When it comes to purchasing the freshest seafood in Austin, tip #1:
Befriend your monger and follow your nose! When purchasing seafood, remember that your monger is your best friend. Be inquisitive! Don’t be shy to ask when the product arrived, when and where it was processed (i.e., filleted), how long ago that it was processed, when it was defrosted (if it was previously frozen), and how many more days of shelf life it has. You have the special privilege of being able to ask to smell and handle (with gloves of course) any fish or shellfish before you purchase it. In addition to asking the right questions, be flexible; if your market is worth its weight, chances are many of the fresh seafood items that it carries are highly seasonal. If the fish you want isn’t available, ask your monger for advice on what would be a good substitute. Below is a list of indicators of freshness to guide you on your next visit to your local seafood market. Smell Fresh seafood should have very little smell, if any. If it does smell, it should be reminiscent of the ocean. Do not purchase any seafood that smells sour or faintly of ammonia. When the natural oils in certain fish and shellfish break down, they produce the chemical ammonia, which is not neutralized by the cooking process and will lead to food poisoning if consumed! Firmness Fish, whether filleted or whole, should be springy and firm. When touched, the flesh should “bounce” back and no impressions from your fingertips should remain. Delicate fish, such as salmon, should be free of breaks and bruises in the flesh (a sign of poor handling). Color White Fish – The flesh of white fish should be moist, glistening, and of course, WHITE! Some fish have a slightly more pinkish hue, but generally, most fish should not appear yellow or brown.
Tuna, etc. – The flesh of fatty fish, such as tuna and opah, should have a glistening, wet look. Tuna should be deep red, with no brown spots around the edges. Tuna that appears “hot pink” has most likely been treated with carbon monoxide to make it appear brighter and fresher. Ask your monger if the tuna was filleted in-house or if it arrived previously processed in vacuum-sealed packages. The latter is a good indicator that CO1 was used in processing. While the Food and Drug Administration approves the use of CO1 as a food additive, it makes it more difficult for the consumer to use the “color test” to detect poor quality products. So opt for fresh tuna over frozen or “refreshed” whenever it is available. Like tuna, opah should have a glistening look; instead of red, it should be a vibrant pinkish orange hue.
Salmon – Most species of wild salmon should appear bright orange or deep red orange. Atlantic and Coho salmon will have subtler coloring than a sockeye or a king, which should have a vibrant red flesh. The one exception is Ivory King, which like its name indicates, has an ivory flesh.
Bloodline If intact, the color of the bloodline should be bright red. Fish with brown bloodlines have usually been filleted for more than a day or two, and you should give them a good sniff before purchasing. If they smell sour or less than fresh, pass on that particular fish and instead, ask your monger what was filleted that day! Gills Unless your fishmonger has already removed them for you, the gills of whole fish should be bright red or pink. Pass on fish whose gills have a muddy brown color. Eyes Eye color is often cited as a way to detect freshness in whole fish. However, the eyes of some fish will change from clear white to a more transparent red color when they rapidly rise to the surface. More than color, overall transparency is a good indicator of freshness. Pass on fish that have cloudy eyes, and opt for the ones that, regardless of color, are clear and bright. Aroma Shellfish – Like fish, shellfish should have an ocean fresh smell. Any product that smells sour, like ammonia, or “boggy” should be avoided. Unless frozen, shellfish should be alive when you purchase them. Their shells should be intact and free of cracks or holes. Check for life signs on any open shells by gently tapping the “heel” of the shell against a hard surface. If the shell closes, the organism is still alive; if it remains open after several seconds, discard it.
