Fresh fish facts

Fish, no matter what the reason or season, is now de rigueur on most foodservice menus. And a variety of safe, environmentally friendly fish—from fresh to fresh-frozen, whole to portioned—is now available for those operators willing to do their homework.

Exec. chef Rich Freedman with Gourmet Services says fresh salmon is the most popular fish entree at the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. Freedman describes the location as an upscale self-service cafeteria. In addition to salmon, customers at this venue have menu choices that include trout, mahi-mahi, halibut and snapper.

"I like to buy sides of fish and do my own portioning. Most of the fish arrives packed in ice, two days out of the water. If we are using the fish that day, we'll portion, season and get it down to one of our stations like the grill or hotline. Otherwise, we'll leave it whole, rinse off, wrap in plastic, pack on ice and place in a perforated pan in the refrigerator. The perforated pan allows the dripping ice to fall away from the fish, thereby retaining freshness," he explains.

Temperature's the thing: The most important safety aspect, according to Freedman, is keeping the fish at the proper temperature—under 40°F. Knowing that the cold chain remains unbroken before the product arrives is key to its freshness.

"Fish is generally brought in two times a week from a trusted local fish supplier, Marcus Empire. They get their trout filets from the Clear Springs people who have a year-round trout raising facility. I visited the farm, so I know the quality of the fish. It's literally caught early in the day and shipped by day's end. There's no deterioration."

Simplicity counts: And when it comes to recipes, Freedman's philosophy for the treatment of fish is: keep it simple. "Don't overpower with too much seasoning. Most of the time I just use sea salt, lemon juice, salt and pepper. But I also use our own blend for some of the fancier recipes. It consists of a combination of fresh seasonings, including whole coriander, fresh black peppercorns and large-grain kosher salt. He occasionally adds Szechuan peppercorns, which he toasts and grinds to bring out the oil. "The aroma it creates is wonderful. I just lightly sprinkle the fish and either grill or broil, depending on the dish. For a Mexican treatment, I add lime and chile to the seasoning."

Know thy supplier: The secret to purchasing fish, according to Freedman, boils down to having a good relationship with a supplier. And the supplier should meet the following criteria: "I need from him what is fresh, what is available and also, what is well priced."

Exec. chef Donald Miller, CEC, CCE, AAC, for Sorin's at The Morris Inn, Univ. of Notre Dame, IN, goes through an average of 150 lbs. of fish a week. Samples of fresh fish include: halibut from Alaska, farm-raised Atlantic salmon, Alaskan salmon in-season, farm-raised sturgeon, wild-striped bass, cod, flounder, turbot and mahi mahi.

A matter of trust: "We receive our fish fresh on ice directly from The Plitt Seafood supplier in Chicago. You have to trust your source," he states. "The boats come in and the fish are flown straight to Chicago. We then receive it fresh-packed on ice, in plastic containers. We usually get deliveries six times a week."

A favorite spring-menu item is Wood Charred Alaskan Halibut, served with Mediterranean cous cous, kalamata olives, capers, tomatoes and a lemon-grass infused yogurt cucumber sauce. Another favorite spring dish, according to Miller, is Sauteed Salmon in a pea broth with spring relish.

"We receive the salmon whole and filet into 5- or 6-oz. portions. We tranche cut on the bias to increase the slice's apparent size. (Troncon is the French term for a thick cut of meat or fish, especially salmon.) These are large portions. Remember, this is the Midwest and people like to eat hearty. The skin and bloodline are removed to eradicate any taste of bitterness."

Signs to look for: There are certain rules of thumb that Miller follows when receiving fish. "I always check for freshness. I check the gills, eyes. I check the smell. I use my finger to push in on the fish, feeling the firmness of the flesh. The skin should have a nice sheen. That's why the skin should be left on, so that you can see all this."

Like Chef Freedman, Miller agrees that you must "have a wonderful relationship with your seafood purveyor. You should visit. You should checkout the facilities. See how they buy. The Plitt Group, our seafood purveyor, is totally environmentally aware—a staunch champion of the sustainable seafood message. The only fish they buy is that which will not affect the species."

Miller frequently visits the Plitt facilities in Chicago. "I've attended tours and seminars. I've been educated on how to buy and what is environmentally responsible when it comes to purchasing certain fish. I've even gone out to meet the fishermen who catch the fish," he says.

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