Cooking seafood at home can be a daunting venture, even for those who consider themselves reasonably skilled home cooks. (Is it too dry? Too endangered? Am I going to send my date to the hospital?) That’s why we took a private cooking class with Michael Cimarusti -- arguably the best seafood chef in LA and the man behind award-winning favorites Providence and Connie & Ted’s -- to help you navigate the daunting waters of how to select the best fish from the market and cook it like a pro. And thankfully, you can take the class too.
We got behind the abundant display case with Cimarusti at Cape Seafood and Provisions, the gleaming, white-tiled shop that he opened just last year. At the shop on Fairfax, overseen by culinary director Brandon Gray, you can find a bounty of sustainably caught seafood, curated groceries to accompany and cook that seafood, and grab-and-go items like octopus tacos, crab cakes, and Gray’s impressive array of seafood charcuterie. The classes he’s started at the shop allow an intimate group of guests to go behind the scenes for several cooking demos, learn inside tips from the chef, and enjoy the delicious results.
“I think there's a need for them,” Cimarusti says of the classes. “There's a lot of people out there who want to cook more fish, but feel a little tentative about it because of a lack of experience. Everyone has their favorite recipes for chicken, or steak, pork, and everything else. But fish is a little bit less of a familiar protein for a lot of people, so the classes can help to that end.”
Whether the extent of your experience preparing fish at home involves a can opener or you’ve been catching and filleting your dinner for years, there’s always more to learn. With the classes, Cimarusti and his team aim to demystify and simplify the process of selecting what to cook and how to get it to your plate.
“What we teach people in the classes is to keep things as simple as possible, both in terms of presentation and technique,” Cimarusti explains. “Because I feel like once you master a few simple things when it comes to fish cookery than you can expand on what you've learned and improvise a bit more. If your first choice isn't available, you'd be able to make a confident choice about something else, and take it home and still be able to pull of something that's special. Because, honestly, the way I like to cook fish and what I try to teach people in the classes is that it is really not all that complicated.”
Navigating the market and making sustainable choices
Unless you’re casting a line of the fishing boat yourself, the first step in preparing fish for dinner is the one you take into the market or over to the seafood counter at the grocery store. As obvious and simple as it sounds, it can be an intimidating step to take -- especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Or maybe you do know, but they don’t have it. Or if you’re venturing into new territory, how should you prepare it? Then there are those small placards that read, “wild caught,” “farm raised,” “local,” etc. While you may know that numerous species of fish are endangered due to overfishing or certain fishing practices are harmful to the ecosystem, and other selections could be tied to modern day slavery, it can still be difficult to determine the best choice. That’s why Cimarusti encourages shoppers not to shy away from asking questions.
“You want to know the country of origin,” he says. “And hopefully you can get more specific than that, like where exactly was this fish caught? You want to know how the fish was caught, whether it was farm raised or wild. Fresh or frozen. If you walk into a fish market or a supermarket and either from the signage that's on display or from conversations with the folks working behind the counter, if you can't get simple basic questions like that, then you're shopping in the wrong place as far as i'm concerned.”
The cost of quality
Price can be one of the more intimidating hurdles when shopping for seafood as prices can vary widely even within species. As sushi eaters we’ve understandably wary of cheap fish, but as savvy shoppers we also look for ways to get the most bang for our buck, to which Cimarusti says, "Great fish is never cheap, and cheap fish is never great, and that's the truth. But we do have affordable fish. We'll have species in the case that are $10 and under, which is very affordable by any standards.”
Cimarusti also cautions against customers focusing solely on trendy fish or ones that they might often see on restaurant menus. “We have people come in here looking for Branzino -- which a lot of people do because they’ve been programmed to look for that, it's trendy -- But the truth is, probably 99.9% of what you see is farm raised and has very little flavor. It's very difficult to account for where those fish are raised, and how they're raised and what they're fed, which are all very important factors when you're talking about farm-raised fish. Because most of those fish are fed on a steady diet of grains and grains are not part of the normal diet of a saltwater fish, but it will fatten them up fairly quickly. The environment be damned, in many cases, and flavor, quality and wholesomeness be damned.”
