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.
Chef Rick Moonen's Guide to Shopping Like a Chef
Talk to Your Fishmonger
Delicious fish means fresh fish. For whole fish, the eyes should appear bright and clear. "If that fish needs Visine, avoid it," says Rick Moonen, owner-chef at RM Seafood in Las Vegas and author of Fish Without a Doubt. For fillets, the flesh should be shiny, translucent, and white. "If it's dull or brown at the edges, you don't want it," Moonen says.
Now ask questions. "What's fresh?" won't work, because it demands that a fishmonger confess to having old product. Instead, draw him into your plans: "I got this recipe for mahi-mahi on the grill – what would work for that?" Or, "I'm looking for something to poach." Now he can direct you to his best options.
Finally, when he picks out a piece of fish, ask to smell it – fresh fish smells like the sea, not like fish. "A good fishmonger will respect the request," Moonen says. If he doesn't, walk away.
Expand Your Repertoire
Most of us are comfortable cooking only five or six types of fish. That puts overfishing pressure on a few species and keeps you from enjoying other great stuff in the market. So add a single piece of something you've never prepared to your order. "Just pan-fry it, squeeze lemon on, and taste," Moonen says. From there, you can tell what recipes will work with it.
Keep It Fresh
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Home refrigerators are set at 41 degrees, fine for meat but not seafood. Ask your fishmonger to pack fish in ice, and keep a cooler in your car. At home, put whole fish in a slurry of ice water in the fridge. Set fillets, still in plastic, in a colander with ice on top.