Here’s your fish 411. These guidelines are the same whether you’re buying ocean, fresh water, round or flat fish.
Ask your fishmonger when he gets his fresh fish in. Also check out the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council website (www.safmc.net) and NOAA’s Fishwatch (www.fishwatch.gov) to see for yourself.
Some of our local south Atlantic swimmers currently in season include the black grouper, black sea bass, trigger fish, sheepshead, yellow tail snapper, red snapper and wreckfish.
Make sure to buy fresh when you can, and make sure to buy sustainable, wild caught, not farmed. If the sign in the case doesn’t say where it’s from, ask.
The easiest way to know what you are getting is to buy a whole fish. You’ll certainly know a whole red snapper or a black sea bass when it’s staring at you from the crushed ice.
When buying fish, it should smell like the sea, not like ammonia or an old fish.
When you buy a piece or steak, look for firm flesh that springs back when pressed. If it’s all squishy or if the flesh is separating, it’s been frozen way too long, not fresh at all or low quality. Fish frozen too long will have dull, not shiny, flesh.
Fresh whole fish should have bright, clear eyes that protrude from its head. The older the fish, the cloudier and more sunken they become. The freshest fish also have bright red or pink gills.
If you’re buying steaks or fillets, make sure the color is consistent and the edges are not brown, dry or mushy.
Cook your fish within 24 hours and keep it as cold as possible.
Just about any method works, so there’s nothing to be scared of. Keep in mind that the general rule when cooking fish is 9 minutes per inch. Also, if you cook fish inside, place a small bowl of vinegar on a counter. It will help absorb any residual fishy odor.
To grill, start with a clean grate brushed with oil so the fish doesn’t stick. Keep your hands off of it for 5-6 minutes. Then gently flip the fish. A screaming hot grill seals in the flavor. Try grilling thick steaks like swordfish, tuna, salmon or whole fish like trout, sea bass and snapper.
Roasting at a high temperature will quickly cook the center and yield a crispy outside skin. Baking at a lower and slower temperature produces a moist finish. Bake individual fillets in foil or parchment parcels on a baking sheet. The oven method works great with salmon, grouper, snapper and sea bass.
Who doesn’t like fried fish? Dust fillets with seasoned flour, blackening spices or coat in breadcrumbs. Shallow frying seals in flavor and moisture for smaller pieces or strips. Flounder, grouper and sole are perfect choices for shallow frying.
Batter and deep fry larger pieces for traditional fish and chips or a fish sandwich. Use a hearty type fish like cod or haddock when you break out the deep fryer.
Poaching is perfect for fillets, whole flat fish like salmon, sole and flounder. To poach a whole fish, all you need to do is cover the fish completely with water, wine or a combination of both and add fresh herb. Bring the fish and liquid to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the fish cool completely in the poaching liquid. When you poach fillets, bring the liquid to a simmer first, then add the filets and simmer until fish is cooked through, again about 6-9 minutes per inch.
Steaming fish is the healthiest way to go. The result is moist and delicate without adding butter or oil. Use a Chinese-style bamboo or metal “fan” steamer. This is a great way to cook any type of fish, again about 9 minutes per inch.
For grilled whole fish with lemon and thyme, have your fishmonger clean, gut and scale your fish. Keep the head and tail on. Snip off other fins. Prepare your grill by rubbing it with oil and heating it to 450°. Stuff fresh thyme, and lemon slices into cavity, truss with kitchen twine to keep the aromatics from falling out. Grill on indirect heat for 9 minutes per inch of thickness, flipping halfway through cooking time.
Baked fish with a salt crust is an amazing way to cook a fish. The result is moist, tender and perfectly seasoned with just the slightest hint of salt. The salt crust seals in moisture so the fish steams in its own juices. It’s also a pretty impressive dish especially if you shape the crust like the fish inside and use the back of a spoon to make scales on the body.
Here’s how you do it:
1 whole fish about 3 pounds (salmon, snapper, sea bass work great)
5 cups of kosher salt – something like Morton or Diamond (don’t waste your pink Himalayan sea salt on this dish)
10 egg whites
Aromatics for inside the fish like, lemons, fresh thyme, oregano, dill
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Mix the egg whites and salt together in a large bowl, using your hands or a large spoon. It should look and feel like wet sand. Spread a layer of the salt mixture on the bottom of a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place the fish on top, cover and mold the salt around the fish sealing it up entirely. You can use a spoon to decorate the crust and make it look like a fish.
Let it roast for 25-30 minutes. The crust will be golden brown, like the color of sand. A meat thermometer punched into the crust should read 120-125°.
To serve, move fish from parchment paper onto a large serving dish. Crack the crust and gently lift fish out, brushing off any excess salt.
Flounder or sole Meuniere
This is one of the quickest and easiest ways to cook fillets with just a few basic ingredients.
Flour for dredging the fillets
4 fresh flounder or sole fillets
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Grated zest from 1 lemon
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
A few tablespoons of chopped parsley
Season about ½ cup of flour with salt and pepper. Pat fillets dry and dredge in flour. Heat butter in a sauté pan large enough to hold fillets without crowding. Place fillets in hot butter and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Turn carefully with a metal spatula and cook for 2 minutes on the other side. Add zest, and lemon juice to the pan, sprinkle with parsley and serve with the sauce spooned over the fillets.