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 and shellfish 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 and the commercial growing of shellfish like mussels and oysters, the fresh fish in our shops and supermarkets was caught, just days before at most, in the seas and oceans of the world.
- Kinds of Fish
- Choosing Fresh Fish
- Storing Fresh Fish
- Buying Other Kinds of Fish
- Preparing Fish for Cooking
- Preparing Cooked Shellfish
- How to Cooked Crab
- How to Cooked Lobster
- How to Make Fish Stock
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 some of Britain’s most popular fish, such as 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 brought to Britain from many parts of the world 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 Shellfish includes all those fish enclosed in a shell. The group can be further broken down into Crustacea, such as crab, lobster and the many kinds of prawn, which have limbs as well as shells, and molluscs, such as oysters, mussels, scallops and clams, which have shells only.
Choosing Fresh Fish
When buying fish it is important always to select the freshest available.
Points to look for are:
- A clean, fresh smell, more of the sea and seaweed than of fish: a really ‘fishy’ odor indicates something caught none too recently and best avoided.
- Whole fish should have bright, clear eyes, showing no cloudiness and not sunk into the head. Gills should be pink or bright red.
- Scales should be complete and look shiny. Don’t be put off by the natural slime on some fish, as it washes off easily.
- The fish should feel firm and resilient, not flabby; it should not feel soft or soggy under your fingertip.
- Ready-cut fillets and steaks should have moist, bright flesh which does not look watery. 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. Steaks and fillets should be used within 24 hours of purchase.
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.
Buying Other Kinds of Fish
Where fresh fish is seasonal, frozen, canned or smoked fish are available all year round and make excellent freezer or store-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.
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 Fish and Prepare it 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 more fillets.
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.
Preparing Cooked Shellfish
Although diners are often given cooked shellfish, notably crab mayonnaise, which takes practice, and left to fend for themselves, it is usual for the cook to give some preliminary help.
How to Prepare Cooked Crab
Put the crab on its back on a work surface and twist the legs and claws to separate them from the body. Holding the shell in your hands, extract the body Section from the shell by pressing firmly against the tail of the crab. Pull out and discard the stomach and the gills (the ‘dead men’s fingers’), which are found just behind the mouth. Pull out and discard the grey-white ‘beards’ on either side of the body.
Using a pointed knife and a spoon, pick out all the brown meat left in the shell and set it on one side. Pick out all the white meat from the tail and set aside separate from the brown meat, if preferred. Using nutcrackers, crack open the legs and claws and pick out all the meat, being careful to extract and discard the sharp shaft of shell in the center of the flesh in the claw.
How to Prepare Cooked Lobster
Put the lobster on its front on a chopping board, pulling the tail out to its full length so that it sits flat against the board. Using a sharp, heavy knife, slice lengthways down the center of the lobster and separate it into two halves. Pull out and discard the stomach and grey ‘beards’ from the body cavity at the head end of the lobster.
Crack the claws with nutcrackers so that the shell can be pulled easily away to reveal the delicious claw meat.
The lobster can be grilled at this stage, or the tail and claw meats can be pulled out and used in a salad.
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.