Beyond a lack of flavor and risks posed to the environment, Cimarusti also cautions that often farm-raised fish could pose a health risk to consumers. We’ve become increasingly aware of how land animals are raised in large scale factory operations and the risks that meat can pose to human health. Yet seafood seems to remain one area where we’re willing to sometimes overlook fishing practices for a better deal. “A lot of farm raised fish is pumped full of antibiotics, growth hormones and dyes to color their flesh,” the chef explains. “We all worry about what we put into our bodies and where our vegetables come from, and where our meat is coming from, and I feel like we need to extend that same level of concern to the type of fish that we're eating.” Spending a little more on fish and perhaps buying smaller amounts or not as often, seems like a worthwhile investment, not only for better flavor and quality, but for our health and the environment as well.
Which fish to avoid
So how are we supposed to know which fish to avoid and which are worth our money? Well besides shopping at a place like Cape Seafood or keeping the Seafood Watch app handy, Cimarusti has a few critical pointers to keep in mind, whether you’re at the market or at a restaurant:
- “Don't buy bluefin tuna anywhere. Don't buy it at a fish market, don't eat it at a restaurant. If you go to a sushi restaurant and you want to do omakase and they ask you if there's anything you don't eat, tell them you don't eat bluefin tuna. Make a point of that, it's incredibly important. They are literally on the brink of extinction.”
- “When it comes to other species of tuna, you should be looking for yellowfin and big eye, and you should be looking for fish, in our case that comes from Hawaii, which is the most sustainable option for fish harvested in the U.S.”
- “When it comes to salmon, the first thing that people need to realize is that salmon is a seasonal fish and now as we're getting into the depths of winter in the places where wild salmon are historically harvested, especially Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and even Northern California, the fisheries are either closed or the weather is so bad that the fisherman can't get out to fish.”
- “Probably 90% of the shrimp that you see in a fish market is going to be farm raised, and so you want to know where it was raised, and if possible how it was raised, which is a difficult question and why we try to steer clear of it entirely. We use only fresh shrimp and from the Carolinas.”
Which fish to buy instead
Great, so we have an idea of what to avoid, but if you’ve been conditioned to go straight for the tuna or salmon in the case at the market, you may be wondering where else to look. The first step that Cimarusti endorses is buying from the fisherman in the good old US of A, which not only enables you a better shot at knowing how and where the fish was caught, but it also helps support local economies. “Buying American fish is a patriotic act,” Cimarusti explains, echoing the wisdom he gleaned from a fisherman he works with. “Ninety percent of the seafood that you see on offer, whether at supermarkets or fish shops, is imported. And we try to buck that trend by offering as much domestic fish as we can, with a few exceptions. The fishing industry in the US is a tougher and tougher place to be, and a harder and harder place to make a living. Every purchase you make, no matter how small, in some way supports keeping American fisherman on the water.”
These are some of the solid recommendations Cimarusti suggests if you’re looking to branch out:
- Porgies: “It's a great little wild fish, usually coming to us from New York, caught out on Long Island. It's delicious, it's plentiful, it's highly underappreciated -- some people might call it a trash fish, but I don't like to use that term. It's great value, great flavor and very versatile.”
- Black cod: “Right now we have beautiful, local black cod coming to us from Santa Barbara. It's really great roasted in a pan, keeping the skin really crispy and cooked to about medium, it's absolutely delicious.”
- Spanish mackerel: “It usually comes from the Carolinas, and that's a great wild fish. Very fatty and flavorful, and it's great for the grill or pan-roasting or smoked.”
To help diversify the sustainable offerings at Cape Seafood, and to encourage other local chefs to expand their repertoire, Cimarusti partnered with Sarah Rathbone, co-founder of the California wing of Dock to Dish. Like a seafood-centric CSA (community supported agriculture), Dock to Dish provides restaurants with seafood freshly caught by local small-scale fishermen to help further the connection between chefs, local fishermen, and consumers. With the help of Rathbone, Cimarusti helps run Dock to Dish out of Cape Seafood as a subscription based program for LA restaurants, including his own.
