Take a breath: We're jumping with both feet into the deep waters of seafood cooking.
For many, the preparation of fish and other treasures from the sea is akin to swimming in uncharted waters. But, it is Ash Wednesday, which means that many Pittsburghers will abstain from meat today as well as on Fridays until Easter. So it's an especially good time to take the plunge.
Henry Dewey and John McNally, two of the region's most experienced fishmongers, will hold our hands. They understand.
"I'd say that at least fifty percent of the people who come to our counter are nervous. They're actually afraid. And they're the ones [who had the courage] to come to the counter," said Mr. McNally, the seafood manager for the ever-bustling Wholey’s fish market in the Strip District.
Mr. Dewey, the proprietor of Penn Avenue Fish Co., which has locations in the Strip District and Downtown, agreed. "A lot of our customers say right out that they're afraid they're going to screw it up," he said.
The men echo each other in their advice to those who feel like fish out of water when it comes to cooking seafood:
2. Reach out to your fishmonger.
3. Keep it simple — be it shellfish or fillets.
Perhaps the first obstacle to overcome is the sticker-shock. The price-per-pound of many types of seafood can be off-putting, especially if you're reaching for Mr. Dewey's $50-a-pound in-season salmon or Wholey's $24-a-pound fresh Chilean sea bass. "No one wants to sink that kind of money into dinner then be afraid they're going to screw it up," Mr. Dewey acknowledged.
So the purchase must be made with a sense of confidence that the meal will turn out well, no matter the cost, but especially if the cost is comparatively high.
There are simple strategies for success.
Often the main impediment to serving a delicious seafood dinner is overcooking, and so seek the advice of the experts. "We'll actually write it on the paper we wrap the fish in. We know the thickness of the fillet we're selling and we'll indicate very precisely how long to cook it," Mr. Dewey said. Mr. McNally said he and his team behind the counter follow suit.
Another way to take the guesswork out of the equation is to use an inexpensive cooking thermometer. The FDA recommends an internal temperature for seafood of 145 degrees. The experienced cook eventually will recognize doneness by sight (the opague appearance of a scallop, for example) and feel (the ease of using a fork to flake the center of a cod fillet, for instance).
Then comes the matter of cost.
Some items simply might be cost-prohibitive, depending on an individual's budget. But, there is more than one fish in the sea. If one type is too expensive, pick another. Mr. McNally points to the scores of varieties behind his expansive counter and the price point runs the gamut. Mr. Dewey offers fish "ends" — a mix of pieces from some of the most expensive fillets in the store — at $6.99 a pound, perfect for fish tacos.
Staples at Wholey's are what Mr. McNally refers to as "value products" such as whiting at $2.50 a pound, a special on a recent week, and frozen tilapia filets at $3.98 a pound, a regular feature.
A consideration when it comes to cost is the lack of waste in products sold at Penn Avenue Fish, said Mr. Dewey, who points out that the majority of seafood being sold at his counter is going at an "already-prepped" price per pound. "It's 100 percent utilization. No trimming or cleaning. There's absolutely no waste (for the buyer,)" Mr. Dewey said.
He emphasized that little is needed in the way of accoutrements to raise the seafood to its highest form: a splash of dry white wine, a pat of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, some salt and pepper — perhaps a bit of minced garlic or shallot or some soft or toasted breadcrumbs.
"I know people think it's hard. But, really, cooking fish is one of the easiest things to do in the kitchen," Mr. Dewey said. "Once you buy the fish, you're in the home stretch."
A suggestion for some tasty, economical compromises
Wholey’s seafood manager, John McNally, offers the following tips for economizing, beyond shopping for specials.
• Scallops are a mild and tender seafood that takes on the flavor of what it's given. Sauteed with a sauce of dry white wine, minced shallots and butter, it's a delicacy, Mr. McNally said. But, maybe the cost-conscious shopper doesn't want to spend $19.98 a pound for large, statement-sized sea scallops. A reasonable compromise is the smaller bay scallop at $8.98 a pound, he said. A trained chef, he warned that the bay scallops will cook much quicker (less than a minute per side in a hot pan — essentially "flashing them," as opposed to about two minutes per side for sea scallops.) But both can be prepared by patting them dry, searing them in olive oil or clarified butter in a hot pan, and then pouring a shallot-white wine sauce on top of them."You can finish with a pat of butter and a little fresh parsley for color. Whether you're using sea scallops or bay scallops, "they'll be delicious," he said.
