Paint-stained roads, dirty walls and the last of the structures around the Savannah are the final remnants of what was the Carnival season, a time of release, revelry and total abandon; as a precursor to Lent, which is observed as a time where the numerous denominations of Christianity engage in prayer, fasting, reflection and almsgiving.
The most common practice during this period is fasting. While one may fast from anything that one enjoys or anything one practices in excess, many refrain from the consumption of meat, either on specific days of the week during the Lenten season or, in some cases, for the entire duration of the season. As a result, there is a marked increase in the consumption of fish at this time of year. For some, this gives rise to a bit of a challenge, which is, how to prepare fish dishes for this forty-day period and not get bored by repeating the same two or three meals over and over again. Well, that’s why I’m here to help.
Ask the average Trinbagonian to name a few fish dishes and you’ll hear these three answers most times; fried, baked and stewed. Now, while these three are valuable in their own right there is a plethora of preparations and methods one can use. Fish is very versatile and can be used in a myriad of ways. Added to that, different species of fish have varying characteristics that can be exploited to bring out the best of each type.
Let’s go to chef school for a bit. Fish is categorised into a number of types. When it comes to fin fish, there are two main types; flat fish and round fish. These may be further sub-categorised into saltwater and freshwater fish and then, further into fatty and lean fish. The fat content of the fish determines the cooking methods that are best suited to each type but there are also other factors that affect whether a specific cooking method is preferable or not, such as the size of the cut used for cooking, whether the fish has large flakes or not when cooked, whether the bone is left in or taken out, even whether the fish is cooked with the skin on or off.
Flat fish includes flounder, halibut, turbot and sole which are not found in our local waters but may be available for sale at seafood merchants. Round fish include salmon, grouper, herring, kingfish and mahi-mahi with many local and imported types available on the market. When it comes to saltwater varieties, aside from those named previously, local examples also include red snapper, carite and monkfish. Local freshwater varieties include catfish, eel and tilapia. Of these types, the fish can be further categorized into fatty fish, such as salmon, trout and herring; and lean fish such as tilapia, cod and grouper.
As pertains to the cooking of fish, there are some basic rules due to the nature of the beast. The flesh of fish is generally more delicate than that of meat or poultry and takes less time to cook. Overcooking results in a tough and exceedingly dry end product, so it is recommended to slightly undercook fresh fish. Fish is also generally mild in flavour, so it is recommended to use flavouring ingredients that are not robust and overpower the delicate flavours of the fish. Finally, and this should probably have been the first rule, wherever possible use only fresh fish to attain the best results. Just as important as the aforementioned is that we should only use/consume fishes that have been procured from sustainable sources using sustainable methods and should never use protected or endangered species.
The fat content of fish ranges from 0.5% to 20%. That being said, one must consider the cooking methods used when preparing a dish with fish anywhere on this spectrum.
Lean fish contains very little fat, therefore very little moisture, which means it can easily become dry especially when overcooked. That being said, moist-heat cooking methods such as poaching, steaming or simmering is very suitable as it preserves and adds moisture to the fish. A good local application of this is our fish broth, another is our local fish stew. Fish such as red snapper is a great candidate for these methods.
Although lean fish is at risk of drying out, dry heat methods such as grilling or broiling can also be used but it proves a challenge for those who are inexperienced to attain an end product that is not dry. Being that lean fish lacks fat, melted butter can be basted onto the fish portions before cooking via dry heat methods to aid in preserving moisture. More important, however, is the cooking time of the fish—this is quite literally the make or break of the dish when cooking lean fish with dry heat methods. A good option for this includes mahi-mahi as it stands up well to grilling or broiling.
Utilizing dry heat methods with fat, such as sautéing or deep frying proves to be very favourable for cooking lean fish. The additional fat begotten from these methods adds moisture and palatability to the dish and makes a very good end product. Please note though, that despite the fat present in the dish the fish may still become dry after some time if left to sit. It is recommended that the dish is consumed soon after preparation for the highest quality.
The fat content of this type of fish allows them to tolerate more heat and therefore longer cooking times without becoming dry. Still, overcooking will ruin your dish—and I don’t want the blame for that, so let this serve as my disclaimer. Fatty fish do well with moist-heat cooking methods and dishes like poached salmon, steamed trout or mackerel simmered in a sauce creole.
Dry heat cooking methods are great when it comes to fatty fish especially as it helps eliminate the extra oiliness. Grilled salmon and tuna are staples at a number of local restaurants while a few local species also stand well to grilling or broiling.
Large, fatty fish especially those with strong flavours like bluefish and mackerel may be cooked using dry heat methods with fat, such as sautéing and pan frying but care must be taken to avoid extra greasiness. It is recommended to drain or otherwise get rid of excess oil before serving.
In certain cultures raw preparations of fish and other seafood is common but there are safety rules that must be followed because there always exists the risk of foodborne illness when consuming anything that is uncooked. It must be noted that freshwater fish is not used for raw preparations as there is a higher risk for bacterial contamination. The most important guideline is to use only fish that is extremely fresh and procured from known, reputable sources and should be same day caught and never frozen. Common raw preparations include sashimi, tartare and ceviche. Various types of fish are used for these preparations and may include lean fish such as cod or even fatty fish such as tuna and salmon as each has unique characteristics which add different dimensions to a dish.
Now that you have a working knowledge of all the wonderful things you can do with fish, maybe, just maybe, fasting will become something you would consider even outside of the Lenten period.
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