Introduction to fish - choosing and storing fresh fish and healthy cooking methods.

introduction to fish
As well as being advised to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables in order to promote a healthier nation, we are also being urged to consume plenty more fish - and for good reason too.

The consummation of fish in countries such as the UK has declined tremendously in a very short space of time, and we tend to eat a lot more meat and poultry instead.

This may be due to the fact that fewer people know how to cook properly, they are less informed about nutrition, they may be put off by the smell of cooking fish and they basically lack the time to shop for fresh products and cook a healthy meal.
Many of the above are in fact misinformed excuses, as fish is very quick and easy to prepare. It can be prepared for cooking by the fishmonger and cooked in a matter of minutes at home. Not all types of fish give off odorous smells that linger for weeks and eating fish is much healthier than eating meat, particularly red meat.

In some Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece or even in Scandinavian countries where cold-water fish is plentiful, fish and seafood are eaten on a more regular basis, often several times a week.

In these countries where the pace of life is perhaps less frantic and people still get together and enjoy traditional good food, fish is very popular and is even regarded as more of a treat than eating meat. Where in the UK, we traditionally have a Sunday roast that consists of roast beef or lamb, in Spain for example, a big "paella" is usually considered the best celebratory food.

Fish markets are still popular and many women will visit the market on a daily basis for fresh products including fresh fish.

Some nutritional facts about fish

  • Some types of fish are very low in fat
  • The fattier fish types contain healthy essential fatty acids (omega-3) that are actually very good for the body
  • White fish types are rich in vitamin B12
  • Oily fish are rich in vitamins A, B12 and D
  • Fish is a high protein, low-fat food
  • Small fish bones that may be eaten are rich in calcium
  • Fish is a good source of iron
  • Fish is very easy to digest and therefore a good food choice for the elderly or people who are not feeling very well
  • Fish does not contain harmful saturated or hydrogenated fats
  • 100 g of fish contain up to half the daily recommended amount of protein

Types of fish

There are three types of fish that we are able to buy from the shops (or catch ourselves from our rivers and seas) and consume at home or out in restaurants.

First of all there is white fish with varieties such as cod, plaice and haddock. These types of fish are popular in the UK, but usually when they are coated in batter and deep-fried at the local fish and chip shop!

Secondly, we have oily fish such as salmon, sardines and trout. Sardines are plentiful in the Mediterranean and are often consumed during the summer months as a snack or "tapa".

The third type of fish is shellfish, where the skeleton of the fish forms a protective covering or shell. Shellfish are divided into crustaceans such as crabs, crayfish or prawns and molluscs, which include mussels and oysters in their family.

Shellfish are actually much harder to digest than the other two types of fish and they do contain certain amounts of cholesterol. The positives outweigh the negatives though as they are low in saturated fat and calories, high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids and numerous minerals including zinc, selenium, potassium and iron.

Benefits of eating fish

The main benefit of eating fish as opposed to meat is that fish is far healthier. It is a complete protein and white fish in particular is very low in fat and calories and therefore useful if you are dieting.

Not only that, but fish does not contain saturated fats, as all meat products and by-products such as butter, cheese and milk do.

Although some fish are slightly more calorific and fatty than others, these fats are the healthier polyunsaturated fats, which include omega-3 essential fatty acids that benefit the body and prevent certain diseases rather than cause them.

Fish oils such as cod or halibut liver oil are often taken in the form of capsules in order to keep joints healthy and supple.

Fish is very easy to digest and therefore for people with digestive disorders or who are generally felling weak and under the weather, a light fish meal can be of use.

As well as all of the obvious health benefits of consuming fish, buying fish is also easier on the purse and preparing and cooking it can actually save you time in the kitchen, freeing up your time for other activities.

Another great advantage is that there are so many varieties of fish available plus many different ways of preparing and presenting it that you will never have to eat the same fish twice in one week or possibly even month.

Fish can be boiled, grilled, steamed, baked, fried, deep-fried, smoked, pickled, soused, stewed or poached and can be served in a sandwich, pie, tartlet, salad, croquette, fish cake, whole, in breadcrumbs, battered, in a pastie or on toast. It can even be consumed for breakfast, lunch or dinner!

Choosing and buying fresh fish

Fish is a highly perishable product. As soon as the fish dies, bacteria begins to proliferate on its surface and it starts to decompose quite rapidly. For this reason it is important that from the moment of capture, measures are taken to conserve the freshness of the fish. For example it is better to use a fishing method that doesn't exhaust the fish (nets are no good), as it's decomposition is accelerated. Care must be taken when handling the fish to prevent any incisions, as this is how bacteria enter and the fish must be kept cold immediately at preferably 0°C.

You should purchase your fresh fish from a reputable source, where you know that there is a high turnover and fish are replaced daily, the fish are handled properly and hygiene is 100%.

At the fish counter

  • It is a good sign if the fish is surrounded with ice or at least is lying on a bed of ice.
  • There shouldn't be heaps of fish on top of each other.
  • The fish should be placed in boxes on a slope so that any liquid can run free.
  • Any sources of heat, such as lights directed at the fish, will not facilitate their conservation.
  • It is not good practise to pulverise the fish with water. This could be a way of masking the fact that the fish is not very fresh, since water makes the skin shinier and appear less dry.
The label should indicate the name of the company, method of production, area of capture or breeding, method of presentation (with or without the head, cooked, filleted, frozen) and the net weight.

Allow 5 oz (140 g) of fish per person if buying fish steaks, fillets or cutlets and if buying a whole fish, allow 12 oz (340 g) per person.

