A few members from our local chapter of the USCPA spend a couple hours with local fish market proprietor, Richard Welton from Welton's Seafood Market on Laskin Road in Virginia Beach. What a fabulous time we have with Richard! He walked us through both what to look for when purchasing seafood and fish and his personal tips on how to cook each type.
For me, being originally from the Midwest, I was especially interested in learning more about some of the local fish like rock fish. It was reassuring for me that in some ways, fish is fish. And, my belief that simple is often better in prepare fish when it is locally caught and fresh. But, I will admit, I was quite intrigued by the idea of smoking a whole rock fish and you can be sure I will be trying that one of these days real soon!
So, what are some things to be aware of when purchasing fresh seafood and fish? I think we all ponder this at times -- whether you are new to cooking fish or are a bit more seasoned. I hope that you find in this blog a few tidbits of information that you can use on your next trip to your local fish market.
What is the different between wet and dry pack scallops?
Although I cook with scallops a fair amount this was a question that I did not know that answer to. However, now that I do, I think this is one that is worth taking note of. Dry pack scallops are not treated with chemicals to preserve their freshness. They are harvested directly from the ocean, shucked on deck, then immediately frozen on the boat to capture their quality. Wet pack scallops on the other hand are treated with chemicals such as phosphates. These chemicals cause them to retain water. If you have purchased scallops before and when you cooked them they shrunk considerably, you probably purchased wet packed scallops. They are also harder to get a good sear on due to the retained water. As a result, they often end up being over cooked.
As far as how to cook scallops, Richard encouraged us to cook scallops to medium rare. I wholeheartedly agree with his point of view. Overcooked scallops are tough and just not that good. If you are going to spend the money on good seafood, you want enjoy the experience. Richard recommends cooking them over medium heat in a preheated pan, 3 minutes on the first side and then 2 minutes on the other. Or you can go less than this if you like your scallops on the rare side. He uses a combination of olive oil and butter to sear them in and seasons simply with salt and pepper and maybe a touch of an ahi tuna rub.
Most of the scallops in the Virginia Beach area come from the Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey scallop bed. I was pleased to learn that they monitor the harvesting of the beds to prevent over "fishing" which makes these scallops more sustainable for the future.
Can I make sushi with any fresh fish? What is sushi grade mean?
From my culinary classes I learned about what makes fish sushi grade and this was reinforced by Richard. Sushi grade fish is flash frozen to kill the harmful bacteria and other organisms that is generally found in fish. Bacteria multiples fairly rapidly so even "fresh fish" that is only days out of the water but has never flash frozen should not be used to make sushi. The last thing anyone wants to do is make your friends, family or clients sick. So, you can use fresh caught ocean fish for sushi, but honestly, I do not recommend it. And, I strongly encourage you to always purchase sushi or sashimi grade previously frozen fish for your sushi.
So how to I tell if the fish I am buying is fresh?
If you are purchasing a whole fish, look for clear eyes and firm flesh and a shine or glisten to the skin. Gills should be bright red. For steaks and filets look for firm flesh and the color should be bright not dull. Fish, whole or filets should not smell fishy; it should smell briny or like the sea.
If you are purchasing tuna, you can visually tell when it is older by looking at the color. If the tuna is darker or has a greyish color, it is likely just fine to buy but it will be best either grilled, marinated or use for tuna fish. If you like your tuna on the rare side, I would recommend finding out from your fish market when they receive their tuna deliveries and purchasing it that day.
Wild vs farm raised shrimp?
Is the wild caught shrimp really worth the money? The answer: Yes. Wild shrimp mature in natural conditions and don't swim around in a confined area. I am going to leave it with that and let your imagination do the rest.
If you have not tried brown shrimp, I recommend it. Brown shrimp have a shell that is pinkish-brown in color versus being greyish-white. I think they are actually more flavorful and firm than white shrimp. Previously frozen wild caught brown shrimp is available year round according to Richard. They are generally from Louisiana. The white shrimp come from Georgia or Florida typically.
Locally in the summer, Carolina shrimp is available around Virginia Beach. The season runs from June to roughly September. Definitely worth looking for in the summer months. I know I enjoyed quite a few last summer!!
While I was at the market, I had to pick up something to take home because not only was I inspired by what I learned but everything looked so darn good and it was nearly lunchtime when we departed! I elected to get a pound the wild caught brown shrimp. Dim Sum is going to have to wait for another night as for Valentine's dinner we are going to have shrimp!
Is there a secret to buying blue crabs?
The blue crab that is so popular to the Bay area is something relatively new to me. As a crab lover, I have prepared my share of King crab and Snow crab and have made some tasty crab cakes with these. But the local blue doesn't get distributed too far out of the Bay area. Richard shared with us some great tips for buying blue crabs.
The blue crabs shed their shells about every 30 days. The most plentiful peak times are the May and June near full moons and high tide. This is when you should be thinking of frying up some soft shell crabs!! Watch out for soft shells that are already papery. These crabs are already started forming their new shells and are not as good to eat.
Ordering live, shell on crabs later in the season? You want to ensure that the crab is "heavy" and not too light. If their shells are new and they have not grown into them yet, they won't have much meat in them. Also, request that your crabs are live when you arrive at the market, even if you are going to have the steamed for you there. This will ensure the crabs are the freshest. You can then have them steam them when you get there.
I could keep going on and on about fish and seafood and what I learned from Richard but I will save a few of the tips for a future blog as I am inspired now to do some cooking with oysters and rockfish in the next few months and with blue crabs this summer when the season starts. Look for those future additions down in upcoming months.
For now, I wish you a happy Valentine's Day!