Monday, October 27, 2014

About fish, freezers and more. Did you know...?

A few weeks ago a close friend drove a couple of hundred kms to attend a cooking course we had booked as a birthday present for each other for our 2013 birthdays, so a little over a year later. Considering we live far apart and three out of four of us have young children, we didn't do too bad!

The course was all about cooking fish and we really enjoyed it: not only was the chef sociable, interesting and experienced, there was also a good vibe during the lesson and I had a great time with my girls.

I personally am not scared to cook fish, I actually find it pretty straightforward, they key being to not
overcook it in my opinion. Also, I am not in the least squeamish when it comes things like innards and eyes. Truth be told, I am much more scared of getting egg whites to reach the perfect consistency.

We made two simple, yet very tasty recipes that I will tell you more about in my next post. What I really liked about the course, however, was the preamble.

If there are two things that do slightly intimidate me about cooking fish, knowing  how to buy a fresh, sustainable and healthy specimen is the first, closely followed by cleaning and filleting it. I usually cook fish whole.

The right way
Of course, I know that if I go to the renown fish monger downtown and pay four times more than average for wild Alaskan salmon for a special occasion, his fish will be fresh and top quality. But what about feeding my kids on a daily basis without spending more than I would at my favorite sushi place and still bringing a healthy, sustainable meal to the table?
Both my fears were addressed during the course: I learned how to fillet a seas bass, but given it looked like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre had taken place at my work station, I think I have to practice a lot more before trying to teach you how to do it. And, the chef gave us a lot of interesting and useful tips that I want to pass on to you. 

The wrong way: Texas Chainsaw Massacre style

He started from the more obvious things, like how to tell if the fish you are buying is fresh. As he spoke,  I realized that things that were a given to me, weren't for others and viceversa. I also learned some things that seem obvious once you know them, but that can be a real eye-opener when discovering them.

There is so much more to learn in the kitchen than just plain technique, and this learning process never ends. So I hope you too will find something useful in this post too. 

Also, while you read this please keep in mind that I’m not a  professional (cook, nutritionist, registered dietitian, fish expert etc.) and that I am just sharing information I found to be interesting and useful. I am aware there are a lot of different opinions and ways to do things when it comes to cooking and would be happy to hear your personal experience or tips in the comments section

How to recognize fresh fish:
A whole fish is fresh when:
1) The eyes are clear. If they look dull and/or cloudy, skip to the next one.
2) It does not smell strongly of fish. It should smell like the sea, if you know what I mean.
3) Its colour is bright and metallic. It should not look dull or patchy and the scales should not be loose.
4) The gills are bright red and the inside of the mouth is not pale/discolored.
5) The flesh is firm and the fish is pretty stiff when you pick it up. It should not flop on the sides and if you run your finger along the flesh, it should not leave a mark.
I realize buying whole fish is not always an option, so if you are buying filets or slices make sure the colour is bright and that the fish smells good. Fish, however unappealing this sounds, should be bloody: if the liquid looks milky, it is past its prime.

It is also useful to find out when fish is delivered to supermarkets or stores. It turns out that in Milan fish is delivered to supermarkets on Tuesdays and Fridays.

How to spend less:
1) Buy the whole fish. In most stores/supermarkets, they will clean it for you. At home you can cook it whole or fillet it yourself, with the added bonus of fish bones/heads to make stock.
2) Buy seasonal, local fish (yes, there are seasons for fish too!)
3) Buy farmed or frozen fish. I know what you are thinking, but hear me out.

About frozen fish:
A lot of people snub frozen fish, while it is actually the best way to buy it if you live far from the sea/ocean or in a smaller town/city where there is not as much turnover as in large cities. Also, if you are eating fish that is not local, eating it frozen is probably your best (and only) bet for eating it fresh. In some cases, freezing is a must, but we'll get to that later.

Many fishing vessels, especially those travelling the high seas, have entire built-in processing and freezing plants to gut, fillet, process and immediately freeze the daily catch, ensuring it remains extremely fresh. There are various ways of freezing fish, and some are better than others. Usually individually frozen specimens (for example, jumbo shrimp) are a guarantee, while often fish frozen into blocks (you know those pre-frozen packages of squid, clams or mixed seafood for soups/risotto?) is a cheaper way to deep freeze, sometimes involving the use of  ammonia (have you ever gotten a whiff of ammonia when eating fish?).

