One of the most difficult aspects of cooking seafood is buying seafood. We've been conditioned to believe that fresh is always better than frozen and that local fish is preferable to anything that swims in faraway waters. And we are guilty of always buying the familiar: grouper, tuna and salmon. • There are other fish in the sea, frozen isn't a bad thing and Floridians who hunger for cod or Alaskan king crab know they are coming from somewhere else. • The key to shopping for fish is being informed. Finding a seafood market near you is a good idea because there you will get knowledgeable assistance. A good purveyor can provide buying and cooking suggestions and can let you know when the next boatload of fish will be sailing in. • Here are some tips to help you negotiate the fish market or seafood counter:
Trust your nose
If a market or its fish smell unpleasant, don't buy. Don't be mistaken, though; a fish market doesn't smell like the perfume counter and may still be distasteful to some. However, the fish should smell of the sea, not of ammonia or anything else that makes you recoil. Don't be afraid to ask the person waiting on you to let you get a whiff of the fish you want to purchase.
Next, take a good look
If you are buying whole fish, the eyes should be bright and clear. Fish with dull eyes may be safe to eat but they are past their prime. Also, the skin should also be lifelike and shiny. Don't buy whole fish when the skin is dulled or discolored. Skin on fillets should also look vibrant. If the fillets have any liquid on them, it should be clear. Milky liquid indicates that the fish is decaying.
You'll see this sign at the grocery store on some thawed seafood. If the store offers the same fish or shellfish frozen, buy it that way. All they have done is thawed what they offer frozen and are charging you more for it. Don't turn your nose up at frozen fish. It is often quite good and can sometimes be had for a better price.
The case for shellfish
Unless you are buying shrimp from a seafood market selling locally harvested shrimp, buy it in the shell and frozen. The shell protects the shrimp from drying. Also, shrimp cook — and go bad — very quickly. You need to cook shrimp within hours after it's thawed. Put it in a colander in the fridge to thaw, rather than leaving it in a plastic bag, so that the seafood doesn't absorb liquid. Scallops are also good to buy frozen. They, too, become mealy when they sit in liquid.
Learn some basics
If you know how different fish taste, you can deal with anything you find at the market. For instance, there are many firm, mild fish that can take the place of grouper or snapper. Sea bass, tilapia and flounder are among them. Ask the salesperson for help. Keep in mind that the darker the flesh of the fish (tuna, salmon, trout), the more pronounced its taste.
Information from Times files and about.com was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.