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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.