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Fish with finesse: Prep seafood at home to net top-notch results

| Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

They risk life and limb in the arctic, treacherous waters of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The fearless, manly men wrangle massive crab pots from angry seas under dangerous conditions, occasionally losing a finger or even a shipmate to the fishing lines. They leave their families for weeks, endure long hours of back-breaking labor, little rest and no guarantee of a big payoff at the end of their journeys. They willingly meet the hazards and hardships of a job that maintains a fatality rate 26 times higher than that of any other in the United States.

And, how do we show our appreciation for their drudgery and sacrifice• We load the kids in the van, fight the weekend mall traffic, wait in line for 40 minutes and drop 20 bucks a head for tasty, little cheddar biscuits and overcooked seafood.

Alaskan crab fisherman reeled in 14 million pounds of king crab and 44 million pounds of snow crab last year. Both typically are cooked and blast-frozen within a few hours of the crab boat's return to the docks. This process preserves the freshness and sweet, delicate taste that makes this crustacean such a popular mealtime choice.

It also means that you can skip the family field trip to the big seafood chain restaurant. Preparing the same meal in your home kitchen will net you a lower cost and a more delicious finished product. All you have to do is allow the crab legs to defrost in the refrigerator overnight, melt some butter, set the table and have at it. It's that simple. And, the simplest approach usually is the best when cooking seafood. You don't need special tools or skills, just a willingness to learn a few new tricks and access to a seafood market or grocery store.

According to the USDA, the average American eats 16.1 pounds of seafood each year. That's more than 5 billion pounds. If that average American happens to live in Western Pennsylvania, I'd wager that two-thirds of the 16 pounds is consumed during the Lenten season in the form of colossal, delicious, deep-fried cod sandwiches. Deep-frying at home can be a messy, but tasty, endeavor. However, the abundance of volunteer-fire department and church-basement fish fries at this time of year makes this a better takeout option.

But, a good piece of cod can be enjoyed in many forms. And, because I seem constantly to be rushing to get through my day, like everyone else I know, I favor basic sauces and seasonings and uncomplicated preparation methods such as pan-frying and baking when I cook seafood at home.

A list of the most popular seafood in this country includes salmon, tuna and cod. These are simple to prepare. Many recipes that call for broiling, baking, poaching, steaming or sauteing are interchangeable among these types of seafood. But buying good seafood might be more daunting than preparing it.

Many large fishing vessels process their catches right on board. Fish are caught, cleaned, filleted and flash-frozen at sea. Buying frozen fish that is processed this way often is better that buying the "fresh" from your grocer's seafood case.

When shopping for frozen fish, look for "Frozen at Sea" or "FAS" on the label. And, just like crab legs, allow it to defrost in your refrigerator for 24 hours before you plan to cook it. Meatier fillets like salmon, cod and tuna hold up well throughout the freezing and defrosting process. Avoid buying frozen fish that appears to have white spots from freezer burn. It should be as hard as a rock, indicating that it has remained frozen since it was caught and processed.

Buying fresh fish requires a little more vigilance. If you buy whole fish, follow these steps. Sniff the gills. There should be no fish smell. A faint smell of salt water is good. Pry open the gills to make sure they're pinkish-red in color. Avoid fish that have turned brown inside the gills. Poke the skin. It should be firm. The eyeballs should be clear and the scales shiny.

When you're buying fillets, the flesh should be vibrant-looking and not dull or graying. If the fillet still has skin, it should be shiny. There should be no detectable odor. All fish and seafood should have a neutral smell. If there's liquid on the flesh, it should be clear and not milky. If you're allowed to handle the fish, make sure the flesh is resilient to the touch. In all cases, look for fish and seafood that has been caught in the United States, New Zealand, Iceland and Canada, because these countries use the most sustainable fishing-management practices.

Be aware that "Sushi-grade and Sashimi-grade" are marketing terms and not regulated classifications in regard to the quality of fish you're purchasing. Sashimi grade is supposed to refer to fish that is caught on a hand line, killed and placed on ice immediately. But, again, these "grades" are not regulated by the FDA.

The big concern, if you want a raw- or rare-fish experience at home, is about the presence of harmful bacteria in the fish. FDA guidelines recommend freezing fish at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 Celsius) or below for 7 days total, or freezing at minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 35 Celsius) or lower for at least 24 hours to sufficiently kill harmful Before you spend $24.99 per pound for fillets, ask where they're from, how they were processed and stored, when the store received them and how long they have been in the case. Unless the fillets were shipped overnight from the docks or is FAS fish that has been defrosted in the past 24 to 48 hours for display in the case, don't waste your money. Buy FAS fish, and defrost it at home.

