Take a breath: We’re jumping with both feet into the deep waters of seafood cooking.
For many, cooking fish and seafood is similar to swimming in uncharted waters. But it’s Lent, when many people abstain from meat on Fridays until Easter. So it’s a good time to take the plunge.
Henry Dewey and John McNally are both experienced fishmongers in Pittsburgh.
“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 Wholey’s fish market in Pittsburgh.
2. Reach out to your fishmonger.
3. Keep it simple – be it shellfish or fillets.
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 $50-a-pound in-season salmon or $24-a-pound 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 said.
There are simple strategies for success.
Often the main impediment to serving a delicious seafood dinner is overcooking.
“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.
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. With experience, you’ll eventually learn to recognize doneness by sight (the opaque 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 your budget. But there’s more than one fish in the sea. If one type is too expensive, pick another.
If it helps, remember the lack of waste in most fish. Other than skin, there are usually no bones to discard.
“It’s 100 percent utilization. No trimming or cleaning. There’s absolutely no waste (for the buyer,)” Dewey said.
You also don’t need many other ingredients 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, maybe 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.”
A suggestion for some tasty, economical compromises
Wholey’s seafood manager, John McNally, offers the following tips for economizing, beyond shopping for specials.
▪ Scallops are mild and tender, taking on the flavor of what you cook with them. You can just saute them with a sauce of dry white wine, minced shallots and butter.
If you don’t want to spend $19.98 a pound for large, statement-sized sea scallops, try smaller bay scallop at $8.98 a pound. They cook much quicker (less than a minute per side in a hot pan – essentially “flashing them,” as opposed to about two minutes per side for sea scallops.)
Both can be prepared by patting them dry, searing them in olive oil or clarified butter in a hot pan, and then pouring a shallot-white wine sauce on top of them. Finish with a pat of butter and a little fresh parsley for color.
▪ Colossal Gulf shrimp (to be shelled and deveined at home) are delicious sauteed in clarified butter for 2 to 3 minutes per side, then served with a sauce of sauteed minced garlic, white wine and butter, McNally said. Or you can go with less-expensive tiger or white shrimp, if you’re OK with farmed shrimp.
▪ Fresh ahi tuna is luscious served medium-rare by searing in a pan with clarified butter after patting the fish dry. With a steak that’s 1 1/4 inches thick, it’ll take 3 to 4 minutes per side. If the price is too high, opt for frozen ahi tuna. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and it’s ready to go. You’ll lose some of that fresh-from-the-sea flavor but it’s a reasonable compromise.
▪ Instead of buying fresh Atlantic cod, you can get frozen Pacific cod at much less. McNally recommends baking uncovered in a pan with a few tablespoons of melted butter and a couple of drops of water to create steam. After laying the cod in the pan and curling the tail to tuck underneath the thicker part of the fillet, sprinkle it with fresh bread crumbs, salt, pepper and parsley. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
Pan-Seared Shrimp with Sherry Vinegar Reduction
The glaze of the sherry vinegar is perfect with the sweet shrimp, which can be served with Parmesan polenta. Adapted from “Fish Market” by Kathy Hunt (Running Press Book Publishers; 2013).
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 skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and saute until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Pour shallots into a small bowl, set aside, and wipe out the skillet.
Return the skillet to the heat, add the sherry vinegar and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and stir in brown sugar and the cooked 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 skillet, 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.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Paprika Pacific Cod
It’s not fancy but flavorful and just plain good. The tester served the cod with fried rosemary-topped potatoes and green beans cooked in chicken stock with minced shallot. From“Fish Market” by Kathy Hunt (Running Press Book Publishers; 2013)
Nonstick cooking spray
2 large Pacific cod fillets, nearly 1 pound (you can also use orange roughy, catfish or tilapia)
Sea salt and 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 is firm and can be flaked with a fork, 12 to 15 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings.
Seared Scallops with Asparagus and Peas in Lemon Sauce
It’s beautiful on the plate, tasty, low in calories, quick to prepare and comparatively inexpensive. Adapted from “Dinner A.S.A.P. 150 Recipes Made As Simple As Possible” by the editors of Cooking Light (Time Inc. Books; 2016)
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 cook for a little less than a minute on each side.
Add shallots to pan and saute 1 minute.
Add asparagus, wine, lemon rind, lemon juice and remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Saute 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.
Yield: 4 servings.