The rules of cooking seafood are simple: start with fresh, don’t over cook and serve as soon as it is cooked. Easy.
Because it is low in fat, high in protein and an excellent source of vitamins, fish has long been considered an important item in healthy cooking. The great variety of fish available is another plus: there are so many exciting, even unusual ways of using fish in cooking that there is nothing boring about basing meals on seafood. It is just about the last of the truly seasonal foods available, too; apart from the farming of fish like salmon and trout, the fresh fish in our shops and supermarkets was caught, just days before at most, in the seas and oceans of the world.
- Different Kinds of Fish
- Choosing Fresh Fish
- Storing Fresh Fish
- Buying Frozen, Canned or Smoked Fish
- How to Store Frozen, Canned or Smoked Fish
- How to Clean and Prepare Fish For Cooking
- How to Make Fish Stock
Different Kinds of Fish
Since fresh fish is caught in the wild, its availability is very much a matter of chance, supplies varying greatly both in the size of catches and in the type of fish caught. Fortunately, there are substitutes for most kinds of fish, and the busy cook seldom has to change meal plans because the fish planned for is not available. Fish can be divided into numerous groups:
The white fish group includes cod, haddock and hake. These three all come from the same family of fish, characterized by firm, large-flaked flesh which is very adaptable, being good for grilling, steaming, baking and deep-frying.
Also included among this broad fish classification are the flatfish, including the superb sole as well as plaice, flounder and dab and the much larger halibut and turbot. Flatfish, which have both eyes on top of their head, have a lateral bone structure which gives two fillets on each side, rather than the one fillet which can be obtained from each side of a round fish. Smaller flatfish are ideal for cooking whole on the bone. They can also be pan-fried and baked.
The round fish group, in which the fish has an eye on each side of its head, is a large one, ranging from freshwater salmon to shark. Oily fish, including trout, mackerel, herring and sardines, are also round fish. They have oil distributed throughout their flesh, which is, therefore, not white, but ranges in color from the lovely apricot pink of the rainbow trout to the darker grey or reddish tinge of sardines and mackerel. Absolute freshness is particularly important with oily fish, since the high oil content oxidizes and quickly turns rancid.
Two increasingly popular fish are the large and meaty tuna and swordfish, usually sold in steaks or large pieces like a cut of meat — a description which is particularly apt for the tuna, whose flesh is often very dark (white-fleshed tuna is usually sold for canning and so is not often found on fish counters). These two fish are ideal for grilling and barbecuing, and they are also good roasted.
In a category of its own is monkfish, also called anglerfish. Neither round nor flat, the monkfish has a huge head that is seldom seen on fish counters, the fish usually being sold as whole ‘tails’. Its firm flesh, free of bones except for a central spine, is deliciously sweet and mild and is good for stews, baked dishes and sautés or threaded on skewers for brochettes. Served cold with mayonnaise, monkfish is a splendid summer treat.
Choosing Fresh Fish
When buying fish you should always select the freshest available.
Points to look for are:
- A clean, fresh smell, more of the ocean and seaweed than of fish: a really ‘fishy’ odor indicates something caught none too recently and best avoided.
- The easiest way to tell at a glance if a whole fish is fresh is by looking at its eyes. It should have full, bright, clear eyes. Fish that are a few days old often have cloudy, sunken eyes.
- Gills should be pink or bright red.
- Scales should be tight, complete and look shiny. Don’t be put off by the natural slime on some fish, as it washes off easily.
- The flesh of the fish should feel firm and resilient, not flabby; it should not feel soft or soggy under your fingertip.
- A lot of fish are sold in fillet or cutlet form, and it is not as easy as it is for whole fish to tell whether they are fresh. Fish fillets should look fresh, bright and moist, and the flesh should be tight in texture and attached around the bones, if there are any. The fillets should be on ice and not sitting in water, and they should have no signs of discoloration or dryness. White fish should look really white. Always try to buy pre-cut fillets and steaks which you know to have been prepared on the spot and as recently as possible. Exposed fish flesh is more vulnerable to bacteria than whole fish.
It is a good thing to buy whole fresh fish whenever possible. Not only is it easier to judge the quality of the fish, but, in the case of white fish, you will also have trimmings for stock.
Storing Fresh Fish
Ideally, fresh fish should be cooked and eaten the day you buy it so that you can take full advantage of its wonderful flavor. This is not always possible, however, and whole fish can be safely stored in the refrigerator for a day or two before use, provided it was really fresh when you bought it. You may store whole fish wrapped in plastic or in an airtight container for 2-3 days in the refrigerator.
Ask your fishmonger to gut and scale the fish, as this will extend its keeping life. Whole fresh fish are best stored gutted, because gutting removes enzymes in the stomach which cause the fish to begin decaying. The fish should then be wrapped in polythene and, if possible, have ice packed over it. Cut fish should be kept out of direct contact with ice in the refrigerator, as the ice can discolor the flesh and draw out moisture and juices.
