Fish is more popular than ever with American diners, so of course it's a subject students in The Art Institute of Pittsburgh's culinary program tackle from Day One.
And not just in regional American dishes.
Seafood is an integral part of most European and Middle Eastern diets, and it also makes regular appearances in Pacific-Rim and Caribbean cooking, where in addition to the traditional methods of grilling, broiling and baking, fresh fish is stirred into chowders and shaped into tasty fritters.
"Really, it's spread throughout all the different cuisines," says culinary instructor Shawn Culp, who's been on staff at the Downtown school for nearly two years, and recently was part of an American Culinary Federation team that won a silver medal at this year's Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung, the culinary Olympics.
Here in Pittsburgh, the favored preparation on Fridays during the 40-day Lenten season, which this year ends on March 28, appears to be frying, though some church fish fries also offer baked fish for the diet-conscious. And good thing they do, because more and more Americans are looking for healthful alternatives.
Or as Chef Culp puts it, "Emerging chefs have to cater to the tastes of all Catholics who abstain."
Very often, that means cooking dishes that spotlight stronger-flavored fish such as trout, tuna or pink-fleshed salmon because those are the ones that are highest in omega-3 fatty acids. It also means cooking white, lean and flaky fish such as tilapia, a once-obscure African native that's become so popular that it's the fourth most consumed seafood in the U.S., after shrimp, canned tuna and salmon.
None are species you'll find on a traditional fish-fry menu. (Cod's the golden standard in church kitchens). But all are available at your local supermarket, and depending on the time of year, might even be a great deal.
Right now, for instance, wild-caught Pacific cod fillets are $3.99 per pound at Wholey's in the Strip District, while Alaskan Copper River sockeye salmon is $12.99/pound at Giant Eagle and $13.99/pound at Whole Foods. Tilapia is a good value all year long, typically ringing up for as little as $4/pound frozen.
"And the quality is very good, because it's frozen immediately at sea," notes Chef Culp
So now, how to prepare it?
The heart-healthy Mediterranean diet is all the rage now, so it's somehow fitting that one of the classical fish dishes Chef Culp demonstrated in AIP's ninth-floor kitchen earlier this week has its roots in the Italian port city of Palermo, in northern Sicily: Tunnu a Palirmitana, or Tuna, Palermo Style.
This simple recipe starts with fresh tuna that's been marinated in wine, lemon juice and rosemary. The pro that he is, Chef Culp worked the fresh yellowfin tuna into buttery, cigar-sized tubes, but there's no shame in simply using fillets. Just be sure to dry the edge a bit on a clean dish rag or paper towel after seasoning it with salt and plenty of black pepper so it doesn't stick to the hot pan when you start cooking.
Searing the fish to rare or medium-rare perfection (still pink on the inside) takes just minutes, if even that long.
"It doesn't need to be cooked to death," he says, adding, "If you do that, you might as well used canned."
Because fish can cook so quickly, it's key to have every single ingredient cleaned, chopped, drained, mixed and lined up on the counter before you place the fillets in the pan. Walk away mid-sear, and what should be moist and meaty might end up dry.
My taste in seafood tends to milder-tasting fish, so the dish I tested for my husband and parents at home was one demonstrated by chef-in-waiting Mario Spina, who will graduate from the school with an associate degree in just a few weeks: Tilapia with Strawberry-Mango Salsa.
Pairing fish with fruit is pretty common in the Caribbean, and a clever way to fool a fish-phobic kid into trying a dish that's oh-so-good.
Tilapia with Strawberry-Mango Salsa
Any flaky white fish will work in this recipe.
1 pint strawberries
1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and diced
1 small cucumber, peeled, and diced (about 1 cup)
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, and minced (optional)
Kosher salt and pepper
4 6-ounce tilapia fillets
In a food processor, puree 1 pint of strawberries.
Combine the mango, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno (if desired), lime juice and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add mango mixture to the strawberry puree and stir.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Lightly grease a baking dish with olive oil. Salt and pepper fish on both sides.
Arrange fish in the prepared baking dish; drizzle with olive oil. Place into a pre-heated oven. Bake until fish is just cooked through, approximately 10 to 12 minutes.
Place the baked fillets on a serving dish and top generously with the fruit topping.
-- International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh
Tuna, Palermo Style
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Sprig fresh rosemary
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 ounces tuna loin
1/2 cup olive oil
Can sardine fillets in oil
2 cups fresh arugula
1/2 cup lemon segments
1/2 cup red radish, julienned
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Combine wine, lemon juice, rosemary and garlic, mix well. Marinate tuna fillets in mixture 1 hour, turning at least once.
Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a pan until hot; remove from heat, add sardine fillets and blend or mash together.
Remove tuna from marinade. Season with salt and pepper.
Grill until nicely marked and medium rare. Baste several times with sardine mixture; baste again when cooked.
Toss together salad ingredients. Serve tuna fillet topped with arugula salad and fresh cracked black pepper.
-- International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Pittsburghfood - recipes
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.