• Colossal Gulf shrimp at $14.98 a pound (to be shelled and deveined at home) are scrumptious sauteed in clarified butter for two to three minutes per side then served with a sauce of sauteed minced garlic, white wine and butter, Mr. McNally said. But, a nod to the pocketbook can be made by purchasing tiger or white shrimp at a cost of about $9.98 per pound. Known as easy-peels (the shell is on but can be easily pulled off and the shrimp already is deveined,) they take about 90 seconds per side to cook and can be served with the same sauce. The look is not as impressive as with the larger jumbo or colossal shrimp, but the taste is comparable, Mr. McNally said.
• Fresh ahi tuna at $21.98 per pound is luscious served medium-rare by searing in a pan with clarified butter after patting the fish dry. With a steak an inch-and-a-quarter in thickness, it'll take three to four minutes per side. But, if that price is too dear, you can opt for frozen ahi tuna at $10.98 a pound. Thaw overnight in the fridge and it's ready to go for dinner. Mr. McNally acknowledges the loss of some of that fresh-from-the-sea flavor but, again, deems it a reasonable compromise. The same kind of compromise can be had with cod: instead of buying fresh Atlantic cod at $10.98 a pound, you can get frozen Pacific cod at $4.98 a pound. Mr. McNally recommends baking uncovered in a pan with a few tablespoons of drawn butter and a couple of drops of water to create steam. After laying the cod in the pan and curling the tail to tuck underneath the thicker part of the fillet, sprinkle it with fresh bread crumbs, salt, pepper and parsley. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
Karen Kane: email@example.com or 724-772-9180.
Pan-Seared Shrimp With Sherry Vinegar Reduction
The glaze of the sherry vinegar was perfect with the sweet shrimp, which I served with Parmesan polenta.
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 cup sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 pound easy-peel shrimp
Black pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add shallots and saute until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Pour sherry vinegar into a separate frying pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and stir in brown sugar and shallots. Simmer until the liquid has thickened and reduced to 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup. When finished, the sauce will be dark and syrupy. Set aside.
In a large nonstick frying pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil on high heat. Season shrimp with salt and pepper, and add to pan. Reduce the heat to medium-high. Sear until brown on both sides, about a minute per side.
Place shrimp on the dinner plates and drizzle the gently reheated sauce over the shrimp.
Serves 4 to 6.
— Adapted from "Fish Market" by Kathy Hunt (Running Press Book Publishers; 2013)
Paprika Pacific Cod
It’s not fancy but flavorful and just plain good. I served the cod with fried rosemary-topped potatoes and green beans cooked in chicken stock with minced shallot.
2 large Pacific cod fillets, nearly 1 pound (you can also use orange roughy, catfish or tilapia)
Sea salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease the bottom of a medium baking dish sprayed with cooking spray.
Season both sides of the fillets with salt and pepper, and place them in the baking dish. Pour lemon juice over the fillets.
In a small bowl, stir together the paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. Sprinkle the seasoning over the fillets and then dot the fillets with butter.
Bake, uncovered, until the fish becomes firm and can be flaked with a fork, 12 to 15 minutes.
— "Fish Market" by Kathy Hunt (Running Press Book Publishers; 2013)
Seared Scallops With Asparagus and Peas in Lemon Sauce
It’s beautiful on the plate, tasty, low in calories, quick to prepare and comparatively inexpensive. I could eat this every week.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1½ pounds bay scallops (about 12)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/2 pound large asparagus spears, trimmed and cut on the diagonal, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup white wine
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup frozen petite green peas, thawed
Heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until butter melts.
Pat scallops really dry; then sprinkle with pepper and salt. (Be warned, it’s hard to get a sear unless the scallops are dry.) Add scallops to pan and “flash cook” for a little less than a minute on each side.
Add shallots to pan and saute 1 minute.
Add asparagus, wine, lemon rind, lemon juice and remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Saute 1 minute.
Add peas. Cook 1 minute or until asparagus is crisp-tender. Spoon vegetable mixture into bowls or onto plates and top with scallops.
— Adapted from “Dinner A.S.A.P. 150 Recipes Made As Simple As Possible" by the editors of Cooking Light (Time Inc. Books; 2016)