Our comprehensive guide to how to go about selecting your seafood the next time you cook dinner.
Our comprehensive guide to how to go about selecting your seafood the next time you cook dinner.
We used to think that half the battle was deciding what to make for dinner. Then we realized that actually getting ourselves to the store to get those fresh ingredients, instead of defaulting to the Sweetgreen around the corner, was the next big hurdle. Welp, now that we’ve been cooking and meal prepping on the reg, we’ve started giving more thought than ever to the decisions that we make while we’re at the grocery store. How do we decide what to buy, when there are seemingly countless versions of each thing? And when deciding what to buy, what is the larger impact of that purchase decision?
We had this thought process the other evening, when we stopped by the grocery store to pick up some salmon for dinner. The fish counter has always been a place of mystery, intrigue, and straight-up confusion for us, and so per usual, we turned to the experts to help us with the demystification process. When it comes to fresh fish, there’s no one we trust more than Michael Chernow. Not only is he a restaurateur and hospitality entrepreneur, but he’s the founder and owner of Seamore’s, an NYC restaurant dedicated to sourcing and serving high quality seafood. We sat down with him to help us better understand not only how to buy the best fish at the fish counter, but how we can better think about making that selection process count.
Let’s start from the beginning - where did your knowledge of and passion for fish begin?
I grew up in New York City, but I will always remember going out to fish in Freeport, Long Island on Sundays. My Dad was a fisherman, and it was he who turned me onto it as a young kid. Some of my fondest memories are of being on the water and catching fish - porgy, bluefish, fluke, flounder, you name it. There’s a certain beauty to it, the idea that you might be out on the water for hours and come home with the biggest fish you’ve ever seen, or end up coming home empty-handed. They call it fishing, not catching, for a reason!
I worked in the restaurant industry in New York City my entire adult life, and realized that I was never seeing on a menu the species of fish that I grew up catching. That’s the reason that I developed Seamore’s - I wanted to throw my hat in the ring as a New Yorker and say, “hey, there’s some incredible local fish in our area, let’s shed some light on the underdogs and the underutilized species of fish.” And in doing that, if we get more people to start eating this way, our environment will be better off because of it.
Before we go to the market, how can we educate ourselves on some of the buzzwords around fish and how it is sourced?
The only key terminology that you need to know is wild and farm-raised fish. Wild fish, just like the name suggests, is caught right from the wild and live in the wild prior to coming to your plate. The beauty here is that this is one of the last truly wild things that we consume as humans at large. Unless you’re a hunter, there’s no other protein that we have access to and that we consume from the wild, and that’s really special. This is something that we should be doing everything in our power to preserve! Also, from a taste perspective, wild fish tastes exactly how that fish is supposed to taste, as mother nature intended.
Farm-raised fish are controlled from egg to harvest, either in the ocean in concealed cages or in large vats or tanks. The integrity of the fish is a bit different here, as the fish are not exposed to the elements that wild fish are exposed to. For example, salmon are one of the most athletic, fierce species in the ocean, and when you take them out of the wild and farm them, the fish are not being exposed to the elements, and ultimately their lineage.
We hear the term “organic” tossed around a lot, but the only way that seafood can be organic is with farmed fish. If the fish is organic and farm-raised, it means that the fish feed that they are using is organic. There are some great fish farms that are doing their best to get their fish feed as close as possible to what the fish typically eat in the wild. Unfortunately, there are also some huge fish farms that are depleting some species in the wild in order to serve their operations. The ocean has an incredibly delicate ecosystem with an amazing amount of biodiversity. It’s different from what we have on dry land, as species of fish depend on each other for survival; the fish literally eat one another. If fish farms are depleting certain species at a large scale, it has a ripple effect through the whole ecosystem.
What makes a good piece of fish? What differentiates a good piece of fish from a not-so-good piece of fish?
Fish is obviously a very delicate and delicious protein, and what makes a piece of fish great is how it was handled from the moment it was caught to the moment that it made it into your plate. It all starts with the fisherman.
There is a rating system that was devised by the Monterey Bay Aquarium called Seafood Watch, and it rates fisheries and fish species by color. It takes into account fish species population levels in the wild, how the fish is harvested (is is ethical? is it sustainable?), and how the fish lives on a farm (what’s its environment? what is it eating?). Red is endangered; you want to avoid eating this at all costs. Yellow is a good alternative. Green is what you want to be eating. The rating system has an app, Seafood Watch, that consumers can download to their phones and use to educate themselves about how they can find the most ocean-friendly seafood.
What should we look for when we walk up to the fish counter? What should we avoid?
