Buying and Storing Your Catch
Most refrigerators won't keep fish as cold as it needs to be for the long haul, but if you plan to cook it within 24 hours, storing it in the coldest part of your refrigerator is suitable for all but the very largest of fish (whole salmon or mammoth halibut fillets). When you go shopping for fish, also bear in mind that the fishmonger or discount club may have had it for a while, and looks can be deceiving, especially under shrink wrap. In an ideal world, you, the consumer, would be able to see the fish unwrapped and examine it closely for any signs of bruising or decay.
A key rule for fish consumption is: Be flexible. If you go out looking for tuna because you're making a tuna recipe but the salmon looks fresher, buy the salmon. If you're buying shellfish--mussels, clams, oysters, lobster--make sure they're alive and kicking when you buy them. How to do this? With mussels, clams, and oysters, gently tap on a slightly opened shell with your finger; it should close up immediately. For lobster, have the fishmonger lift it out of its tank and hold it up so that you can see its underside; if it kicks, it's alive. If it doesn't move at all, it's either in shock or dead, and shouldn't be eaten by anyone. And never, ever buy a shrink-wrapped lobster, no matter how good the price.
My late grandmother, Bertha Altman, had an unbeatable way of telling if whole fish was fresh: "If it looks back at you while you're looking at it, it's fresh." In other words, if its eyes are clear and its scales clean, odds are you have a good one; a whole fish should look as though it's just been lifted out of the water.
Another way to determine freshness is to take a sniff: Fresh fish should not smell fishy. Instead, it should smell sweet, like the air does when you're at the beach.
But what if the fish is already wrapped, and you can't examine its eyes and peek under its hood?
Look closely for signs of decay: Any peculiar coloring or edges that appear to be hard, rough, or discolored mean that you should leave it.
Whole fish stays fresher longer than cut fish. If a fishmonger tries to sell you a wrapped piece of swordfish and a larger piece is sitting, unwrapped and fresh, in the refrigerator, have him cut you a piece from the larger portion. The price per pound should be exactly the same; don't be dissuaded that it isn't, and don't accept no for an answer. Go elsewhere if need be.
Ask where the fish came from. If you're buying Chilean sea bass, it was certainly previously frozen before it got into your hands; if you're buying North Atlantic cod and you're in Boston, odds are that it is fresh.
Any fish that you buy stuffed, such as sole, flounder, or trout stuffed with crabmeat, should be eaten the day that it's brought home.
Check barcode dates, just as you do when purchasing milk and eggs.
In terms of storing fish properly, ask three different people how to do it, and odds are you'll get three different answers. My rule of thumb is an easy one to remember: Unless I'm dealing with something cured (salted or smoked, like salt cod, smoked salmon, smoked trout, or smoked whitefish), I cook what I've brought home--whole fish, filleted fish, or steaks--within 24 hours. When I bring home fresh shellfish, I always eat it that night. But if something comes up, or I've brought home a large quantity of fresh fish, I do the following:
If I've purchased fish directly from a fishmonger and it is not shrink-wrapped, I leave it in the paper and loose plastic over-wrap it's packed in. I transport it home immediately (on ice, if I've come a distance) and put it in the coldest part of my refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
If I've purchased fish at a discount club and it is shrink-wrapped, I take it home and immediately remove it from its plastic. Assuming that it smells fresh, I cut it into appropriate portion sizes (for example, one side of salmon will yield approximately three or four 2-pound fillets), put them onto a large dinner plate that I've already refrigerated for an hour or two, and re-wrap them on the cold plate. This way, the plate keeps the fish chilled from the underside, and the refrigerated air chills the top.
When buying live lobsters, I make absolutely sure that there are holes poked into their carrying bag (if it is plastic); upon getting home, I remove them from the bag, place them in a deep lasagna pan, and keep them for no more than a few hours, unwrapped, in the coldest part of my refrigerator. Never be tempted to put them in cold water in a pot, sink, or bathtub. If you're buying smoked fish (which is likely wrapped), slice off the amount you need for your recipe, and keep the rest of it on the foil-coated cardboard it came on. Tightly wrap an additional two layers of plastic wrap around it to create an airtight seal, and store it in your refrigerator for up to 7 days.
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