Good fish

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.

15 comments posted

  1. Posted by Linda - 01/12/2011

    A similar tilapia recipe that is also easy and good is to smear the tilapia with sun dried tomato pesto, then put the tilapia in the oven to broil. Sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese when serving. Because we don’t have it as a sandwich, we usually like two pieces each. BTW, I am really enjoying your new website!

  2. Posted by Erin Doland - 01/12/2011

    @Linda — Sun dried tomato pesto is yummy, too. Mmmmm …

  3. Posted by Mimi - 01/12/2011

    fish is so wonderful! i learned a lot about fishes when i started to make sushi and went to a fishmonger who explained a lot, as you mentioned it. i try to buy fresh fish, not frozen, because the taste is really different. but i must admit that this is not “green”, e.g. the tuna for sushi is delivered by plane because is has to be really fresh. but when the fish is really fresh you can eat it without cooking it at all, so you don´t have to worry about being poisened. “my” fishmonger gives me every sort of fish for sushi, as long as it is fresh enough. this became a habit when i buy fish somewhere else- i ask the fishmonger: can i use it for sushi? if they deny (and a lot of them deny because they sell frozen/ defrosted fish what makes me agry)i don´t buy it even if i want to cook it.
    my favorite fish recipies for cooks-in-a-hurry:

    - the fastest salmon on earth:
    * take 1-3 salmon steaks for each person, sliced, 1-2 cm
    * preheat the oven: really hot!
    * put the salmon steaks on the baking tray that is also preheated
    * it takes 1-2 minutes to get ready.
    add salat/bread/potatoes/rice/vegetables if you like.

    zucchini/ spinach + fish
    - rasp zucchini in a pan or take fresh spinach leaves
    - add salt (+ some spices)
    - add a fish filet from a white “soft” fish, i like halibutt a lot, add some salt and lemon on the fish
    - put a lid on the pan and leave it like this for about 3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.
    one of my favorite recipes. yummy. the fish is so pure and soft, wow. but don´t take frozen fish, the quality of the fish will be essential for the taste.

  4. Posted by Keter - 01/12/2011

    Because I’m only cooking for two now, and to save money, I bought a convection toaster oven with both top and bottom elements and use that for most of my baking and broiling. Cooking fish in it is a dream.

    I start with a frozen, relatively thin piece of fish, the kind you can find flash-frozen in most stores. I spray olive oil on a piece of aluminum foil and fold up the edges to catch any liquid, then put the frozen fish right on it – if the fish has a skin, put the skin side down. Squeeze a lemon over the fish. On top of the fish goes any of the following:

    - thick pesto sauce
    - butter melted in the microwave and sprinkled with herbs and pepper (will freeze on the fish and then cook into it)
    - a smear of homemade mayo sprinkled with herbs and pepper
    - olive oil and lemon pepper made with real lemon zests

    I bake at 350 with convection turned on until done (avg. 15-20 mins depending on the fish and the toppings).

  5. Posted by Marge - 01/12/2011

    thanks for the fish tips, I’m freaked out by fish (I go fishing all the time but we always catch and release). i don’t know what the deal is and I know it is super simple, I just haven’t gotten there yet. I’m working on eating healthier so I need to incorporate fish in the diet. thanks again, i’m really loving the new site.

  6. Posted by Courtney Ostaff - 01/12/2011

    “U.S. raised tilapia” is an oxymoron. Tilapia are native to Africa, and have migrated to Asia, but are not North American fish.

    I would suggest U.S. raised catfish, instead. Properly raised catfish (in modern practices) does not have a muddy taste. Furthermore, the bulk of so-called tilapia imported from Third-World countries is actually catfish.

    Tilapia, like members of the carp family, is a fish with many bones that are difficult to remove, and thus are not as popular in the U.S. as “fillet” fish like cod and salmon.

    For further reading on the subject, I suggest Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg.

    Incidentally, I try to eat sustainable, organic, local, and ethical food. As a result, the only seafood in my house is: U.S. farmed catfish, seasonal wild-caught Gulf shrimp, seasonal wild-caught Alaskan salmon, American Tuna Inc. tuna, and seasonal locally farmed rainbow trout. Mostly we eat beef from a local organic rancher, and chicken & pork from my certified-organic CSA.

  7. Posted by Spencer - 01/13/2011

    I second the recommendation of the book Four Fish.

