Baked Monchong with Hummous Crust

When it comes to food from the deep and the reef, the waters have gotten very murky lately, literally and figuratively. Literally, since it seems every week there is a report identifying another fish species as having dangerously high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins from fertilizer run-offs and other pollutants in the nation’s oceans and rivers; and figuratively when, along with the warnings, health advocates encourage consumers to incorporate more fish — rich in omega-3 fatty acids and lean protein — into their diet. And as if this weren’t confusing enough, environmentalists want consumers to be aware of the dangers of over-fishing and poor fisheries management both at home and abroad, too! It’s enough to paralyze even the most want-to-be-informed consumer.

Finally, there’s help. A pocket-sized take-along guide for your wallet or purse identifying safe fish choices for both you and the environment from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website. Separate guides are available for each region in the U.S. (West Coast, Northeast, Hawaii, Southeast, Central, and Southwest) and they are color-coded to red-flag fish species that are currently found to carry unacceptably high toxin levels, and to highlight non-toxic species that are sustainably managed. The charts are available in English or Spanish for the U.S. There is also a searchable on-line database for different fish varieties that provides all the necessary information to assist you in making an informed choice about your seafood, and also offers alternatives if your first choice is either unhealthy or unsustainable.

Seafood Watch (SFW) also provides links to similar charts prepared by the World Wildlife Fund or an environmental organization in the respective country for Italy, Germany, Canada, the UK, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, France, South Africa, and New Zealand. From similar sites, here are also links to fish guides for Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, Norway, and Switzerland (available in 3 languages). (The guides for Spainseem to have been removed from that country’s WWF website.) Most of these sites have a printable color guide that you can carry in your purse or wallet that make it easy to find non-toxic, sustainable choices in seafood; most also have a searchable database of fish varieties; some however, provide only an on-line database but no take-along guide.

Lastly, SFW has also teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund in producing a searchable national database and take-along guide for your mobile phone! Check it out on the EDF’s site here.

So whether you live in the US or one of these llisted countries, or are planning a visit to them, take along a portable guide to help you make wise choices for your health and the health of the environment.

And if all this reading has made you hungry, here’s an exceptionally flavorful and easy way to bake fish that will help keep it moist and infuse flavor. Monchong, or sickle pomfret, (see top photo and left) is listed as a “Good Alternative” in the SFW database, and it is a meaty, mild-tasting fish that readily compliments strong flavors. We all know hummous (bottom, right in photo) as a thick, savory dip of pureed chickpeas, sesame paste (tahini), lemon juice, olive oil and salt.

Usually eaten with pita or vegetables as part of a Middle Eastern mezze table, here hummous pulls double-duty as a crust for the baked fish. You can use a commercially prepared dip, but hummous, like the preserved lemons, costs a mere fraction of the commercial product AND is so easy to make at home. Try this recipe and you’ll never want to buy a pre-made product again. It’s worth the effort to boil your chickpeas from dried beans, and keep them frozen with some of the cooking liquid until you need them. But canned low-salt chickpeas are a good pantry staple for whipping up quick weeknight meals like this or when you’re asked to bring a dip to tomorrow’s function at work, and you don’t have time to soak beans overnight. Of course, you can substitute any of the other firm, white or oily flesh fish in the SFW “Best” or “Good Alternative” list for the monchong — the first time we tried this hummous crust on fish 9 years ago, it was with salmon and that was especially ono.


For the Hummous:
1 cup of dried chickpeas, soaked in water to cover at least 8 hours

Drain chickpeas, place in 4-quart or larger saucepan, and cover with by the least 2” of clean water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. Add 1/2 tsp. of sea salt, and cook for another 30 minutes or until beans are easily pierced with a toothpick but not mushy (cooking time will depend on the hardness of your water). Turn off heat, cover and let cool in pan.

2 TBL. liquid reserved from cooking chickpeas (if using canned chickpeas, use plain water, not the liquid in the cans)
1/2 tsp. sea salt
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
5 TBL lemon juice
4 TBL olive oil
1/3 cup tahini, a.k.a. sesame butter/paste, stirred well before measuring

Place ingredients in the order listed above into food processor or blender. Last, add drained cooked chickpeas or 2 15 oz. canned low-salt chickpeas. If you prefer your hummous with a little texture, reserve a 1/4 cup of chickpeas. Puree the mix until smooth. If using a blender and the mixture is too thick, taste a little and see if it needs more lemon juice or water, and add accordingly. If you’ve reserved some chickpeas, add them in and pulse briefly to break them up a bit. Taste again and correct for salt, lemon juice or olive oil. Set aside for at least an hour if using as a dip.

For the Fish:
2 6 oz. filets of monchong, cleaned and patted dry
sea salt
ground black pepper

To coat fish, season fish fillet with sea salt and ground black pepper. Layer a generous amount of hummous to one side of the fish. Measure the thickness of the fillets at the thickest point. Set aside for at least 30 minutes while oven and pan pre-heat.

Pre-heat oven and oven-proof skillet or baking dish to 450F/230C.

Add 2 TBL. olive oil to heated skillet or baking dish, and place fillets, hummous-side up, on the skillet or dish. Place in pre-heated oven and bake for 10 minutes for every 1” of fish. If top crust has not sufficiently browned by the time fish is cooked, set oven to broil for a minute to brown the hummous crust. Garnish with a pinch of paprika or chili (red pepper) powder, if desired. Serve with your choice of starch and vegetable.

Download and print a seafood guide for your region here.

Other “Good” or “Best” Fish Choices for Hawaii (according to the SWF)that have been featured on this site:
Surimi (surprise!): Crustless Quiche with Asparagus, Cress & Surimi
Clams: Linguine with Clams, Pork, Clam & Periwinkle Stew
Alaskan Cod: Curry-glazed Cod w/ Wasabi-Sesame Soba Salad
Opakapaka: Pan-Fried Opakapaka with Warm Spiced Cabbage Salad
Ehu: Grilled Ehu in Banana Leaf
Kajiki: Kajiki with Pomegranate-Ogo
Wild Alaskan Salmon: Alaskan Salmon with Pomegranate Sauce
Butterfish/Sablefish/Black Cod: Miso Butterfish, Kasu-Marinated Butterfish
Dungeness Crab: Crab Cioppino
Mahimahi: Fish Tacos, Mahimahi Patties w/Lemongrass & Lime Leaf

To learn more about other nutrition issues for Hawaii and Asian diets,
see If you are what you eat …