Among all of the different classes of ingredients found in a typical kitchen, seafood presents some special issues. It’s expensive, perishable, delicate and can be tricky to cook. It’s also very popular with customers, is becoming more so and can be very profitable. In light of all of this, let’s take a close look at seafood in terms of selection, procurement, receiving, storage, menu planning and preparation.
There is an amazing variety of seafood available today. In the same way that it behooves a chef to be familiar with various types and cuts of meat, they should also have a good working knowledge of the different types of seafood available in their market. Seafood can be broken down into two basic categories: fish and shellfish. Both of these groups contain sub-categories. Within the fish family, there are round fish (a backbone along the top with a fillet on either side and one eye on each side of the head), flat fish (a backbone through the center with fillets on top and bottom and both eyes on one side of the head) and non-bony fish (having cartilage instead on bones.) Examples of round fish are: bass, salmon and catfish; flat fish: flounder, halibut and sole; non-bony fish: shark, skate, and monkfish.
Shellfish can be broken down into four subgroups, defined, as with fish, by their skeletal structure. Within the shellfish family we have univalves (one shell), bivalves (two shells with a hinge), crustaceans (exterior shells with joints) and cephalopods (tentacles attached directly to the heads.) Examples of univalves are: snails, conch and abalone; bivalves: oysters, clams, mussels and scallops; crustaceans: lobster, crab and shrimp; cephalopods: octopus and squid.
Each of these categories contains many different flavors and textures for the chef to choose from. And just like with different cuts of meat, different seafood choices will come out better with certain cooking techniques over others. We’ll look at this topic more closely when we talk about menu planning and preparation.
If you intend to serve fresh seafood, then you need to develop a good working relationship with a reliable vendor, possibly one that deals only in fresh seafood. It’s nice to have a couple of good seafood vendors to work with to keep them competitive and interested. However, seafood is something where quality of product and service are more important than the lowest price. Also, if you are a small operation, you might be better off giving one vendor the majority of your business so that you’ll be a more significant account to them. Be vigilant, of course, to make sure that they actually treat you like you are significant. Since seafood is so perishable, one of the main things you should be looking for in a vendor is frequent, if not daily, deliveries. A purveyor whose minimum order is more than you can use in a few days, and who won’t change his tune after you explain the situation, is not someone you want to work with. They should also be scrupulous about how they handle the product in terms of using shaved ice, quality of butchering, the type of trucks they use, intelligent routing and overall cleanliness. Make sure you pay a visit to their facility.
Your seafood vendors can also be sources of information about which fish to use in different situations. They should be able to answer any questions you have about their product’s continued availability, flavor, texture, oil content and origin. Speaking of origin, while years of overfishing have unfortunately diminished the supply of some longtime favorites, farm-raised products now offer year round, consistent products with less price variation than in the past. Much has been said about the negative aspects of farm-raised seafood, but it’s a reality we live with, and a line of products we should be familiar with. In a practical sense, what you lose in character, you gain in consistency and availability. You should also be open to considering high-quality frozen products for some items. Individually vacuum-packed, flash-frozen yellow fin tuna steaks, for example, might be just the ticket for a reliable, consistent product on your menu. You can even buy a few cases when it’s on sale (provided you have the freezer space), something that’s not an option with fresh tuna.
On delivery, fresh seafood should always be carefully checked in by someone who knows what they’re looking for. The most important, single thing to do when checking in seafood is to smell it. It should have a nice, clean aroma of the sea. If it doesn’t, reject it. If this happens more than very occasionally, get a new vendor. Other ways to check that a fish is fresh are to feel the skin to make sure that the scales don’t come off too easily, to press your finger on the flesh and make sure it springs right back (the fish, not your finger), see that the tail and fins aren’t dried out, see that the eyes are clear and don’t sink into the head and make sure that the gills are a shade of red, not brown or gray. Lobsters and crabs should show signs of movement. Bivalves, such as clams, should be tightly shut. If a few are open, discard them. If there are more than a few open ones in an order, reject it. As with checking in any kind of order, it’s always a good idea to use a scale. Seafood is too expensive for a vendor to make a mistake on, accidentally or otherwise.
Storing fresh seafood is a little more demanding than storing most items. Ideally, order just enough for a day or two at the most. If, for some reason, you have to order more, proper storage becomes more critical. It might seem a little fussy but, after you’ve watched product deteriorate or spoil, you realize it’s not fussy at all. After checking in the fish as per the above instructions, rinse it off under cold running water. Any necessary butchering should be done as closely to cooking as practical. Place the fish in shaved ice in a perforated hotel pan, belly down for round fish. Fill the belly cavity with ice, then cover with more. You can make more than one layer. Place the pan over a non-perforated pan to catch the melting ice, and put the whole set up on a shelf in a cooler. Using the perforated pan prevents the fish from sitting in water, which causes the flesh to deteriorate more quickly. Using shaved ice instead of cubes prevents bruising and does a better job chilling the fish evenly. Switch the fish out to clean pans daily, repeating the same icing procedure. Stored this way, fish can last several days, depending on how fresh it was when you received it.
