Fishmongering 101

I jumped off the subway and trotted down the stairs, and in seconds I was standing in the plaster whitewash wave doorway of Best of the Sea fish market. The place smelled crisp and aquatic, as a proper fish counter should.

There was a lady spinning around asking questions, to what looked like an unqualified or at least humble by standing fellow customer. I was neither of those things.

She turned to me and asked if I know what red snapper tastes like. I said yes, it’s mild. Is it better than branzino? No. Branzino is my favorite fish. She was looking at me like she was struggling internally on whether to trust me or not, and then asked if snapper was similar to the branzino.

“Yes, it’s a close second I’d say. Well, no. It’s not. But snapper is good. Go with whichever is wild, or looks better.”

She went with the whole branzino.

First rule of buying fish: Only buy wild. Farm raised is chock-full of chemicals and contaminants. It’s the seafood equivalent of processed meat. So wild is always worth the slightly higher prices.

Second: look for a nice, bright coloring. That means it won’t be pale or pallid; it’ll have a wet luster to it. For salmon, bright glossy red is a good sign; dull orangey-pink is a no-go. With a white fish like snapper, you’re looking for an almost translucent tone with a slight opacity, and a shimmer to the flesh. The opposite of that is bone-white and dry. With time and practice your eye will just learn to distinguish when a piece of fish looks good and when it looks weak and too opaque.

Next, smell the fish. This is a little harder because you can’t really do it until after the purchase when you’re home, but it’s a good measure of quality of the market. It should have a fresh, clean smell, not fishy or metallic, which could signal that it’s fine to eat but not fresh and of high quality preparation.

On freezing fish: if and only if you (or the fishmonger) freezes the fish immediately when it is still at its peak freshness level, it will stay that way when you thaw it out. You can even cook it frozen in the pan if it’s a small enough filet, which is actually a good way to ensure you get a nice medium-rare finish if that’s what you prefer, like I do. If it’s a big piece, you’ll need a few hours to a day to thaw it out in the fridge. (Never leave it out on the counter.) If you’re buying the fish unfrozen, make sure to get it on ice if you can’t get it to the fridge within 20 minutes, especially if it’s warm outside.

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