Show That Fish Who’s Boss

Don’t be afraid of cooking fish – here’s a guide to help calm your fearsFear of FishThere is such a thing as a fear of fish. It even has a name – ichthyophobia.

By Rosanne Dunkelberger

OK, most folks aren’t going to have palpitations, rapid heartbeats or overall feelings of dread when faced with the prospect of cooking a fish fillet. But some of us would rather stay in our “happy place” with chicken and beef than to take a chance on an unfamiliar fish as an entrée.

But, hey, you live in Florida, a state with 2,276 miles of coastline, practically surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The health benefits of eating fish are well documented, and the American Heart Association is practically begging us to eat two servings a week.

If not here, where? If not now, when? Do it. Feel the fear, and cook fish anyway.

Need some inspiration? The health benefits of eating fish – high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids – are proven, and significant. The Harvard School of Public Health says fish consumption lowers the risk of death from heart disease by 36 percent and that fish or fish oil can reduce total mortality by 17 percent. Fish also is likely to improve early brain development in infants and young children, and they can get these benefits from pregnant or nursing mothers (although, because of concerns about mercury, these groups should avoid four species of larger predatory fish – tilefish, king mackerel, shark and swordfish).

“A lot of people – if they eat fish, they get it at a restaurant,” says Barbera Turnbull, a development representative for Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “They are not comfortable cooking fish. They don’t know how much to buy or how long to cook it.”

And when a seafood dinner for four can mean a $20 or $25 investment in the main ingredient, many cooks opt for the tried-and-true steak on the grill rather than attempting something new.

“Practice really makes perfect” when it comes to cooking fish, said Justin Timineri, executive chef for the state’s agriculture and consumer-services department. Cooking fish is a skill that is “easily mastered,” he added.

Heed Timineri’s words, for he is not only Florida’s “culinary ambassador,” he also has been crowned the “King of Seafood” after winning the Great American Seafood Cook-Off last year in New Orleans. His winning recipe was Crispy Pan Seared Snapper with Coconut Cream, but apprehensive cooks can have great success starting out with more simple fare.

A simple technique is to cut a fish fillet thin and cook it in a frying pan in olive oil on the stovetop.

“Olive oil, not butter,” Timineri admonished. “If you have a really healthy piece of fish, you don’t want to put a whole lot of butter on it.” Some dry seasonings or fresh herbs would make a nice addition, but “you really want to do less for it,” he said. “The subtle flavors of the fish are what you want to enjoy.”

Matt McCreless agrees. He is the manager of Southern Seafood, perennial winner of the “Best Seafood Market” category in Tallahassee Magazine’s “Best Of” readers poll.

A little garlic salt or lemon pepper usually will do the trick.

“If the fish is good, then you don’t really need to do a whole lot to it,” McCreless said.

While most of his customers are loyal repeaters, McCreless says he and his staff are happy to give advice to novices and prepare fillets that are skinless, boneless, perfectly portioned and ready to cook.

“We’re not chefs, but we can direct people into easy ways to prepare things, and we do offer recipe ideas,” he said. “We usually lead them toward mild fish because we don’t want their first experience to be fish that is strong in flavor, and then we try to figure out how they like to prepare things – fried, grilled or broiled – (because) there are certain fish that are better in each one of those procedures.”

“We do benefit from being in this region,” McCreless said. “We have available to us snapper, grouper, flounders, mahi, swordfish, amberjack, cobia, mackerels, trout, mullet, crab, bay scallop and shrimp.”

With the advent of express shipping, it also is possible to buy fish from other waters.

“Whatever’s fresh and in season, we try to keep that,” McCreless said.

A year-round favorite is the healthful and highly recommended salmon, which can be farm-raised or from the Pacific waters. One of the most reasonably priced fish, it is quite possible to accrue the health benefits of eating it without breaking the budget.

“You don’t have to eat a lot of it,” McCreless said. “They suggest a couple of four-ounce portions. For four bucks a week, you can eat enough salmon to (get) the omega-3s that you need and the good fat they want you to have.”

Handling and storing fish is a little bit different than other meats. It is best when kept in the low 30 degrees, according to McCreless. Most refrigerators are a bit warmer than that, so it is a good practice to put the fish on ice before putting it in the fridge.

“We like to encourage people to cook it within the next day or two,” McCreless said. “I always tell people it’s not like wine – (fish) doesn’t get better with time. If they’re not going to (cook it, then) put it in the freezer for a short period of time and you won’t know the difference.”

In addition, Timineri reminds us, there are benefits that go well beyond good health.

“Families preparing dinner together – it’s a very real and good message,” he said. There’s great value in “preparing food together, talking about the triumphs and troubles of the day. There’s nothing healthier than fish. Add some good local and regional vegetables and you’re set.”

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