I grew up in a family where the only fish we ate were fish we caught. A few times a year, my dad would load us into his car and we would head to a river or lake to catch some fresh water fish. We’d fry up the trout, bass, catfish, or crappie just minutes after we caught it. The only exception to this was canned tuna, and that was used in mom’s tuna casserole with egg noodles, a can of cream of mushroom soup, some melted cheddar, and Corn Flakes crushed on top.
I was in high school the first time I had salmon, and college the first time I ate sushi. Even now, as a regular preparer and consumer of fish, I feel like it’s a delicacy. I am less adventurous with it in the kitchen than I am with other foods. I’d actually say I’m nervous around it. What if I don’t get out all the bones? What if I undercook it? What if I overcook it? Is it safe to eat? Will I accidentally poison myself and my family?
Fish isn’t something to be feared, but it does require more finesse when working with it than other meats do. The main reason these scaly creatures require more finesse is because fish are cold-blooded. In contrast, most of the meats we cook in our homes are from warm-blooded creatures, and the proteins in warm-blooded creatures’ muscles are more forgiving. They can take a wider range of temperatures and cooking times. Fish are finicky and aren’t forgiving.
Buying fish can also rattle the nerves. The safest fish to buy are ones that were frozen on the boat and sold frozen in the store. You lose some flavor quality this way, but run less of a chance of getting food poisoning. If you’re new to cooking fish, I recommend starting with individually wrapped frozen tilapia fillets from your grocer’s freezer (make sure you get the U.S. raised tilapia). The more comfortable you become with cooking fish, you can leave these frozen fillets behind and strike up a relationship with a fishmonger.
When you’re ready to work with fresh fish, start by researching all the fish markets and grocery stores in your community to learn which fishmonger has the highest product turnover and best reputation. Introduce yourself to the fishmonger when the market is slow and he or she can take some time to talk with you. Then, have your fishmonger teach you to identify fresh fish. Ask as many questions as you need to — including your fishmonger’s name — before making any purchases. Also ask to have your purchase wrapped in crushed ice, and bring an insulated bag with you to store the fish until you get home. You will want to eat the fish the day you buy it.
Over-fishing, mercury buildup, and toxins are fears many people have with consuming fish. These are legitimate concerns, and I strongly suggest checking the Environmental Defense Fund’s Eco-Best Fish page to stay current with recommendations. You can also get updates to the list via their Twitter account @SeafoodSelector. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also tracks this information, but I like the chart on EDF’s page better. Both sites have really great fish safety and preparation information.
When I’m in a hurry, I like to make a broiled tilapia sandwich with an olive tapenade (the tapenade is sold by the jar in the condiment aisle at most grocery stores). This recipe is good for you, and simple to make. I don’t have a recipe in the strictest sense of the word, but this is the cooking and assembling method I follow:
- In the morning before work, I move an individually wrapped frozen tilapia fillet (U.S.) from the freezer to the refrigerator (or however many I need — one per person usually is enough).
- After work when I’m ready for dinner, I turn on my stove’s broiler with the top oven shelf in the second to top setting.
- Unwrap the fillet and set it on a square of aluminum foil or a cookie sheet.
- Squeeze a little lemon juice (usually bottled, but fresh if I’m feeling zesty) over the fillet.
- Broil the fish for 3 to 5 minutes on each side. I like the internal temperature to be 145º F and the outside of the fish to be a bit stiff for this sandwich.
- I slather a hotdog bun, French roll, or an Italian roll with store-bought olive tapenade. Then, I put the fillet on the bun and enjoy.
- Don’t forget to turn off the oven when you’re finished.
If you don’t like sandwiches, simply plate the fillet and put a few spoonfuls of the tapenade on the top. If I eat it without a bun, I like to squeeze a little more lemon on it to finish the dish. Either way, this entree is fast and simple to make, and great for someone just starting to cook fish at home.