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An award winning chef and restaurateur, Gordon Vivace brings you a discussion of Italian cooking principles and keeping tradition alive in the contemporary kitchen. Not just a recipe bank, the book operates as a narrative on proper techniques, what's missing in Italian American food, how to correct it, and how today's commonly sought short-cuts simply don't apply to a cuisine where things traditionally should be simple anyway; all approached with having a little fun in mind. The 140 recipes included are selected to make you comfortable with techniques rather than always relying on a recipe.
“I hate fish.” Never has a more ridiculous culinary concept been uttered in just three words. Nobody could possibly hate ALL fish. There are just too many types, textures and flavors for anybody to have tried them all and not liked ONE. Sometimes, this is the same person who doesn’t like beets, until he has a fresh one. In no other area of cooking have closed minds so often led to closed mouths than in the world of seafood. Ok, maybe liver.
I find more often than not when someone says he doesn’t like fish what he’s really saying is “I’ve tried a lot of fish, and what I’ve tried smells like a light version of the guy who asks for change in front of my building. And, I don’t like that I can’t chew it. It just falls apart in my mouth. I don’t like it.” Well, who would? That sounds disgusting. It also doesn’t sound like fish.
Fish should be virtually odorless. What you’re smelling is bacteria,
not the fish.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but fish should not smell like what people associate with “fishy”, which is actually the waste byproduct of bacteria happily working away at decomposing your fillet. In short, that smell is the fish going bad, not the fish itself. Think about it. Everything smells when it goes bad and if fish natively smelled like that, you wouldn’t be able to get within five feet of a sushi bar without getting dizzy. If a fish has a discernible odor, that odor should be a little like the smell of being at the beach. An ocean fish is allowed to smell like the ocean. It lived there. Anything stronger than that, and you shouldn’t buy it.
Frozen fish is often safer and just as high quality as fresh, provided it’s been handled correctly.
I blame the marketing people, as I often do. Fish have been caught the same way, in principle, for thousands of years. We might use bigger nets and we might do more damage ecologically now, but the fact remains that the fish was in the water, we scooped it out, the fish is now ready to be food. What happens between then and when it gets to our kitchen, however, has changed dramatically and we’re often lied to right to our faces about what we’re buying. The fish is processed, sometimes on the boat, sometimes at its land-based destination depending on the size of the fishing boat, packaged, and held for who knows how long and with how many further stops before being put out on the shelf at your local grocery store. Very often, what you’re being told is fresh fish has been frozen in transport, either purposely or accidentally, and has just recently been thawed out at the store. I’m pretty big on bacterial control when it comes to fish and freezing is a good way to accomplish that, but it has to be frozen and held properly, and there’s the rub. Properly means it’s quickly frozen to under sixteen degrees, preferably to zero, within just a few hours of being out of the water and then held there, hopefully until you’re ready to buy it. The difference between that fish when it’s thawed and another that was just caught is barely noticeable, and this has the added benefit of ridding the fish of a number of strains of bacteria that can’t live in those temperatures for more than a few hours.
What most people think of as frozen fish deservedly has a bad reputation because it’s been frozen improperly and thawed so many times it can’t maintain its texture. It may have been frozen on the boat, thawed out on land for wholesale purchase or packaging, refrozen and stored by the wholesaler, thawed again on transport to retail sale, and possibly frozen and thawed again at the retail store or by you after you buy it. Each slow freeze takes its toll by forming ice crystals in the meat’s interior, damaging the meat and then having that meat sit in the resulting small interior water droplets that come when those crystals are thawed rather than having the moisture be evenly distributed as it was originally and should mostly have stayed with a proper freeze.
When that moisture is evenly distributed and we get the fish in very close to its original condition, not only does it not smell “fishy”, but in only very rare cases will it need to be “flaky”. We always hear about “moist and flaky”, but that’s as hard to achieve with most fish as it is with most pie crust. Unless you’re putting a great deal of effort in, something is usually one or the other, but rarely both. Part of the problem is in the terminology. When most chefs use the word flaky to apply to fish, we just mean that the meat can easily be pulled apart with a fork rather than needing to cut it. We also know, however, that this doesn’t apply to all fish or all cooking methods, so generically using the term flaky as a goal when it comes to fish really isn’t appropriate.
