While our oceans are nowhere near as bountiful as they once were and catch and release is often the name of the game, there’s not much better than fresh fish fillets. Maybe it’s a macho guy thing that has something to do with eating what we kill, or maybe it is because fresh fish is so delicate and delicious. No matter the circumstance, ensuring the highest quality freshness for any catch destined for the dinner table starts well before the fish is landed.
The Big Chill
If you’re bagging a slammer dolphin or any fish worthy of a gaff shot, aim for the head to avoid damaging edible flesh. Next, cool your catch quickly. Most fish can be put right on ice with no additional steps, however some species—namely tuna, mackerel, bluefish and jack—should be bled prior to meeting their demise. This helps cool the fish from the inside out and is best accomplished immediately after the fish has been landed.
The ideal scenario is a large, well-insulated fishbox or high quality cooler prepped with a slushy mix of saltwater and crushed ice.
For certain species it is also vital you remove the entrails prior to chilling. This is especially true with swordfish, which have a slime coating their entire stomach cavity. By keeping a sharp knife and small scrub brush handy you’ll be able to handle the dirty work quickly and easily so you can get back in the game without further delay.
When it comes to bleeding your fish the process is simple and can be accomplished with a slice to the fish’s gills or alternatively a shallow cut about two inches from the base of the pectoral fin. With every remaining heartbeat, blood will pump from the severed arteries. While it is somewhat gruesome and makes the boat a bloody mess, if you’re striving for five-star cuisine bleeding is a must.
Avoid overcrowding any type of fish in an inexpensive plastic cooler with insufficient ice. The ideal scenario is a large, well-insulated fishbox or high quality cooler prepped with a slushy mix of saltwater and crushed ice. The addition of kosher salt further reduces the temperature of the slush. Submerging your catch in this ice bath ensures firm flesh and fine fillets.
Seasoned salts go to extremes and prepare their cooler in advance by loading it with a few bags of ice 12- to 24-hours before the big day. The extra effort decreases the internal temperature of the cooler so additional ice remains frozen.
Avoid opening coolers and fishbox hatches unless it’s to add more fish or ice. Doing so releases all of the cold air and facilitates the rapid melting of ice.
Other than what you plan on preparing and consuming within a matter of days, filleted fish should be immediately frozen to prevent spoiling. When doing so, remember that freezer burn is the number one cause of blemished fillets. Freezer burn is a condition that occurs when frozen fish has been damaged or destroyed by dehydration and oxidation due to air reaching the food. Ninety-nine percent of the time the cause is poor packaging.
Sadly, many outdoorsmen still believe a ZipLoc is the easiest and most effective way to freeze fish. Unless you are planning on thawing and consuming the fillets within two or three days, this is not the case. For extended storage, vacuum sealing is the best option to protect your valuable assets. Now if you are anything like me, you have burned through at least two or three FoodSavers over the years. These light duty appliances work well, but if you are serious about sealing fish you may want to look into a Weston countertop commercial-grade vacuum sealer. In all honesty, it has been one of the best investments I ever made. Between surplus bait and a ton of fillets, I’ve vacuum sealed hundreds of bags and the machine still operates like new.
Identification is also a good idea. A Sharpie marker on the bag works, but I prefer to label a piece of masking tape with the date and type of fish and adhere it to the bag prior to sealing.
Thawing fish, too, must be done properly to ensure the highest quality. If time permits, allow frozen fish to naturally thaw in a refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours. On short notice a sealed bag of frozen fish can be thawed in a bath of cold water in less than two hours. Whatever you do, avoid thawing fish in the microwave, never thaw fish in scolding hot water and never cook fish that is frozen unless it came out of a Gorton’s box.
Once fully thawed, remove fish from pouch, arrange in single layer and pat dry with a paper towel. Allow fillets to reach room temperature before seasoning and final preparation.
At the fillet table, precision and patience yield the best results. Real seafood aficionados own a serious set of knives and they know how to use them. Specialized blades suited for various purposes help ensure maximum yield. Furthermore, set an example and don’t waste anything. Large grouper and snapper heads are ideal for soups and chowders. Scraps and odd shaped portions of flesh can be bagged separately and used for fish fingers and fillers when preparing fish cakes and similar recipes. With tuna and wahoo, the tender meat close to the bone makes for melt-in-your-mouth sashimi. And of course, we can’t forget about roe. You’d be surprised how many anglers enjoy a sautéed sack with their scrambled eggs.
Think ahead at the fillet table and maximize your catch by utilizing inedible portions of game fish for bait purposes, like dolphin bellies for swordfish strips and tuna scraps cut into neat strips for tempting finicky yellowtail snapper.
A clean workstation with hose, glove and sharpening tool close at hand will ease the fish cleaning process. You should also keep a bucket of slush nearby so fillets can be kept chilled and protected from pesky flies.
With fillets now skinned and trimmed, remove and discard the dark meat commonly referred to as the bloodline. This portion of the fish should not be consumed nor should the fish be prepared with the impurities, as it will degrade its overall texture, aroma and flavor profile. At this point it’s also a good idea to cut fillets into portion size pieces and thoroughly rinse while simultaneously discarding any pin bones that may have been missed during the filleting process.
