Take a breath: We’re jumping with both feet into the deep waters of seafood cooking.
For many, the preparation of fish and other treasures from the sea is akin to swimming in uncharted waters. But it is Lent, which means that many will abstain from meat on Fridays until Easter (which is April 16). So it’s an especially good time to take the plunge.
Henry Dewey and John McNally, two of the Pittsburgh’s most experienced fishmongers, will hold our hands. They understand.
“I’d say that at least 50 percent of the people who come to our counter are nervous. They’re actually afraid. And they’re the ones (who had the courage) to come to the counter,” said McNally, the seafood manager for the ever-bustling Wholey’s fish market in Pittsburgh.
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Dewey, the proprietor of Penn Avenue Fish Co., which has multiple locations in Pittsburgh, agreed. “A lot of our customers say right out that they’re afraid they’re going to screw it up,” he said.
The men echo each other in their advice to those who feel like fish out of water when it comes to cooking seafood:
2. Reach out to your fishmonger.
3. Keep it simple – be it shellfish or fillets.
Perhaps the first obstacle to overcome is the sticker-shock. The price-per-pound of many types of seafood can be off-putting, especially if you’re reaching for in-season salmon or fresh Chilean sea bass. “No one wants to sink that kind of money into dinner then be afraid they’re going to screw it up,” Dewey acknowledged.
So the purchase must be made with a sense of confidence that the meal will turn out well, no matter the cost, but especially if the cost is comparatively high.
There are simple strategies for success.
Often the main impediment to serving a delicious seafood dinner is overcooking, and so, seek the advice of the experts. “We'll actually write it on the paper we wrap the fish in. We know the thickness of the fillet we’re selling and we'll indicate very precisely how long to cook it,” Dewey said. McNally said he and his team behind the counter follow suit.
Another way to take the guesswork out of the equation is to use an inexpensive cooking thermometer. The FDA recommends an internal temperature for seafood of 145 degrees. The experienced cook eventually will recognize doneness by sight (the opague appearance of a scallop, for example) and feel (the ease of using a fork to flake the center of a cod fillet, for instance).
Then comes the matter of cost.
Some items simply might be cost-prohibitive, depending on an individual’s budget. But, there is more than one fish in the sea. If one type is too expensive, pick another. McNally points to the scores of varieties behind his expansive counter and the price point runs the gamut. Dewey offers fish “ends” – a mix of pieces from some of the most expensive fillets in the store – at $6.99 a pound, perfect for fish tacos.
Staples at Wholey’s are what McNally refers to as “value products” such as whiting at $2.50 a pound, a special on a recent week, and frozen tilapia filets at $3.98 a pound, a regular feature.
A consideration when it comes to cost is the lack of waste in products sold, said Dewey, who points out that the majority of seafood being sold at his counter is going at an “already-prepped” price per pound. “It’s 100 percent utilization. No trimming or cleaning. There’s absolutely no waste (for the buyer,)” Dewey said.
He emphasized that little is needed in the way of accoutrements to raise the seafood to its highest form: a splash of dry white wine, a pat of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, some salt and pepper – perhaps a bit of minced garlic or shallot or some soft or toasted breadcrumbs.
“I know people think it’s hard. But, really, cooking fish is one of the easiest things to do in the kitchen,” Dewey said. “Once you buy the fish, you’re in the home stretch.”
Pan-seared shrimp with sherry vinegar reduction
Serves 4 to 6
The glaze of the sherry vinegar was perfect with the sweet shrimp, which I served with Parmesan polenta. Adapted from “Fish Market” by Kathy Hunt (Running Press Book Publishers, $22, 248 pages).
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 cup sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 pound easy-peel shrimp
Black pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add shallots and saute until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Pour sherry vinegar into a separate frying pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and stir in brown sugar and shallots. Simmer until the liquid has thickened and reduced to 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup. When finished, the sauce will be dark and syrupy. Set aside.
In a large nonstick frying pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil on high heat. Season shrimp with salt and pepper, and add to pan. Reduce the heat to medium-high. Sear until brown on both sides, about a minute per side.
Place shrimp on the dinner plates and drizzle the gently reheated sauce over the shrimp.
Paprika Pacific cod
It’s not fancy but flavorful and just plain good. I served the cod with fried rosemary-topped potatoes and green beans cooked in chicken stock with minced shallot. Recipe from “Fish Market” by Kathy Hunt (Running Press Book Publishers, $22, 248 pages).
2 large Pacific cod fillets, nearly 1 pound (you can also use orange roughy, catfish or tilapia)
Sea salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease the bottom of a medium baking dish sprayed with cooking spray.
Season both sides of the fillets with salt and pepper, and place them in the baking dish. Pour lemon juice over the fillets.
In a small bowl, stir together the paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. Sprinkle the seasoning over the fillets and then dot the fillets with butter.
Bake, uncovered, until the fish becomes firm and can be flaked with a fork, 12 to 15 minutes.
Seared scallops with asparagus and peas
It’s beautiful on the plate, tasty, low in calories, quick to prepare and comparatively inexpensive. I could eat this every week. Adapted from “Dinner A.S.A.P. 150 Recipes Made As Simple As Possible” by the editors of Cooking Light (Time Inc. Books, $21.95, 288 pages)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 1/2 pounds bay scallops (about 12)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/2 pound large asparagus spears, trimmed and cut on the diagonal, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup white wine
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup frozen petite green peas, thawed
Heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until butter melts.
Pat scallops really dry; then sprinkle with pepper and salt. (Be warned, it’s hard to get a sear unless the scallops are dry.) Add scallops to pan and “flash cook” for a little less than a minute on each side.
Add shallots to pan and sauté 1 minute.
Add asparagus, wine, lemon rind, lemon juice and remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Sauté 1 minute.
Add peas. Cook 1 minute or until asparagus is crisp-tender. Spoon vegetable mixture into bowls or onto plates and top with scallops.