Cooking Fish without Fear: Tips from Chef Michel Nischan

I caught up with author, leader in the sustainable food movement and world-renowned Chef Michel Nischan and posed commonly asked questions to help you cook fish without fear. Here are his tips, tricks and contagious enthusiasm for cooking with seafood.

Hopefully you’ve heard that we’re no longer carrying red-rated wild-caught fish opens in a new tab in our seafood departments.

This shift serves up peace of mind that the fish you purchase at our stores aren’t overfished or caught in ways that harm other marine life or habitats. However, for some people that’s not enough to get them to prepare fish at home with ease. They just aren’t comfortable cooking seafood.

For those of you who don’t cook seafood beyond a tried-and-true recipe or two, we brought in a big fish in the culinary world to help you navigate these unchartered waters. I caught up with author and leader in the sustainable food movement Chef Michel Nischan opens in a new tab and posed commonly asked questions to help you cook fish without fear. Here are his tips, tricks and contagious enthusiasm for cooking with seafood.

Why cook with seafood? For the taste and the variety, Chef Nischan was quick to exclaim. Plus, there is a pretty distinct flavor between species. “This incredible diversity allows home chefs the opportunity to appear more creative in the kitchen just by changing the type of fish,” explained Chef Nischan. “You don’t need a big battery of sauces for fish. For example, salmon, tuna and cod all accept the same accoutrements. So you just need to understand the simple technique of how to cook the fish.”

How do you snag a fresh catch? Chef Nischan’s secret is to shop somewhere that has well-trained fish mongers behind the counter (ahem, like at Whole Foods Market), ask questions and trust those experts. He advises buying a whole fish when possible and asking the fishmonger to cut it for you. This way you can check for these indicators of freshness:

  • Look at the gills. They should be a rich red.

  • Look at the eyes. They should be bright, clear and shiny.

  • Smell it. It should have a fresh, slightly sea-like, mild odor rather than a sour or fishy smell.

  • Look at the skin. It should be shiny, and the flesh of fresh fish should be firm and elastic.

What is the most common mistake for home chefs unfamiliar with cooking seafood? Have you ever wondered why your house sometimes smells so strongly of fish when you cook it?Odds are you probably overcooked it.

But you’re not alone.

Chef Nischan believes that overcooking fish is the most common mistake for home chefs. Avoid having your meal go belly up by cooking the fish for a couple minutes less than your estimated time, then check for doneness. You can always put it back in the oven, but you can’t fix it once it’s overcooked. Check the fish for doneness by separating its flesh in the thickest part of the fish with a fork; it should flake easily. Remember that the fish will continue to cook for another few minutes once it’s off the heat.

Are there any nearly foolproof preparation methods? Thankfully, yes. Chef Nischan spotlighted cooking in a parchment paper packet.

For a quick meal with minimal clean-up, try Halibut with Artichokes and Tomatoes opens in a new tab or as Chef Nischan encourages, experiment. “It’s part of learning to cook after all,” he explained. Pick a fish and try different herbs, veggies and marinades to create the perfect meal for those around your table.

What’s a quick and easy seafood dish? A wild-caughtsalmon fillet is Chef Nischan’s go-to fish dish. He mixes homemade mayo opens in a new tab with mustard, lemon juice and herbs and brushes a 1/8” coating on the fish before cooking. Experiment with your own homemade marinade or try his recipe for Seared Wild Salmon with Wilted Greens and Ancient Grains opens in a new tab.

Looking for a dish to impress? Easy (and tasty) does it. Admittedly when I asked Chef Nischan which seafood dish he serves to impress guests, I expected him to answer with a time consuming, labor intensive recipe that included making wine aspic or Béarnaise sauce. (He is a world-renowned chef, after all.)

To my surprise and relief, he explained that guests at his table are truly impressed when he serves lesser-known fish like mackerel or sardines – fish that they either have not tasted properly prepared or have never tried. Simply by properly cooking these uncommon choices, Chef Nischan wows his guests with delicious new flavors. No wine aspic needed!

What’s the most underappreciated fish in the seafood department? Holy mackerel. Chef Nischan mentioned them again. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper an hour before you throw them on the grill, mackerel and sardines are tasty options too often overlooked. (If he’s hooked on these choices, then they must be worth trying.)

In support of healthier oceans and to help reverse overfishing trends, Whole Foods Market is no longer carrying red-rated wild seafood. What can shoppers do? “You can be part of the solution and have a delicious family meal at home,” Chef Nischan said. He explained that by being adventurous in the kitchen and restaurants and trying new types of fish, you can do your part to save the ocean. Here are some sound solutions to red-rated seafood opens in a new tab. Fishing for more meal ideas? Take a look at these seafood recipes opens in a new tab!

Have you recently cooked a new-to-you fish with great results? Are there any types of fish that you’ve enjoyed at a restaurant but are wary of preparing at home? Let us know.

Note: The image of Chef Nischan’s salmon recipe is used with permission from Andre Baranowski opens in a new tab.

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