Fish: What to Look For and How to Cook It
Tips from local fishmongers on how to hook the best catch (so to speak)
Photographs by Jennifer May
Gerard Viverito grew up next to lakes, first in New Jersey and then in Maryland. He spent the majority of his weekends on his father’s boats, savoring the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic Ocean. “I always had a fishing pole in my hands,” recalls the Rhinebeck-based chef and fishmonger. “From the time I was in second grade, I would come home with fish I caught after school and ask my mother to cook them for dinner.” He went on to spend more time near water: living in the Caribbean for four years, then along the Mediterranean coastlines of France, Italy, and Spain; and finally back in the States, in San Diego, where he worked with purveyors to learn why fish were coming in smaller yet more expensive.
Sustainability has long been an important issue for Viverito, now an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, where he teaches a seafood class, and the director of culinary education for Passionfish, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego that promotes environmentally sound alternatives to endangered seafood species. At dinner parties, when fellow guests would ask him where they could purchase sustainable fish such as swordfish or cod, he’d grow frustrated, knowing that local grocery stores usually didn’t make the cut. He started speaking with eco-minded small-boat fishermen, eventually convincing them to start selling to him directly. Via FedEx or UPS overnight delivery, the fishermen shipped their catches to Viverito in special containers accompanied by cold-gel ice packs. Nowadays, at food gatherings, he knows exactly where to share locations for concerned guests. “Six years ago I created the Hudson Valley Fishmonger Program so that I could speak with commercially licensed fishermen all over the country, find out what they were landing, blast an email to my customer base (now 400 and growing), and pre-order what they would like based on availability,” he says. “This solved another problem: There was no waste.” And he hopes to have a brick-and-mortar store in Hudson in the future, hopefully by spring. But for now, the fish guru personally delivers orders to various locations throughout the Valley.
Fish sustainability is not something that can be defined so easily, Viverito says. “One species may not be looked at as sustainable, but what if you live in a country and that is all that’s there? There are many factors to consider. One thing that I look for when sourcing is the reduction in by-catch, or the amount of fish not targeted that are killed and thrown back into the sea as innocent bystanders. I prefer fish caught on hand-lines and fishing poles.” Purchasing seafood from Alaska, which has incorporated sustainability into its state constitution, is one way of ensuring such thoughtfulness. But a big problem, he says, is that 91 percent of the fish consumed in the States is imported.
Just like produce, seafood is at its prime during certain seasons. Right now, Viverito can’t get enough of oysters. “This is their time to shine — on the half shell, roasted, or in a stuffing. When it gets cold and they stop spawning, their flavor gets concentrated rather than expended,” he says. But if bivalves don’t appeal, sardines, mussels, lobsters, line-caught cod, seabreams, and red mullets are suitable cold-weather alternatives. And you should try to pick fish as you would an apple or tomato, by smelling and touching it, though most purveyors don’t want you poking and prodding their fish, he says. “But if you can smell it from 12 inches away, and it doesn’t smell fresh, it’s probably not, and that could be a problem,” he says. While the majority of fish sold in grocery stores has been previously frozen, that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it was flash or cryogenically frozen at sea, which preserves its freshness, he says. To get on the email list for the Hudson Valley Fishmonger Program, visit www.chefgerard.com.
In the Kitchen
Some fish, like salmon, are typically grilled. But Viverito encourages home cooks to embrace other preparations. Stumped? Seeing how much a fish moves is an indication of how it should be cooked, he says. “Low-activity swimmers that are lower in oil greatly benefit from the addition of fat in a solute, pan-fry, deep-fry, or even poaching. High-activity, high-fat fish should be grilled, roasted, or seared, to render out some of the fat and add flavor that may otherwise overwhelm a delicate species.” One of Viverito’s personal favorite methods: “Salt crust and roast it in an oven. It’s a perfect way to lock in flavor and moisture, and it makes for a dramatic table-side presentation to guests.”
Out of the Box
While the vast majority of Americans favor shrimp and salmon for dinner or lunch, Viverito encourages shoppers to step outside their comfort — and flavor — zones to try something new. Currently, he’s smitten with the textures of sardines, mackerel, and albacore tuna. “They tend to be what we call high-activity fish,” he says. “That gives them darker flesh, higher fat content, and stronger flavor.”
How to Buy Fresh Fish
It can seem overwhelming to pore over all the fish options, but seafood-guru Viverito makes it easier with these tips for buying whole fish:
- The temperature should be between 28-32˚F, or it should be lying atop layers of crushed ice.
- The eyes should be clear and bulging.
- The scales should adhere tightly to the body.
- The gills should be maroon in color and smell like the sea.
- The flesh should respond to light pressure.
- The general appearance should be good. Fins should be pliable, and there should be a light slime coating on the fish.
- The overall smell of the fish should be sweet and briny.
- There should be an absence of belly burn in the stomach cavity from bile.
For pieces, rather than a whole fish, look first for discoloration or spots. Fish should have an opalescent, translucent look. Also, look for gaps in flesh, as there shouldn’t be any; look to see if they are moist (another good sign), and ask for a whiff before it’s wrapped, so you know it’s free of odor.
Other Fabulous Fish Finds
Since the 1920s, family-owned Sally’s Fish Market has been a mainstay for fresh seafood. Today, its Newburgh shop features daily catches sourced from the Bronx’s famed Hunts Point Market. Wander in for the likes of tuna steak, scallops, swordfish, red snapper, lemon sole, and halibut fillets. Ninety-nine percent of its catches are wild, except for its rainbow trout. www.sallysfishmarketinc.com
An institution since 1945, Gadaleto’s Seafood Market — originally in Highland, now with a restaurant in New Paltz — has an expansive selection of wild-caught and sustainable fish, including occasional fresh Georges Bank flounder and Florida rock shrimp. If you don’t feel like cooking, head to the restaurant, where the menu features specialty preparations like fiery Lobster Diablo. Lobster rolls are always a bestseller, along with fish tacos. www.gadaletos.com
Alaskan king crab and littleneck clams are among the delicacies found at Rick’s Seafood & Gourmet Specialties. But this Mahopac market and restaurant also tempts with from-scratch crab corn chowder, Cajun catfish, and a gourmet taco menu with selections of Asian calamari, citrus shrimp, pineapple-and-mango pulled pork, and others. www.ricksseafood.co