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Tips for buying, preparing fish just in time for Lent

Cooking fish is an art.

And just like art — paintings, drawings and the like — preparing perfect fish requires some skills that are best learned with practice. A little natural talent doesn't hurt either.

As Lent gets under way and continues through April 17, fish will be on the menus of many Catholics. They customarily give up meat on Ash Wednesday (March 5) and all Fridays during the six weeks leading up to Easter, this year April 20, often substituting fish as a primary protein. This is why so many churches host fish fries during the Lenten season.

Frying fish is one way to eat the bounty of the sea, but learning to prepare it at home in more healthful and interesting ways is a worthy accomplishment. This is especially true in Florida, where the waters are teeming with dinner. Grouper, redfish, mahi-mahi, snook, mullet, striped bass and all sorts of snapper are among the common catches for area anglers in freshwater and saltwater.

At the fish market and grocery store, the choices are multiplied as fish is shipped in from all over the world. We're eating more fish than ever, nearly 6 pounds per person a year (about 14 pounds if you toss in shellfish), according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. But that still doesn't compete with the 200 combined pounds of red meat and poultry we eat annually.

I figure we know what to do with a chicken breast and brisket, but that snapper fillet presents its own issues. Maybe that's why the fish counter at the grocery store is so much smaller than the meat and poultry displays.

"You can't expect to cook it perfectly the first time," says Justin Timineri, the executive chef for the state of Florida. "But it's worth learning how to do it because it's so healthy for you."

And speaking of that delicate snapper fillet, Timineri suggests starting with a more sturdy, less expensive fish, like amberjack or mahi-mahi, to gain confidence.

"Those fish are a bit more oily and less delicate," he says.

Price is another thing that puts some of us off, especially if there's a chance the finished product will be less than satisfying. When you're paying $15.99 a pound for grouper, you darn sure want it to taste luxurious. It's much easier to boil up a mess of shrimp and drag them through cocktail sauce than to take the plunge with finfish.

But you don't need to get fancy, Timineri says. Simple is better.

"Generally I prefer to cook my fish at home in a saute pan that's ovenproof so I can finish the fish off there," Timineri says. "I like to lightly dust it with flour seasoned lightly with salt and pepper. We don't want to overpower the fish. Sear it in a hot pan with oil.

"Just let it cook. Don't mess with it. Two or three minutes per side, depending on the thickness. Don't overcook!"

The state's culinary cheerleader is also a fan of local fish markets. He travels with a cooler in his car so he can pack whatever seafood he finds on ice for the trip home. Make sure the ice is bagged separately from the fish or water will seep into the fish and make it mushy.

"I cook fish about twice, sometimes three times, a week," Timineri says.

The Fresh From Florida website has a list of seafood that's in season. In Florida, availability of finfish is highest in the summer months and there are nearly 100 recipes on freshfromflorida.com, maintained by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

10 tips to help you become a fish aficionado in the kitchen

1 Buy the right amount

If you're serving a whole fish, figure about 1 pound per person, allowing for discarding the head and bones. For fish fillets and steaks, figure about half a pound per person.

2 Fish should not smell fishy

And, by fishy, that means unpleasant. Fish should smell like the sea. If you are buying whole fish, the eyes should be clear and the skin should not be slimy.

3 Don't fear frozen

Some say fresh fish is always better but you need to know that unless you catch it yourself (or your neighbor is kind enough to share his catch), the fish was likely partially frozen on a commercial fishing boat. Frozen is not necessarily worse.

4 Don't overcook

Fish will get dry, possibly tough, if overcooked. As a general rule, fish cooked on direct heat requires 10 minutes per inch of thickness. For example, a ½-inch-thick fillet, which is a piece of fish cut lengthwise off the spine, will take about 5 minutes, 2 ½ minutes on each side, to pan-fry. Baking will take longer. You should follow the instructions in a recipe until you get a feel for the time. (If you're cooking it in a foil or parchment paper packet, add at least 5 minutes.)

5 Test for doneness

Fish is done when it is opaque and flakes easily with the touch of a knife or fork.

6 Know your fish

Learn some basics about how different fish taste, and you can deal with anything you find at the grocery store or market. For instance, when a recipe calls for a firm, mild fish you can use grouper, striped bass, snapper, redfish, halibut, cod or sea bass. Tilapia will also work. White fish are also leaner than salmon and tuna.

7 Use high heat

When cooking fish with direct heat, grill or skillet, make sure your pan is very hot. The high heat sears the fish and keeps moisture in. The high heat also prevents oil or butter from being absorbed into the flesh. If needed, you can always lower the heat after searing.

8 Consider techniques

Take advantage of the versatility of fish, much as you do with chicken. It can be breaded and sauteed; roasted with aromatic herbs; grilled by itself or in packets with lemon and julienned vegetables; poached; stuffed and baked; and always fried.

