I’ve done it and maybe you have too: stared in confusion at beautiful fish displays. Armed with only recipes for shrimp and cod I ponder cooking these other types of seafood. Tuna fish sandwiches and frozen fish sticks are the only fish-flavored meals I ate growing up but cod, shrimp and lobster became restaurant favorites. It was ages before I tried preparing anything interesting at home. Ralph and Dan at McQuade’s Marketplace in Mystic inspire great meals for anyone, like me, who can use a bit of advice.
In early summer the squid look freshly-caught and are super-affordable. I buy some to use as bait for my new fishing hobby and joke with Ralph. “Do you like clam strips?” he asks. “Clean the squid and cut it into strips. Dip the damp pieces in bread crumbs and cook quickly in hot olive oil. Drain and sprinkle with salt. You’ll think they’re the best clam strips you ever ate.” He describes how to clean the squid. Once home, I do exactly as instructed and Ralph is right…they cook up fast, easy and delicious. I mix seafood seasoning into half of the breadcrumbs for even more flavor. I still use squid for summer bait but now I also prepare calamari at home. Ralph’s decades of experience as a wholesale seafood buyer at the Stonington Town Docks means he really knows this stuff. I stop by the counter regularly for dinner ideas and great stories.
I also chat with manager Dan who shares his own seafood cooking tips. His chef background means he shares both classic restaurant preparations and personal favorites. When my budget says “chicken” but I’m craving seafood a bit of guidance goes a long way. Both of these experts take the mystery out of cooking seafood and my taste buds will be forever grateful. The ocean’s bounty is at my doorstep and is delivered daily. Why not relish every bite? Here are some of the best ideas they’ve shared with me or I’ve learned myself these past few years:
Buying and Preparation:
- Buy and use whatever is fresh. Be flexible.
- Be aware of where the seafood is from. Many pre-packaged seafood products are produced in countries with very low quality standards. Support U.S. fishermen. The best fish counters focus on fresh, local, and sustainable products.
- Ask to smell the product before it is wrapped up. Fresh seafood has only a faint scent rather than a fishy aroma but oily fish has a naturally stronger aroma.
- Ask about substitutions for something you like that may not be available or is pricey. If you like Cod or swordfish, ask what might be good prepared the same way.
- Ask to sample the fabulous in-house smoked fish. Boy, do they make an impressive appetizer. Add some bacon-wrapped scallops for seriously-happy taste buds.
- Try pre-seasoned or stuffed seafood for simple success.
- Try new seasonings. Greg walked me to Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic in the spice department. I’ve used it on and in everything with good results.
- Treat yourself – it really is affordable.
- Run your finger gently along all sides of fish fillets in all directions to feel for errant bones before seasoning or cooking. Even the experts occasionally miss one.
- Fish cooks quickly. Fish fillets, shrimp and sea scallops cook up in less than 10 minutes in a hot pan with a bit of butter & olive oil.
- Before pan cooking, dry the surface of the fish, scallops or shrimp with a paper towel to ensure browning. The resulting fish will look and taste better.
- Squeamish about cooking lobster? Have lobster freshly-steamed for you in the store then bring it home to eat hot or cold.
- Fish is a superb date meal.
- Place fish, butter, and seasonings in quick-release foil & cook quickly on the grill for no sticking and no mess.
- Bake on baking parchment for less mess and no sticking
- Baked Cod (or other mild white fish) is foolproof and delicious. Drizzle fish lightly with butter or olive oil. Sprinkle with bread crumbs or Panko crumbs (plain or Italian flavored) & drizzle with a little bit of butter. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes for thin fillets or 20 minutes for thick fillets. Serve with lemon slices. *Add a dusting of cayenne pepper to the bread crumbs, if desired.
- Extra Special Baked Cod: Dice two fresh shrimp and 2 ocean scallops and mix them in with the buttered bread crumbs or Panko crumbs. Place atop cod or other white mild fish fillet & bake at 350 for 20 minutes.
- Sweet & Spicy Salmon: top with 4 TBS. sweet plum (or duck) sauce mixed with 1 tsp. wasabi. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes.
- Italian Salmon: top pesto + diced fresh tomatoes. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes.
- Fish Fillet Francaise: dip fish fillets in flour then in egg batter. In a frying pan brown lightly on each side in a mixture of 2 TBS. butter & 2 TBS. olive oil. Add 2 TBS. white wine and the juice of ½ a lemon. Reduce sauce by half and squeeze on the juice of the other half lemon when serving. Delicious with rice pilaf.
- Fish Tacos: Season mild fillets with chili powder, cumin & salt then pan-fry quickly in butter. Serve in soft or hard corn tortillas with coleslaw from the deli department and a squeeze of fresh lime.
- Grilled Fish over Salad Greens: Season and grill fish briefly on both sides. Serve atop your favorite salad greens with your favorite dressing.
- Store-made Seafood-stuffed Fillets: Drizzle fillets lightly with butter and bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Great with rice pilaf and a fresh vegetable.
- Substitute Chicken in your favorite recipe with mild, white fish but reduce cooking time by about half (until fish begins to flake). Teriyaki, honey mustard, lemon butter, Parmesan peppercorn, etc. Mild fish really is the “other white meat.”
- Homemade Clam Chowder can be ready in less than 30 minutes if you purchase freshly-shucked clams plus clam stock. Sauté onions & potatoes in butter, add stock & clams and… voila.
- Pan Shrimp: Season & cook 2-3 minutes per side in a hot pan until they turn pink. Remove immediately from pan so they don’t overcook. Smaller shrimp cook in less time. Cooking with skins on retains moisture but makes eating messier.
- Baked Shrimp: Season (12-15 count size) lightly with olive oil, salt & pepper. Bake at 400 degrees for 8 minutes or until pink. Remove immediately from heat to avoid overcooking. Smaller shrimp cook in less time.
I hope you’re inspired to break away from the usual beef, chicken or pasta meals to try something new. The ocean and your local seafood counter are stocked with protein-packed options that are both figure-friendly and healthy. Expert advice is always available and swimsuit season is getting closer every day.
Pro Tip: Most of the fish counter folks are avid fishermen who hear customer stories. They probably know where the fish are biting.