Tips for swimmingly successful fish dinners

I’ve been working on a recipe development project that features fish recipes and I’ve realized from talking to people about what I’m doing at work that many people find choosing fish difficult.

To do my bit to help others cook, eat and shop for food with confidence, I’ve decided today to excerpt the advice I wrote about buying fish for my book Dana’s Top Ten Table. (If you’d like more great tips as well as 200 recipes for entrées your family will love, then please pick up a copy of my book at a bricks and mortar or online bookstore. US and other International customers can send me a request via email and I’ll ship a book directly to your door. And, yes this is a shameless plug.)

“A century ago when first nation’s fishermen returned to their camps with the day’s catch, their preferred cooking technique was to impale cleaned, freshly caught fish such as salmon on strong, green twigs and then plant the twigs into the ground so that the fish leaned over an open fire. Because they caught, cleaned and cooked their catch immediately, the resulting meals were no doubt delicious despite the lack of fancy marinades and interesting sauces.

Today’s home cooks seldom catch their own ingredients so we all need to know how to buy and store fish to ensure that the meals we serve will be as fresh and delicious tasting as possible. There are a number of fish counter options at most stores. In fact, frozen and fresh fish are sold whole, as sides, fillets, steaks, pieces and even chunks in the case of large fish such as tuna.

I always recommend buying fish in a store with a high turnover. Also, don’t be too shy to ask which days of the week fish are delivered and to buy accordingly.

Whether you purchase whole or semi-prepared fish don’t settle for anything less than fish that has firm flesh that’s moist without being watery. If pressed lightly with your finger the fish’s flesh should bounce back without leaving an indentation.

When purchasing whole fish, the eyes should be clear, shiny and not sunken. Regardless of cut, size or origin, truly fresh fish smells clean and sweet, never ‘fishy’ or similar to ammonia in any way.

Refrigerate and use fresh fish and seafood quickly, ideally within a day or two. In fact, if the weather is warm and fish is on your shopping list, take along a chilled cooler to transport the fish home.

If nice quality fresh fish isn’t available, frozen is a good alternative; however, inspect the packaging. If the fish is wrapped in a single layer of store applied plastic wrap, there’s a high likelihood that it was frozen because it was becoming too old to sell as a fresh product.

If your store carries plant packed frozen fish, opt for individually flash frozen fillets or steaks since they are usually more uniform and visually appealing than block pressed fish. Likewise, flash frozen fish fillets and steaks thaw considerably more quickly than blocks so you can be cooking (and eating!) sooner.”

Text excerpted from Dana’s Top Ten Table: 200 Fresh Takes on Family-Favourite Meals. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright (c) 2007 by Dana McCauley. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.


6 Responses to Tips for swimmingly successful fish dinners

  1. Great tips. We don’t have a fish monger in town, just the standard supermarket fish counter. Most fish doesn’t have a head on it, so you can’t see the eyes. So how can you tell if it’s fresh? Can you ask to poke the fish? What’s the etiquette of testing to see if the fillet is fresh if you shop at a chain like Zehrs?

  2. Leslie says:

    I just posted a super simple and delicious recipe for scallops. If you have any tips on selecting fresh scallops, please do share!

  3. danamccauley says:

    clip, clop, clip, clop…that’s the sound of my running over to Leslie’s site to post about buying scallops. Nice post Leslie!

    Char, I think these days it would be unlikely for a grocery store to let you touch fresh fish with your bare hands. What I do in that situation is give the fish a sniff – if you smell ammonia, you know it isn’t fresh. You can tell a lot by looking, too. If the fish is filleted and it looks like it’s drying out anywhere or if the flesh seems to be flaking apart, those are bad signs, too.

    I also don’t like to buy fish on a big bed of ice. What if one of those scallops or mussels is bad and it’s nasty juices trickle over to my piece of fresh salmon?

    Clearly, I am spoiled by having good access to fresh fish.

  4. Thanks, Dana. I’ll look more carefully in future and stick to high-turnover species.

  5. Cheryl says:

    Very good advice. I’m someone who has trouble knowing what to get at the fish counter, so these tips about assessing freshness and quality are a good first step. What’s your favorite fish recipe from your cookbook?

  6. danamccauley says:

    Well, since you ask…I love the bacon and cheddar topped haddock recipe in Dana’s top ten table and I make the lime soy glazed salmon a lot, too.

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