For a country with the world's longest coastline and more than its share of rivers and lakes, Canada sure has a lot of cooks who are terrified of fish. We don't eat them much (Canadians' consumption of fish and shellfish has fallen 30 per cent in the last decade, to just over seven kilograms annually), or enjoy catching them (the number of sport fishers in Canada falls about 2 per cent every year, on average). And more than anything, we don't seem to want them in our kitchens. I can't count how many great cooks I've met who grind their own beef or smoke whole pork shoulders over hickory wood, but go wide-eyed and silent when faced with a halibut fillet.
The problem boils down to trust. Unlike beef, pork and chicken, no two fish are the same. So you need a good fishmonger as a starting point: someone to tell you what's fresh, what tastes good and how to prepare it. And thanks in part to the spread of the supermarket fish counter – you know the ones, with the cello-wrapped Atlantic salmon steaks and the know-nothing attendants who answer every question with "everything's fresh" – nobody knows how to talk to a fishmonger any more. "People have every reason to be afraid of fish," said Keith Froggett, the executive chef at Scaramouche, a top seafood-focused restaurant in Toronto. "If you look at what's on display at most supermarket fish stands, you'd be wise to be afraid of it," he said.
We're here to change that, with 12 simple rules that'll let you find great fish and cook it right every time.
1. Start with a great fish shop. Maybe that's in a supermarket (a few of them are excellent). Chances are, however, it's not. A great fish shop has a wide selection, lots of customers and plenty of turnover. The displays aren't too pretty either, because the staff are too busy selling fish to be stacking it into perfect, multistorey pyramids. "My ideal fish store, you can hardly see the fish, because it's buried under ice," said John Bil, a seafood specialist and restaurateur who runs Ship to Shore, a seasonal restaurant on Prince Edward Island. At some places, such as La Mer, in Montreal, the entire retail space is refrigerated. That's a fish shop.
2. Great fish shops don't stink like fish. They shouldn't even particularly smell like fish. Why? Because great fish doesn't smell much like fish – at least not in an unpleasant way. "Ocean fish should smell like the ocean, and lake fish should smell like a clean lake," said Dan Donovan, a co-owner of Hooked, a fish store in Toronto. Or as Mr. Froggett put it, "If you've got to take your nose away, that's not something I'd want to eat." Remember, though, that none of this applies if the store sells salt cod, which is supposed to stink. (It's an acquired taste.)
3. The staff should be able to tell you everything you need to know, including where, how and when a fish was caught, said Steve Johansen, a Vancouver-based fisherman and the owner of Organic Ocean, a go-to source for many of Canada's top chefs. But for definitive answers on sustainability, check out the Vancouver Aquarium's oceanwise.ca. They've even got an iPhone app.
4. Prod, poke and sniff the merch. "A good fishmonger will let you touch the fish and get your nose right into it," said Mr. Donovan. Look to the gills first. Gills are moist and red when a fish is fresh, but turn brown after a couple of days, which is when many fishmongers cut the gills out. The eyes should be clear, round and raised. Fish that are getting past their prime look like they have cataracts. Fresh fish are usually (but not always) covered in clear, odour-free slime, too. "All fish have a protective layer of slime on it, mucus on it, and if it's still there, then you know that the fish is fresh," said Robert Belcham, a chef, restaurateur and seafood whiz in Vancouver. If you're just buying fillets, that's a good time to start poking. Fresh fish is firm and resilient. "You shouldn't be able to put your finger on it and have the dent stay in the flesh," said Mr. Donovan.
5. Don't be the sucker who buys the pre-marinated fish. If you were a fishmonger, would you drown your sweetest, most gorgeous, most lily-fresh fish in the sesame-ginger teriyaki sauce? Of course you wouldn't. And while you're at it, try to avoid fish steaks also, unless you're dealing with bigger fish such as tuna. Fish steaks are popular with corner-cutting fishmongers because they're easy to cut. But they're typically full of bones, and rarely cook evenly.
6. Fish that's frozen at sea is often fresher than "fresh" fish. "Most fishermen go out for days at a time," said Mr. Belcham, "so if you get a fish that they caught on the first day, and they aren't back for eight days, that fish is eight days old before it hits the dock."
7. Oysters ship with harvest tags, which you should be able to inspect, said Mr. Bil. East Coast oysters are typically good for two weeks from harvest; West Coast up to 10 days, tops. Either way, they should be tightly closed, feel heavy and smell unimpeachably fresh. When you give a fresh, healthy oyster a squeeze, it won't leak any fluid.
8. There's fresh, and then there's freshest. "There's always something new and exciting that just came in," said John Meletakos, the owner of La Mer. To get that new and exciting fish, it helps to build a relationship with your fishmonger. But just as important, you have to be open to suggestions. Tell them what you typically like, then ask them, "What's great today?"
If, by contrast, you just walk in and say, "I need 20 ounces of cod," they're going to sell you the cod. "They'll say, 'Okay, here's cod.' And when you say, 'Is it good?' they'll go, 'Yeah, yeah, of course it's good,' " said Mr. Bil.
9. You can ask your fishmonger to scale the fish, skin it, fillet it and even pull the pin bones from the fillets (although some might charge a small fee for this last step). They'll even wrap up the bones separately for soup and give you recipes. "There's nothing wrong with being high-maintenance if you're paying top dollar," Mr. Belcham said.
10. Your fishmonger's recipes probably aren't as great as the ones in the just-released River Cottage Fish Book: The Definitive Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Fish and Shellfish . From grilled smelt to razor clams with butter and garlic, it's one of the best and most comprehensive fish books there is. If you have a fish question, the answer's in it.
11. Fish doesn't get fresher in your refrigerator. Once you've bought it, use it. If you aren't going to get to it for more than a couple days, that's what the freezer's for.
12. Fish needs 15 minutes or so on the counter to warm up a bit, or it won't cook through to the middle. "So many people are so neurotic about fish, they keep it under ice in the refrigerator and then literally open the door and throw it on the barbecue," said Mr. Donovan. "There isn't a hope in hell of that working out."
A FOOLPROOF FILLET
There is no single, foolproof way to cook fish, because there is not a single type of fish. But we're going to give you one anyway. Get a pan hot and splash it with some neutral-flavoured oil, like grapeseed oil. Season a fillet with salt and pepper, then drop it, skin-side down, into the pan. For thin fillets, flip after a couple of minutes, take the pan off the heat, and let the residual heat finish the job. "If it's a thin fillet of sole or haddock or trout and you're cooking it for more than four minutes, you're wrecking it," said Mr. Bil. "Hake, or West Coast halibut, or a thick tuna steak, you might go to five minutes, maybe. But if you're cooking a fillet for more than five minutes, you're blowing it."
A metal skewer or paring knife will help you time things perfectly. Just stick the tip into the centre of the thickest part of the fish, count to five, then touch it to your bottom lip. If you like your fish cooked to medium, the skewer should be just warm; it'll be hotter for well done, or colder for rare. "If you're buying the best quality fish, there's nothing wrong with it being a little bit rare," said Mr. Belcham.