by Prof. Steve Holzinger
Ask anyone, which is better, fresh or frozen seafood, and no one will even blink an eye. "Fresh is better," they will all tell you. I'm not sure this is always so. Just a little while ago I was chatting with Ed Brown, chef of The SeaGrill in Rockefeller Center, and author of The Modern Seafood Cook. Ed only uses fresh fish in his restaurant, and he uses fish from all over the world. "I wish they gave frequent flyer miles for Fed Ex'ing fish," he said. "I could fly free anywhere in the world." Air freighting fish can add up to a dollar a pound to the cost. This puts the cost of much fresh fish in the Filet Mignon class. Using fresh fish from anywhere but a market close to where it was caught adds expense and quality problems.
I am lucky. I live five minutes away from the town of Freeport, Long Island, a primary market for fresh fish, where you can buy right off the boat or direct from wholesalers who have very busy retail shops. A few simple ideas let me buy fish as good as Chef Ed Brown gets, and a lot cheaper.
When you buy fresh fish, and pay the price for it, do you know how fresh the fish you are paying a premium for is? Certainly, if you buy round fish, that is fish just as they come out of the water, head and guts in, scales on, it is easy to tell. A bright bulging eye with a clear convex lens, a shiny slippery natural coat, freedom from any odor except a briny or fresh cucumber light aroma (never any trace of ammonia), firm (for the species) flesh, and tight adhering scales are all good ways to tell.
However, steaked or filleted, can you tell? Yes, there is a glossy firm look, whose absence can be detected, but sometimes a little spray with fresh water can replace it for a little while. I was looking in the fish case of my local supermarket today, and it only took one glance to tell that the cod fillet was previously frozen and thawed, possibly more than once. It was dull, lifeless, and drab looking! Aroma is important, and I do ask my retail fisherman to let me smell the fish before I buy it if there is any doubt, but even this can be temporarily refreshed with a vinegar and water bath. In the final analysis, you must find a good fishmonger who is very busy, and develop a good customer relationship.
How fresh is fresh? Fishing boats go out and may spend as much as a week at sea for some species, with early catches being kept iced. Often 48 to 72 hours elapses on the road from supplier to wholesaler to retail store to you.
How fresh is fresh? Fresh means (to me) never frozen, well iced all the way, and not long out of the water, I'd like to say not more than 72 hours max. After three days, or maybe a little more, fresh is loosing its bloom, for me. Fresh means never frozen, or does it? How often do you see fish in the showcase that says, "Previously Frozen," "Refreshed" or "Refreshened"? In my book that means only one thing: Not fresh! Worse, it galls me to see "Thawed for your convenience," which means thawed for their convenience, not yours. Worse still, fish that was previously frozen will be thawed, and nothing is said. That is wrong. It is obvious if you know how to look. In the showcase, tilapia is a tip-off. Fresh tilapia fillet is pink. This is very noticeable. When cooked or frozen the meat turns pure white, as the pink pigment is sensitive to changes in temperature. So if you see white tilapia fillet in the showcase, sold as fresh, it has been previously frozen. When that happens, other fish in the case may also be thawed. When this happens it signals me that something is not right! I have seen fish showcases, attractively arranged in a high end supermarket where most of the fish in the showcase was previously frozen and thawed and was selling as fresh. This lack of honesty spills over into other areas, as when fresh fish starts to reach the end of its fresh cycle, some ill-advised stores may then freeze it and sell it as frozen, giving frozen fish a bad name too.
The slow freezing of fish causes large ice crystals to form, which cut the cell walls and break them. When thawed, the liquid along with the flavor and the texture of the fish is lost. This is one reason why frozen fish has gotten a bad rap.
Modern on-the-boat freezing technology has the fish flash-frozen to minus sixty degrees F, within four hours of capture, on the average. This freezing is so cold and so fast that the ice crystals that form in frozen fish and cause fluid and texture loss never get a chance to happen. A kind of "suspended animation" takes place at this temperature, and when you cook it, the fish tastes, looks and feels like it is just out of the water. This intense freezing stops the freshness clock for the frozen fish, and captures the moment of prime quality, faithfully keeping the excellent flavor, texture and color of the fresh fish.
That really brings me to the main point that I want you to understand. "The real issue is quality. We should be talking about quality seafood and safe seafood and product forms that are user friendly." ** In the past, frozen seafood technology, packaging and freezing in general, was not of high quality. Frozen seafood was treated as a bulk commodity, and as a poor relative in the retail markets. This is no longer the case. High quality boat-frozen seafood in modern protective packaging can be every bit as satisfying and nutritious as fresh.
