By Henry Schliff
Buying and cooking fish on vacation – some common questions and answers
Questions: What fish are caught locally? When are they available? What are some good cooking methods?
Bluefish: A dark meat, full-flavored fish rich in healthful Omega 3 fat. Baby blues, called snappers, are in good supply May – December. Because of their high fat content the flesh can spoil quickly but, when handled properly and cooked quickly, small bluefish are very flavorful and a bargain at the price they usually sell for. Small filets are good fried, grilled, broiled, blackened or cooked in a highly seasoned sauce (see recipe below).
Spanish Mackerel: Another dark meat, fatty (healthful Omega 3 fat) fish that is in good supply May-December. It is moist and sweet when cooked soon after it is caught. Small filets are good fried, grilled, broiled, blackened, or cooked in a highly seasoned sauce.
Flounder: Good availability May – December. A very popular fish due to its flaky white meat that is delicate in flavor and texture. A whole fish is excellent stuffed and baked with crabmeat or shrimp. Filets are good fried, broiled, and baked in cream sauces.
Yellow Fin Tuna: Fair availability spring through early fall. Considered by many as a gastronomic treasure, its meat is rich and flavorful. It is delicious seared, grilled, broiled, or blackened. Tuna’s texture and sweetness is best when it is cooked rare – medium/rare and its flesh dries out quickly when over cooked.
Mahi Mahi : Fair availability late spring through early fall. A very popular, meaty, white flesh fish that is delicious fried, grilled, broiled, and baked.
Pompano: Fair availability early June – August. Small cleaned and dressed whole fish are sweet and succulent grilled or pan fried.
Tile Fish: A deep water fish caught along the continental shelf which has a dense white meat that is mild and flavorful. It is available on a limited basis during the summer months and it is very good grilled, broiled, pan fried, and baked.
Puppy Drum: Limited availability April – December. Puppy drum (smaller size drum) is highly prized for its delectable, sweet flavor. It is delicious fried, grilled, broiled, baked and blackened (the blackened red fish of Cajun cooking). It is also excellent for fish chowder.
Speckled Trout and Sea Trout: Limited availability June – December. Not to be confused with freshwater trout, speckled trout and sea trout are members of the saltwater drum family. Their delicately flavored white meat is delicious fried, broiled and baked.
Many other varieties of fish available from time to time but many species are depleted and there are restrictions as to how much can be taken.
Question: How much fish should I buy?
Answer: For fish fillets, which are cut the length of the fish, six ounces is an ample serving size. For fish steaks, which are crosscut slices of the fish, six ounces is a good portion size for boneless steaks and eight ounces for bone-in steaks.
Question: What is the best way to handle the fish that I buy before I cook it?
Answer: Very carefully! All fish are highly perishable. A fish is adapted to live in a cool environment and when exposed to warmer temperatures it spoils rapidly due to an increase in bacterial activity (fishy smell). In addition, a fish uses a great many digestive enzymes in order to function in its environment and upon death these enzymes attack the flesh causing further degradation (autolysis). To minimize these factors wrap fish in air-tight heavy plastic and place it in a large sealed container surrounded by cubes of ice in the refrigerator. Always cook fish the same day that it is purchased.
Question: I’ve heard that overcooking can cause fish to dry out. How can I prevent this from occurring?
Answer: Watch your fish carefully when cooking no matter what cooking method is chosen. The old adage “a watched pot never boils” does not apply to fish cookery. Do not walk away. Fish can overcook in a heartbeat and its best to check for doneness often and before you think it will be done. It’s also good to remember that a fish continues cooking from its residual heat when removed from the fire (I have sadly watched a piece of tuna turn from a rosy-pink inside to a pale grey in a matter of minutes after removing it from the grill). Check for doneness by using the tip of a small knife to open the flesh. If the flesh is still very moist and somewhat opaque (white, not fleshy) it is almost done and it will usually finish cooking when removed from the heat.
Question: I’d like to buy some fish while I’m here to take home. What’s the best way to retain maximum freshness?
Answer: Immediately after purchase wrap it air-tight in heavy plastic and place it in the freezer. When going home immerse the frozen package in a cooler filled with ice cubes and place it in a freezer when arriving home. But even frozen fish will continue to deteriorate. Leaner species will keep satisfactorily a maximum two months and fatter species for one month. Always defrost fish slowly overnight in the refrigerator before cooking to prevent the cellular membranes from bursting and causing it to dry out.
Henry Schliff’s kitchen experience is long and varied over the past 30 years. He has been the chef of a French, Italian, and Mexican restaurant and most recently the chef/ owner of the Orange Blossom Bakery in Buxton. He is the author of two cookbooks and now is delighted to share his love of cooking from his Ocracoke home kitchen.
Bluefish with Tomatoes and Green Olives
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 ¼ lb. small bluefish filets
1 cup peeled and chopped onion
1 Tbs. peeled and chopped garlic
1 cup canned whole tomatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
½ cup of the tomato juice from the can
½ cup pitted green olives, roughly chopped (no pimentos)
1 Tbs. canned, sliced jalapenos, seeds removed, chopped
2 tsp. of the liquid from the jalapenos
With a sharp knife cut away the dark blood line that runs down the center of each filet and remove any small bones. Lightly salt the filets. Heat 1 Tbs. of olive oil in a large skillet and add the filets skin side down. Cook for about 4 minutes over moderate heat and turn. Cook an additional 4-5 minutes on the second side. Place the fish in a serving dish and reserve. Add the remaining olive oil to the skillet and cook the onions slowly until they are lightly browned (about 8 minutes). Stir in the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato juice, green olives, jalapenos, and jalapeno liquid. Simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes (add a little water if the sauce has become thick). Remove half of the sauce to a bowl. Add the reserved fish to the skillet. Pour the sauce from the bowl over the fish. Cover the pan and simmer until the fish is heated through (about 5 minutes).
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