Watch grocery-store sale flyers for discounts on your favorite seafood items, and give them a try at home. Have the kids make a salad, throw some baked potatoes in the oven and try a seafood fest-theme family night. You won't be driving, so have a second glass of wine and save the stress and the expense for another time.

If it makes the transition from chain restaurant to home cooking easier, put an uncomfortable wooden bench inside your front door, and make the kids wait there for 20 minutes while you enjoy your wine and put the finishing touches on dinner. And, don't forget to present a bill to them, tip included, at the end of the meal.

Mix-and-match sauces and seasonings

For salmon, cod, tuna, grouper, tilapia and other similar types of fish fillets, try one of the following quick and easy preparations. These cooking times apply to 4- to 6-ounce fish fillets. Try favorite flavor combinations with different varieties of fish and create your own recipes. Use the Internet to find new ideas and to confirm cooking times. My rule of thumb with Internet cooking tips and recipes is to find identical information from three cooking websites that I trust before I try to use the information for practical purposes.

Dry rub: Liberally sprinkle your favorite seafood seasoning on both sides of the fish fillets and rub it into the flesh. If there's skin on one side, you don't need to season it. Old Bay, Paul Prudhomme's , McCormick's and Captain Jack's are among the thousands of dry-seasoning options.

Citrus and herb: Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on the fillets and rub it into the flesh. Squeeze the juice from a wedge of lemon, lime or orange onto each of the fillets. Add a sprinkle of dried dill weed or basil and a drizzle of olive oil on top. If fresh herbs are available, mix the juice of one orange, lemon or lime with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a few sprigs of fresh dill or parsley or basil and mint into a gallon-size zippered bag. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the fillets, add them to the bag, seal it tightly and lay them flat to marinade in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to 2 hours.

To pan fry: Heat 2 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet on medium high. When the oil is hot, place the fillets in the pan and cook for 4 minutes per side, or until they reach the desired level of doneness. Touch the center of the fillets; the firmer they become, the more well done they are. If they're completely firm in the center, they're done.

To bake: For fillets this size, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Cook the fillets for 10 to 15 minutes. You can check visually for doneness or use a thermometer. The FDA recommends 145 degrees.

To broil: In most cases, broil the fish about 4 inches from the flame until the sauce or fish starts to brown and the fish can be flaked easily with a fork. Depending on the temperature of the broiler, this will take only a few minutes, so keep a close eye on your fish.

Olga Watkins is the head chef at Hollywood Gardens in Rochester, Pa., and leader of the Olga Watkins Band.

Crab Legs

When selecting crab legs, avoid a product that has signs of freezer burns or discoloration. You won't need claw crackers for properly cooked snow-crab legs. You should be able to snap them in half easily with your hands. You can dig the tiny bits of meat out of the joints with a seafood fork or the end of a skewer.

Let them defrost fully in the refrigerator. That is the key to good crab legs.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, throw a little salt or Old Bay seasoning in the pot and submerge the snow-crab legs for no more than 1 minute. For king-crab legs, 2 minutes will do the trick. Remove them from the boiling water, drain and serve immediately.

Or fire up the grill, turn it to high heat and cook the crab legs for approximately 1 minute per side for snow crab and 2 minutes per side for king crab. These cooking times apply to crab legs that have been completely defrosted.

For king crab and other large crab varieties, if you don't have claw crackers and don't want to buy them, needle-nose pliers or nutcrackers will work. Just make sure to clean those utensils thoroughly before using them on food. If you're preparing this feast for a group, a layer of old newspaper on the table and a bucket in the center for discarded shells will make cleanup easier.

Crab butter: Melt 1/3 to 1/2 stick of butter per person for dipping. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime and a dash of hot pepper sauce to the melted butter to balance the rich flavors of the butter and crab.

Cheddar Biscuits

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons white or raw sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 stick of unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup buttermilk

For seasoned biscuits:

Add the following to this recipe or your favorite drop-biscuit mix for seasoned cheddar biscuits.

  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh chives, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated onion
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable cooking spray

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt and mix. Cut in the butter as you would with pie dough until the pieces of butter and dry ingredients form what looks like crumbs. Then add the buttermilk and stir until combined. Batter can be a little lumpy.

If desired, stir in the cheese, chives and dry seasoning until thoroughly mixed. You can use a standing mixer and a dough hook to mix the batter.

Coat a mini-muffin tin or regular baking sheet with cooking spray. Drop equal amounts, 1/8 cup to 1/4 cup, of batter into the mini-muffin pan, or drop onto the baking sheet.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until raised and golden brown. Use a toothpick to check doneness in the center. Allow to cool for a few minutes, transfer to a lined basket and serve immediately.

Makes 12-15 mini-muffins.

