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MARGARET PROUSE: Be picky when buying fish because quality and freshness are inconsistent at some locations

The key is to do cook fish quickly with high heat. Unlike certain cuts of meat, which are tenderized with low, slow cooking, the delicate flesh of fish toughens and dries out with long cooking. 123RF/SUBMITTED PHOTO
The key is to do cook fish quickly with high heat. Unlike certain cuts of meat, which are tenderized with low, slow cooking, the delicate flesh of fish toughens and dries out with long cooking. 123RF/SUBMITTED PHOTO - The Guardian

I shop around for some foods, but when it comes to fish, I’m picky. 

Quality and freshness are inconsistent at some locations, so I’m loyal to my favourite seafood vendor, where the fish is always fresh. 

Buying fish while it’s fresh is half the battle. Now it’s up to you to make the best use of it.

The key is to do cook fish quickly with high heat. Unlike certain cuts of meat, which are tenderized with low, slow cooking, the delicate flesh of fish toughens and dries out with long cooking. The recommendation is generally 10 minutes of cooking time in a hot oven per 2.5 cm (inch) of thickness.

When I am cooking fillets of a firm white fish, I usually panfry or bake it, often with breading.

Breaded fish is good for fish tacos, and if that’s what I’m preparing, I usually cut it into small strips or chunks before breading, so that it’s easy to use for stuffing the tortillas.  

A three-step process works well for breading fillets (or other foods, such as chicken pieces). First, lay out three shallow pans. Add flour, seasoned with salt and pepper, dried herbs or spices such as paprika, if desired, to the first pan. To the second, add one or more eggs, depending on how much fish you have to coat. Using a whisk or a fork, combine the whites and yolks with a splash of water. The third pan will contain bread crumbs, either homemade or purchased. I sometimes use soft homemade crumbs, other times, crisp panko crumbs. 

Pat the fillets dry by blotting gently with paper towels, and then, working with one at a time, coat them in breading. Dip a fillet in the flour and turn to coat; shake to remove excess. Now dip the floured fillet into the egg, and turn to be sure both sides are coated. Lift and let the excess egg drip off. Now move the fillet into the crumbs, and press it to coat one side with crumbs; repeat for the second side. Lay the breaded fillet on a tray while repeating until portions are all coated. 

The neatest way through the three-step breading is to keep one hand dry – the one that moves the fillet from flour to egg and from crumbs to the tray – and the other wet – the one that moves the uncoated fillet into the flour, and then the egged fillet into the crumbs. I have been known to get both hands thickly coated instead; no harm done, it just makes more mess. Once breaded, the fillets are ready to be panfried or oven-baked.  

To panfry, heat about 1 cm (½ inch) of oil over medium-high heat. Arrange fillets in the pan, allowing enough space between them so that they aren’t touching. Cook in several batches if necessary. 

Aim to turn the fillets just once. Let one side cook without disturbing until the coating is browned, but making sure it doesn’t burn, and carefully turn the fillet. By the time the second side is browned, the fillet should be cooked through. Check by probing with a fork or the point of a knife. The flesh should be opaque and flake easily. If working with two batches, keep the first ones warm in a single layer on a platter while the rest cook.

Lay the cooked fillets on a layer of paper towels to absorb some of the fat before serving.

Fillets may be simply dredged in seasoned flour and panfried in a similar fashion. 

To bake breaded fillets, lay them on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and bake in a hot oven, 230 C (450 F), for 8-15 minutes, until flesh is flaky and opaque, but not dry. 

Sometimes I bake fillets with no coating in a shallow baking dish and then add a white sauce sprinkled with soft crumbs and grated cheese. To do this, lightly grease the dish or use nonstick cooking spray and arrange fillets in a single layer. Place uncovered pan in preheated 230 C (450 F) oven, and bake until barely done. Then spoon a medium white sauce over the fillets, and top with crumbs and grated cheese. Heat until the sauce bubbles and the cheese melts, and serve with a salad and rice or mashed potato

Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at prouse@pei.sympatico.ca.

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