Why Seafood Is Actually the Ultimate Weeknight Dinner Food

updated Nov 5, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

When I tell someone seafood can be easy, I sometimes sense fear. The urge to disagree becomes palpable in the air, the way it would if I said “Cake is bad,” or “A marathon isn’t that long.” Something about the way Americans cook has led us to believe that cooking fish and shellfish is A Project, to be reserved for impressing the in-laws or the centerpiece of grand dinner parties.

But seafood should be for everyone, anytime, and encouraging people to see the accessible side of seafood is a big part of why I wrote The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook. As someone who spent the last two years cooking through piles of crab, mountains of clams, and a small inland sea’s worth of fish — both when I had time to slowly nurse a recipe to perfection and when I rushed in the door with only 30 minutes to get dinner on the table before my two hungry toddlers went full hopped-up-hyena — I can personally vouch that seafood is actually the ultimate weeknight dinner. It’s easy to keep around, it cooks quickly, it’s versatile, it’s healthful, and can be affordable. 

Here’s what you need to know about the magic of seafood on a weeknight.

It’s often better to buy it frozen.

Forget what you think you know about freshness: Frozen seafood is almost always better. Fish begins to deteriorate the minute it leaves the water, so modern fishing ships freeze it right on the boat, stopping that process in its tracks. By the time fresh seafood would get back to land, into a store (especially if you live anywhere but the coast), and into your kitchen, it would likely be far worse for the wear than the frozen fish will be when you defrost it.

This is less true of shellfish like clams and mussels (although the former will keep close to two weeks under a damp cloth in the fridge), but frozen shrimp is, perhaps, the easiest of them all to keep in the freezer. Oregon bay shrimp, which are tiny and come pre-cooked and ready to defrost and toss into a salad or onto a sandwich, are a staple in my freezer.

I’ve also got a bunch of Copper River salmon fillets, which I bought at Costco in the spring when they were super cheap. Ideally, I can take them out to defrost overnight in the fridge, but the fact that I can also just run them under cool water for 15 minutes and have a protein ready to cook makes my life infinitely simpler.

It’s so quick to cook.

Aside from a few dishes that marinate overnight, there are basically no dishes in my entire book where the cooking time goes over about 45 minutes (usually the ones with rice or simmering stock involved), and there are at least a dozen where it’s under 15. 

Almost universally, seafood can be cooked in simple, fast styles — fish doesn’t have the kind of tough, sinewy parts that need to break down over the course of hours the way meat does, and it absorbs flavors easily into the flaky flesh. My favorite recipe in my book, the one I make when I don’t know what else to do, is the slow-roasted salmon. It takes 20 minutes in the oven and less than 30 from the minute I step in the door and turn on the oven (I make the chimichurri sauce while the fish cooks). Mussels and clams open in under 10 minutes, and a quick-seared squid or sautéed shrimp cook in even less time. 

Seafood might seem like something special, but the amount of time needed to make it is not.

It’s super versatile.

“Do you ever get sick of seafood?” I was asked at least once a week as I worked on my cookbook. Absolutely not. There’s an oceanful of different types I could rotate between. Having scallop ceviche on Monday doesn’t preclude trout almandine on Thursday. 

But beyond variety of seafood types, it’s also incredibly versatile. In my book alone, there’s seafood served as salad topping (a shrimp Louie or a Niçoise), in soup (shrimp bisque, salmon chowder), as pot pie, on a roll, and as the classic seared fillet (with special tricks for crispy skin, of course). I’ve got tacos and skewers, Puerto Rican-style mashed plantains (crab mofongo), creamy sea urchin pasta sauce, and the classic Hangtown fry omelet.

Each time I looked for a new recipe, I simply thought about what I wanted to eat that night: I translated the flavors of my childhood favorite chicken wing recipe into a baked black cod, and brought Mexican-style street corn (esquites) studded with Dungeness crab to a potluck. The gentle flavors and wide variety of textures mean that seafood can slot right into the dishes you already love to eat every day.

It doesn’t have to be expensive.

Perhaps the most entrenched myth preventing people from eating seafood is the price. Yes, if you’re looking for dinner-party-quality whole sides of wild king salmon, it can be unreasonably expensive. And no, it probably won’t be a cheap as the chicken you might get at Costco.

But in between those bookends live the affordable options: Manila clams for $3.99 a pound, mussels for $4.99 a pound, salmon fillets from the freezer, and fish with big flavor but small reputations, like rockfish or lingcod. And that big flavor means you don’t have to use enormous amounts, which keeps costs down and helps get that fish into regular weeknight rotation.

Do you cook with fish frequently? If not, what’s holding you back?