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.
Mussels in Savory Broth
"Mussels are one of those foods," says Kinch, "where you don't eat just five. You eat five dozen." From Paris bistros to Marseille brasseries, a big bowl of mussels is all about conviviality. And though many of us eat them only in restaurants, mussels are available fresh and cheap in markets all over. Even better, all classic mussel dishes operate on the same principle: Prepare a flavorful liquid in a pot, dump the mussels in, and cover. "You're just steaming them open and taking advantage of their own juices," Kinch says. "They're incredibly flavorful – briny and sweet."
- 4 lbs P.E.I. mussels
- 2 baguettes, sliced
- extra-virgin olive oil
For the bouquet garni:
- 12 parsley stems
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 6 celery tops (the small leaves at the top of a celery stalk; 2 pieces of celery make a fine substitute)
- 2 dark green leek tops
For the broth:
- 2 small yellow onions, finely chopped
- 2 large fennel bulbs, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 cups Pernod
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 1 cup cream
Step One: Prep the Mussels
Hold any open mussels closed for a few seconds. If they spring open again, they're dead and must be discarded. Pluck beards off the remaining mussels.
Step Two: Make the Croutons
Set baguette slices on baking sheet, brush them with olive oil, and bake at 400 degrees until golden-brown, about 10 minutes.
Step Three: Prepare the Bouquet Garni
Tie parsley stems, thyme sprigs, and celery and leek tops together with a piece of string (unwaxed, flavorless dental floss works in a pinch).
Step Four: Prep the Vegetables
Warm a large pot over medium heat, and then add 1 tbsp olive oil. Add onion, fennel, bouquet garni, and a pinch of salt, and stir. Cover until vegetables are tender. Add garlic; cook 1 minute more.
Step Five: Add Mussels
Turn heat to high, dump mussels in, add Pernod and wine, and cover. "Shake the pan to get all the mussels to open," Kinch says. Check after 3 or 4 minutes – when mussels are open, they're done. With slotted spoon, remove mussels to a strainer.
Step Six: Finish the Broth
Credit: Matthew O'Shea / Getty Images
Add cream to liquid in pot and bring to a simmer. Lower heat and maintain simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, cooking off some of the water. Dump mussels back in, bring to a simmer again, cover, and shake once more. Spoon mussels into bowls, distribute broth evenly, and serve with the croutons for dipping.