It was an awesome day on the reef. The snapper and grouper were biting and the anglers were steadily catching keepers and tossing them into the fish box. Before long, they hit their limit and headed home. After cleaning the catch and stuffing gallon-sized plastic bags with filets, the weary band agreed to meet a couple of days later for a feast. After seasoning the fish with a super-secret blend, they are tossed on the grill and the “chef” made sure they were thoroughly cooked because this wasn’t some fancy sushi-eating crowd. The result was a plateful of dry, mushy, fish with an off taste. So, what went wrong? One word: everything
After the Catch
The first few minutes after the fish is landed are critical for delivering the best quality meat. After it’s brought in, the fish should be quickly dispatched with a whack of a bat on the top of the head between the eyes or by spiking the brain with a pick or filet knife. First, it’s the humane thing to do and it also prevents the fish from thrashing, which damages the meat. It also prevents the buildup of lactic acid (which can also occur after a prolonged fight on light tackle) that will adversely affect its taste.
Next, the fish should be bled by taking a filet knife and cutting the narrowest part of skin between the gills, underneath the fish’s head, that contains the ventral aorta. For smaller species of fish, a five-gallon bucket partially filled with ice and water is ideal for containing the blood. After cutting, place the fish, head-down, in
the bucket for a few minutes to drain. After bleeding, the fish should be placed in a cooler or fish box that contains a 50/50 mix of ice and seawater. If you fish in freshwater, add 4 ounces of salt for every gallon of water. This slurry keeps the mixture below 32 degrees and surrounds the fish to keep it at the coldest temperature possible. Of course, keeping the fish alive until you are ready to clean them is another good option.
If you are eating the entire catch the same day you catch them, you can skip this next step. But if you have a big bag of fresh fish you would like to enjoy throughout the coming week, this step will greatly increase the longevity and freshness of your fish.
When you get home, immediately take the fish filets out of the bag and pat them dry, using paper towels, then wrap the dry filets — one at a time — in more paper towels and store in the refrigerator in a dry bag or sealed container. The next day, rewrap the fish with new towels and they will stay remarkably fresh much longer than you think. Use your nose as a guide to the fish’s freshness.
Never Overcook Another Piece of Fish
This technique can be used for all types of cooking methods except deep frying. It’s especially good if you are cooking a lot of fish at once. All you need is one metal skewer to test the fish’s doneness level.
For cooking on a grill, place a lightly oiled aluminum Grill Topper over the regular grill surface (caution, they melt under extreme heat). Season the fish with a mixed Greek spice called Cavenders and place the fish, “pretty” side down, onto a medium grill. After a couple of minutes, flip the filets and begin the monitoring process.
After a minute or so, take the skewer and give the skinniest part of the fish a gentle prod with the metal skewer. If the skewer passes through easily, move to a thicker part of the fish and you will probably feel some resistance this time. This is because the skewer is encountering raw fish. Wait another minute and try it again, if it passes through easily this time go to the thickest part of the fish. When the skewer passes easily through the thickest part, immediately remove it from the grill and it will be perfectly cooked. Don’t worry about this technique making the fish dry, it’s not like a steak, which will lose its juice if poked.
Panko-Crusted Pan Fried Fish With Brown Butter
Panko is Japanese breadcrumbs that give fish a beautiful, crispy crust. If you are cooking thin filets like crappie or small snapper, pre-brown the panko in a dry skillet. Give it a shake every couple of minutes until it’s light brown and put it onto a plate. Make some brown butter by putting half a stick of butter into a saucepan on medium-low heat and closely monitor it until it smells nutty, then put it into a ramekin and keep it warm until you’re ready to serve. To get the panko to stick to the filet, beat a couple of eggs and then slowly whisk in flour until it’s a thick consistency. Most people first dip the filet in flour and then into the egg bath but this creates an uneven coating as most of the flour washes off. I also add flavor to the egg wash/flour mixture by sprinkling in some Old Bay®.
Heat a skillet over medium temperature then add butter and wait until it is frothing. Dip the filet into the egg mixture, coating just one side of the fish, then place the filet, wet side down into the panko and press down to get a good coating. Then gently lower the fish into the hot butter, panko side down first. After a couple of minutes flip the fish, season with salt and pepper and utilize the skewer method above to make sure the fish doesn’t get overcooked.
To serve, pour the brown butter directly onto the plate and squirt a large wedge of lemon on top of the butter. Place the filet, crust side up, on top of the mixture.
Serve with steamed vegetables, which pair well with brown butter and lemon. By only crusting one side, you save a few calories and you can still add a favorite sauce or brown lemon butter underneath without making the crust soggy, which is what happens when you pour liquid on top of the fish.
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