9 Don't refreeze

When you thaw previously frozen fish, do not refreeze. You should plan to cook it within a couple of days of purchase.

10 Think visual appeal

Always start cooking with presentation side down, meaning the side that hits the heat first is the side that diners will see on their plates. Doing this will result in an appetizing golden crust when served.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

>>MODERATE

Smoky Fish Chowder

3 ounces bacon (3 or 4 slices), diced

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium leeks, white and light green parts, thinly sliced

¾ teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed

¼ teaspoon hot smoked paprika

¼ cup dry white vermouth or white wine

2 cups fish stock

1 cup water

½ pound fingerling potatoes, sliced into ¼-inch rounds

3 thyme sprigs

2 cups whole milk

10 ounces flaky white fish, such as flounder or cod, cut into 2-inch chunks

Brown bacon until crisp, about 5 minutes, in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Use a slotted spoon to transfer bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of bacon fat from the pot. Add butter and let melt. Add leeks and a pinch of salt; cook, stirring frequently, until leeks are soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in paprika; cook 1 minute. Pour in vermouth and simmer until almost completely evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in fish stock, 1 cup water, potatoes, thyme and remaining salt. Simmer until potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

Add milk and cooked bacon to pot; bring to a simmer. Add fish and cook until just opaque, 2 to 4 minutes. Use a fork to flake fish into large pieces. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove thyme. Serve immediately.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Source: New York Times

>>MODERATE

Striped Bass With Lime Butter

Covered in a rich, buttery sauce flavored with white wine and lime, this recipe for striped bass is perfect for dinner guests. We pair this fish with Pan-Fried Potatoes and steamed asparagus.

6 (6-ounce) striped bass or red snapper fillets

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

cup all-purpose flour

1 ½ tablespoons canola oil

cup dry white wine

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 tablespoon heavy cream or half-and-half

5 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into 5 pieces

1 tablespoon fresh chervil, dill or parsley leaves

Pat fish dry with paper towels and season with half of the salt and pepper. Spread flour on waxed paper and dredge fillets.

Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderately high heat until oil shimmers. Add fillets, skin side down, and cook 4 minutes, until skin is crispy. Flip fillets and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer. Transfer them, skin side up, to a warm plate.

Add wine, lime juice and shallots to skillet; boil over high heat 2 to 3 minutes, until liquid is reduced to about 1 ½ tablespoons. Stir in cream. Once mixture bubbles, reduce heat to low. Swirl in butter one piece at a time, adding each piece before the previous one has completely melted. Lift pan from the heat a few times so sauce won't separate. Add remaining salt and pepper.

Place Pan-Fried Potatoes (recipe below) on serving plates and top with a fillet, skin side up. Spoon lime butter over and scatter herbs on top.

Source: redbookmag.com

>>EASY

Pan-Fried Potatoes

¾ pound small red or fingerling potatoes, cut into ¼-inch slices

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil

A few sprigs of fresh thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring potatoes to a boil in salted water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat to a brisk simmer; cook about 4 minutes; drain. Heat olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Add potatoes and a few fresh thyme sprigs. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, flipping occasionally, until potatoes are browned and tender. Season with salt and pepper.

Source: redbookmag.com

>>EASY

Snapper Tandoori

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped

4 cloves garlic

cup vinegar

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon ground coriander seeds

1 tablespoon ground cumin seeds

1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

½ cup olive oil

4 (6-ounce) snapper fillets

Chutney

In a blender, combine ginger, garlic, vinegar, salt, coriander, cumin, cayenne and oil together to form a fine paste.

Spread paste over fillets; marinate for 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator. Preheat the broiler on highest setting. Place the marinated fillets on a foil-lined broiling pan; broil for about 8 to 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Serve with your favorite chutney.

Serves 5.

Source: freshfromflorida.com

>>MODERATE

Key West Margarita Grouper

4 (6-ounce) grouper fillets

cup tequila

cup orange liqueur

¾ cup fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon salt

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

Salsa:

3 medium tomatoes, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced

4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 pinch white sugar

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

Ground black pepper to taste

Place fillets in a shallow baking dish. In a bowl, whisk together the tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice, 1 teaspoon salt, garlic and olive oil. Reserve ½ cup marinade and set aside.

Pour remaining marinade over fillets; cover and refrigerate for ½ hour, turning the fillets once.

For salsa, combine tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, cilantro and sugar in a medium bowl; season to taste with salt and set aside. Preheat grill on medium-high heat. Remove fillets from marinade, brush tops with oil and season with black pepper.

Grill fillets for 4 to 5 minutes per side until center is opaque and meat flakes easily with a fork. Transfer fillets to serving plates. In a small saucepan, heat reserved marinade to a simmer; remove from heat and set aside. Drizzle warm marinade over the fillets and serve with salsa.

Serves 4.

Source: freshfromflorida.com

Tips for buying, preparing fish just in time for Lent 03/03/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 3, 2014 4:52pm]

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