For best results, prior to packaging arrange portions in a cooler over ice (with the drain hole open) and allow the fish to rest overnight before vacuum sealing. This allows excess moisture time to drain off the fish and ensures the best vacuum seal possible.
Proper chilling, filleting, freezing and thawing procedures all make a big difference in the longevity of freshness, presentation, aroma and flavor of any fish. However, none of that matters very much if you don’t know how to properly prepare your catch to achieve the best tasting results. Different species vary in texture and each must be handled and prepared accordingly. Fresh fish is like a fine cut of steak. Prepared properly and it melts in your mouth. Overdo it and it’s more like chewing on a Goodyear tire.
Certain species—king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, cero mackerel and bluefish—have dark meat that is rich in oil. These are excellent options for smoking or grilling, but should never be deep-fried. A simple rule of thumb is to keep oily fish out of oil.
Favored fish with lean, firm, white flesh include grouper, snook and mutton snapper. These are excellent choices for blackening, broiling, baking, frying or sautéing.
Examples of fish with medium color and a fair amount of oil content include amberjack, dolphin, cobia, tuna, swordfish and wahoo. These are all great cuts for the grill and of course, everyone knows the best way to enjoy fresh tuna is by simply eating it raw. In case you were wondering, sushi is a thin slice of raw fish served over rice. Sashimi is a thicker cut of raw fish served on its own. Fresh tuna, the most commonly consumed raw fish, is the one and only species I will never freeze because no matter how well you preserve and prepare it, thawed tuna is nothing like the real deal.
Living and fishing in Florida, many of us are spoiled and have grown accustomed to tender white flaky fish like redfish, sheepshead, pompano, seabass, flounder, yellowtail snapper, tilefish and seatrout. With a very mild flavor and soft buttery texture, these species are ideal for your favorite lightly fried dishes.
Those who lack experience preparing fresh seafood often make the mistake of overcooking fish, resulting in a dry, tasteless product rather than something moist and tender. Really, average size fillets require only a few minutes of cooking on medium/high heat, even less if portions are exceptionally thin. You must also remember that fish fillets continue to cook once they’ve been removed from the heating element.
The trick to sautéing perfect fish simply requires careful monitoring of the fillets. Like a fine steak, you should only flip the fillet once. You’ll know it’s time to flip when the fish is 75-percent cooked through, which will be apparent by opaque color and flaking around the edges. After flipping count to 30 and remove from heat. Don’t forget to allow the fish to rest for about five minutes before serving.
To maintain maximum crispiness, fried fish should be drained on an open grate like an oven rack rather than a bed of paper towels.
Grilled Dolphin Sandwich
with Puttanesca Salsa
Ingredients (Serves Four)
4 (6 oz.) dolphin fillets, rinsed and patted dry
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Italian bread (sliced)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 cups loosely packed arugula leaves, rinsed and dried
Preheat grill to medium/high heat. Lightly brush fish with olive oil and season with kosher salt and black pepper. Grill fillets over direct heat until firm and opaque, about four minutes per side. Fish should flake but remain moist. Remove fish and cover with foil. Brush bread lightly with olive oil and grill until slightly toasted. Combine mayonnaise and Dijon mustard and spread mixture on slices of toasted bread. Top with arugula, fish fillet and scoop of puttanesca salsa. Enjoy!
Ingredients for the Puttanesca Salsa (Serves Four)
12 pitted kalamata olives
4 tomatoes, quartered & seeded
1/2 medium red onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh black pepper
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons oregano, minced
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 tablespoon capers, chopped
Cover olives with cool water and let stand 30 minutes. Heat grill to medium/high. Brush tomatoes and red onion with olive oil. Grill until slightly charred and softened. Immediately chop tomatoes and onion, and toss with garlic while still hot. Season with salt & pepper and cool to room temperature. Mix together vinegar and anchovy paste. Slowly add remaining olive oil, whisking constantly until slightly thickened. Drain and chop olives. Combine chopped tomatoes and onion with olives, capers and oregano. Drizzle vinaigrette over vegetables and toss gently to coat.
Seared Drum with Fried Avocado
Ingredients (Serves Four)
Fresh black drum (substitute with any white, meaty fillet)
Organic greens (substitute with leaf lettuce)
1 stalk celery, shaved
1 stalk fennel, shaved
8 oz. heirloom tomato, halved
1 cup red lentils
8 oz. zucchini, diced
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
4 oz. butter
Salt & Pepper
Organic Greens: Toss mixed greens with shaved fennel, shaved celery, and halved heirloom tomatoes. For dressing, combine 1/2 cup olive oil, zest from two lemons, juice from one lemon and two tarragon sprigs. Mix well.
Lentil Slaw: Boil 1 cup red lentils in vegetable stock until tender. Drain and mix with diced zucchini, juice from one lemon, fresh parsley, salt & pepper to taste.
Fish: Season both sides of fillets. Pan sear in olive oil, adding one tablespoon butter, 1/2 cup vegetable stock and a tablespoon of fresh chopped parsley.
Fried Avocado: Peel and cut avocado into even chunks. Coat in 50/50 mix of flour/cornmeal, and pan fry to a light golden brown.
These are just two of our favorite recipes. Visit fsfmag.com/recipes for more!