulk up for a long, hard swim up river to spawn will be fattier than its brethren that grow up in floating pens with a constant feed source.

Farmed salmon from the Atlantic coast shows up in the "red," or "do not eat" category on most sustainable seafood watch lists, while wild salmon gets the green light. Note: There are no commercial fisheries on the Atlantic coast so all Atlantic salmon is farmed salmon.

Mark Palicki, a former chef now vice president of marketing for Fortune Fish Company in Bensenville, takes issue with that red/green delineation.

He says that if you eat the salmon from the right farms you're not harming the environment or the fish supply.

"To flatly say don't eat farm-raised salmon is wrong," Palicki says. "There are good places to raise salmon and bad places."

How do you know? Ask at the fish counter. Fortune Fish Company, as well as several grocery stores, pledges to work only with farms that support sustainable aquaculture.

Palicki said the health benefits of the species as a whole should outweigh where it comes from.

"As a nation we eat 17 pounds of seafood per person a year; if we were to increase that amount, we would improve our health," he says.

At the market

When it comes to purchasing salmon, you have a few options: whole (sometimes sold already headed and gutted), steaks (thick cross sections) or fillets (trimmed from the sides of the fish).

While beef prices have been on the uptick, salmon prices have been trending down, Palicki said, as supply outpaces demand.

As the Lenten season gets under way, prices generally become more favorable. Purchasing a whole, cleaned fish is still the most economical way to go, and poaching is an easy way to prepare it with little extra effort.

"Salmon should have a nice, deep orange color and fatty striations," said chef James Papadopoulus from Sam & Harry's in Schaumburg. The fish also should look moist, not dried out or damaged.

"And smell it ... it should smell like fish, but a good, clean fresh scent," he says, adding that customers should ask for fish nearest to the display window that are usually the prettiest and freshest.

You'll get the same health benefits from whole, steak or fillet, but you'll get a health boost if you eat the skin too.

"The best part of the salmon is the skin," Palicki says. He suggests scraping the skin with a knife to remove the moisture, sprinkling it with salt and pepper and placing in a medium to medium-high saute pan skin-side down. "The skin gets crispy, like a potato chip," Palicki says.

Papadopoulus also advocates eating the skin from a pan-seared salmon and endorses grilling salmon over wood chips or on wood planks.

"You get a gentle smokiness that doesn't overpower the fish," he says. He advises cooking salmon to "medium" so there's still a touch of rawness in the center and it doesn't dry out.

You might also find you like salmon baked with salsa, or seared and served with pasta. If you're not ready to try cooking salmon yet, try SeaPak Salmon Burgers. "The Men's Health Diet" selected them as the Best Fish Entree on its list of 250 Best Foods for Men.

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