A Fine Kettle Of Fish

Gulf Coast seafood is good eating even when you’re watching the scales.

Gulf Coast seafood is one pleasure in life that won’t make you fat or get you arrested. Another good thing about it is that it’s in plentiful supply. The bad thing about it is that you can’t always buy really fresh seafood conveniently. Of course, you can always go fishing. If you’ve never stood waist deep in water and cast into the surf for your supper you don’t know what you’ve missed. Not even yoga can top the feeling of peace and relaxation that comes from concentrating all your attention on the thumb and forefinger of your right hand waiting for a strike. And to cook on the spot what you’ve caught, with no middlemen involved, well—fish from the market will never be the same for you.

Casting aside all that, you can purchase a marvelous variety of seafood if you’re fortunate enough to live in one of the cities in Texas with a fresh seafood market. Austin has a model known as Quality Seafoods. They handle everything from Alaska king crab to sheeps-head. In San Antonio, there’s Polunsky’s; in Fort Worth, Quillin’s at three locations; in Dallas, Gulf Fish Market (two locations) with fish from all over the world and a fresh lobster tank, also Seacoast Fish and Christie’s Seafood. Houston has Glatzmaier Seafood Market on Travis, and is in the process of getting a new market, The Fishery, to be located at 9521 Westheimer. Texas Parks and Wildlife seafood specialist Bill Swartz said of The Fishery, “Texas is finally getting a 20th-century seafood market.” They’ll fly in fresh mackerel and pike from the North, lobster from Maine, crab from Alaska. They’ll have wholesale and retail fish from the Gulf available the day after it’s caught.

But what if you don’t live within biking distance of a Quality or a Fishery? First, you’re better off if you try to deal with a market which restricts itself to fish. Chain grocers have buyers who bid on fresh fish, but quality control sometimes gets lost in the shuffle for bargains. Second, you’ll be happier with your results if you choose fresh fish instead of frozen. Fish that have been frozen and thawed are extremely delicate and have a tendency to fall apart.

If you can’t get to a seafood market and your corner grocer handles only frozen fish, lean on him to put in an ice chest for fresh fish. Today there is no excuse but consumer apathy for a lack of good, fresh seafood all over the state. Considering the normal 35-per cent retail markup, almost any grocer would put in an ice chest if his customers demanded it, though many seafood wholesalers say, “Cooks in Texas are ignorant about seafood, unless they live right on the water.”

How do you know which fish to choose from the ones on ice? Look him right in the eye. His eye should be clear and bulging. Cloudy or sunken eyes are telltale signs of inferior quality. Older fish grow bacteria and even get yellow around the mouth. Arghh. Don’t hesitate to ask the fishseller to let you have a whiff if there is still doubt in your mind. Old fish gets a raunchy smell which is unmistakable, like kitchen ammonia—a sure sign of putrefaction. There is rarely any charge at a fish market for cutting, so let the butcher do it. Select a whole fish that you can see is good and fresh, then have it butchered to suit your plans for preparation. Or take it home whole—there’s nothing juicier than a whole steamed fish, and you can use all the bones to make broth for chowder.

How shall you prepare it? The Texas consumer is used to accepting fried fish as the one and only way. That’s about as reasonable as chicken-frying sirloins. Fish have a delicate flavor which can be totally masked by batter and mazola. And that wretched stuff which comes frozen in corn meal is completely dried out. If you have available to you only frozen fish, at least get it frozen solid, by the pound.

Choose the fish variety according to your preparation plans. For broiling, for instance, choose a redfish or snapper. For baking, select flounder, snapper, or drum-sheepshead. One interesting note: black drum and its freshwater cousin sheepshead contain the highest quality protein, but have been popular only with blacks for one of those mysterious cultural reasons that create food fetishes. At the fish market the price of drum is considerably less than that of redfish; cut and cooked, it looks and tastes like redfish, and is sometimes sneaked under your nose in fine restaurants. Next time you’re in a seafood market, try a drum. Choose a size from eight to twenty inches. Or buy flounder: it’s an important year-round food fish which has firm, white, delicate flesh that adapts to a wide variety of preparation methods.

Texas produces one-third of all the oysters in this country and they’re usually available fresh, in pints, in grocery stores that sell no other fresh fish products. Oysters are of particular value in that they provide many of the so-called trace minerals which have been refined out of other foods. The belief that oysters are only good to eat during months having “R” is not true. They actually reach their peak during May and June. Before we had adequate refrigeration, oysters wouldn’t keep in summer, whose months don’t have “R,” hence the old saying. Oysters can be stored up to seven days if iced down in the refrigerator, but should never be frozen.

Crab meat is cooked before it is marketed and can be used without further ado. “Lump” is the white meat from the body and is most popular and most expensive. “Flake“ is small pieces of white meat taken from inside the body and around the edges. Claw meat is much darker meat and is often sold as claw fingers.

If you get the chance to go crabbing, take it. Rotten chicken necks make great bait.

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