Wrap fillets in plastic wrap or store them in an airtight container. Most fish fillets and cutlets should keep for 2-3 days in the refrigerator. But you may consider using them within 24 hours of purchase just to stay on the safe side.
Buying Frozen, Canned or Smoked Fish
Where fresh fish is seasonal, frozen, canned or smoked fish are available all year round and make excellent freezer or cupboard items.
Only high quality fish is frozen, generally as soon as it is caught, so that its freshness is preserved. It is usually also prepared for. cooking before being frozen, being gutted and often filleted, too, making it very convenient to handle and use.
How to Store Frozen, Canned or Smoked Fish
Frozen white fish can be safely stored in a domestic freezer for up to four months. Oily fish, because of its high fat content, is best used within three months. Shellfish, especially the several kinds of prawn available in supermarket frozen food compartments, is best used within two months of freezing.
Watch out for fish marked ‘previously frozen’ on fresh fish counters. This fish, often kinds imported from far beyond our shores, is fine to use in the same ways as fresh fish but should not be re-frozen.
Note, too, that fresh fish is not easy to freeze at home, because domestic freezers work more slowly than commercial ones, giving time for ice crystals, which damage texture and flavor, to form. Whole fish for home freezing should be gutted, cleaned and washed thoroughly then wrapped in freezer food wrap. The freezer should be set at its lowest temperature.
Canned fish, such as tuna, sardines, anchovies, pilchards and herrings, keep for much longer than frozen fish and make excellent store-cupboard items.
Smoking is a way of preserving fish that gives it a characteristically smoky and delicious flavor. While kippers and smoked haddock have long been British favorites, smoked salmon, mackerel and trout are all increasingly available and sought after.
How to Clean and Prepare Fish For Cooking
Most fishmongers will gut and scale fish for you, but these tasks are quite simple to do at home. Preparing your own fish is not only cheaper but, if it is white fish, leaves you with the head and trimmings to use in stock.
Assuming you already have in the kitchen a large chef’s knife, essential for cutting fish and chopping bones, and a pair of kitchen scissors, useful for Cutting off fins, the only essential item you will need for preparing fish is a good, very sharp filleting knife with a thin, flexible blade.
Scaling: Scale fish over the kitchen sink. Hold the fish firmly by its tail with the tail end nearest to you. Using the blunt edge of a chef’s knife, scrape the scales away from you and towards the head of the fish, doing one side first than turning the fish over to do the other side. The scales will flake away quite easily as you work. Don’t be too vigorous, or scales will fly across the kitchen. Wash the scaled fish well and pat it dry with kitchen paper.
Gutting: To gut round fish, hold the fish with its stomach pointing upwards. Pierce the fish just below the head and cut firmly down towards the tail until you reach the end of the stomach cavity. Pull out the intestines, egg sac and other insides. Discard these; since they are not suitable for stock. Scrape away any sacs of blood (often adhering to the spine). Wash the inside of the fish well and pat dry.
To gut flat fish, put the fish, dark skin side upwards, on a work surface and pierce the flesh at the backbone just below the head. Work the knife carefully towards the side of the dish, keeping close to the bone. Pull out the insides with your fingers and discard. Wash the fish well and pat it dry.
Filleting: Filleting fish yourself leaves you with the head, bones and trimmings for making fish stock. This is where a very sharp, flexible and thin-bladed knife is essential. To fillet a round fish, lay the scaled and gutted fish flat on a work surface and cut through to the backbone by the head and tail; score along one side of the backbone. With the knife at a slight angle, and working as close to the backbone as possible, cut down with a slight sawing motion to lift the top fillet away from the bone. Keeping the knife as close to the bone as possible ensures that you will not lose any flesh. Lift away the fillet, turn the fish over and repeat the process to gain a second fillet. To fillet a flat fish, lay the gutted fish in front of you with the head furthest away. Score the edge of the fish to mark the fillets. Starting at the head, score down the length of one side of the backbone. Slip the knife under the flesh at the top, keeping close to the bone. Cut the flesh away from me bone with a sawing motion the whole length of the fillet. Repeat on the other side of the backbone for the second fillet, then turn the fish over and repeat the process for two.
Skinning: Fillets Lay the fillet skin-side down on the work surface and slip the knife between the fish and skin at the narrow end. Begin working the knife along the length of the fillet, using a light sawing motion to free the flesh from the skin. To hold the skin firm while you work, hold it against the work surface, using kitchen paper to give you a good grip.
How to Make Fish Stock
A good fish stock is an essential ingredient in many recipes, indispensable for giving a good flavor to chowders and stews, soups and sauces. The heads, tails and bones of white fish, such as cod and plaice, make excellent bases for fish stock. Oily fish are too rich and fatty to use.
This stock can be frozen, when it should be used within two months.