  8. Posted by Erin Doland - 01/13/2011

    @Courtney — A lot of the tilapia you buy in the U.S. is farm raised here. Talk to a trusted fishmonger to learn exactly where he is buying it. Asian-raised tilapia has high toxicity levels and shouldn’t be consumed at this time, and south American tilapia isn’t great. Additionally, you shouldn’t be using a fishmonger that mis-labels his fish. If someone is selling catfish as tilapia, you should report them to the NOAA and USDA. (Shellfish, oddly, has different rules. Prawns, shrimp, lobsters, etc., can be mis-identified.)

    I don’t know about the book you’ve recommended, but if it is a couple years old, the information in it might be outdated. With fish, it’s always best to check the websites I’ve listed above that update their sites daily with current information. And, form a relationship with a good fishmonger. He can tell you exactly where the farms and fishermen are he’s buying fish from and you can go and visit them, if you’re worried about trusting his information.

    Farm-raised U.S. catfish could also work well with this recipe. I agree that it’s a good alternative.

  9. Posted by Courtney Ostaff - 01/13/2011

    1) Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Hardcover: 304 pages, Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (July 15, 2010)

    2) “Most of the U.S. farm-raised tilapia, about 20 million pounds per year, is sold live at Asian markets and restaurants in this country. ”

    3) Erin, not all of us are privileged enough to live in a place that has a fishmonger. Or even fish for sale that is not from a grocery store. The only fish that I can buy in my town that is not from the grocery store is trout that is experimentally raised in former acid mine water by the local university. Therefore, the idea of accusing a fishmonger of mislabeling their tilapia is kind of funny. I’m actually a regular donor to the EDF, btw.

    4) Mislabeling fish is actually quite common:
    “one-fourth of the fish samples with identifiable DNA were mislabeled”
    Or simply renaming fish

    “about three-quarters of all “red snappers” sold in the United States are mislabeled – it’s probably the most mislabeled fish in the country. ”

    and so on….

  10. Posted by Erin Doland - 01/13/2011

    @Courtney — I’m not sure what privilege has to do with anything. I think you are misunderstanding the entire intent of this post.

    1. As I’ve said, I haven’t read the book.

    2. The Washington Post article actually proves my point. The tilapia I buy comes from the Virginia tilapia farm mentioned in the article. It is farm raised on US soil. Not in Asia. You can buy tilapia from this farm (and others like it) all across the country. There is US-farmed tilapia. It is not an oxymoron. The Washington Post reporter who wrote the article fully agrees with my statement.

    3. Living in one part of the country is not a privilege. It is simply where you have chosen to reside. It has nothing to do with access to fish. My extended family lives in rural Kansas and they have fishmongers all over the place. The restaurants in your community that serve fish are buying fish from someone. All you need to do is ask. It seems that you have decided since there isn’t a tilapia farm within a 100 miles of where you live that you will not buy tilapia. This is fine for you, but many of us are not locavores and we have no issues with buying tilapia raised anywhere in the U.S.

    3.5 I’m very glad that you are able to donate money to the EDF. They do great work.

    4. A good fishmonger will NOT mislabel fish. Yes, some people do, and it is unacceptable behavior. You should call them out on it and report them. (I have.) A trusted fishmonger does not behave this way. That is why I’m suggesting you get a well-respected fishmonger.

    Courtney, you are obviously someone who cares very deeply about fish. We’re all glad you do. We’re glad you’re reading about them and educating yourself. I think if you would re-read this post, however, you will find that I am not disagreeing with you on many points except the one about being able to buy US farm-raised tilapia. It exists. It is not a figment of my imagination.

  11. Posted by Jonathan - 01/17/2011

    I think tilapia is bland-tasting and prefer not to waste the opportunity to have a nice homemade dinner on a tilapia fillet.

  12. Posted by Shannon - 01/18/2011

    You may want to point readers to this handy guide (a printable pocket/wallet version is available or downloadable app) that tells you what are the most sustainable seafoods to eat http://www.montereybayaquarium.....tions.aspx – also some recipes on the site.

  13. Posted by Michele - 01/18/2011

    I read in a Bloomberg Businessweek article recently that tilapia does not provide the omega-3 fatty acids that a lot of people believe they are adding to their diet when they increase their fish consumption. U.S.-raised or China-raised, tilapia is not a source of omega-3′s the way that salmon, for example, is.

    Here’s a link to the article:

    People who are adding more fish to their diet for health reasons may want to keep that in mind.

  14. Posted by gypsy packer - 01/21/2011

    Southern farm-raised catfish are raised without the contaminants. Like you, if it wasn’t caught in the family, it wasn’t in the kitchen. My favorite is a fillet breaded lightly in cornstarch, fried fast in peanut oil, and garnished with a Chinese mix of green onion and cilantro in soy, red chile, and sesame oil.

  15. Posted by Courtney Ostaff - 01/29/2011

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