Funny thing about fish: Everybody loves a great fillet in a restaurant or mussels in a bistro, but few of us cook fish at home with any confidence, thanks to so many efforts that end with the ugly mess of a halibut steak stuck to the skillet, disintegrating before it even hits the plate.
"Fish is not a pork chop," says chef David Kinch, owner of two-Michelin-star restaurant Manresa, in Silicon Valley. "Rightly or wrongly, it's perceived off the bat as intermediate cooking."
Kinch grew up surfing the Gulf Coast of Texas – "I was an oil brat," he says – and now lives near the beach in Santa Cruz, California, spending his free time longboarding, standup paddleboarding, or sailing with friends. Winner of the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef in America, Pacific region, he has become a foodie cult figure for his imaginative, fish-centric cuisine. He also makes regular transpacific trips to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, personally scouting out the freshest seafood on Earth. But the real strength of Kinch's approach lies in his mastery of precisely what the rest of us need to learn: the fundamental cooking methods applicable to every maritime meat.
"A few simple techniques make seafood so much more accessible," he says. "Once guys learn them, they won't hesitate to pick up a beautiful piece of fish."
Here, from Kinch and Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen, another seafood expert, is advice on buying fish, keeping it as fresh as possible, and cooking it. Thanks to their insights, you will forever interrogate your fishmonger like a pro, render skin crispy as a potato chip, poach crustaceans to perfection, and debone whole fish effortlessly. And finally, those tricky, delicate meats will become your go-to home-cooking staples. Time to get your sea legs.
An Expert Crispy-Skinned Fillet
One skillet. One burner. One fillet. "That's the simplest approach," says Kinch, "and it takes only a few minutes." But, as with everything worthwhile, the devil is in the details – like how to get the skin perfectly crisp but leave the flesh moist, tender, and flaky. Kinch showed us, and he threw in a classic accompaniment – a Catalan-style spinach, whose preparation can act as a template for any improvised vegetable side. Kinch recommends skin-on fillets because of the textural contrast crunchy skin provides, and because "the skin is one more barrier between the flesh and the heat, so you don't overcook the fish, and you hold on to more moisture." But the basic technique also applies to skinless fillets. Simply designate one side for presentation and start the process with it facing down. As for exact species, it could be sole, halibut, bass, cod – "just about anything firm, white-fleshed, and low in fat content," Kinch says.
- 2 6-oz fillets of black cod, skin on
- canola oil
For the Catalan spinach:
- 2 tbsp golden raisins
- 6 tbsp brandy
- 2 bunches whole-leaf spinach
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- 2 oz prosciutto
- lemon zest
Step One: Get the Fish Dry
Before you start, blot the fish all over with paper towels. This removes excess water that could leak into the pan and make the fish steam instead of sear. Also, do not salt the fish before cooking: Salt draws out moisture – those droplets will drip down the sides and create steam, too.
Step Two: Brown the Skin
Place a pan over medium heat. After about a minute, add a thin film of oil. Then place fish in the pan, skin side down. "Hear that nice sizzling sound?" Kinch asks. "But no spitting or popping." (That means your pan is too hot.) Fish skin contracts in response to heat, causing the fillet to curl. To prevent this, press gently on the fillet with a spatula or – Kinch's preferred method – set some kind of weight, like a brick, plate, or plancha press (see below), on top for 45 seconds. Don't move the fish: It will almost always stick to the pan at first; if you try to release it with a spatula, you'll shred it. But once all the water cooks out of the skin, it'll release itself from the pan.
Step Three: Look Closely
Raw fish is translucent; cooked fish is opaque. To gauge the doneness of any fillet, look carefully at its sides. That line of opaqueness will be moving steadily upward from the pan toward the top of the fish. Once that line hits two-thirds of the way up, salt the top side of the fish and flip it over.
Step Four: Give it a Poke
A thin metal rod – Kinch prefers a cake tester, but you can use any meat thermometer or metal BBQ skewer – allows you to gauge doneness in two ways. First, insert the rod into the thickest part of the fillet. If the tip meets resistance, the fish isn't cooked. Second, leave the rod in the fish for five seconds, and then pull it out and touch it to your upper lip. If the metal feels at all warm, the fish is cooked.
Step Five: Prep the Catalan Spinach
Place raisins in a small saucepan with the brandy. Bring to a simmer and remove from heat. Strip stems from spinach. Place leaves in a skillet over medium heat, and turn gently until they wilt. Remove to a colander to drain.
Step Six: Finish the Dish
Credit: Robin Macdougall / Getty Images
Remove fish to a plate lined with a paper towel. Add the raisins and pine nuts to the fish pan; add the prosciutto, spinach, and lemon zest. Toss everything and heat through. Place fish back in the pan just long enough to warm. Serve.