Getting To Know Your Fish And Your Fishmonger

Getting To Know Your Fish And Your Fishmonger

By Bracha Serle

Here I have a branzino butterflied and smothered in pesto paste. I would leave the lemon slices on the side during the cooking process – because when you cook citrus on fish it intensifies the flavor and sometimes becomes too intense.

What do you imagine when you hear “fish” or “fish store”? Is it that awful stench of a fish store you can smell from down the block? Or is it the delicious, juicy, nutritious taste of a piece of salmon fresh out of the oven, with that perfect flake and just enough moisture to make it melt in your mouth with the first bite?

Let’s get this straight with some explanations that may change your mind about fish forever. The first thing you should know when buying fish is how to tell a fresh fish from an old fish. Second, how to choose the right fish for the right occasion and how to instruct your fishmonger to prepare it for the most hassle-free cooking process. Last, but not least, I’ll give you a simple recipe for your Shavuos table!

How to tell if a fish is fresh:

  1. The eye should be clear and not foggy.
  2. Fresh fish does not smell! (Yup, contrary to most people’s assumptions, fish is not smelly unless it is old and bad!)
  3. When touching the flesh of the fish it should spring right back at you. If you can’t figure out exactly how that should feel, here’s a trick. Take your finger and push down on your arm about 2 inches above your wrist; see how it bounces back? Yeah, so that’s how the fish should bounce back if it’s fresh.

Now that you’ve gotten the fresh aspect of fish down pat, let’s move on to different types of fish and how you can ask your fishmonger (aka the guy behind the fish counter) to prepare it for you for a seamless cooking process.

If you are preparing salmon there are so many ways to do it.

If you want it on skewers as an appetizer, ask the fishmonger to take off the skin, fillet it, and cut it into 1-inch pieces. This way, when you get home you can just push it onto the sticks with some vegetables, marinate in your favorite sauce, and then bake at 350°F for 10-15 minutes.

If you want to make nice-size pieces of salmon as a main dish, here’s how: Ask the fishmonger to cut the filleted salmon from the thickest part of the fish into 1½-inch-wide pieces. Then baste with your favorite sauce and bake at 350°F for 20 minutes. Or just make a dry rub with your favorite spices and broil on high for 10 minutes. The way to tell that fish is ready is by the way it flakes with a fork into nice clean flakes in the center. A tip to get a really evenly cooked fish is to score the thickest part of the piece before cooking; this way it has more even cooking surface area.

If you are going for more of a gravlax dish (cold cured fish, like lox and smoked fish) ask your fishmonger to fillet you a side of salmon and clean the scales really well. The process of curing fish uses salt instead of heat to preserve the fish in order to “cook” it and make it ready for consumption.

You can also make raw fish dishes such as tartare, poke, crudo, carpaccio…. the list goes on. All these dishes should be using sushi-grade fish only. What does sushi-grade fish mean? The fish is basically freshly flash frozen right out of the sea in order to get rid of any bacteria or salmonella and make it safe to eat raw. So yes, if you eat sushi with raw fish you don’t need to worry about getting food poisoning if the sushi is made with sushi-grade fish.

Then we come to butterflied fish, sometimes referred to as a whole fish. This is where you cook an entire fish, such as branzino or dorado, with its head and skin all intact. Here is where you ask the fishmonger to butterfly the fish whole and leave the head on. When you get home, smother the flesh in a delicious sauce (can be a pesto sauce or a salmon sauce of strawberry jam, fresh-minced garlic, and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese) and sprinkle the skin with some kosher salt. Then cook at 400°F skin-side up for 20 minutes or until skin is crispy.

I have so much more to say about fish, so let’s continue next week.

Bracha Serle works as a private chef specializing in healthy cooking such as gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, nut-free, and other dietary restrictions or allergies. She also does end-product marketing for kosher food companies and supermarkets, teaching consumers how to use new food products on a daily basis. Bracha gives clean-eating healthy cooking classes and demonstrations. You can check out her work on Instagram @shesthechef and can be reached via email at


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