Lost in a sea of fish? Here's a raft of explanations

February 23, 1992|By Charlotte Balcomb Lane | Charlotte Balcomb Lane,Orlando Sentinel

Thanks to overnight shipping and giant all-purpose grocery stores, consumers can purchase just about any type of fresh or fresh-frozen fish and seafood.

But the variety of fish and seafood stocked at some of these fish counters can make selecting something for dinner a bit overwhelming.

Most seafood purveyors sell the top 10 types of fish and seafoodyear-round and carry other types according to the seasonal and regional preferences. Among the top-selling types of seafood are shrimp, cod, salmon, catfish, flounder or sole, scallops and crab.

The easiest way to make sense of the seafood counter is to lump the popular types of finned fish and shellfish into four categories.

For example, there are flaky, medium-firm and firm finned fish. Shellfish is the fourth category. Any fish and most shellfish can be used interchangeably within a category. The flavors may vary between species, but the cooking times and the consistency of the finished dish will be similar.

* Shellfish: This category is a hodgepodge of shellfish, mollusks and crustaceans, including shrimp, scallops, clams, oysters, mussels, crab and conch. It also includes a few marine critters, such as squid, that don't have shells but are cooked like shellfish.

Members of this broad group can be grilled, baked, microwaved, sauteed, deep-fried, poached or broiled. Many, such as clams, lobster, mussels and squid, are terrific in chowders, stews and soups because the meat doesn't fall apart when cooked.

Members of the shellfish category have enough flavor to stand up to very robust seasonings. Most shellfish, such as shrimp, scallops, mussels and squid, can be used in a range of Oriental, Mexican, Italian or French dishes. More delicate types of shellfish, such as oysters, crab and lobster, are better suited to milder flavors including spinach, butter, olive oil, cream or sherry.

Often shellfish are removed from the shell, seasoned and returned to the shell for cooking and presentation. The shell serves two functions: It protects the meat from overcooking and drying, and it provides flavor. Oysters Rockefeller and stuffed crab are two recipes that make use of the shellfish's shell.

* Flaky fish: Flaky fish have a delicate texture that falls apart easily or separates into small flakes when cooked. Common members of the flaky fish category are red snapper, cod, tilapia, haddock, bass, flounder, sole, orange roughy, perch and pollock.

These fish are best sauteed, baked, deep-fried, microwaved, broiled or poached. Fillets of flaky fish can also be grilled on a barbecue if they're placed on a sheet of aluminum foil or a special fish-grilling rack. These keep the meat from falling through the grate into the fire. Because flaky fish tend to be low in natural fish oils, the fillets are excellent cooked en papillote (sealed in parchment paper or aluminum foil). The meat steams without drying out.

Most flaky fish aren't suited to cooking in chowders because the meat is so fragile it disintegrates in the liquid. Cod and red snapper can be used in soups and chowders if they aren't simmered too long.

Flaky fish are mild in flavor. They are best when served with mild cream or butter sauces or dusted in seasoned bread crumbs. The fish take on added interest paired with mildly piquant flavors such as capers, tartar sauce, lemon juice or white wine. Spices and herbs should also be low-key to keep from overpowering the taste of the fish. Dill, basil, oregano, white pepper and tarragon are complementary flavors.

* Medium-firm fish: Medium-firm fish have a close-knit texture that separates into large flakes or clumps when cooked. This category of versatile fish includes grouper, salmon, pompano, bluefish, amberjack, mackerel, mullet, dolphin, catfish and trout. Most medium-firm fish are sold as fillets, often with the skin attached. Some species, such as salmon, can also be sold as steaks.

Medium-firm fish can be grilled, broiled, baked, microwaved, poached, sauteed or deep-fried. Several members of this category, including salmon, grouper and dolphin, are terrific in chowders and soups because they're hardy enough to stand up to simmering. Salmon, pompano, dolphin and catfish are also excellent en papillote.

Medium-firm fish such as salmon, mackerel, amberjack and bluefish tend to be high in natural fish oils. The oil gives them strong or distinctive flavors. Because they are robust fish, they can stand up to an assortment of lively sauces. Cooks can marinate medium-firm fish in a teriyaki mixture or top them with zesty sauces like sweet-and-sour, curry, tomato or chili. Cajun or blackening spices, garlic, onions, green onions, ginger, mustard and other strong seasonings go well with medium-firm fish.

* Firm fish: Firm fish have a dense, meaty texture that doesn't flake or fall apart when cooked. Fresh tuna, swordfish, shark, marlin, halibut and monkfish belong in this category. The meat is sturdy enough that it can be cubed and skewered for kebabs.

Firm fish are usually sold as steaks or thick fillets that can be grilled, broiled, baked, poached, stir-fried, sauteed, microwaved or deep-fried. The solid meat makes these fish perfect to add to stews, chowders and soups. However, because the grain of the meat is so compact, firm fish are not as good as flaky or medium-firm fish cooked en papillote.

With their meaty texture, these fish can stand up to almost any kind of sauce. The steaks can be marinated in teriyaki sauce, garlic, herbs and olive oil, wine or fruit juices.

Seasonings can also be robust and include ginger, curry, chili, Cajun spices, mint, fried onions, nuts or sesame seeds.

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