Honey-Orange Salmon

It's nice to have a fish spatula handy when cooking fillets. Fish spatulas are thin and flexible and get under the fillets easily without damaging them. When I've found myself cooking somewhere sans fish spatula, I've used a small cake or pie server. A thin spatula makes this an easier job.

For the marinade:

  • 1 fresh, large navel orange at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1tablespoon vinegar (white, apple cider, malt, white balsamic or rice wine vinegars will all work)
  • 1 cup cooking oil (olive oil, canola, vegetable, etc.), divided

Optional ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon fresh minced or grated gingerroot
  • 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • Fresh chives, for garnish

For the fillets:

  • 4 (4 to 6 ounces each) salmon fillets (Alaskan King, Sockeye, Chum and King Salmon)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To prepare the marinade: Grate about 1 teaspoon of orange zest into a small mixing bowl. Roll the orange on a counter or cutting board under the palm of your hand until it's soft. Cut it in half and squeeze out the juice into the bowl with the zest. Remove seeds from the juice. Add the honey, vinegar and 1/2 cup of oil to the juice and whisk until it is very well blended.

If you want to add the optional ingredients, do so when you add the honey, vinegar and oil.

To prepare the fillets: Sprinkle the salmon fillets with a little salt and pepper, and transfer them to a gallon-size zippered bag. Add the marinade to the bag and seal it tightly. Lay the bag flat to marinate the fillets for 20 to 30 minutes, turning it occasionally.

Heat a 12-inch saute or frying pan with the other 1/2 cup of oil to medium heat. Make sure the pan is hot, then remove the salmon fillets from the marinade and place them, top (the nonskin side of the fillet) down, into the oil.

When all four fillets are in the pan, turn the heat to medium high and leave them alone for about 4 minutes, then check one of the fillets for doneness by lifting it to make sure it has browned or caramelized a little. If not, let the salmon cook for another minute or 2, then turn the fillets over gently.

Add about 1 tablespoon of the marinade from the bag to the top of each fillet, and cover the pan. Keep it covered for about 2 minutes, then remove the cover. Turn the heat to high for the remaining 2 to 4 minutes so the fluid in the pan will reduce and thicken. Remove and plate the salmon fillets. The sauce should or shortly will reduce to a syrup-like consistency. Pour a little sauce from the pan onto each fillet, then garnish and serve.

Generally, you should be able to see how well cooked the fillets are from the outside. Salmon turns from bright pink, orange or red to light pink when it's cooked. If you have an instant-read thermometer, check the temperature at the thickest part of more than one of the fillets. You'll get a more accurate reading by removing them from the heat first.

The FDA recommends an internal temperature of 145 degrees for fish to be free of bacteria. If you're using an FAS (Frozen at Sea) salmon, medium and medium-rare temperatures are safe to eat if this is your preference. The freezing process kills harmful bacteria. If you eat steak medium-rare, try the same with salmon. You can cook it more if you don't like it.

Poached Prosciutto Wrapped Cod

This recipe doesn't work as a meatless Friday option, but you can extend your seafood menu to other days of the week.

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 of one small yellow or white onion, peeled
  • 2 baby carrots or small carrot sticks
  • 2 small celery sticks
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 (6- to 8-ounce) cod loin fillets (loin cuts are more uniform in size)
  • 8 long thin slices of prosciutto (about 1/4 to 1/2 pound)
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 1/2 cups of V8 vegetable juice
  • Fresh basil leaves, for garnish

In a large, deep skillet or stock pot heat the olive oil on medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, carrots and celery to the pan. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper on the vegetables. While they cook and begin to caramelize, grind a light sprinkling of fresh pepper onto the cod fillets.

Wrap two pieces of prosciutto snugly and evenly around the center of each cod fillet, leaving a little cod uncovered at both ends.

When the vegetables start to brown, add the chicken broth and bay leaves to the pan and again add a pinch of salt and a little pepper. Turn the heat to medium high. Bring the chicken broth to a boil for about 10 minutes so it incorporates some of the flavor from the vegetables. After 10 minutes, add the V8 juice and a pinch of salt and a little pepper.

Wait a few minutes until the sauce starts to boil again. Then, use a long spoon or spatula to carefully place the wrapped cod fillets in the boiling liquid. The liquid will have to reach a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a soft boil for about 5 to 8 minutes, or until the cod fillets are bright white and completely cooked. Remove the cod fillets and transfer them to plates or a serving dish.

Maintain the heat at medium high and allow the sauce to reduce while you plate the rest of your dinner. When you're ready to serve, turn the heat off under the sauce, and spoon a little of it over each of fillets. Leave the vegetables and bay leaves in the pan. Garnish with fresh basil leaves, if available. If you want to save leftover sauce, remove the bay leaves and blend the vegetables into the sauce. Seal and store the sauce in the refrigerator for as long as seven days.

Makes 4 servings.

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