Steamed Fish with Leeks and the challenges of seafood fraud

by Terry B on March 6, 2013

Sustainably farmed tilapia is simply steamed with wine and lemon juice on a bed of sautéed leeks and garlic for this weeknight-quick seafood recipe.


Eating seafood keeps getting trickier. For years now, we’ve been urged to eat more of it for our health. Fish is a low-fat source of protein. And instead of the artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising saturated fats found in meats, even fatty fish such as salmon contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids that do all sorts of good things for us.

But also for years, we’ve been warned about mercury and other harmful pollutants in some fish. We’ve been told that certain species are being overfished to the verge of extinction, and that fish farming often takes a heavy toll on the environment. And now a study on seafood fraud says that even when we try to choose the right seafood, chances are good we’re not getting what we think we are.

Oceana, the world’s largest international ocean conservation and advocacy group, is working to return our oceans to former levels of abundance. In a study released last month, they uncovered widespread seafood fraud across the United States. Using DNA testing, the group discovered that one-third of the 1,215 fish samples they collected from 674 retail outlets in 21 states were mislabeled.

“Purchasing seafood has become the ultimate guessing game for U.S. consumers,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. “Whether you live in Florida or Kansas, no one is safe from seafood fraud. We need to track our seafood from boat to plate so that consumers can be more confident that the fish they purchase is safe, legal and honestly labeled.”

The level of mislabeling Oceana found varied by region, but it existed everywhere—52 percent of retail outlets visited in Southern California sold mislabeled seafood, 49 percent in Austin and Houston, 48 percent in Boston, 39 percent in New York City, 38 percent in Northern California and South Florida, 36 percent in Denver, 35 percent in Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas), 32 percent in Chicago, 26 percent in Washington, D.C., 21 percent in Portland, Oregon and 18 percent in Seattle.

It also varied by venue. Eighteen percent of grocery stores Oceana visited had mislabeled fish, while 38 percent of restaurants did. Sushi venues had the worst record, with a whopping 74 percent of them mislabeling some of the fish they served. Often, mislabeling is done as a cost-cutting measure, with cheaper fish being sold as a more expensive species—tilapia being sold as red snapper, for instance, or Atlantic farmed salmon sold as more expensive wild or king salmon.

But according to Dr. Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana, “Some of the fish substitutions we found are just disturbing. Apart from being cheated, many consumers are being denied the right to choose fish wisely based on health or conservation concerns.”

 Fish on the FDA’s “do not eat” list for sensitive groups such as pregnant women and children because of their high mercury content were sold to customers who had ordered safer fish: tilefish sold as red snapper and halibut, and king mackerel sold as grouper. Overfished and vulnerable species were substituted for more sustainable catch: Atlantic halibut sold as Pacific halibut, and speckled hind sold as red grouper.

Oceana is calling on the federal government to require traceability of all seafood sold in the United States. Tracking fish from boat to plate would not only significantly reduce seafood fraud and help keep illegally caught fish out of the U.S. market, it would also give consumers more information about the fish they purchase. In the meantime, here are some things you can do:

  • Ask questions, including what kind of fish it is, whether it’s wild or farm raised and where, when and how it was caught.
  • Check the price. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is—and you’re likely buying a different species from what is on the label.
  • When practical, buy the whole fish. This makes it harder for one species to be substituted for another.

You can find out more about seafood fraud and Oceana’s efforts to protect the world’s oceans at their website.

UPDATE 3/6/13: Thanks to the efforts of Oceana, United States Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act today, to address the growing problem of seafood fraud. If passed, this bill would help stop seafood fraud by requiring full traceability of all seafood sold in the U.S., from boat to plate. Rep. Markey was joined in the legislation by original co-sponsors Walter Jones (R-NC), John Tierney (D-MA), Bill Keating (D-MA), Lois Capps (D-CA) and Jo Bonner (R-AL). Thanks, everyone! Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) is expected to introduce a companion bill in the Senate in the coming days.

Now, who’s ready to cook some fish? Eating seafood is still a good idea, not just because it’s healthy—it’s also delicious. We cook with a variety of seafood at home, but one of our go-tos is tilapia. It’s mild tasting, versatile, readily available and inexpensive. Because it’s affordable, you’re not going to get something else masquerading as tilapia. And when it’s farmed right, it’s environmentally friendly. (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch says to avoid tilapia farmed in China and Taiwan, where “pollution and weak management are widespread problems.”)

For this recipe, tilapia fillets seasoned with only salt and pepper are steamed over a bed of butter-sautéed leeks, garlic and thyme, using a little white wine and lemon juice to provide the steam. Everything about this dish is delicate, and that’s what I like about it. A side note here: small plate menus and cooking competitions are turning our taste buds ADD. Everything has to explode on the palate with the first bite to get our attention; subtle flavors get overlooked. We do love small plates and the OMG, wide-eyed moments they can create. But we’re also fans of delicate flavors, ones that tease and comfort our taste buds, make them pay attention to quiet notes.

I tossed the cooked leeks with cooked egg noodles and topped them with the fish fillets. You could also serve the leeks over rice.

Steamed Fish with Leeks
Serves 2

2 tablespoons butter
2 leeks, the white and pale green parts sliced in half moons
2 cloves garlic
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
2 fillets of tilapia or other mild white fish, about 6 ounces each

egg noodles or rice (optional)

A quick note: use the smallest lidded skillet or sauté pan you have that will accommodate both fish fillets. As much as possible, you want the leeks mixture to hold the fish above the steaming liquid, not spread out and let the fish settle down into it.