We want moist fish after we cook it, so we want firm meat before we cook it; not meat that’s been torn apart at the microscopic level so often in its transport it’s now soft. So, you need to both smell and feel your fish before you buy it.
To ensure you’re starting out with a good product, take control of what you’re getting from the store.
In the restaurant business, we’re fortunate enough to have vendors who want to keep our business and who often maintain precise records of where that fish has been and when. We still smell and touch every fish that’s delivered to us, but more often than not we have some control over the general quality of what we’re getting before we even see it. The problem in buying your fish at the local grocery store then becomes obvious. You have no such control, and you’ve got problems with being able to smell and feel the fish because it’s either already packaged or behind a case. You might be able to feel it if it’s a packaged filet, but then you can’t smell it. You might be able to smell it if it’s behind a counter, but it’s likely they’re going to try to rub a piece of packaging paper or plastic over the fish and then hold that up for you to smell, which is not the same thing at all; trust me. If you do find someone nice enough to let you actually smell the fish, they’re probably not going to let you touch it.
There are a few ways to get around this, the best of which is to develop a relationship with someone at the store. When you go in, play up your interest in what might not be out at the counter yet. Ask who orders the fish or takes the deliveries. It might be the person right in front of you. Once you’ve got a serious conversation going with these people, they are more likely than not to be willing to continue that conversation whenever you visit; plus you’ll have their ear when you want a custom order. If you have a good relationship with your fish guy, other customers might mistake him for your drug dealer due to the number of times he pulls you aside and offers you something that isn’t in the case yet because they’re waiting to get rid of something that is.
A whole fish can be a fun family meal, and buying one can give you more control over freshness.
Another is to buy the whole fish. Even if they don’t let you smell it and feel it, if it’s a whole fish with clear eyes, is shiny and looks, as near as you can tell, like what it looked like in the water, you’ve probably got something that’s been taken care of. It’s easy enough to feel the fish is firm while it’s in the paper after it’s been wrapped up for you, and pulling the tape off for a second so you can smell it isn’t as inconvenient as getting the fish home and finding out it stinks.
Barring those two scenarios, stand your ground. It’s your money. You can choose to buy their product or not, and the conditions of you buying their product should be an assurance it’s a decent one. In the case of fish, there’s just no way to achieve that without some interaction with the product itself.
Feel free to also speak up if your sales person keeps their little plastic gloves on when they wrap up your fish and hand it to you. I hate that. Something polite along the lines of “You know, those gloves are as much for our protection as yours. If I put that in my cart it’s going to cross contaminate whatever it touches. Please take the gloves off and bag it for me, would you?” could work, or “What are you trying to do, kill my whole family?” if you’re in a bigger hurry; especially if a manager is within ear-shot. If you happen to be shopping in the Washington, DC metro area, feel free to tell them the other guy who was there saying the same thing last week told you to, as they’ve all heard it from me at some point.
Just so we’re clear, all these things apply to shellfish as well. You’re usually going to be buying shellfish live. It’s pretty easy to see if a lobster is fresh. He’s either trying to get away from you, or he’s dead. Mussels and clams, pick the bag up and give it a good sniff. Tap on their shells if they’re open. If they smell like the beach and close completely when you tap on them, they’re in good shape.
Fully cooked fish shouldn’t be dry. Fish is often over-cooked even when you’ve followed the recipe.
When it comes to cooking your fresh fish, you don’t want to waste all the time you’ve just spent ensuring you’ve got a moist, clean product by drying it out through over-cooking. As you may have guessed by this point in the book, when it comes to home cooking most Italians are traditionalists. They’re more likely to cook a fish all the way through simply because that’s how it’s always been done for a particular recipe, including fish like tuna and swordfish that you might be more familiar with being served medium to rare. This is especially true for those who are older than, say …. me. The difference between cooked all the way through and over-cooked is often a matter of just a few minutes, though. So, if you’re going that route, keep a watchful eye.