Finally, when eating frozen goods, make sure there are no signs of a break in the cold chain (meaning the temperature has risen higher than it should have during distribution/storage) like freezer burns, ice crystals, water marks on packaging, sheets of ice etc.

Farmed fish: 
A lot has been said about aquafarming, most of it bad. It is nonetheless important to make a distinction when it comes to comercially raised fish and these differences are also reflected in their price. In some cases fish are raised by the hundreds in tanks, in a totally artificial environment. Other ways involve farming fish in enclosed areas in open waters or sheltered areas, closely replicating the environment of wild fish (both freshwater and seawater fish).The global impact of overfishing in the past decades has been devastating for many species, so in certain circumstances, aquaculture is a positive solution. There are nonetheless still many debatable issues, like the feeding practices of carnivorous species, the use of antibiotics and the invasiveness of some species to the detriment of others.

Facts about freezing fish
I mentioned above that in some cases fish should always be frozen. Specifically, any fish you intend to consume raw. When fish is raw but marinated (like these anchovies or ceviche) or eaten as sushi or sashimi, it has to be previously frozen. Tuna is a typical example, because even when it is cooked it is usually just quickly seared. Freezing fish ensures that harmful parasites, like anisakis, are killed. In Italy, restaurants serving raw fish are legally required to freeze it before serving it.

What I found really interesting,  however, was the information on how to freeze things.

As homecooks, we apparently have to freeze our fish for at least 76 hours (according to a new law decree in Italy, it should be frozen for at least 96 hours before consuming raw), because that is how long it takes a normal household freezer to reach -18°C.

Restaurants usually have blast chillers that allow the temperature of food to drop very quickly to a level that keeps it safe from bad kinds of bacteria, deterioration  etc. It takes a blast chiller about half an hour to do what it takes your freezer three days!

Because it takes your freezer at least three days to get food to reach -18° never throw something that is about to go past its due date (namely fish, meat and other easily perishable products) into the freezer, because the deterioration process will continue for three more days.

Always take your fish/meat out of the packaging to freeze it:
1) most packaging is for transportation only and does not hold up well in the freezer
2) you know that little sheet of absorbent paper at the bottom of styrofoam trays, under meat and fish? It is put there to asbsorb blood. Given it takes more than three days for the meat/fish to freeze completely, it is best to separate the more perishable parts from the actual flesh: so get rid of blood, organs etc. Also keep the reverse process in mind: when defrosting blood and organs defrost quicker than the flesh, so their decomposition process will begin earlier.

Freezing foods in general:
1) Always take the food out of its packaging unless the material is appropriate for freezing (this is usually specified on the packaging). That means i) no styrofoam (unless it is the kind used for freezing - like gelato containers - because this does not crumble when frozen); ii) no paper (bread bags, anyone?). They allow air to circulate, forming ice crystals, and they absorb humidity and get wet; iii) no cling film/Saran wrap unless the packaging specifies that it is for +3/-18°C (or the equivalent in° F) because it rips when frozen, leaving particles in your food and exposing the food to freezer burn. The same goes for aluminum foil (it gets stuck to the food). Use freezer bags or appropriate storage containers.
2) Always clean and pat food dry before freezing (remember blood, ice crystal formation)

3) It is best to freeze pieces individually. This makes it easier and quicker to thaw them.
4) The best way to freeze or store food (even in your fridge) is using a vacum sealer, because it gets rid of air, guarantees a longer life in your fridge (easily up to 15 days) and ice crystals do not form in the freezer.
5) Raw food that has been defrosted can only be frozen again once cooked.
6) When defrosing your food, always do this as naturally as possible: take it out of the freezer and let it thaw slowly in the fridge. Do not leave food to thaw out on the counter in a warm room or put it under running, warm water. This ensures best quality and a slower breeding of bacteria.


Some more random, but interesting or useful tips.