Live shellfish such as lobsters, crabs, and crawfish should be lively, though when stored on ice, they my take a few moments to “warm up” and become active. If the animal is motionless, gently touch the eyes for signs of liveliness. When buying fresh shrimp , ask your monger how long they have been out of the water; when buying “refreshed” or defrosted shrimp, ask him or her when they were defrosted. Shrimp should smell fresh, like seawater. Avoid shrimp that smell of ammonia. Scallops should be firm and translucent; their color may range from off-white, to pale orange or pink. Ask your monger if the scallops are “dry” or “wet;” the latter means that they have been treated to hold more water weight. “Dry” scallops typically cost more and can be sandy, but the extra dollar and effort in the kitchen is worth the overall value. Their flavor is better, and they don’t lose moisture when cooked. Frozen Seafood When seafood is frozen at its peak freshness using “flash” freezing techniques to minimize the formation of ice crystals within the flesh, it can be a delicious substitute for fresh items that are either out of season or of poor quality. Only buy frozen seafood that is clearly marked with an expiration date. Avoid products that show signs of excessive moisture (evidenced by the presence of ice crystals) in the package. Although some seafood items may keep for as long as three months in the freezer, for maximum quality and flavor, use frozen seafood within one month of purchase. Never use frozen seafood past the expiration date marked on the packaging. Always defrost frozen items in their packaging overnight in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Ever wonder "HOW MUCH FISH DO I BUY??" Portion size – Below is a chart of recommended portion sizes of fresh fish and shellfish. This chart is meant as a general guide for the home chef, and deference should always be given to specific recipe recommendations or personal preferences.
(1] Many recipes that call for grains, such as stir-fry and pasta dishes, may require less protein per person. In these situations, we recommend buying 4 oz. of fish or shellfish per person.  Shellfish meat, such as blue crab, is typically sold in 1-pound containers, either fresh-picked or pasteurized (indicating that the meat has a longer shelf life). Jumbo lump is the best of the body meat (large white chunks), lump or backfin also comes from the body but is sold in flakes, and claw meat comes from…you guessed it…the claw and is typically brownish white in color. Storing Ice is a fish’s best friend Transit – Are you going home right away? Are you stopping at the grocery store first? Will you be sitting in a lot of traffic? Is it hotter than Texas out there? If your fish’s commute from the market case to the household fridge is going to take longer than 20 minutes, then be kind to your fillets and ask your monger for an ice pack to keep them cool on the ride home. Even better, come prepared with a cooler and your own ice packs! Just remember not to leave your cooler in the hot trunk while you’re doing all your pre-seafood market shopping. When heated in the sun, a cooler will hold its temperature and act more like a portable oven than a fridge for your fish! Packaging Fish fillets If you’ll be refrigerating your fish for consumption in the near future, remove the fish from its original packaging, wrap it with plastic wrap, and place it on a plate or tray in the coolest part of your fridge (back of bottom shelf) underneath an ice pack. You can also fill a bowl with ice and place the wrapped fillets on top of the ice. If you’re freezing the fillets for later use, remove them from their original packaging and seal them in vacuum-pack bags using a home food saver. If you don’t have one of these, wrap the fish in plastic, then tightly in freezer paper or a freezer bag, pressing all the air out as you go. Try to store fish fillets in the coolest part of your freezer (near the back cooling unit) so that they freeze as quickly as possible, minimizing the number of ice crystals that form inside the flesh. Shellfish Air is equally important as ice for shellfish. Unless you are going home directly, be sure that your shellfish have adequate access to circulating air in transit. If your market doesn’t use mesh bags, ask your monger to leave the plastic bag open or to puncture some holes in it so that the shellfish can “breathe.” Larger crustaceans, such as lobsters and crabs, should also be wrapped in wet newspaper before being placed in a box or cooler; this helps keep their gills moist. Your monger should use saltwater from the tank, as tap water isn’t good for the shellfish. When you get your seafood home, place it on ice in the coolest part of the fridge. Do not allow water to gather around the shellfish, as the chlorinated tap water will kill them. Place the ice in a plastic bag and then place the shellfish on top, or use a gel pack. You may also want to cover your shellfish with a damp towel to keep them moist. Oysters should be laid flat, with the “cup” side down, so that if they open and close while hanging out in your fridge, they don’t spill out all their delicious oyster liquor! Shelf life
The shelf life of fish depends on a variety of factors, among them are the oil content, the time it has spent out of water, the time since it was filleted, and whether or not it was properly handled. Assuming the fish was properly handled and stored prior to arriving at your market, a good rule of thumb is that a fish stays fresher the longer it stays whole (with an exception of the viscera, which should be removed as soon as possible). Here is another instance where knowing your mongers can help you! They should be able to give you the best advice how many days your product will last if properly stored over ice in a home fridge. If your local market does much of its own processing, then you’re in luck, because if you don’t like the looks of a certain fillet, they can probably fillet you a fresh one off the side of a whole fish. If you don’t live near a reputable fresh seafood market and you’re unfortunate enough not to have a trusty monger by your side as you shop, then this table should give you a general idea of how long to keep seafood after purchasing it before cooking or freezing it. Remember, the same standards apply in your kitchen as those at your market. Before cooking, rinse your fish, pat it dry and give it a good sniff test. If your fillets have gone sour or have a faint chemical aroma, it’s too late and you should be headed back to the market for newer, fresher seafood!
