For many boaters it’s now fishing season. Some anglers may return with their catch suddenly realizing they don’t really know how to clean their fish properly, let alone cook it.
I hear about fish cooking failures routinely from friends, because I’m also a food writer. Not having grown up in a fish-eating family, I discovered huge gaps in my knowledge. Even though I went to cooking school and theoretically learned how to cook fish, I’ve had failures so awful that even my cat rejected them. All too often half the fish stuck to my non-stick pan.
To get some tips on preparing fish I went to see commercial fisherman and San Diego fish cooking guru Mitch Conniff, chef/owner of Mitch’s Seafood, located on the harbor in Point Loma (1403 Scott St.) alongside the fishing docks.
What you need to know about Conniff is that, prior to opening his popular casual eatery and right as the Great Recession took hold, he spent seven years as a chef aboard a 90-foot sportfisher, feeding fishermen during extended trips along the Pacific coast. His restaurant now serves over 1,000 pounds just of white fish varieties weekly.
Key to a tasty fish with well-textured flesh is bleeding the fish thoroughly after it’s caught and icing it for 24 hours before eating, according to Conniff.
“When fish are caught and ‘dispatched’ they go through a process of rigor mortis where the fish gets hard and the flesh very tight. After about 12 hours the body relaxes and becomes pliable once again. That’s when the fish should be filleted and then prepared. The only exception is a large tuna or swordfish which can be filleted after being bled, but it should still have at least 12 hours to rest before cutting into steaks. Bleeding refers to clipping the gills and/or spiking the fish around the throat area and allowing most of the blood to flow out of the fish as soon as possible after it’s caught,” Conniff explained.
When it comes to cooking you need to match the technique to the fat content of the fish, I learned. The higher, direct-heat method I’ve been using, whether on a cooktop or a grill, is suited only for higher fat fish, such as darker meaty fish or fattier white fish such as Baja grouper, tilefish, black cod or Alaskan halibut. Leaner white fish, such as California halibut, snapper and the many varieties of rockfish or seabass, cook better with lower heat methods, he said. Higher heat dries out the leaner varieties, while lower heat may render fattier varieties a bit soggy.
“Generally, the simpler the method, the better,” Conniff said.
His favorite methods for cooking white fish at home are steaming in parchment paper packets (substitute foil if using a grill) atop a bed of aromatic vegetables and roasting them whole in the oven. Both are fast and easy.
Fat content is the best way to determine cooking time. A leaner fish, such as those caught in warmer waters off the California or Baja coast, might cook in only four to six minutes per inch of thickness, while a similar thickness of Baja grouper might require seven to nine minutes per inch. Fish caught in colder waters, such as Alaskan halibut, are richer in fat than their California cousins.
Whatever you do, don’t overcook your fish. As with steaks, check for firmness: the firmer the fish, the more cooked it is. Also keep your seasonings light and simple, he added.
If you’d like to try his techniques, you can find several of Conniff’s recipes posted to the right of this article.