What to look out for

You can usually tell if a fish is fresh at the fish counter by looking out for the following characteristics:
  • The body should be swollen, shiny and smooth to touch.
  • The fish should smell of the sea and not "fishy".
  • The eyes should be moist, bright and popping out and not sunken or dull
  • The gills should be bright and moist.
  • Look out for a firm or stiff abdomen without any tears or cuts.
  • The skin and scales should be fresh, moist, smooth and not flaky or dull.
  • The meat should be firm and elastic and should not stay indented when touched.
  • The blood should be red and shiny and not a chocolate brown colour.
  • Brittle or broken tails suggest that the fish has previously been frozen and defrosted. If this is the case, it should be marked as such and the price should be less than completely fresh fish.

Storing fish

Fish should be purchased as near as possible to when you are going to consume it. It is highly perishable and is likely to go off after three days in the refrigerator. For best results cook and consume the fish on the same day that you buy it.

Fish can be bought frozen or it can be frozen on the day of purchase and therefore will keep for between 3 - 6 months, depending on what type of fish it is.

White fish can be stored in the freezer for 6 months, whilst oily fish should be consumed within 3 months.

If storing fish in the refrigerator, it should be kept in an airtight container or on a plate and covered with cling film, to prevent it from drying out and losing liquids or from contaminating other foods.

If buying fish that is already wrapped in packaging, keep it in the same packaging and just place it into a plastic bag and then into the refrigerator.

Preparation for cooking

You can ask for your fish to be cleaned and gutted at the fishmonger's if you don't want to do it, especially if you are a bit squeamish. The fishmonger will also fillet and bone the fish too if necessary.

This means that all you need to do at home before cooking the fish is wash it under a cold running tap and then pat it dry with kitchen paper. Keep the fish refrigerated all the while that you are not using it.

Healthy cooking methods for fish

The healthiest ways to cook fish are by grilling, steaming or baking.

When grilling fish, the flesh should be brushed with a little olive oil to prevent it from drying out and often lemon juice is also sprinkled over the fish to give extra flavour. The fish can be enhanced further with herbs and seasonings, making this a very tasty method of preparing fish.

All types of fish are suited to steaming and as the fish does not come into contact with the water, many of the vitamins and minerals are retained. With boiling, for example, valuable water-soluble vitamins will be lost, as the fish comes into contact with the boiling liquid.

Steamed fish may taste slightly bland and therefore it is often accompanied by a delicious sauce or garnish. Try to ensure that the sauce is not too fattening if you are watching the calories.

Although fish may be baked in a mixture of oil or butter as well as other ingredients, this is still a healthy way of cooking your fish, as very small amounts of fat are used. The fish may be wrapped in aluminium foil to prevent the flesh from drying out and for the flavour to stay in.

Frozen fish

Many people prefer to buy frozen fish for a number of reasons, yet the range of frozen fish is not as extensive as that of fresh fish at the moment.

People often choose frozen fish because the gutting, cutting, boning and cleaning is already done for them plus frozen fish has less odour than fresh fish. Some people are often put off by the smell of fresh fish and therefore do not buy it for that reason only.

Frozen fish, whether it is sold as a whole fish, in fillets or in a ready-made meal, is not necessarily of an inferior quality to fresh fish. The best-quality fish is frozen either whilst it is still on the fishing boat or shortly after reaching the shore. This means that vital nutrients are not lost and are preserved within the flesh.

Frozen fish fillets or steaks can be quite handy to have in the freezer, especially if you are stuck for something to eat. They should be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator or for at least 8 hours.

Smaller fillets of fish may be cooked straight from frozen but you must ensure that they are completely cooked through before serving.

Tinned fish

Tinned fish such as salmon, tuna or sardines are an excellent stand-by food to have in the cupboard. The tins contain only edible parts of the fish, which can be eaten hot or cold, added to salads, rice, pasta, made into fillings, pate, fish cakes, croquettes and much more. They are very inexpensive and a good option for a healthy meal when camping, if you have a power cut or if time is perhaps pressing.

Smoked fish

Most types of fish can be smoked, although it is usually more popular to smoke oily fish such as salmon, trout or mackerel, as this type of fish is more suited to the process.

Smoking is a way of preserving fish that is not going to be consumed immediately and it may be stored in the refrigerator for longer than fresh fish.

Some smoked fish such as smoked salmon or smoked trout can be eaten cold, as they have already been cooked during the smoking process, whilst other types such as smoked cod or haddock must be cooked before eating, as they were smoked using the cold-smoking method and the fish was not actually cooked.

How much fish should we eat?

It has been recommended by various governing bodies that we consume two portions of fish a week, with one of those portions being a type of oily fish and the other could be a type of white, non-oily fish.

How much is one portion?

A portion of fish is generally considered to be about 5 oz (140 g). For a main course allow slightly more fish per person, around 7 - 8 oz (200 - 225 g), which would be the size of a large cutlet, fillet or steak.

For whole fish, a medium sized mackerel or trout would be more than enough for one person and any more would possibly be too much.

Be careful of

We are warned not too eat too much fish, particularly certain types of oily fish in one week, as some fish may become contaminated with toxins and chemicals from polluted waters, rivers and seas.

Limit your intake of fresh tuna and swordfish, as they tend to absorb heavy metals such as mercury and lead, which are extremely difficult for the body to expel. A build-up over time of these metals and other chemicals can cause havoc with your nervous and immune system and can even lead to fertility problems or memory loss. Try to stick to organically farmed varieties of fish whenever possible.

Also take care with small types of shellfish such as oysters, prawns and mussels, as they may contain traces of toxic metals and chemicals as well. Additionally, these types of small shellfish are often described as the "scavengers" of the ocean, due to the fact that they hoover up all of the rubbish that is found on the sea floor and ideally you don't want to be putting that "rubbish" into your body.

Do not start to panic though, as not all waters are polluted and clean fish is widely available. Try to eat a wide variety of fish and buy organic as much as possible if you do consume a lot of fish.

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