As the chef of a fish importer, I have taken quality frozen seafood to the most discriminating buyers from major retail chains, and cooked it from frozen right in front of them, with no special tricks or chef magic! All I am ever allowed to use is a little butter, salt and pepper, and some fresh lemon, and I broil, bake, poach, sauté, or fry it according to the kind and cut of fish. I only have one trick, and it is one I will tell you gladly. I don't thaw the fish, I cook it from frozen. All it takes is a little more time and a somewhat lower heat. It is a bit more tricky to tell when it is done, but I'll tell you the truth. When I am facing an important buyer, I cheat a little. I turn the fish over on the bottom side that it will sit on and not show, and with the tip of a sharp knife, I investigate the center of the fish, along a seam or muscle line. Properly cooked fish is glossy and opaque. Underdone it is slightly darker than the rest at the center and somewhat more transparent ... translucent is perhaps a better word. If it is overdone, it looses its glossiness, and becomes flat and dully opaque. Fresh or frozen, it is the same, and by cheating a little, I send it out perfectly cooked. You can too.
I agree with Ed Brown about tuna. Leave it a little rare in the center. Actually, I prefer mine raw, I think it is a shame to cook good tuna, when you can have it as sushi or sashimi! Did you know that in Japan, much of the very expensive Big Eye Tuna for Sushi is imported frozen, by preference? Cousin Mark and I are often conflicted about our tuna, because in the summertime, my friend Jack catches Yellowfin tuna, and I get it while the rigor mortis is still evident, the most certain sign of freshness. We often split the difference, and eat half of it raw, with wasabi and gari (green horseradish and pickled ginger). I will give you my Cousin Mark's recipe for broiled Tuna with Three Mustards. Jack likes his smoked, and we often have a Smoked Tuna Salad Nicoise as a luncheon buffet platter. If you don't have a smoker, it works just as well with grilled tuna... well, almost as well.
Cooking frozen fish for great taste is easy! For broiling, a little further from the fire, lift the grill or if you can, lower the flame or let the coals get grayer. Most people use charcoal too soon anyway. The coals should be ash-coated. When I worked a fish grill in a restaurant, I would mark the fish on the grill to get those nice criss-cross grill marks, color it well and then finish it on a heavy aluminum plate in the top of the broiler or oven. If you have a double grill, just grill for color and markings, and then move it over to the side that's not on, and close the cover to finish. This is a good technique to use when you have a large number of people to serve at once.
For baking frozen fish, double the suggested cooking time for fresh, but lower the oven temperature a little. I sometimes don't lower the oven temp, but do take the extra time. This is when I want good color on the fish. I check frequently, once the baked fish starts looking good. I find that for poaching, I must allow a little more time, and I do not increase heat over the simmer. For sautéing, when the fish is well colored, and if it is thick enough so that the center is not done, I pop it in a medium hot oven to finish. This method, and baking, are well suited to serving large quantities of fish as you can pan up ahead.
For very thin frozen fillet, like yellowfin sole, I thaw it in cold water for 15 minutes or less, which is just enough to get it soft enough on the outside to dredge in flour. Thin fillet like this needs no oven time, just a bit extra in the pan. As a matter of fact, if for some reason you want to broil a thin fish, like flounder or sole, it will be at its best if frozen when you broil it. That way the center will not overcook while you are getting good color on the outside. For deep frying, you should not overload the fryer, and use thin fish that are most suitable for deep frying. These simple modifications will give you great taste and texture, and save you money so you can eat fish more often. Remember to cheat like I do, to make sure the fish is properly cooked at the center, glossy white and shiny, and a little under done for tuna.
Just a few tips for buying frozen seafood. Good fish is solidly frozen, glossy. If the fish has a brown bloodline, like swordfish, it should be clear and well defined, not blurry. There should be no signs of partial thawing and refreezing, white or dark spots, papery edges or discoloration. The packaging should be tight, air and moisture proof, with no tears of punctures, and there should be no ice or ice crystals showing. Make sure that the fish you select is stacked below the load line of a horizontal freezer case. If there is a visible temperature gage, it should indicate below zero. The packaging should be clean with no staining or smell. Anytime you get frozen fish that is at all questionable, put it, its wrappings and the sales receipt back in your freezer, and take it back. There should be NO hassle, supermarkets get a return allowance from the manufacturers built into the price of the fish they buy. There is no reason you should ever be stuck with the cost of a less than perfect piece of frozen fish. Think of it this way... the return allowance that the market gets on its frozen fish is your guarantee of perfect quality every time.
Recommended Reading: Simply Seafood, the Magazine of Fish and Shellfish Made Easy
The Modern Seafood Cook, by Edward Brown and Arthur Boehm, Clarkson Potter/Publishers NY 1995, page 20
© 1996, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.
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