We get it. Fish may look harmless enough lying there all dead in the seafood case, but buying and cooking the slippery little guys can be a daunting prospect for anyone. Enter Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (above left and right, respectively), the chefs and co-owners of the fantastic L.A. restaurants Animal and Son of a Gun, the latter of which just so happens to specialize in fish. Consider them your guides, here to teach you all you need to know from buying to cooking the stuff. The real stuff, not the fried-into-a-stick stuff.
How to Shop
Jon says: If you're at the fish counter and you get overwhelmed, go with something that you order at restaurants and like. A lot of what's available and good has to do with seasonality, so don't be afraid to search what's in season on the internet. Stay away from strong-smelling fish, like farm-raised salmon. The last thing I want to do when I'm cooking for a girl is bring home fish that's going to make the house smell.
Vinny says: At home, I like to cook black cod or grouper, because they have a little more fat content and they're more forgiving if you overcook them for a minute or two. And I like trout or catfish, because they're a thin filet and cook quickly. I'm a big proponent of people eating fish that tastes like fish, things that are more sustainable and abundant like sardines, squid, mackerel.
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How to Know It's Fresh
Jon says: Ask the guy at the fish counter how old it is, when they got it in. I ask them to pass me a piece and smell it. Smell is a good sense. If it has a fishy odor, it probably isn't that fresh. Really fresh fish should smell like the ocean. If it's white-flesh fish (cod, bass, trout) it should be white, and if it's a whole fish, the gills should be pink and wet, and the eyes shouldn't be cloudy.
Why You Should Get Wild
Vinny says: For me, if it's between farm-raised or wild fish, I'd go wild every time. Even if it's been previously frozen, that's okay. Your flavor is going to be better, and it's cleaner, safer, better-tasting, and better for you.
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The Tools You Need
Jon says: Don't think that you need all kinds of special equipment to cook fish well. All you really need is a sauté pan that's oven-safe. I love cast-iron, but anything that can go in the oven works. You also need some kind of spatula, and it should be heat-safe. A fish spatula or an offset spatula is best, because moving fish around is a delicate thing, but any spatula will do.
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Vinny says: Keep in mind, as a general rule of thumb, that most fish takes between 4 and 8 minutes to cook, whether you're pan-searing, broiling, poaching, or whatever. Remember that it's fragile, so you can't treat it like a steak and use tongs to flip it. Fish falls apart easily, so once you put it in the pan, don't mess with it. Make sure you have everything else for your dinner ready to go before you cook the fish, because it goes fast and you don't want to let it sit around while you get everything else ready.
How You Know It's Done
Jon says: For a home cook, a thermometer is the best way to go. Most fish is done when it reaches 140 degrees. We teach our line cooks to use a metal skewer, which you put in the fish and then hold up to your lip. If the temperature feels warmer than your body temperature, it means it's done.
Vinny says: Another way to know is checking the firmness. When you pick up a piece of raw fish, try to notice how it feels. Once cooked, it should feel firmer than when you put it in the pan. Look at the clock, too, and remember that 4 to 8 minutes is a good time window for cooking most fish.
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The Technique: Broiling
Jon says: I think for the home cook, broiling is the easiest way to go. Put your fish in an oven-safe pan lined with aluminum foil. Season it with salt and pepper, dab some butter or oil on top, and put it under the broiler until it turns firm and opaque and hits 140 degrees. When it comes out, squirt some lemon on it, and it's ready to go. The trick is to not overcook it, which is where a lot of people go wrong.
The Technique: Pan-Searing
Vinny says: Sautéing, or pan-searing, is the most common way to cook fish. Put a generous amount of olive oil, clarified butter, or grapeseed oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and let it heat up until the oil has a sheen to it. Pat your fish dry, season it with salt and pepper, and you can even dust the fish with flour or cornmeal if you want, to add another element of texture. If the fish has skin on it, score the skin lightly with a sharp knife, and place it into the pan skin-side down. We put a cold pan or other type of weight on top of the fish to help press it down onto the hot pan and get really crispy skin. After about three minutes, it's time to think about flipping it. Put your spatula under the fish gently and flip it. If it's sticking a bit, a gentle shake of the pan should help it release. Once you've flipped it, start basting the fish with the oil in the pan, just spooning the oil over the top of the fish. This will help it cook evenly. Basting is something that all professional fish cooks do, and it makes a huge difference.
The Technique: Poaching
Vinny says: Not a lot of people poach fish at home, but it's something that everyone should try. There are no fats or oils involved, so it's not at all messy, and it's very healthy. But it takes practice. It's a great way to cook salmon. Put the fish in a pan and pour in a poaching liquid until it reaches 3/4 of the way up the fish. You can poach fish in white wine with some dill and chopped shallots, or in a tomato-based sauce. Just not water - it needs to be a flavorful liquid. Bring the liquid to a simmer and let the fish cook for about 6 to 7 minutes total. Flip the fish over with a spoon halfway through.
Consider the Sardine
Vinny says: One fish I really love that people don't cook a lot is sardines. They're affordable and sustainable and available fresh in a lot of supermarkets. My favorite way to cook them is on the grill. Take the scales off and the guts out, and hit them with a little oil and salt. Get the grill whippin' hot and give them about 2 minutes a side. You can serve them with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon, but they also stand up to some pretty bold flavors. For instance, you can try a chimichurri.
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