Visiting the fish monger
'I love cooking fish: it's so easy!'
'I never cook fish: it's too hard!'
Fish certainly seems to have polarised us into different kitchen tribes. If you freeze like a salmon in the headlights when you step into the fishmonger's, we're here to help. We've easy tips for spotting the catch of the day and reeling in the best fish supper.
How to buy fish
Visit your local fishmonger, fish market or supermarket. Try to buy whole fish when you get the chance, except if the fish is very large, such as tuna or swordfish (unless you’re going to a fancy-dress party as Ernest Hemingway). For obvious reasons, it’s convenient to buy ‘plate-sized’ fish for cooking.
Although a whole fish keeps for longer and in better condition than smaller pieces, fish is a ‘fragile’ product, meaning the minute it’s taken from the water it starts to deteriorate. Unlike wine, or cheese, freshest is best. Always try to buy and eat fish on the same day. You don’t see Mediterranean shoppers buying a great fish and then chucking it in the fridge for three days – make a meal of it!
When you enter the fishmonger’s, keep an open mind. You know how when you go out looking for a specific pair of shoes, you never find them? It’s the same with fish. Don’t get too set on a particular recipe before you go shopping – with fish, the best approach is to buy the freshest and then make your meal around that.
So, how can you tell what’s freshest?
In an ideal world you’d leapfrog the fishmonger’s counter, prod the fish, get your nose close up to give it a good sniff, look into its eyes and examine its intimate regions. It’s understandable if you feel shy about doing that, or if your fishmonger feels you’ve crossed a line.
So, to show you can separate your moonfish from your stargazer, ask your fishmonger about these signs of freshness:
1. When you press your finger against the body of the fish, it should be firm and elastic spring back to the touch. Don’t be shy – ask the fishmonger to show you.
2. Fresh fish shouldn’t have a strong smell – just a clean, fresh smell of the sea! Yum.
3. The fish’s eyes should be bright and clear. Cloudy eyes mean it was caught a few days ago.
4. The fish’s gills should be bright red or pink. Again, ask the fishmonger to show you. Paler or brownish pink gills also indicate an older catch.
Taking your fish home
Unless you have a burning desire to gut your own fish, ask your fishmonger to gill, gut, scale and clean it for you, leaving the mess with them. This is now your ‘dressed’ fish and it’s ready to cook. The fishmonger will wrap it for you.
If you’re not cooking it that day, which we recommend, then you can rewrap the fish in muslin or freezer film (plastic wrap that’s specially designed for freezer use). Put a layer of ice in the bottom of an airtight container and a drip tray/cake rack above it. Rest the wrapped fish on the drip tray, then seal the container and store in the driest part of the fridge, which is the vegetable crisper.
Let your fish come to room temperature for 30 minutes before you cook it. Large fish are best cooked with moisture, such as poaching or steaming, or wrapping in foil in the oven, so they don’t dry out, but Mrs Google should help you find the perfect recipe for any fish you’ve been lucky enough to buy. The Seafood School of Sydney Fish Market has a particularly brilliant recipe website.
Fish fillets and steaks
A fillet is a boneless, lengthwise cut from the side of the fish. A steak is a cross-section cut from a larger fish (often tuna or salmon) and contains a small piece of backbone.
Because you can’t see the eyes or skin of the whole fish, it’s more difficult to tell how fresh fillets and steaks are. Avoid any with bruises, dark or light marks or icy patches.
Get your fish shopping home to the fridge as swiftly as possible. Wrap steaks and cutlets in plastic wrap or place in an airtight container in the fridge. They’re best eaten the same day but, if you must, refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 3 months.