It’s still a mystery why fish is not as popular as meat nowadays. A filet of Alaskan halibut is much leaner than a juicy steak; its fats, those precious omega-3 fatty acids, can help reduce heart disease and help cope with depression. It is even rumored that salmon clears and smoothes the skin. So what is it about fish that gets us in a panic? Not knowing what to do with it. Let me explain.
I met Hihishiro Tauchi early one afternoon. He was already at work butchering whole fish for the night’s dinner crowd when he welcomed me into the sushi prep kitchen at Ten. As the sushi chef, Tauchi is responsible for turning whole tunas, salmons, snappers, and squid into perfectly delicate strips. He slaps what looks like a sea monster onto a wooden board a few inches from my face.
“This is a madai fish,” he said in broken English, pointing to a medium-sized, red-tinted fish. “It comes from Japan. This is from my hometown.” Ehime, where Tauchi grew up, is one of a few places where madai, or red snapper, is farmed.
He is going to show me how to pick the freshest fish. One of the reasons people are wary of dealing with seafood is the unfamiliarity with butchering and cooking methods. Yet, recognizing hearty, fresh fish is, honestly, half the battle. Try dealing with anything other than fresh and you’ll see (and taste!) the difference.
“It’s important to check the eye and the stomach with the heart,” said Tauchi. If the fish has a dark, cloudy eye that’s starting to face inward, then it has passed its prime. Likewise, if the fish’s stomach is soft and rubbery, the guts are starting to turn bad. Our madai had a clear eye and its belly was hard as rock. Gold stars all around. Next, check the gills: The brighter the color, the fresher the fish. Same goes for scales: Shiny ones are an indication of a fresh product.
Once you’ve selected your catch, next comes butchering—in itself an art form. Tauchi cuts filets out of a bright red tuna belly with the precision of a surgeon. His knife painstakingly travels underneath the fish’s skin, leaving the meat free from any skin-derived bacteria. Tuna has three distinct flavor areas: The lower belly toward the head is the much-revered otoro tuna, the fattest and most delectable part—and most expensive. The otoro can be recognized by the color and marbling; the underbelly is light in color and the grain creates a marble-like pattern. The head, on the other hand, is soft and mildly flavorful; the tail is chewy.
Most patrons at Ten prefer salmon or tuna from the sushi bar. Both species are the most requested. Chris Arseneault, owner of Seafood @ West Main, believes salmon tops them all. “It’s nutritious and delicious,” he said, rightly. Aside from seasonal shrimp and canned tuna, the most consumed seafood in the U.S. is salmon, followed closely by tilapia, one of the least expensive white fish on the market.
Arseneault, like Tauchi, has made these creatures of the sea a lifelong passion. He began as a commercial fisherman and for 11 years has been at the helm of his current enterprise. Seafood @ West Main serves at least 40 restaurants within a one-hour radius. The seafood is almost entirely bought whole and butchered in house (“to preserve the quality of the fish”) and most of it comes from the United States: clams, oysters, and rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay; shrimp from Albemarle Sound in North Carolina; snapper and grouper from Wilmington, North Carolina; crabmeat, tuna, and the occasional swordfish from the Gulf Coast. Other than serving the freshest food to a large, loyal customer base, Arseneault is trying to collectively educate his clientele and debunk seafood myths.
“People have a perception that farm raised is not the best,” he said, but that’s just an urban legend.
Back at Ten, menu chef Pei Chang said there are ways to cook a fish that don’t take much but a pan and an oven: Start with a hot pan, sear the fish, and throw it in the oven. Of course, there’s also poaching, roasting, broiling, or deep-frying your fresh catch. Chang prefers sake-steaming the fish with a pinch of salt and pepper. “It’s the best way to preserve the fish and its flavor,” he said.
Even with my limited seafood cooking abilities, I found myself wanting to try something new. Angelo Massaro, at the counter at Seafood @ West Main, suggested I try striped bass, a white fish with a light flavor, cooked in a pan with white wine, butter, a hint of soy sauce, and sprinkled with fresh parsley. When it comes to fish, it’s true what they say: Less is more.