If your family had a variety of home-cooked fresh seafood on a regular basis, you probably grew up in another part of the world. Or you like to fantasize about your childhood. Or you're under 30.
No, frozen fish sticks and bottled shrimp cocktails don't count. Neither do tuna casseroles.
"As kids, many of us were exposed to poorly cooked fish at home. Some of it was so bad, it tasted like boiled wool," says Leslie Revsin, author of "Great Fish, Quick" (Doubleday, 1997, $27.50). "People will order seafood in restaurants, but many are not comfortable cooking it. And it's too bad, because it's so delicious. And so fast."
Fast, indeed. Just as quick to prepare as chicken breasts or burgers. And, according to Revsin, a great deal more interesting and versatile.
"Fish fillets and steaks, and all varieties of shellfish, offer so many textures, so many flavors and so many personalities," says Revsin, who began her culinary career in the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where she became its first female chef.
"Plus, there's a pleasure component with seafood. You don't have to worry if it's good for you, so you have more fun eating it."
According to Revsin, cooking times are a stumbling block for many novice seafood cooks. They're fearful of overcooking or undercooking.
"Remember to judge cooking time by thickness of the fish, not its length," Revsin says. "A piece of fish can be a foot long, but the cooking time is determined by the fact that it is, say, three-fourths-inch thick. Look at the recipe; if it says to cook it seven to 10 minutes, don't wait until 10 minutes have passed. After seven minutes, make a slit in the thickest part and have a look. If it's opaque, it's done. If it's translucent, it's not done, so put it back on the heat for one to two minutes, then have another look. It's not a mystery. Opaque is all you're looking for."
For scallops, cook just until they are medium, just barely opaque and a little springy. Revsin suggests that you squeeze their sides with your spatula to check for springiness. Raw, they're squishy and as they cook, they become more firm. Or cut one in half. Scallops should be mostly opaque, but slightly translucent in the center. They will continue to cook a little bit after they're removed from the heat. Don't overcook; they become rubbery.
And for shrimp, you want to cook them just until they're opaque. Cut one in half; it should be solid white throughout.
Whether you plan to pan-fry or grill, broil or bake, you want to start with the freshest seafood available. Choose seafood with a fresh, clean smell. It shouldn't have any unpleasant "fishy" odor. Develop reliable sources. Some supermarkets have very nice fish markets; others don't. Asian markets, fish markets and warehouse stores often have excellent fresh fish.
Look for fillets and steaks that have a moist sheen. Don't buy them if they have spaces in the flake; all fillets and steaks should be dense with no visible gapping.
Make your fish purchase your last errand and refrigerate it as soon as possible. If it's a hot day, ask the fishmonger for a bag of ice to put next to the fish.
Often, much of the fish that is available is either frozen or frozen-defrosted fillets. Some varieties freeze better than others. Revsin puts fillets in three categories based on how well they taste if they've ever been frozen: very good, can be acceptable and not so good. Perch and catfish are in the very good column, while halibut and snapper are in the "can be acceptable" column (but they have to be individually quick-frozen to be considered acceptable). Revsin doesn't like defrosted sole and cod. She says they have an unpleasant chemical taste.
Be sure to thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator and pat dry with paper towels before cooking.
Fast, flavorful and succulent are the recipe goals, so you need to start with either quick-cooking shellfish, such as shrimp or scallops, or serving-size fillets or steaks. Cook it in a flash to retain its juiciness; broil, bake, grill, saute, or steam in a foil packet.
While the fish cooks, make an easy but tangy sauce that adds gusto without taking much time to prepare. Put the two together and voila, dinner is ready in 20 to 25 minutes.
One of my weeknight specials is to plop sizzling fish or shellfish on top of mixed salad greens or cooked bitter greens, such as spinach or kale. Or nestle it on a bed of quick-cooked rice, pasta or couscous. But taste-wise, to make these one-dish dinners work, the fish or the sauce accompaniment needs to burst with flavor.
* Vinaigrettes: Tangy oil-and-vinegar mixtures can be made ahead and refrigerated up to two weeks. A drizzle or two packs a real flavor punch. Revsin suggests a pungent caper vinaigrette for adding a zesty edge to sea bass (recipe follows).
"The wonderful succulence of the sea bass is enhanced by the acidity of the vinaigrette," Revsin says. "But also try the Honey Mustard Sauce. It's delicious with scallops, shrimp and roasted salmon."