Regardless of whether you and your fishmonger determine that your fish will last a week or a day, there are a few steps you can take at home to assure that your seafood stays as fresh as possible (see above: Transit and Packaging). Preparing Fish…the better fast food. Some novice home chefs shy away from seafood because of the supposed expense and difficulty of preparation. While certain species of fish are more expensive because they are rare or hail from faraway waters, there are many varieties available to the home cook that are just as affordable as other proteins that we buy. For cooks on a budget the best way to get the greatest value, and in many cases, the highest quality product is to buy locally and seasonally. Asking your monger for wild-caught sockeye salmon in January is the surest way to overpay! Instead, ask him or her for their recommendation on tasty substitutions for that exotic out-of-season fish. You may stumble upon a new favorite that’s easier to access year-round because it comes from local waters. This book will hopefully demystify the “secrets” of cooking seafood and shed light on the fact that preparing it can be quick, easy, and healthy. Once you’ve found a reliable market to buy quality seafood, you’ll soon learn that the best way to enjoy it is not by slaving over a sauce that takes an hour to cook and overpowers the delicate flavors of the fish, but rather to rely on simple, classic preparations that highlight, instead of mask, the subtle wonders that the bounties of the sea have to offer. Cleaning whole fish
Chances are your monger has already scaled, gutted, and gilled your fish. However, if you like to do the dirty work yourself, find a clean stable cutting surface, an apron, a fish scaler, and a sturdy, sharp knife. Place the fish in a large, clear plastic bag (this will capture the scales and keep them from flying all over you and your working space); run a fish scaler back and forth along the fish body against the grain of the scale. Don’t forget those hard-to-reach places like behind the head and fins and along the backbone. Give the fish a good rinse. To remove the gills, start at the base of the fish head, just beneath the gill plate, and make an incision along the belly of the fish until you reach the anal fin. Reach in and pull out the viscera. Go on…you said you wanted to do this yourself! Next, lift up the gill plate and slice the membrane attaching it to the plate (on both sides of the fish head). Anchor the tip of your knife on one of the three points where the gills attach to the fish head. Apply pressure as you twist the knife out away from your body and cut through the gill attachment. Repeat this step at the other two points. Rip out the gills. Rinse the fish cavity with cold water. Cleaning fillets Remove fish from packaging, rinse with cold water and pat dry. If you forgot to ask your fishmonger to skin your fillets, you’ll need a sharp, flexible knife and a clean, stable cutting surface. At the tail end of the fillet, make a small incision about 1 inch from the end of the tail; slice through the fish flesh until just above the skin. Grip the tail of the fish well (dry hands are important), and slide the knife between the flesh and the skin, pulling the fish toward you as you push the knife away. For fish with tougher skin or scale-on fish, as you pull the fish skin toward you, shimmy it back and forth gently along the knife blade. The knife should be at about a 15o angle with the cutting surface. You may cut through the skin on your first few attempts, but after a few fillets, you’ll get the feel for it. Don’t panic…this takes practice! When learning, it’s best to practice on fillets that have not been scaled. Ask your monger to leave the scales on for you. They provide better traction and are much harder to pierce through with a knife. Cleaning shellfish Remove the shellfish from packaging and check for cracks or holes in shells, discard any that are damaged. Also check to be sure all shells are closed. Discard any that do not close after performing the “tap test” (see above for details). Farm-raised mussels and clams tend to be less gritty than wild-harvested ones; if you bought farm-raised shellfish, a quick rinse should do the trick before dropping them into the steamer. Wild-caught shellfish should be soaked for a few minutes in ice-cold water to purge them of any sand. Wait to purge the shellfish until just before cooking. If your wild mussels haven’t been de-bearded, remove the beard with kitchen shears or your fingers. The safest way to defrost fish or shellfish is overnight in the fridge. If you didn’t plan that far ahead, you may also defrost the product by running it under cold tap water. If possible keep the fish or shellfish in its packaging and let the water gather around it by putting it in a small container. Keep the tap running with low pressure, so as not to damage the flesh. Common cooking methods
