Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fresh fish and proper preparation is key to good eating

I don't eat a lot of native fish for a variety of reasons.
As I have written in other blogs, I don't agree with killing heavily regulated species as snook, spotted seatrout and redfish. And it's those species that I mainly target.
Additionally, my wife, Kathy, is a vegetarian. So, I don't want to kill a fish and have a portion go to waste.
But every once in a while, I'll keep a fish. I've been known to take a Spanish mackerel, flounder or pompano home.
While I don't keep fish very often, I do know how to cook them.
Still, I find a number of people who aren't hesitant to pronounce their disdain for fish.
"I don't like fish," they'll say.
Why not?
"Because they taste fishy."
That's understandable. I wouldn't want to eat a fish that tastes "fishy," either.
Fish that taste "fishy" usually come from grocery stores and fish markets.
Rule No. 1: Never buy fish that's on sale. The reason that it's on sale is that it has been on ice for several days and it's not at its freshest.
Realize that commercial boats for out for two weeks or more at a time. The first fish caught are dumped into the cooler and they're the last fish out. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't go out, catch a fish, take it home and put it in my refrigerator for two weeks and then eat it.
Several years ago, I was offshore on a grouper outing. We had a good day and caught a number of hefty gag grouper. I kept one fish. When I got home, I was informed that we were having company for dinner. That meant I had to come up with more grouper.
I drove over to Publix and bought a couple more grouper fillets.
Back at home, I washed all of the fillets. That's when someone said, "What's that smell?"
It was the Publix grouper, obviously not the freshest fish.
I'm also not a fan of freezing fish. I know there are several freezing methods out there that supposedly work very well, I'm still not a fan. As soon as you freeze a fish, the cellular breakdown begins.
I kept a grouper one time and prepared only one fillet. I put the unused fillet in the refrigerator and planned to use it the next day. Well, something came along to change the plans and I forgot about it.
Several months later, I came home and dinner was ready: grouper, baked potatoes, green beans and salad.
What a surprise!
As we started eating, someone said, "What's wrong with this grouper?"
I asked where the grouper had come from? I was told that it was the fillet that I had put in the refrigerator. It had been wrapped and frozen.
Those who dislike fish probably have never had fresh fish. Freshly caught fish has no "fishy" odor. Also, some species are milder than others. Grouper and snapper are examples of mild fish.
Bluefish, on the other hand, are very oily and strong. I only keep bluefish to put in my smoker. Smoked blues and mullet make great smoked fish spread.
Cooking fish is an art in itself. Many people have no clue what to do.
I like to grill or saute most of my fish. I'll only resort to frying about once every 10 years.
I love pompano. I'll take fillets and marinate them in Zesty Italian Dressing for more than three hours (a full day is best). Then, I'll place the fillets skinside down on the grill and allow them to cook for five minutes per inch. Turn them once, cook for five minutes and your done. You don't have to turn them several times.
Ditto for kingfish, Spanish mackerel and other species.
When I'm out fishing and get the hankering for fresh fish, I'll make sure than we're going to be home that night or the next evening. Then, I'll only keep enough fish for one meal. If there are leftovers, they're usually great to snack on the next day.
The fishing industry is one of the least regulated industries in the country. In fact, a lot of folks have purchased grouper and toted home tilapia.
How do most people know what they're getting or eating? Most don't.
I ate at a Hops (restaurant) in Tampa a few years ago. I wasn't in the mood for steak, so I ordered catfish fillets. I love fresh catfish.
When the waiter brought the meal, he set the plate down in front of me. I looked at the fillets and it was obvious they weren't from a catfish. The fillets were not long like a catfish. They were about the size of a large bluegill or speckled perch.
I didn't think much about it because the fish was excellent.
Next day, however, I started thinking about it and decided to call the restaurant. I told the manager that I had ordered catfish and received another species.
"I can assure you it was catfish," he said, pompously.
We argued for a while and he then admitted, "OK, it was tilapia. We ran out of catfish. But there's nothing wrong with tilapia."
I told him that I hadn't called to complain about the taste of the fish. I had called to complain that I had ordered catfish and was served something else.
"Well," he said, "most people don't know the difference."
It was the old bait and switch. I had ordered the more expensive catfish and served the cheaper tilapia.
Snook have the reputation of being Florida's tastiest inshore fish. They may be, but that they're out of season six months and year and have a strict slot limit (28 to 32 inches) adds to the myth. And snook are a gamefish, so they cannot be commercially harvested or sold. Restaurants can't have them on their menus.
That didn't stop someone from importing Nile perch from Africa and marketing them as snook. At first, you'd just find snook on the menu. Then, when folks started complaining, they changed the name to Lake Victoria snook, which satisfied the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration.
I talked with FDA and was told that since snook were related to Nile Perch it was OK to market them as Lake Victoria snook.
Convoluted reasoning, I thought.
That would be the same as catching a bass and selling it as a speckled perch. Bass and specks are in the same family. And specks are much tastier. This is just an example, though, since those freshwater fish are illegal to commercially harvest and sell.
One of my favorite franchise restaurants is Outback Steakhouse. Redfish showed up on their menu a few years ago. I asked the waiter to get the manager. It is illegal in Florida to commercially harvest redfish or sell them.
The manager told me that their redfish were pond-raised in China, so it was OK. I told him Florida laws stated that possession of more than one redfish is illegal and that it's illegal to sell redfish.
The menu was changed the next day.
Food for thought:
Years ago, I caught a number of sheepshead, porgy and Key West grunt. I took them home and dredged the fillets in Italian bread crumbs. I then fried them in peanut oil. I took the leftovers to some friends who raved about my creation.
"Best fish I've ever eaten."
"Fresh grouper?"
When I told them they were eating sheepshead, porgy and Key West grunt, their jaws dropped.
It's amazing how good fresh fish is when it's prepared properly.
No fooling.

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