We’ve done what we can to ensure a fresh piece of fish, so we can feel reasonably confident that in most cases cooking it to anything over medium is going to be safe. While that’s going to have different results for different types and thicknesses of fish, most of the time it means we’ve got some flexibility in determining what texture we want to get for each dish and can cook it further than medium if we want to, or pull it out of the pan right then if we don’t.
The primary concern in doneness is safety against bacteria. Control it through temperature, not timing.
Too cavalier for you when it comes to fish? I’m not recommending you make your own sushi out of any type of fish you find. Although there is a short section on raw and cured fish in the recipes, you should be buying sushi-grade fish for anything you’re going to be eating completely raw, and that’s unlikely to be what you’re getting at the local grocery store. But, if you’ve made sure you’ve got something that’s clean as described above, what should mostly concern you in cooking is killing all the bacteria native to the fish from its original environment. The temperature to accomplish that is 145 degrees for most fish. If you’ve got a filet that’s an inch or so thick, you might be surprised at just how much less done that is than most people would cook it. And, that’s an instant temperature. You only have to reach 145, not hold it there. The same safety is achieved by holding the fish at a lower temperature for a longer time; say 140 degrees for two to three minutes, or as in the case of poaching maybe 120 degrees for twenty minutes. Again, you can certainly cook it more if it’s your preference; but know you don’t have to for the fish to be safe. If you want to try your salmon medium next time instead of having it flake and be dry, grab a meat thermometer instead of cooking solely by sight or timing and pull the fish as soon as it hits 145 in the middle. I think you’ll be very happy with the results, with salmon anyway.
Obviously, we need to use a little common sense too. There are a lot of fish out there, and they’re not all equally suited to every cooking method or level of doneness. Medium salmon is great. Medium trout? Not so much. Trout is thinner, so 145 degrees is no longer medium, but fully cooked.
One caveat to that temperature guide, there are dense meat fish that will become dry at 145, but because of their qualities they don’t require 145. You’re fine getting them to 125 and having them medium-rare. These include tuna, swordfish, marlin and shark.
If you’re unfamiliar with a type of fish, read up on it before cooking it so you can set your expectations. Sablefish, or black cod, tastes best in my opinion in a very thick cut and at medium. It’s also a very fatty fish, so cooking a thick cut quickly can yield something that’s ok on the outside, but may still be a little oily at the center. If you know that going in, you might choose to use sablefish only for recipes that cook the fish at lower temperatures to give the center a chance to catch up. Skate is a common ingredient for Italians, but if you don’t know about its toxic qualities you might be a little surprised if your hand tingles after you handle it or be repulsed by the texture if you try to cook it to only medium, never mind some of the odor factors of a skate that’s seen better days, which is literally comparable to an unmaintained litter box in a multi-cat household. Forewarned is forearmed, and when it comes to fish you’re often much better off doing a few minutes of web browsing than learning through experience.
It’s easy to see what’s so Italian about pasta or risotto, but you might be wondering what’s so Italian about a poached lobster tail or a baked fish when you get there, or why there are more recipes in this section than any other in the book. Italy consumes a lot more fish than the Italian American dining experience would lead you to believe, and great attention is paid to balance. As in the vegetable section, it’s about a combination of treatments, favorite flavor combinations and popular cooking methods; but freshness and simplicity are the real keys. As in all the sections, I’m hoping to give you enough examples of concepts that you can run with them on your own. There are so many options with fish that this section consequently has the most examples.
Besides, it’s delicious.
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Gordon Vivace is an award winning Chef, restaurateur, and author. He lives in Alexandria, VA with his partner of twelve years, a veritable petting zoo of the usual indoor and outdoor animal companions, and his exotic new chupacabra, Phyllis.