This section is meant to supplement the recipes that follow. It is by no means a complete guide, but rather, it aims to provide a few words of wisdom for beginning cooks regarding some basic seafood cooking techniques. Remember, trial and error is not a sin, and your cod fillet costs less than freshly sliced deli meat or fresh beef, so a little experimenting isn’t going to break the bank. Most fish is cooked medium rare when a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the fillet reads 130° F. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, use your eyes! When fillets are mostly opaque throughout with a slight translucent center, remove them from direct heat and allow residual heat to finish the job for a few minutes. If you’re nervous about cooking seafood for the first time, ask your monger for some simple recipes that pair well with your purchase. Start with forgiving fish like catfish, sablefish, salmon, and even sea bass. Don’t forget to have fun! If worse comes to worse, at least your pooch will be eating well tonight. Poaching – Poaching can be done on the stovetop or in roasting pan covered with foil in the oven. Always skin your fillets before submerging them in poaching liquid. Bring liquid to a low simmer, add the fish to the pan, cover, and simmer gently for about 8-15 minutes depending on thickness. Be sure your pan is large enough for your fillets. You don’t want to purchase a whole salmon if you don’t have a pot or a roasting pan large enough to cook it in! Flavor your water with lemons, fresh herbs, and aromatic vegetables. For a fun twist on traditionally poached fish, try using spiced coconut milk. Steaming and baking or grilling in foil – This is a fast, flavorful, and healthy way to cook nearly any kind of seafood. All you need is a tasty liquid and a cooking vessel. Steam mussels and clams directly in your favorite cooking liquid (try beer or wine with garlic and fresh tomatoes); mussels and clams that do not open after cooking should be discarded. Steam shellfish, like crab legs or lobsters, in a steamer basket. Flavor the water with lemons and fresh herbs; this method also works well with fish fillets. If you don’t have a steamer basket, lay the fillets on foil, pour a few tablespoons of liquid (try your favorite fresh vinaigrette recipe, or some white wine and capers) over the fillets and fold the foil into a pouch, sealing the moisture inside. Cook on the grill or in the oven at about 475-500° F for 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillet. Baking – This method is usually most conducive to oily fish, such as salmon, sea bass, trout, and catfish, because they can retain their moisture and better resist drying. Generally, fillets should be cooked at a higher temperature (425-450°F) for a shorter period of time (5-15 minutes depending on thickness), while whole fish should be cooked at a lower temperature (350° F) for a longer period of time (25-35 minutes). However, fillets may be cooked longer at lower temperatures if they are covered, cooked in a sauce, or basted frequently to keep fillets from drying out. Be sure to grease the baking pan well with cooking spray to avoid sticking. Large clams, shrimp, and whole fish are delicious stuffed and baked. Your stuffing can be as simple as breadcrumbs, lemon zest, and fresh herbs or as elaborate as crab cake mixture. Fish can also be baked rapidly in a “salt crust” at very high temperatures (500° F). The simplest way is to bury the fillets in a layer of kosher or rock salt (about ½ inch thick). To conserve salt and add extra seasonings, you may also beat together four to six egg whites until stiff peaks form and then softly fold in 1 cup of table salt and about ¼ cup of dried herbs into the egg whites. Gently spread the mixture over the fillets, making sure to cover completely. Fish fillets will take about 10-20 minutes depending on thickness. Broiling and grilling – Broiling is a great alternative to grilling when dealing with delicate fish, such as flounder and sole. These fish should not require turning under a broiler. Grilling is only recommended for certain fish because fish tend to fall apart when handled excessively. If you want to grill, choose a sturdy fish, such as tuna, marlin, swordfish, or mahi-mahi. Most fish should be grilled over medium to medium-high heat, tuna being an exception if you like to sear it over high heat and leave the center meat rare. If you must grill a more delicate fish, always leave the skin on; when given a choice, ask your monger to leave the scales on, as they provide even more protection for the fillets. It’s also a good idea to choose fish that have high oil content, such as sea bass or whole sardines, because they are harder to overcook. Fish such as halibut and marlin are great on the grill but need to be monitored carefully so that they don’t get too dry. Be sure to clean the grill after it has heated, spray the grilling surface liberally with cooking oil (beware of flare ups), and then spray the fish fillets directly on both sides with more cooking spray. Season, grill 2-6 minutes per side depending on thickness and species, and enjoy! If you can find shellfish that are large enough to grill, it’s the easiest meal you’ll ever prepare. Just throw some clams or oysters on the grill rack until they open, season with a little lemon or butter and dig in! Shrimp and scallops are also delicious grilled, just be wary of over cooking them…most only take 2-3 minutes per side over direct heat. Pan-frying – Nearly every fish is delicious pan-fried. When breading fillets, first rinse them, then roll them in seasoned flour, dip them in seasoned egg wash (1 beaten egg with 1 tablespoons milk or water), and finally, roll them in seasoned breading (cornmeal, more flour, panko, crushed nuts, etc.). Experiment with different oils to add flavor and depth to your dish. Peanut oil is a great choice for nut-crusted fillets, while sesame oil is delicious with Asian dishes. It’s important to use oils with high smoking points or clarified butter. You can also use a mixture of vegetable oil and butter to avoid burning. If your fillets have a thick coat of breading, choose mild-flavored oil such as canola or vegetable. Always use a nonstick pan, and be careful when turning fillets. Deep-frying – Though not the most healthy cooking method, every now and then you need to satisfy your craving for deliciously crispy breading and moist, flaky fish. Cod, catfish, and shrimp are favorites, but branch out and try new things, such as halibut, drum, or scallops. Follow the same method for breading your seafood as for pan-frying. Remember to season your flour, egg wash, and breading. Candy thermometers work well for monitoring the temperature of the cooking oil (350-375°F). Be sure not to overcrowd the pan; too many pieces will lower the temperature of the oil, causing the seafood to cook slower. Fish and shrimp are done when they turn golden brown and float to the surface. Drain seafood on paper towels and then place it in an oven preheated to 200° F to keep warm while your fry the rest. Blackening – Season fillets or shrimp (shell on or off) well with lots of your favorite flavors (a mixture of cayenne, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and whatever else you have in the pantry should do the trick). Heat your cast iron skillet over medium-high heat with a decent amount of clarified butter or oil (or a mixture of the two). Oh, and don’t forget to turn on the fan and open the windows! Marinating or cooking in acid (i.e., ceviche) – An increasingly popular way to “cook” fish and shellfish is with citric acid. However, most recipes call for marinating the product for an hour in the fridge before eating; we do not recommend this! If you’re going to consume semi-raw seafood, marinate it overnight in enough citric acid to cover the entire product. Right before you serve the seafood, drain and discard that yucky liquid it’s been soaking in for hours, then toss it with fresh citric acid and the remaining