Cans of scallops out of the shell and fresh fish fillets should be stored in the plastic or metal packaging they come in, on ice, in a cooler. Don’t let the product come in direct contact with the ice. Re-ice before the packages are “swimming” in melted ice. Live shellfish like crabs and lobsters should be stored in their shipping containers, or wrapped in damp paper and stored at 39°F to 45°F. Do not let them come in contact with water. Live oysters, mussels and clams can be stored in the bag they come in. Keep the bag closed tightly and don’t ice them. Frozen products like fish and shrimp should be stored at -20°F to 0°F. The best way to thaw them is in a refrigerator. If time won’t allow for that, they can be thawed in a sink under cold running water.
Butchering fish in-house is not hard, although it takes a little time and training to do it right. The advantages are reduced costs, more control over your product, a possibly fresher product and having bones and heads for stocks. Space, ability and man-hours certainly enter into the equation. The convenience of buying pre-butchered fillets may outweigh the disadvantages in certain kitchens during certain seasons.
In contemplating seafood options for your restaurant, as with any menu planning, it’s important to play to your audience. While octopus ceviche might be just the ticket in one establishment, it probably wouldn’t go over very well in another. Realize that seafood has something to offer to every taste. Even people who “don’t like fish” probably just haven’t had the kinds of fish that they would enjoy. There are a lot of fish varieties that are not “fishy” in the least. And don’t forget, anything good is better fried.
The four main attributes of any type of fish are: flavor, texture, fat content and recommended cooking methods. If you know what you’re after in terms of these characteristics, you’ll have a much easier time choosing between different fish initially, and then later, if you need a substitute. For instance, if you want a mild fish with a soft, flaky texture that’s not too rich that you can sear or broil, a red snapper would be perfect. It’s also kind of expensive. If you needed a less expensive substitute, tilapia, a fish similar in key respects, could do the job. If you were after something a little richer, firmer, more aggressive in flavor, and money wasn’t the issue, redfish would be your answer. Salmon is very popular and a mainstay of many restaurants. When wild, depending on the time of year, it can be sublime. When farm-raised, it’s always available at a decent price at a very good quality, and it’s probably what most customers want when they order salmon. It’s a fairly rich fish that can be prepared any number of ways: poached (served warm or chilled), smoked, cured, broiled, seared or grilled. It’s also too fishy for some people’s tastes. If you’re choosing a fish to grill, you might want to stack the deck in your favor and go with a less physically delicate variety, like tuna, swordfish or salmon versus something more likely to flake apart like sole. Sole, on the other hand would poach or broil beautifully. The thing is to be aware of what you’re looking for, and try different options. Your vendor should be able to make intelligent suggestions, especially if you ask the right questions.
One of the great things about shellfish is that it can be prepared and served so many different ways. Shrimp, lobster, crawfish and crab are classic appetizers when poached and chilled. Served this way, they’re easy to get out at service time, and are very popular and profitable. Other great first course shellfish dishes include such disparate choices as gumbos and bisques, cured or smoked salmon and trout, oysters and clams on the half shell, crab cakes and clam fritters, escargot and crab campenchana.
Cooking seafood takes a little more care than most other foods. First, always make sure that at every point in time leading up to the actual cooking, the product is chilled. Once checked in, get it into the cooler immediately. If practical, check it in inside the walk-in. Then, if butchering larger quantities, take it out of the cooler in small batches and have a pan of ice at the station to keep it on while it’s being worked on. The same holds true at service. Take smaller batches of the mise en place out of the cooler to bring out to the line, and then have a pan of ice to keep it in once there. Under-counter coolers are great and very handy, but may not be an option. At the end of service, get any un-used seafood back into the cooler quickly, on fresh ice if need be.
When cooking seafood, whether broiling, poaching, grilling or using any other method, it’s easy to overcook it. DON’T! Seafood, more than most things, is at it’s best when cooked just right. Rubbery shrimp, tough scallops and dried-out fish won’t get the customers back anytime soon. And don’t forget about carry-over cooking. Even after the product leaves the grill, sauté pan, or wherever you’re cooking it on, it will continue to cook for a while. When in doubt, if you think in needs a little more time, take it off the heat. You can always cook it more, but you can’t cook it less.