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Chefs are nosy; you should be, too

Chefs are nosy; you should be, too

January 29, 2016 // by Kathy Collins

Over the years, the question people have asked me the most is “what do you like to cook?” My answer is always fish. I love its simplicity, the variety, the flavors, and the speed at which it cooks. This often turns into a conversation about how to tell if a fish is fresh.

Professionals in the food industry look for specific signs when choosing fish:

  • It should have shiny skin.
  • The eyes should be bright and clear and not sunken in the head.
  • The flesh should be firm and spring back at your touch with the scales tightly adhered to it.

But what if it's not a whole fish? Many of our customers purchase fish for home cooking that has already been filleted, and the skin, eyes, and scales are long gone.

First, find a reputable supplier. Jacksonville has several great fishmongers who won't steer you wrong. Second, smell it. Saltwater fish should smell like the ocean, kind of briny and beachy. Freshwater fish should smell clean and icy, like a whitewater rafting trip. The point: fish should not smell “fishy.” It's true that some fish have stronger flavors than others, such as tuna and salmon, so the smell will be different, but I wouldn't describe it as fishy. Does the beach smell fishy? I don't think so, but it definitely has an aroma to it.

Parrot fish b
NOLA MOCA Chef Kathy Collins enjoyed this parrot fish dinner at a Dominican Republic restaurant. Image courtesy of Kathy Collins.

While on a recent vacation in the Dominican Republic, I was thrown for a loop with a fish I hadn't eaten before. One of the most popular local species is parrot fish. I visited a waterfront restaurant, and the staff all spoke Spanish. We had some trouble communicating about whether the fish was a filet or whole and how large it was, so the server brought several out for me to see. I was not impressed. They were whole fish, but the skin was sloughing off, the eyes were sunken-nothing I would ever want to show a customer. But they smelled clean. This was the only reason I didn't change my mind and order something else, even though I questioned my decision.

When the dish came out, it was beautiful and smelled wonderful: a whole fried fish, black beans and rice, plantains, some sautéed peppers. It was delicious and tasted fresh. So, even though the fish failed my visual checklist, it passed the smell test, and it turned out to be great.

So when it comes to fish, or any food, trust your nose. If you ask to smell one of the filets at your local grocery store, and they refuse or try to tell you not to worry, change your dinner plans. Is this fish fresh? Sniff it. Has this been in my refrigerator too long? Put your nose in it. It won't let you down.

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