ingredients (hot peppers, onion, fresh herbs, etc.), and serve. Now, doesn’t that taste better? Consuming raw Sushi – Initially used as a Japanese preservation technique in which fish was wrapped in vinegar-treated rice (the word sushi is a combination of the Japanese word for vinegar “su” and rice “meshi”), sushi now denotes fish or shellfish prepared with rice and nori (seaweed) in a variety of manners – from nigiri (fish served over rice) to maki (fish rolled in rice and seaweed). Sushi may contain raw or cooked fish or shellfish, as well as fresh vegetables and inventive sauces. Sashimi – Sashimi is different from sushi in that it is always served raw and unaccompanied by rice. Shape and thickness of the cuts for sashimi vary depending on the fish and the chef’s presentation. Sashimi is often served with daikon radish, ginger, wasabi, and other accompaniments. Sushi/sashimi-grade – “Sushi-grade” is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days, mainly because our love for sashimi and sushi has grown thanks to an influx of flavor trends from Japan. The bottom line: if you eat raw seafood, you might also be consuming any bacteria or parasites living in or on that seafood. It’s a risk, but for some, it’s one well worth taking. Since you’re not going to kill bacteria and parasites via the cooking process, there is another way to minimize your risk when you consume raw fish: freeze it! The FDA requires that any fish labeled “sashimi” or “sushi-grade” be frozen for 15 hours at -31° F or for 7 days at -4o° F in order to kill all those invisible little guys that might be hanging out in the fish. Some markets carry frozen “sushi-grade” fish from a special processer, others process it themselves. We consumers may be wary when told that the “sashimi-grade” fish is in the freezer section, but in reality, our mongers are just trying to do us a favor and minimize our risk. When you can’t find already frozen “sashimi-grade” fish, then buy the freshest possible raw fish and freeze it for at least five days in your home freezer. If you must consume fresh never-frozen fish, then befriend your monger. Ask him or her when the fish arrived at the market, how long it had to travel to get there, and how long ago it was cut. When you get it home, be sure to “trim” the sides of the fillet that may have been in contact with contaminated surfaces and toss them away before digging in to that delicious center.  Look for fish scalers at your local or online restaurant supply store.  Wooden skewers and planks are great ways to keep fish and shellfish intact on the grill while adding great flavor. Just be sure to soak the wood for a few hours before cooking to avoid flare-ups!  Your seafood doesn’t have to be breaded to be deep-fried. For a deliciously crispy appetizer, try deep-frying bacon-wrapped scallops or shrimp diablos (shrimp with jalapeño wrapped in bacon)  For the most up-to-date information regarding food safety and the consumption of raw seafood, consult www.fda.gov.  Shrimp are typically sold by the count per pound. 36-42 count means that there are approximately 36-42 shrimp in 1 pound. Shrimp labeled U-10 means that there are “under 10” shrimp per pound.  “Diver” scallops are harvested by hand (rather than a dredge) and are thus, less gritty, more environmentally friendly, and more expensive.  Many recipes that call for grains, such as stir-fry and pasta dishes, may require less protein per person. In these situations, we recommend buying 4 oz. of fish or shellfish per person.  Shellfish meat, such as blue crab, is typically sold in 1-pound containers, either fresh-picked or pasteurized (indicating that the meat has a longer shelf life). Jumbo lump is the best of the body meat (large white chunks), lump or backfin also comes from the body but is sold in flakes, and claw meat comes from…you guessed it…the claw and is typically brownish white in color.  Harvesters and retailers of fresh shellfish are required to label product with a tag that lists the harvester’s id number, the date of harvest, the harvest location, and the type and quantity of shellfish. They are also required to keep the tags until 90 days post-sale. Shellfish may last up to 10-14 days from the date of harvest, so if you’d like to know when your clams were swimming last, just ask your monger to see the tag!