When you can purchase a fish that was caught within a few hours versus days and especially weeks, the freshness and taste is just unbelievably mind-blowing.
Being a Midwest boy, I never really understood what fresh fish really meant. I, along with many others, grew up in the ‘80s with two working parents, and casseroles were the prominent dish in our home mostly out of convenience for a busy family. Every once in awhile, the special treat, so I thought, of breaded fish sticks would be pulled out of the freezer and baked in the oven for the family dinner. That’s what I thought fish was all about as a kid, sadly.
Through my journey as a cook, my eyes have been opened up over all these years to an incredible world out there of what these grand oceans/lakes have to offer. It has been an incredible ride to access some of the best seafood around the world. I’ve come a long way since eating those breaded fish sticks as a kid.
With this incredibly cold, snowy winter we are having, there is ice fishing going on on the Great Lakes—more specifically, Walleye fishing on Lake Erie and off the Lake Erie Islands of South Bass Island. This is the first great year in a decade with great ice fishing. It’s been just too warm prior to this year. The ice is a busy city of ice shanties, snowmobiles, ice roads lined with old Christmas trees so you know where you are going and lots of fishing poles. Who wants to fish and be on acres of open ice when it’s so cold out? Those who are looking for the sweetest, most incredible flavor of walleye for the entire year. Because of the extremely cold temperatures, the fish becomes even sweeter in flavor. It’s prime time! To learn more about the ice fishing on the islands of Lake Erie, here is a great article. Pictured to the right is a photo of a state record walleye caught this year.
At the same time, those fisherman are hunched over a perfectly cut out round hole in the ice and sitting on a five-gallon bucket, I make my trip to the gulf side of Florida to not only enjoy the sun and warmth, but also to take advantage of the colder gulf temperatures this year brings. Just like the colder temperatures of the Great Lakes, the Gulf produces equally sweet fresh fish such as varieties of Grouper (Black Grouper is my favorite), Snapper, Swordfish, Flounders, Tuna and Papano, to name a few, along with a bountiful of shellfish too.
Go here for a great Seafood Watch Guide that is always changing, with the leader at Monterey Aquarium leading the charge that most chefs follow. I particularly follow their updates on Twitter each week. They also have a downloadable Pocket Guide that is great too.
While in Florida, I have my favorite fish markets I like to go to. Over the years, I have strengthened my relationship with these fish guys. These aren’t the prettiest places nor the closest, but once you find a good one, you’ll keep it tight to your chest and frequent often.
How to spot a great fish market:
- It’s located on the water.
- That same water leads to a large body of water.
- You share your parking space with wooden crab traps and old buoys.
- They don’t have a “logo.”
- Rusty signs hangs outside that has been battered by the salt air.
- The place is busy throughout the day. That means the fish are moving and not lying around. Busy is good!
- Unshaven, un-showered guys with rubber boots are docked out back in their rugged fishing boats with sea birds signaling their arrival.
- When you walk in you don’t smell fish at all, but more the salt air.
- They don’t greet you with an all-in-one greeting from the entire staff simultaneously like they do at Coldstone Creamery.
- They are set up to cut fish just behind the rugged display case.
- When walking in, you don’t see large corporate photographs with handsome Captain Joe and his staged catch from thousands of miles of who knows where.
- The fish are presented on chipped ice.
- When you have a question, they actually know the answer. However, leave it at just the questions about the fish; don’t bother asking them how they would cook it. “Broil” will always be their answer.
- The only seasoning spice they know is Old Bay.
- You hear some swear words leaping from one side of the room to the other.
- After you purchase your fish they always send a separate bag of ice to keep your fish cold on your trip home even if it is only a five minute trip.
- They don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account.
- They don’t ask you to take a survey at the end of your shopping experience.
- Added Bonus: if they have an adjoining dockside restaurant. Eat there!
Of course your Fish Monger, a not so fancy word for “Fish Guy”, will cut your fish filets exactly how you want them. Usually, I like to cut mine between 6-7 ounces per person. They will lead you into the right direction of getting you the type of fish you like (mild, oily/stronger, flakey, steak like, etc.). Ask them questions, but not too many; remember they are busy, so ask a couple questions and move on so you are even more well-versed for the next time you come in. Last tip: walk in like you belong there and be confident. Don’t go with the tourist approach of walking in with white leather tennis shoes and gaze upward while holding-up any type of organized line. They can spot this tourist a mile away and realize they will probably never see them again and want to hurry them along. They hate the gazing tourist trying to brake their line flow.
I find it best to keep to a simplistic preparation in order not to mask the natural sweet flavors the fresh fish offers. Leave the fancy preparations to the fine dining restaurants. This is supposed to be fun. The other key is to cook that fish until it’s just cooked and not a second later. In doing so, it will flake apart and just melt in your mouth with zero effort and bring such great flavors that the ocean can only offer. So experiment, and while learning how to cook fish, go ahead and cook one extra filet and slice/poke into it as you are cooking your meal to get a better idea and sense of whether it is cooked perfectly or not. No pressure though, but if you cook it too long you will kill all the natural moisture out of it and it will be tough with little flavor. But again, it’s just food at the end of the day…practice and have fun. What’s the worst thing that can happen, that you have to go back and do it all over again? That doesn’t seem all bad. Enjoy the goodness!
Here’s a couple great recipes of mine that you can substitute different varieties of fish, if you like:
I also speak more about grilling fish and kabobs in this previous blog post, if you’re interested in exploring further.
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