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How to Buy Fresh Fish

Tre Wilcox, one of our favorite Top Chef stars (and self-professed seafood addict), reveals his secrets for buying, storing, and preparing fish.

Seafood is my thing. I fell in love with it when I became a sous chef at Abacus restaurant in Dallas, Texas, and started ordering all of the fish and seafood for the restaurant. There’s so much variety, so it’s always exciting and challenging to serve. Here are some tricks I’ve learned along the way about buying and preparing it:

How to Buy Fish
Choose fillets based on what's fresh. the best fish is whatever catch came in that day.

How Much to Buy
Try to get four to six ounces or 1/4 to 1/3 pound of fish per person for an entrée. For an appetizer portion, you only need two or three ounces per person.

What to Know
Ask your fishmonger, “When did that fish come in?” If it’s more than one to two days ago, take a pass on it and ask, “What’s fresh? What looks good today?” Direct questions should get straight answers.

What to Look for
Fish and seafood should be laid out so one side of the fish is always in contact with ice. Don’t trust filets or steaks that are stacked on top of each other. They’ll serve you from the top of the pile, and those fish aren’t in contact with ice.

The Look
Whole fresh fish is bright and clean—it should look like it was just pulled out of the water. The skin is glossy and, if you can touch it, kind of slimy. The scales are tight against the body. The eyes are clear; the gills, ruby red. Choose filets or steaks that are glistening (like they’re wet with oil) and have a sharp, clear color to the flesh.

The Smell
Take three slow, deep sniffs of any fish or seafood you buy. Your nose is your biggest ally when picking fresh fish because most stores won’t let you touch it. But it’s fair to ask the person at the counter to hold out a filet for you to smell. Ocean fish smell briny, like cold saltwater. Fresh water gives lake or river fish a stronger odor, but all fish and seafood should smell clean...not fishy. So go ahead, inhal.

When to Buy
Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are the best days to buy fish because stores typically get deliveries on these days; they stock up for the weekend. The fish you buy on Monday is on sale for a reason -- it’s been sitting there for a few days.

When to Cook
Cook fish the day of, or within a day or two, of buying it. Most fish is previously frozen and has already been thawed once, which drains a lot of the natural water in the fish. Re-freezing and thawing dries out the fish even more.


Preparing Shellfish
Shellfish must be alive when you cook it. Only buy fresh mussels, clams, and oysters if the shells are closed. If the shell is slightly open, it should close when you tap it, which means it’s still alive. Throw away any that stay open, and don’t eat any that aren’t open after cooking.

Cooking Salmon
Salmon is the gateway fish. If you’ve never cooked fish before, salmon is the one to start with. It’s easy to cook, it tastes great, and stores sell a lot of it, which means it’s usually fresh. Once you get salmon down, you’ll be more comfortable trying other fish and seafood.

Tips for Storage
Lay wrapped fish on top of frozen ice packs in a bowl, or bury it in ice in a sieve/colander set over a tray to catch water from the melting ice. Store this setup in the back (coldest) part of the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook.

Fish Pairings

Certain flavors work best with certain fish based on type and texture of the fish.

Wild Salmon:
Flavor - Full, oily
Pairs with - Soy-ginger, peppercorns, citrus, dill

Flavor - Full, rich
Pairs with - Asian glazes, wasabi, melon salsa

Dover Sole:
Flavor - Mild, delicate
Pairs with - Capers, lemon, chive butter

-- The Nest Editors

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