Are you missing lobster rolls, sushi and calamari while staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic? If you aren’t used to regularly shopping and cooking for seafood, these dishes might seem like a challenge to prepare. But seafood doesn’t need to be a mysterious ingredient that you’ll miss until restaurants start opening back up again. While the industrial fishing system has felt the upheaval of the shifting market during the crisis, small scale local fishers can still provide fresh, sustainably sourced seafood.
Tips for Cooking Seafood
Once you’ve found some quality seafood, you’ll need to go about cooking it. Here Chef James London, owner of Charleston’s sea-to-table restaurant Chubby Fish, offers his advice.
Try Something New
Keep in mind that choosing the sustainable option might mean choosing something you aren’t familiar with. When London decided to open Chubby Fish, he approached a number of local, independent fishermen and offered to purchase whatever they caught, no matter the species. “By doing that, the [fishermen] aren’t weeding out the fish they normally would be throwing back in the ocean; we committed to buying all the bycatch,” he explains. “That’s what really excites us, buying all the bycatch. All seafood is delicious, it’s all phenomenal, it doesn’t matter what species it is.”
The CSF model usually presents customers with a mix of local fish, typically some familiar fish and some unfamiliar. If you are shopping at the fish counter, skip the shrimp or salmon, and ask for what’s local (unless shrimp and salmon are local in your area!). “Always get what’s coming out of the local waters, there are less middlemen involved,” London says. “Whenever you can get something that’s coming from around you, you’re going to wind up with a better product.”
Learn the Technique for the Fish
Of course, when you find yourself with a new fish, you might not know how to cook it. Luckily, fish are relatively easy to cook, especially good quality fish; most species do well grilled or sauteed in a hot pan. But it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of research. London frequently works with wreckfish, a local species to South Carolina that was once thought of as bycatch, but has gained popularity thanks in part to chefs like London featuring it. Although wreckfish is similar in appearance and taste to grouper, London says the fish cooks up very differently. “It can be a little more difficult to cook in the traditional way, it has a tendency to dry out,” he explains. “Instead of dry searing it, [like we would with grouper], we poach it in liquid, a dashi broth with butter, and let the liquid cook the fish. It turns out extremely silky and luscious.”
There are two classic ways to prepare fish, either dry heat or wet heat. Dry heat usually is done with a hot saute pan or grill, while wet cooking is done with steaming or poaching. If you are preparing a type of sustainable fish for the first time, check online guides or cookbooks like Mark Bittman’s “Fish” to decide the best method.
Keep it Simple
Although there are many ways to cook seafood (Barton Seaver’s new cookbook “The Joy of Seafood” offers more than 900 recipes!), at the end of the day keeping it simple is easiest and best. “When it comes to seafood, approach it as simply as possible,” says London. “With seafood, you don’t have to do a whole lot to it to make it exceptional, generally it’s already exceptional. Just hit it with salt, cook it on a grill if you have a grill, or a pan if you have a pan, then either hit it with a little butter or olive oil, and you’re going to get something amazing.”
Although London is currently managing take-out operations for Chubby Fish during the restaurant’s COVID-19 shutdown, when he has time to cook at home, his favorite method for seafood is using the grill. He suggests leaving the scales on the fish, also called “on the half shell.” Preheat the grill until very hot, season the filet on the flesh side with salt, place it on the grill scale-side down, and cover. “Let it cook like that, steaming in its own juice,” he explains. “The scales act as a barrier to the heat and as a hot plate, so you don’t have to worry about the scales sticking to the heat.” To finish, he’ll add in some compound butter and lemon. Try the method out with this recipe for the grill or this oven-baked version.
Get a Cake Tester
One of the biggest uncertainties home cooks have when it comes to cooking fish is the question of “Is it done?” Instead of guessing, make sure you have a cake tester nearby. Just like this thin metal rod is used to see if a cake is wet or dry, it can also be used for fish. “That’s what we use to gauge our fish to see if it’s done, for the filet or whole fish,” London says. “When it has no resistance, you aren’t feeling the sinew, that fish is done. Pull it off.”
Don’t Forget About Mollusks
Along with fresh fish filets, some CSFs and online vendors also offer fresh shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels. Clams and mussels are particularly easy to cook at home, great for steaming for pasta dishes, curries or to serve with crunchy bread. Boat to Table’s Duffourc grew up cleaning shrimp and soft shell crabs, and says she took that knowledge for granted when they started delivering these items to customers. Although they usually de-head shrimp, occasionally they are sold head-on for specific recipes. “I get people asking, ‘Well wait, how do I de-head shrimp?’ and the same thing with soft shell crab,” she explains. “People love them, people know them, but they don’t know how to clean them.” As part of her monthly email to members, Duffourc includes information about the month’s offerings, recipes and tips, and YouTube videos for how to clean the fish and mollusks. “Don’t be scared off from ordering soft shell crabs, because you can totally clean them,” she says.
And while shucking oysters might not seem like a home cooking task, now’s the time to learn. As Robert Rheault, executive director of East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, recently told Marketplace, “It’s your civic duty to learn how to shuck oysters and cook seafood at home because thousands of jobs are counting on you.” The flavor of those locally sourced, freshly shucked oysters will be worth the extra work. Get oysters delivered overnight from Island Creek Oysters, then learn how to shuck oysters like a pro with these tips.
Use the Leftovers
Once you’ve put the work into finding responsibly caught fish and cooking it in a delicious way, don’t let any of it go to waste! Pro tip: the oils in fish are very fragile and can oxidize over a short time, and reheating fish can amplify the compounds that some eaters find overly “fishy.” Rather than serving a piece of leftover fish as is, eaters may find that leftovers are better in dishes that stretch the fish by mixing it with other flavors and textures. Making fish tacos, fish cakes, chowder and chopped salad are all ways you can reuse leftover fish in this way.