Fishy concerns? Just find a good store

October 25, 2006|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,NEWSDAY

Even avowed fish lovers often shy away from cooking seafood at home. Chief among the reasons for this piscaphobia are worries about freshness and confusion about cooking methods.

But two studies released last week give fish fans new incentive to move past those doubts in the name of good health. A Harvard School of Public Health study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that eating one to two servings of fish a week could reduce by a third the chances of dying from a heart attack, and that the health benefits of eating seafood strongly outweigh the risks. A report from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Medicine was less conclusive, but seconded the notion that consuming seafood may reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Plus, concerns about choosing and preparing fish can be addressed in one fell swoop: Find a good fish store. If your supermarket has a good fish department, consider yourself lucky. If not, finding a store that specializes in seafood probably will make you a better cook.

At a good fish store, you can establish a relationship with the people who are selling you fish, get their advice on what to buy and ask questions about how to cook it. Most important, you will know where your fish is coming from.

Until you and your fishmonger are on a first-name basis, here is some expert advice from Rob DeBorde, author of Fish on a First Name Basis, for assessing the quality of a fish store.

First and foremost: smell.

According to DeBorde, "The smell of a fish store is the clearest indication of how the owners feel about their business." If the smell of a store makes you want to turn around and walk out, "then that's exactly what you should do," he said.

Once a store passes the smell test, DeBorde turns his attention to how the fish is displayed. "The tuna should be with the other tuna, the halibut with the halibut and the prepared food should not be near the raw fish."

Pay attention to how the fish is kept cold. Whole fish, with their waterproof skins, can be nestled in ice; as it melts it will not waterlog their flesh. But skinless fillets and steaks should not be in direct contact with ice. Most good fish stores place fillets and steaks on trays which, in turn, rest on ice or another cooling medium.

Now, look at the fish itself.

Whole fish should be shiny and plump, with bulging eyes and bright gills. Fillets and steaks should look moist and bright: Tuna should be bright red, salmon bright orange, cod bright white, grouper rosy pink. The flesh should be smooth and firm.

Ideally, the fish store should be bringing in whole fish and cutting them up on site. A good selection of whole (i.e. head-on) fish will indicate this, but as American consumers tend to be squeamish about whole fish, none may be on display.

An alternate clue to the fish store's commitment to quality: DeBorde looks to see that steaks, in particular, look related to one another. "If all the ahi steaks have the same color and shape, they probably got in one fish and cut it up," he said. "That's a good sign."

Selection and variety are not necessarily indicators of quality. If a fish store sells mostly flounder, salmon and tilapia, there's no reason why it should bring in bluefish or monkfish just for show.

Once the assessment period is over and you're ready to buy some fish, DeBorde advises keeping in mind two concepts: interaction and flexibility. "I talk a lot to my fishmonger," he said. "I always say, `What would you buy today?' A good fishmonger will always tell you."

This approach requires flexibility. "I usually don't have a plan when I go to the fish market - other than to buy fish," DeBorde said. "Don't say, `I'm going to buy salmon.' Maybe it doesn't look so good and the halibut sitting next to it looks great. You have to be willing to change your plans."

What if you don't know how to cook the catch of the day? "Ask the fishmonger," DeBorde said.

One of the best ways to find a high-quality fish store is to look for one that serves a demanding clientele - chefs, for example. A restaurant trade ensures good turnover, and, often, more unusual stock. If you are particularly impressed by the fish at a local restaurant, find out who the chef's supplier is.

Another group of choosy customers is immigrants from countries that have vibrant fish-eating cultures. You will rarely go wrong shopping for fish in an Asian market where the emphasis is on whole - and often live - fish.

Latin Americans from coastal regions also put a high premium on fresh fish. If you would rather not deal with a whole fish, just ask the fishmonger to fillet it for you.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. Sun reporter Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

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