Michael Cimarusti, the owner of and chef at Los Angeles's Michelin-starred seafood restaurant Providence, wants us to buy better fish – and to feel better about it at a time when most seafood has never been more expensive and the terms "farmed," "wild," "organic," and "frozen/defrosted" confuse nearly everyone. "Everybody feels comfortable walking into a butcher shop, and people buy chicken easily now that everything is so pre-packaged," Cimarusti says. "But when it comes to fish, it's more difficult, especially because, unlike with meat or chicken, there are absolutely no federal regulations."
With fish, Cimarusti says, you have to both trust the seller and possess some level of seafood-quality awareness in order to make the right decisions. Cimarusti doesn't recommend buying fish in a supermarket, or even most high-quality, organic supermarkets – dishonesty with respect to mislabeling and freshness runs rampant. "You need to find a real fishmonger, get to know him or her, and then to know what's fresh, and what's not," he says. "You need to go shopping armed with a set of questions you wouldn't need to ask a butcher." Buying fish doesn't require a Ph.D. – it just requires a little research and curiosity. "You're the one buying it, and you're probably the one who's going to eat it," says Cimarusti. With that in mind, Cimarusti also offered a few tips on cooking fish, as well as how to evaluate whether a sushi restaurant is good or not.
To freeze or not to freeze – and how to kill – fish.
According to Cimarusti, the "frozen/defrosted" label on a lot of fish at the market these days means you're going to end up with fish that's less fresh and that has a chewier, more rubbery texture. "The only argument you can make for freezing is the cryogenic freezing that's done in Japan," he says, "although they've done that to preserve a lot of unsustainable bluefin tuna." Translation: You shouldn't be eating unsustainable fish anyway. "If the fish was frozen fresh and beautiful, it should come out that way, but the texture does change. Freezing at sea is becoming more common these days as boats are out on the sea longer to get the fish we want." This has to do with our changing environment and overfishing, but is it possible that every fish being sold to consumers has been frozen at one point or another, even if the store or restaurant doesn't admit to the act? "Not necessarily – there are certain varieties at, say, a sushi restaurant that you know will never be frozen," says Cimarusti. "Albacore, however, often gets frozen in blocks before it's cut and prepped as sushi. Salmon, too. There are also companies that sell hamachi that are filleted and frozen. Our fish comes in fresh; it has often died in the last 24 hours." Squid and octopus do well with freezing, however, according to the chef.
Cimarusti says he once worked in Kyoto, Japan, at a place that bought fish for its lunch service and kept it in live tanks. "The fish would relax in these tanks for a day, and then the chef would take them out and perform a special Japanese technique to kill them, which renders it more tender," he recalls. "They pass a stainless steel rod into the spinal chord of the fish, which kills it easily. If you just whack the fish dead it can have an unpleasant chewiness."
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