Melt butter over medium heat in skillet. Add leeks and garlic and toss to coat with butter. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook until leeks soften, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often to avoid browning (reduce heat if necessary). Add thyme and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add wine, lemon juice and zest to pan, stirring to combine.

Meanwhile, season fish fillets with salt and pepper. Lay fillets on top of leeks mixture, cover pan and steam until fish is cooked through, about 6 to 8 minutes. When the fish is done, the tip of a paring knife should pierce the thickest part easily.

Transfer fillets to a plate. Dish leeks (with noodles or rice if using) into shallow bowls and top with fillets. Serve.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

kitchenriffs March 6, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I lived in Tampa when the St. Pete Times did an article exposing the fact that an awful lot of restaurants and retail outlets were selling grouper that, well, wasn’t grouper (this was probably 7 or 8 years ago). You really have to find a fish market you trust. It’s the restaurant thing that’s the most disturbing, because if they haven’t found a trustworthy source — or are just cheating — you wonder what other questionable things they’re doing back in the kitchen. Anyway, good point about good quality tilapia being readily available. And lovely recipe — leeks and fish are a nice combo. I love the subtle flavors in this. Although I’m as guilty as anyone in wanting big flavor, you’re right that subtle flavors can often make a more memorable impression.

randi March 6, 2013 at 7:05 pm

I think in most cases I would not know what fish I am eating. I like your suggestion about buying whole fish. I could always ask my youngest who would know at first sight what it is. So I would be easily fooled in a restaurant.
Oh…I love leeks! Perfect pairing.

Anita March 6, 2013 at 7:47 pm

This combo is similar to something you posted in the past – scallops and leeks – which has become a go-to dish when I want to treat myself a little. I rarely comment on recipes I haven’t yet tried (what’s the point? Of COURSE you only post things that “look good”!), but just this one time I’ll be one of “those people”… the melted leeks were so good with scallops, I’ll definitely try this variation!

Katrina March 7, 2013 at 1:58 am

Terry, I won’t go near farm-raised fish. I do know some fish are raised in open-ocean pens, but since they’re not labeled as such, I won’t buy them. I hope this changes in the future, but for now it’s wild or nothing, and I usually buy pollack, cod, or haddock – or wild salmon.

Naka March 7, 2013 at 2:41 am

I won’t eat farmed fish either, ESPECIALLY Tilapia! Did you know that… 80% of imported farm-raised Tilapia comes from China, raised without safety standards? Many of those ponds are supplemented with animal waste and industrial sludge in order to produce algae to feed the fish. (Source:
Also, farmed Tilapia have been treated with a dangerous chemical (17 alpha-methyltestosterone) that induces sex change to the fish because it’s more profitable to produce larger male fish. (Source:
So just because some marketing agency comes up with a buzzword such as “sustainable”, or “eco-friendly” to sell more product, I believe it’s very important for consumers & cooks to know as much as possible as to what they are actually plating for themselves and loved ones.

Terry B March 7, 2013 at 4:02 am

Kitchenriffs, I was delighted to hear that a bill has been introduced in Congress today that will require full traceability of all seafood sold in the U.S. From your experience in Florida so long ago, it’s obviously over due.

Randi, honestly, unless I’m eating salmon, I want some kind of mild white fish, and to me, they’re practically interchangeable. I know some, such as sole, are more fragile to cook, but that’s about it.

Anita, it’s also similar to another dish I do, Salmon Tarragon on a Bed of Vegetables. The salmon is bigger flavored than the tilapia and is matched with chunkier, more flavorful vegetables—red bell pepper, celery and zucchini. But the method is the same. I hope you do try this; I’d love to hear what you think.

Katrina and Naka—You’re right that there are definite issues with some farmed fish (lots of it, actually). And yes, most of the tilapia sold here comes from China. But if you check the Seafood Watch link above, you’ll see that they consider U.S.-grown tilapia the “best choice” and tilapia farmed in Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras a “good alternative.” Also, in an earlier post, I reported on Regal Springs Tilapia, a company that raises fish in Honduras, Mexico and Indonesia and not only meets rigorous ecological standards, but does things to help raise the living standards of their workers and their communities. So ask your fishmonger where the tilapia comes from before ruling it out.

Marion March 7, 2013 at 4:48 am

To add to Terry’s comment about sourcing tilapia, it may be helpful to know that all the tilapia in the US that is imported from Indonesia is raised by Regal Springs. It’s sold under various labels, including Costco’s Kirkland Signature tilapia loins, but all the Indonesia-raised tilapia in the US originates with this responsible and positive company.

Sprigs of Rosemary March 7, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Once a year, my husband and I go walleye fishing in Ontario. It is the only time we eat fish that we are absolutely sure of what we’re getting. We eat fish every day of the week, what we catch. Buying fish can be so very confusing when you want to do the right thing.

Terry B March 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Thanks, Marion. The Costco tilapia loins are frozen and individually wrapped, making them really convenient.

Sprigs, what a great way to make sure you know what fish you’re eating! If you get a taste for walleye between fishing trips, the Red Lake Chippewa Indians catch and sell walleye they’ve caught in a Minnesota lake using traditional, sustainable methods. In the process, they’ve helped restore the lake’s once nearly decimated population of walleye.

Brandon Elijah Scott March 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Great blog, loving this! :)

GiGi Eats Celebrities March 12, 2013 at 3:32 am

Fish and Leeks are such a wonderful pairing! This recipe looks phenomenal :)

Kristen March 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm

It is so important to know where your fish is coming from. I grew up in Seattle and and LOVE fresh fish. It’s a bit trickier to get the good stuff in Kansas though.
I have found a good site that will ship it to me when the craving hits,
Check them out. Does anybody know of any other reputable and good quality sites to order from?

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: