Cooking fish perfectly is an easy thing to do. This, you may say, is somewhat presumptuous coming from a professional cook, but it’s true—cooking fish is simple, and its preparation should reflect this. In fact, in most cases the simplest preparations are usually the best. Overly complicated and labor-intensive recipes are unnecessary. Actually, the most important thing to remember when cooking finfish is not to overcook them. If fish is extremely fresh there is none that I can think of that doesn’t benefit from being just slightly underdone. Now I’m definitely not speaking of being cooked slightly rare—with the possible exception of tuna—but just barely done. It will preserve the quality of its texture and flavor. When fish is overcooked it loses moisture, which will cause it to become dry and flavorless. Remember, finfish do not contain a strong skeletal structure or connective tissue, such as land animals, thus long cooking times are not necessary to soften its flesh; it is naturally tender.
Buying pristinely fresh fish, particularly in areas away from the sea, can actually be more challenging than cooking it. The term “fresh” at local supermarkets often means nothing more than that the fish has never been frozen (sometimes the fine print on a sign will read “previously frozen”), but it does not mean that the fish is necessarily fresh. It seems as if the word “fresh” has lost some of its relevance. The following account illustrates this perfectly. A few years ago I read a story in a culinary magazine by an author who was trying to trace the origin of a fish he purchased at his local supermarket. He inquired with the clerk at the counter and was referred to the store manager. The manager couldn’t help him entirely, but was able to give him the name and phone number of their wholesale supplier. Using the purchase order he was able to trace the fish from the supplier to the fish company that operates fishing trawlers, and ultimately he was able to establish the actual vessel and date on which his fish was caught. It turns out that after the fish was caught it was held aboard ship for 3 days while at sea, then another couple of days at the fish company, then the supplier, and then the supermarket. All in all, by the time the fish had been purchased by the writer, the fish had passed through 4 or 5 hands, and was out of the water for more than 10 days. Yet it was still labeled as fresh. Another observation is that farm-raised fish is often harvested according to schedule, and shipped the day it is processed, but most likely its still a few days old by the time it gets to your table. These anecdotes are excellent examples of the importance in knowing how to purchase fresh fish.
Before you even inspect the fish in a store survey the surroundings and the environment in which the fish is held. This doesn’t have to be an overtly obvious action, simply use your senses to take in the area. When you enter a fish store or approach a counter in a supermarket take note of any “off smells.” If there is an acutely apparent odor you may want to purchase your fish elsewhere. Fish, of course, does have a certain odor to it (its fish, after all), but it should in not stink. This can be a sign of improper or unsanitary storage. Fresh fish should still smell of the sea. Next, look at how the fish is stored in the display case. Filets and other precut portions should be resting on a bed of ice with proper drainage; whole fish may actually be partially buried in ice. The optimum temperature to store fish is 33 degrees Fahrenheit. Many refrigerators (especially those in stores, which are opened and closed often) reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Thus, the fish should be resting on, or packed in ice. When you see the fish that you would like, ask to examine it closely. It should have a mild sea smell, almost sweet. Whole fish should have bright, clear, and shiny eyes, and reflective skin with firm flesh; their gills should be bright pink or red. Precut portions, such as steaks or filets, should be moist, shiny, and not contain any browning or drying along the edges.
Interestingly, while fresh is usually the most obvious choice, depending on its source, buying frozen fish is also an acceptable option. If treated properly frozen fish can have quality that nearly matches fish that has never been frozen. Modern fishing boats are virtual fish factories at sea. Their catch is often cleaned and quick-frozen aboard ship, sometimes within hours of catching it. Quality and freshness is maintained because it is held in sub-zero temperatures until it is purchased in a retail environment.
When purchasing frozen fish first check the package to make sure that the seal is still in tact, and inspect the fish through the package to make sure there are no ice crystals, discoloration, or drying. And thaw the fish slowly, preferably in a refrigerator overnight, or for a somewhat quicker thaw, in a bowl of cold water for a couple of hours, changing the water often. Both of these methods reduce the amount of lost liquid, which occurs if fish is thawed too quickly, such as in a microwave or left at room temperature. The liquid that drains from frozen fish contains both flavor and nutrients. Once fish is thawed store it on ice and cook it as soon as possible.
When storing fish at home the same rules apply as they do in the store: keep fish either frozen, or refrigerated on ice with ample drainage. Keep in mind that fish stays fresh twice as long when held on ice at 32-33 degrees Fahrenheit as it does at common refrigerator temperatures (34-40 degrees Fahrenheit). If fish is purchased frozen store it in the freezer until the time of cooking. But, of course, allow ample time to thaw properly. If it is fresh keep the fish wrapped in plastic and resting on a bed of ice in your refrigerator. Ideally this should be done in a perforated pan to allow melting ice to drain, lest the fish lie in the melted water. If a perforated pan is not available, any melted liquid should be drained a few times a day. Another consideration is the oil content of fish. The higher the oil content the shorter the shelf life. Generally speaking, darker colored fish—such as tuna, salmon, and bluefish—all have high oil content and will deteriorate quicker than fish that are lower in oil and lighter in color. This said it’s always best to purchase fish the day of preparation, or at most the day before.
Fish is an extremely versatile food, and in general any cooking method yields excellent results. Again, the most important factor for flavorful and juicy fish is not to overcook it. There is a timing method for cooking fish that was popularized by the late food writer James Beard (it’s sometimes referred to as the Canadian Cooking Theory) that recommends cooking fish for 10 minutes per inch of thickness of thawed fish. While this may work in some instances I personally feel it is too sweeping of a statement, and that many times the fish will overcook (8-9 minutes would probably be a more appropriate generalization). Because there are so many variables, such as temperature fluctuations of ovens and grills, the thickness of fish, and the temperature of the fish, personal judgment is crucial. The key, of course, is to understand and know when fish is sufficiently cooked, and this is often a matter of personal preference. When fish is adequately cooked its flesh will become firm, its interior will become opaque, and the flesh will flake easily. A thin knife can be inserted into the fish to check for flakiness, texture and color. If this is done with whole fish be sure to do so along the bone, and with filets or steaks check the thickest section.
When choosing a cooking method for your fish basic culinary principles apply. Whether you are grilling, sautéing, roasting, or frying, make sure that the pan or other equipment is suitably preheated. If fish is placed in a cold sauté pan, or on a lukewarm grill, for example, it will most likely stick, lose much of its moisture, and no doubt be a disappointment. If on the other hand the pan or grill is preheated, the fish will very rapidly form an exterior crust, which will create an appealing texture, and also hold in some of the moisture. Preheating holds true for any cooking method. Roasting works particularly well with whole fish—by cooking the fish whole, with the skin and bones intact, the fish’s natural flavor and moisture will pervade. Roasting is also a relatively simple technique, and can yield an entire meal in one pan. Cooking fish in moisture, such as poaching and braising, is also an excellent choice. Cooking in liquid offers more flexibility in timing, and will alleviate much of the worry of moisture loss. The cooking medium will also create a flavorful liquid to be used as a sauce.
Fish is an excellent choice for the novice cook and the expert alike. It is an extremely nutritious food, and also very versatile. With basic cooking knowledge and intelligent buying fish can turn an ordinary meal into something special. To quote the “maitre” himself, Augustus Escoffier, “faite simple”—keep it simple. Focus on basic technique and top-notch ingredients, and the outcome is sure to be memorable.
Fresh Salmon Cakes
Salmon cakes may be served warm or at room temperature with a dipping sauce—such as aïoli or chutney—or over a salad with a light dressing.
Yield: 8 small salmon cakes.
8 ounces skinless boneless salmon fillet
1 large egg
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs, loosely packed
Oil for sautéing
Dice the salmon into 1-inch cubes and place it in a food processor. Pulse the food processor until the salmon is course chopped, but not puréed. Transfer the salmon to a bowl and add the egg, mayonnaise, mustard, dill, shallot, salt, and pepper. Stir until combined, then add the breadcrumbs and stir again. Place the raw salmon cake mixture in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to mingle.
Heat a small amount of vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet. Drop the salmon mixture from a spoon into the heated skillet, flattening and shaping them before they become firm. Cook the salmon cakes on both sides over medium heat for about five minutes, or until they are cooked throughout.
Ocean Perch à la Meunière
The French word meunière translates to English as “miller’s wife.” Presumably, this dish takes its name from the method of cooking that a miller’s wife of a bygone era would make their daily meals: fish would be caught in the stream that powered the mill, and lightly dredged in the freshly milled flour and sautéed quickly.
Yield: 2 portions
12 ounces ocean perch filets
2 tablespoons flour
3 ounces unsalted butter, divided
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley leaves
Lay the perch on a plate and lightly dust both sides of them with the flour; pat off any excess flour. Heat 1 ounce of the butter in a non-stick skillet over medium heat, and when the butter begins to bubble in the pan add the perch, skin-side facing up. Cook the perch for a couple of minutes on each side, just until they are done, and transfer them to warm plates. Keep the perch warm in a very low oven. Add the remaining 2 ounces of butter to the pan along with the minced shallot, and raise the heat to high. When the butter and shallots achieve a golden brown color, and begins to smell of toasted nuts, add the lemon, salt, and parley (be careful not to burn the butter). Swirl the pan to form a quick emulsification. Immediately pour the butter sauce over the fish, and serve while hot.
Whole Trout Roast with Fennel and Tomato
Yield: 2 portions
1 large tomato, seeds removed, diced
2 stalks fresh fennel, sliced crosswise (reserve leaves)
1 shallot, peeled and sliced thin
1 clove garlic, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided
2 whole trout
In a small bowl combine the diced tomato, fennel, shallot, garlic, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons of the lemon, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Mix these ingredients together and spread them on a baking sheet or in a skillet that is just large enough to hold the trout while lying flat.
Rinse the trout inside and out under cold running water, pat them dry, and make 3 or 4 diagonal slices in their skin on each side. Season the trout inside and out with the remaining salt and pepper, and place the reserved fennel leaves in the trout’s cavities. Lay the trout on the fennel and tomatoes, and drizzle them with the remaining olive oil and lemon.
Preheat an oven to 450 degree Fahrenheit, and roast the trout on the middle rack for 15-20 minutes, or until cooked throughout. Transfer the trout to warm plates and garnish with the fennel and tomatoes.