The absolute best way to get your perfect piece of fish is to do some research ahead of time. Download the Seafood Watch app, and it will tell you all of the best locations that your fish of choice is coming from right now. Then, when you get to your fish counter, talk to the fishmonger and ask where their fish is from so you can match that information up to the research you did on the app and make the most educated choice.
Once you’ve decided what to buy, here’s what you want to look for:
Another thing to note is that cheap fish is not good, and good fish is not cheap! If you want to spend less money, familiarize yourself with the “less desirable” types of fish, which will live outside of the top species of tuna, salmon, swordfish, and shrimp. There are plenty of underutilized and under-loved species such as porgy, blackfish, and fluke that have a much lower ticket price than the salmons of the world.
What should I be aware of when buying fish that I plan to cook versus fish that I plan to eat raw?
You always, always want to tell the fishmonger behind the counter about what you plan to do with the fish, especially if you plan to eat it raw. If crudo, sushi, or ceviche are on your menu, you want to be pointed to a fish that is very high quality. The more information you give the fishmonger, the better the experience you will have.
What should I do with the fish once I buy it? Any tips on how to store it at home, and how long it stays fresh for?
The idea of freshness is definitely relative, as the general consumer perception is that the fish they see in the display case was caught just a day or two beforehand. Spoiler alert: this is rarely the case, unless the fish is farm-raised and was essentially harvested and shipped ASAP. With wild fish, fisherman go out on big fishing trips where they’re on the water for 7-10 days. They catch fish and throw it on ice, but it’s hanging out there until it gets back to the dock. At that point, it is unloaded and sold to a wholesaler, then to a distributor, and then to a store or restaurant. Assume whenever you buy fish that it’s been out of the water for 2-3 weeks already. For that reason, you really want to be eating your fish within 2 days of purchasing it.
The best way to store fish at home mimics how we do it in the restaurant. Take a deep roasting dish (we call them hotel pans in the restaurant world) and put ice along the bottom of the pan. Then take a more shallow, perforated hotel pan or roasting tray and put the fish on that, cover it with saran wrap, and put more ice on top of the saran wrap. Note that you don’t ever want the ice to touch the fish. Replenish the ice as it melts and it will keep for two days.
One more thing to note is that, unless you’re going on a fishing trip and coming back with more fish than you can eat, I do not recommend freezing your fresh fish. Eat it as soon as you can!
What are some of your favorite ways to make fish at home? Any favorite recipes?
My absolute favorite way to cook fish is to buy it and cook it whole. Look for a 2-4lbs fish (I love blackfish and mackerel and snappers). Ask your fishmonger to scale it, take the gills out, and remove the innards. At home, I open up the belly and fill it with fresh sprigs of rosemary and thyme, some whole garlic cloves, and sliced lemons. Season the inside and outside well with salt. Lay it on a roasting tray, add a drizzle of olive oil over the top and layer on lemon disks and more of those fresh herbs. You can also throw some onions and carrots around the fish in the tray. Depending on the size of the fish, you’ll want to roast it for 30-50 minutes, then you can filet it or just go in with forks and enjoy it.
If you’re cooking a piece of fish skin-on, like salmon, I like to season it with only salt and olive oil. Heat up a pan on the stove on high, add olive oil, and let it gets so hot that the surface of the oil starts to shimmer and it begins to smoke. Lay the fish skin side-down in the pan and don’t touch it. The skin will begin to cook and as it caramelizes, it will release itself from the pan. You can shake the pan and see the fish move, and then you know it’s time to flip it. For medium rare, you only need to cook the other side about 45 seconds to a minute, then pull it off the heat and it’s ready to eat.
For cooking a piece of fish with no skin, such as tuna, use the same prep methods and lay the filet down in the pan. You’ll see the color of the fish change halfway up the side and you’ll know that it’s time to flip.
What are the most trusted sources for purchasing fresh fish? Are there any times of year that are best?
In New York, I love the Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. They’re a fully sustainable fishmonger and fish market, and the owner’s family has been in the fish industry for over 100 years. The Lobster Place is another great alternative, and has a setup in Chelsea Market. From a grocery store perspective, I like that Whole Foods abides by very strict guidelines for their seafood; they won’t sell a red-rated fish, period. You’ll only find yellow and green-rated fish there.
There’s not really seasonality with fish, like there is for produce - it’s all about location. Fish are migratory animals. In New York, spring and fall are peak seasons for ample fish in the area, but there’s still amazing fish in the winter. This time of year, you’re seeing haddock, pollock, winter skate, and more. But if you see someone offering Montauk tuna in January you know they’re lying - there’s no way tuna are swimming in freezing Montauk in the depths of winter!
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