Yellowfin tuna is top quality tuna and is bright red. It is one of the most popular kinds of tuna here, although the Meditarranean is home to many species of tuna, most of them smaller and with darker flesh. Since everyone wants to buy bright red steaks, sometimes stores use a little trick to sell tuna: they soak it in a solution of water and red beet juice that leaves a telltale patina on the fish.  You know that almost iridiscent patina, a sort of vague metallic/flourescent green/yellowish reflection? Not harmful perhaps, but still a way of tricking misinformed consumers into buying something different than they think they are.
The difference between fish stock, fumet and bisque
The chef taught us the difference between the three preparations. His explanation did not match the description I knew but reading up on it I realized that there are a million interpretations for each name. So, call them what you prefer, what matters here is the different techniques and uses for them.
Fish stock: made with the traditional mirepoix (carrot, celery and onion), oil, fish bones and head, water and some pepper, salt and herbs. It is usually quite dark and flavorful. It can be used as a base for soups, risotto, fish bechamel etc.
Fumet: usually thought to be a more concentrated version of fish stock, it is actually only prepared with the bones of the fish, not the head. The resulting broth is clearer and has a more delicate flavor.
Bisque: far from the creamy preparation we know in the States, bisque is a fish stock made using the shells of crustaceans, a mirepoix sauteed in butter, a shot of brandy and just enough water to cover the shells.

Whatever you call them, they are quick to make (the whole process takes no more than a half hour) and delicious, another valid reason to buy a whole fish/crustacean: you can make stock/fumet/bisque and feeze it for future use or store the bones and shells in freezer bags.

A tip for making stock
I also learned a new way to prepare stock.
Instead of heating oil in a pot, sauteeing the mirepoix in the hot oil and then adding water, you first prepare a mirepoix of just carrot and celery (more carrot if you want a sweeter stock, more celery if you want something a little more on the bitter side), heat a pot and caramelize these two vegetables without oil until they start turning dark. This concentrates their flavor. Before they start to burn, you add olive oil and onion and sautee them with the rest (the onions burns without oil). In the meantime let some water run very cold, add a few ice cubes and then pour the water into the very hot pot. The thermic shock will cause the mirepoix to release all that concentrated, caramelized flavor. The aroma is incredible. Then add whatever bones you are using and make your stock.

Odds and ends
Thyme is excellent with fish.
Cook cuttle fish for less than a minute. If you pass that time, it will turn tough and you will have to cook it for at least an hour before it yields.
The same goes for octopus. Also, remember when boiling octopus put it into a pot of cold, not boiling water (the same goes for meat).
When filleting fish, preferably use a long, thin, flexible blade.

The course was held at Il Salotto del Gusto by Chef Maurizio Dell'Omo.



  1. What a fantastic post! You're right, you learn so much and what you feel you know is often different and so it's good to learn what other people say. I want to make fish stock now except of course I'm travelling but you've inspired me :D

  2. Amo il pesce ma non sono una esperta nella pulitura, questo post lo tengo da conto ;) utilissimo! :)

  3. It's great you were all able to finally get together and spend a day away from small children and do something you really enjoy. The course sounds like it was not only fun but that you learned a lot. Yep - cutting up fish can be quite messy! It's great you learned to make a good fish stock too xx

  4. This post will go into my special 'keep and learn' file: it has so much information in it - some I knew, some I knew differently and shall reread, some is quite new but so worth it! Thanks for all the 'homework' !!!

    1. Hi Eha, I would love to hear what you knew differently... it would be a great way to learn more!

  5. This was great, Fiona! Living in the desert I rely on a lot of frozen seafood and fish products, although being only 3 hours from an ocean, I can get some shrimp and fish fresh from the ocean. Also, our Asian markets have wonderful tanks of live fish, so you know you are getting fresh fish, as you can pick it out. I look forward to your recipes! ~ David

  6. I'll need to bookmark this post—it's my new definitive source for all things fishy! I do have to agree that there's no real basis for the mystique surrounding fish cookery. I think getting chicken breasts right is much harder, and no one seems to have a problem with those.

    1. So true about chicken breasts! You should write a post about that! :o)

  7. Nice post! Appreciated! Well, just want to know do you prefer Fish Display Fridge for seafood? Because we want to supply in our country so just need a valuable thought from you

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