Fruits of The Sea With Fruits of the Vine

With the start of summer, seafood is on our grills and is a feature of restaurant menu specials. Before I make my recommendations for varietals and specific wines to enjoy with seafood, I’ll put on my white doctor’s coat and debunk the following seafood myths:

Shellfish are high in cholesterol and should be avoided; Crab is high in sodium, so one should cancel the crab if prone to hypertension; Raw oysters are dangerous; Eating seafood increases your risk of hepatitis and mercury poisoning.

If you've avoided shellfish like many Americans because of dietary concerns, you'll be glad to hear that the old cholesterol estimates of tasty crustaceans were falsely high. Today’s better technology tells us the actual cholesterol content in most shellfish is less than one-third of the recommended upper limit of 300 milligrams of cholesterol (per 3-oz. serving) per day.

In addition, shellfish are incredibly low in saturated fat, the fat that really leads to high blood cholesterol. The content of shrimp is just 165mg cholesterol per 3oz serving. That's only about half the 300mg cholesterol limit recommended by the American Heart Association. In fact, the organization now includes shrimp and shellfish in its Eating Guide for Healthy Americans. And, at only 80 calories per serving and no saturated fat, shrimp is a dieter's dream.

Actually, excitement about the health benefits of fish and shellfish began decades ago – before the seafood scare – when scientific investigators noted that certain groups of people – including Eskimos and the Japanese, who rely on seafood as a dietary mainstay – had a low rate of heart attacks. This was much like the French Paradox that revealed the association between red wine drinking and low heart disease rates in the French, despite their high-fat diets.

All seafood contains the so-called "good fats," including omega-3 fatty acids (one of which of particular interest is DHA) in their fish oil. Finfish – such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, and sardines – and shellfish are considered omega-3 superstars. Many cardiovascular and cerebrovascular benefits have been attributed to omega-3, including a study of about 80,000 American women who ate fish in modest amounts and had a significant reduction in their risk of the most common type of stroke, thrombotic (clotting) stroke. The omega-3s are thought to lower levels of blood fat linked to heart disease and to keep blood from clotting.

Because fish come from saltwater, it seems logical to assume they are high in sodium, but most shellfish actually have less than 350 milligrams of sodium (per three-oz. serving), far less than the upper limit of 2,400 milligrams per day that health experts advise. Steamed clams, for example, have less than 100 mg. However, some shellfish, such as king crab and snow crab, are brine-frozen resulting in relatively higher sodium content.

Then comes that proverbial "but." For all the health benefits of seafood, there are some concerns. One is mercury poisoning. The FDA recommends that children and women of childbearing age eat no more than 12 ounces of fish a week. They should avoid king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish, and shark, all ocean fish known to be high in mercury. Another concern is eating raw or partially cooked shellfish, such as oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. These filter feeders sit in one place and eat whatever flows their way from sewage to industrial pollution. The problem occurs when they are eaten whole, so whatever microorganisms or toxins are in their digestive tracks end up in ours. For healthy people these shellfish rarely cause any problems, but they are not recommended for people with compromised livers or immune systems.

Eat (seafood), Drink (wine), and be Healthier

Now, on to the wines. Not only is it an excellent idea to pair your fish with wine that complements it, you can also cook with wine. One can add red wine to create a hearty fish stew, or combine fish broth with red wine and use the mixture to braise fillets. The braising liquid is ideally a red wine that has deep color but isn’t too tart, such as a Zinfandel.

All wine and food pairings are individual choices, but typically, one would drink from light to dark wines. When planning a meal, one begins with the delicate and moves on to heavier tastes. For this reason, white wine is often served with appetizers, and opening courses in a meal tend to be served with lighter fish. In general, for seafood with light sauce or grilled fish, consider Dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, or low- or non-oaked Chardonnay; for seafood with cream sauce, a more buttery Chardonnay. With oysters, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, and with shrimp or crab consider Chenin Blanc, Dry Riesling, or Sauvignon Blanc.

Pinot Grigio from Santa Barbara and Oregon has the flinty minerality and crisp acidity that pairs well with seafood. Pinot Blanc is another option because it tends to be dry with moderate acid, to contrast with the oils in fish.

If you are enjoying lobster or crab and want a perfect wine, consider that the wine should let you go back and forth with the shellfish so you can appreciate how one improves upon the other. Lobster has a natural sweetness, and Alsatian wines, especially Pinot Blanc or Riesling, as well as rich, creamy Chardonnays and Champagnes have the sweet notes to enhance and reflect the lobster’s sweetness.

Living in Santa Barbara, we have a glorious abundance of the sea’s bounty, as well as the fruit of the vine, to keep us saying, “Salud” – to your health!