Aqua culture Fish dishes are riding a wave of popularity, reeling in folks hungry for healthy, fast meals.

March 25, 1998|By Teresa Gubbins | Teresa Gubbins,Universal Press Syndicate

Perhaps you can remember the moment. Maybe it was recent. The moment you discovered that tuna does not always come in a can.

You may have been at a trendy restaurant where great fish takes center stage. When the tuna came to the table, it might have been rolled in crushed black pepper, then fanned out in slices, each flashing its rosy center. And when you took a bite, it was as soft and tender and red as a piece of rare tenderloin.

No wonder the American appetite for fish has grown bigger than Moby Dick. When something tastes that good, you want to try it at home.

"People used to be very intimidated, but they want to eat more fish. They eat a lot of seafood at restaurants and would like to cook it themselves at home," says Ann Steirer, a chef and cooking teacher who specializes in fish.

Fish also meets the current twin passions for "healthy" and "fast."

"It's so quick," says chef Lisa Balliet. "Most fillets don't take more than 10 minutes to cook."

The rule is to cook fish 10 minutes per inch of thickness.

For the past few years, fish consumption has held steady at about 15 pounds per person per year, according to the National Fisheries Institute in Arlington, Va.; two-thirds of that has traditionally been eaten outside the home.

Most fish is high in protein and low in fat. A 4-ounce serving of "flat fish" such as cod or sole, baked or broiled, has 133 calories, 27 grams of protein and less than 2 grams of fat. Compare that to a 4-ounce serving of broiled beef tenderloin -- fat completely trimmed -- with 240 calories, 32 grams of protein and more than 11 grams of fat, some of it the saturated kind that raises cholesterol.

Fish are also rich in minerals and vitamins A, B, D and E. But even the higher-fat fish are rich in essential fatty acids; our bodies require but don't make omega-3s, which reduce cholesterol and guard against heart disease. Many health experts say two servings of fish a week is just right.

Most people buy their seafood at supermarkets, and the condition of a fish counter is the third most popular reason people choose a store, right after the produce and the store's bakery, according to figures from the Food Marketing Institute.

With all this going for it, fish should be the most popular dish in the kitchen. But there's still a "fear factor," says chef Kelly Haden.

"Consumers are enjoying fish in a restaurant," he says, "but they're still resistant about going out and buying a good piece of fish."

The problem, he says, is the price.

"If you bought a T-bone steak and a salmon steak, you'll pay maybe $5 for the T-bone, but you know what you're going to get and everybody knows how to grill a steak," he says. "The fishmonger may ask for $11.99 a pound on salmon. So I've doubled my investment, and I'm not sure how to cook it. The last time maybe it stuck to the grill, or it fell apart. Or maybe it had bones.

"Fish requires more delicate handling," he says, "but it's just as easy to prepare as any other protein at home -- be it pork, chicken or meat."

The tough part about cooking fish at home is knowing when it's properly cooked, Steirer says.

"People are always afraid they're not going to get it cooked enough," she says. "And yet they usually err on the side of cooking fish too long. It doesn't take very long to cook fish."

Even buying fish can be overwhelming, she says. "You go to the grocery store, you see the display of cold fish and you don't know where to start."

If you select good-quality fish, you'll have less of a problem with the notorious "fishy" smell. The gustatory rewards are well worth the effort, says Gary Freedman, spokesman for Landlock Seafood Co., a distributor that provides fish to restaurants and supermarkets.

Fish is remarkably complex.

"With beef, there's a couple different grades and different textures, but it all has the same flavor," he says. "Chicken has the same flavor and texture.

"Seafood has a complete range of texture, from delicate to firm. And flavor, from mild to full-bodied. You can try a delicate fish like sole or flounder, or a full-bodied fish like tuna or swordfish -- so full-bodied and firm it's like a piece of meat. Seafood has something the other proteins don't -- diversity."

That diversity means that cooking seafood can be a bit more challenging. Some fish thrive on the grill; others like the fry pan. But there's no need to panic; the tips below will sharpen your skills.

Or, just remember the 10-minute-per-inch rule, and keep in mind that fish responds best to the light touch.

Schooling in fish, by type

Here are some of the more popular fish appearing in restaurants and on fish counters.

* Salmon. In its early, wild days, salmon was available only during the summer months. But its success as a farm-raised fish has made salmon a year-round thing. There's hardly a cooking method that doesn't work for salmon: baking, sauteing, grilling, poaching or steaming.

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