Regular Columns

Henry’s Kitchen

August 2011

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

sea salt

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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