- Try to always buy fish from sellers who support the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI). Ask questions as to the origins and methods of harvest.
- The freshness of the fish used in any cooking will have a direct effect on the result. Good shopping is an integral part of good cooking.
Things to look for when buying fresh fish:
- Eyes should be bright. Dull, glazed-over or red eyes indicate that the fish is either old or previously frozen.
- Gills (if present) should have a bright scarlet colour. Brown or dull-looking gills mean the fish is old.
- Skin should have a fresh glimmer to it, and the flesh should be firm or at least “bounce back” when prodded with a finger.
- Smell – fresh fish has no discernible smell. The stronger the smell, the older the fish.
- When buying shellfish – particularly if it’s been frozen – don’t buy prawns that have a black tinge to their heads or have a discernible whiff of ammonia.
- Fresh mussels should always be closed when being bought fresh.
- Buying undersized fish leads to the depletion of the species as they wouldn’t have had a chance to spawn.
- Unless you are confident about filleting fish, rather get your fishmonger to fillet it for you. There can be expensive wastage if you don’t know what you’re doing.
- When frying fish, always use either a cast iron pan or a solid bottom stainless steel pan. Thin flimsy pans heat up too quickly, buckle, don’t disperse the heat evenly and tend to have uneven hot spots.
- When frying fillets of fish, it’s best to dust the fillets with flour so that a golden crust is formed and the they don’t stick to the pan.
- Don’t overcrowd the pan – too much meat in the will result in the temperature of the pan dropping radically and, instead of achieving the sought-after colour, the flesh will begin to weep and the fish will begin to stew.
- The pan should be at a medium heat – anything too hot and the fillets will burn or curl. Curling is a result of the shocked fibres in contact with pan contracting faster than those not in contact with the heat.
- Always make sure that the presentation side goes into the pan first as it will lead to a more even finish.
- Remove skin before cooking, unless the skin is supposed to crisp and part of the presentation.
- Unless you are intending to make sauce in the same pan that you have fried the fish in, make sure that the rest of the dish is ready to serve – fish will dry out quickly if you try and reheat it. It should ideally go from the pan to the plate to the table.
- Cooking fish in the oven is best reserved for whole fish or fish on the bone, although cooking fish en Papiote (fillet steamed in parchment paper) is also popular.
Cooking whole fish or on the bone is done in one of three ways:
- Baking – using dry heat to cook a whole fish will cook it through and also crisp the skin. It is best to make several slashes along the body of the fish as this helps the heat and seasonings to penetrate the fish. For best results the fish is usually baked on a bed of vegetables – anything from potatoes and fennel, to tomatoes and peppers. The vegetables on only create a buffer from the direct heat of the roasting pan, but also soak up some of the beautiful flavour of the roasting fish.
- Steaming – this method is ideal for portion-sized fish and involves wrapping the fish and some aromatics (herbs and spices), plus adding some cooking liquid – anything from white wine to Pernod. The seasoned fish is then sealed in a tin foil parcel and placed in a hot oven to pretty much steam and stew in its own juices. This is also a particularly effective method for cooking very large fish as it ensures that the fish doesn’t dry out.
- Finishing – this is where a small whole fish or a cutlet on the bone is given a bit of colour in the pan on the stovetop, and then placed in the oven to finish the cooking process. This method allows the fish to cook faster by enveloping it in heat. It might discolour or burn if left in the pan to cook through.
- All three of these methods are suggested at the same temperature – 200˚C.
- If you find the idea of baking a whole fish exciting, but are a little squeamish about a fish “checking you out” while you’re eating it, then simply lop off the head before you cook it. It will be easier to fit into a roasting pan and won’t have any effect on the cooking time.
- Whether grilling on a BBQ or using a griddle pan, it is always best to use chunkier cuts of fish rather than dainty thin fillets.
- Fish best suited for grilling are oily fish like Salmon, Tuna, Snoek, Yellowtail, Mackerel or Sardines. The reason being that because of their “oiliness” they dry out less and are suited to more robust cooking methods.
- Sardines and Mackerel are relatively small fish and are best grilled whole, whereas the rest of the oily family are best as fillets that have been cut into portion sizes.
- When using a whole fish, it is a good idea to make a couple of slashes with a sharp knife down the side of the body. This will help the fish cook more evenly and you will also be able to tell if the fish is cooked.
- Wherever possible (with the exception of Tuna), it’s best to grill fish with the skin on as it can either crisp up nicely, or simply provide a layer of protection.
- Oil the fish rather than the griddle pan or BBQ grill as it prevents the fish from sticking.
- Season the fish with salt and pepper after it has been oiled. Once the fish is on the grill, do not be tempted to move it for a few minutes. The grill bars or ridges need time to sear the fish so that it will come away from the grill cleanly. Trying to move or reposition the fish before this occurs will cause the fish to fall apart.
- Try to turn the fish only once – the less you handle it, the less chance you have of it falling apart.
- Use a thin spatula or egg lifter when turning fish, and always run the blade along the grill bars or ridges. Brushing the other side of the fish before you turn it will also prevent the it from sticking.
- When grilling fish, the idea is not to cook it completely through – this is especially true for beautiful oily fish, so they can be served with a little pink in the middle or on the bone.
- Grilled oily fish is best accompanied by non-dairy sauces – they have enough of an oil content of their own and are best served with salsas and dressings.