Prepping the fish
Once you’ve made your selection of fish, the next step is deciding how you want to take it home. Cape Seafood offers both whole fish as well as fillets, and you can even ask them to prep the whole fish for you so it’s ready for the grill or oven. For those who’d like to become a little more adept at preparing whole fish at home, Cimarusti also incorporates a filleting demo into his classes at the shop. “When it comes to filleting fish, your ability to do it is directly related to how often you do it,” he says. “Just like anything else, it takes practice and a lot of time to be comfortable with it.”
Cimarusti also recommends tempering your fish -- pulling it out of the fridge before cooking to so that it doesn’t take as long to raise the internal temperature -- especially with thicker cuts like a tuna steak. “You could rub it with salt and maybe a little olive oil when you first pull it out and then let it sit out at room temperature for an hour or two before you sear it or cook it on the grill because you'll have better results. It won't be stone cold when you cut into it because that's not very appetizing.”
If you’re looking to get really serious with your preparation and want to maximize the flavor of the fish, Cimarusti recommends brining your fish in a salt water solution before cooking. “At Providence and Connie and Ted's, there are certain species of fish that we always brine, such as monkfish and halibut,” he says. “Larger fish like striped bass and things like that, we brine those fillets. And we do that in a 7% salt solution, which means that for every 100g of water, you're going to add 7g of sea salt. And we will brine them, depending on the thickness of the fish, anywhere between one hour and three hours.” The brining process helps create the proper amount of salinity throughout the fish, so that once you sit down to eat you’ll find that it’s well seasoned throughout, even with a big piece of fish.
Tips on cooking
“Everybody's basic idea of cooking fish is just, you get a fillet, you cook it or poach it really hard and then bring it to the table,” Cimarusti says. But if you’re looking to get the most flavor out of your purchase, especially when it comes to a steak of fish like tuna or striped bass, he cautions that there are plenty of better options. He recommends cooking slowly and gently, either using smoke or very low heat. “Treat them almost more like a roast or a steak, and you get a different sense of what that fish could be when you cook them and handle them that way. Plus, it's a lot more fun and delicious.”
Cimarusti also insists that one of the most important things when working with any fish is allowing it to rest after cooking. He explains, “The ideal temperature to serve salmon is really medium rare to medium, which means the internal temperature of that fish is about 115-118 degrees. So let's say if you cook it on a grill and you cook it to the point where it's 118 degrees internal temperature and then you pull it off, by the time you eat it, the fish will be overcooked. So what you want to do, is to cook it on the grill to where it's maybe 110 degrees, and then pull it off the grill and rest it in a warm spot so that it will slowly reach those last 5 or 8 degrees.” Doing so will allow for the heat to pass through the fish more gently, so that by the time it reaches the table, it’s perfectly cooked.
Stocking the pantry
To help you get your cooking party started, here are a few essentials that Cimarusti himself likes to keep on hand at home:
- “I like to have at least a couple different kinds of salt. We'll have french gray sea salt, and we'll have Maldon salt.”
- “You got to have some great oils, both cooking oils that you can use at high temperature, and a great extra virgin olive oil.”
- “You have to have a good soy sauce, and a couple of good vinegars in your pantry -- white wine vinegar, a red wine vinegar or perhaps a sherry vinegar.”
- “You'd want to have some spices, but what to me is indispensable is Espelette pepper. It’s a mild chile pepper, the one we sell comes from the south of France. It's not in any way spicy, it's more sweet, but it just gives the fish a beautiful coloring and really delicious flavor. And because it's a chile pepper, it will caramelize. I don't like to use white or black pepper on fish, we season nearly all of our fish with it. So I'd say that's an essential pantry item.”
- “You'd also want to have kelp or kombu, so you can make a nice dashi broth because for me that's almost an indispensable staple in the kitchen.”
- “And of course, in my pantry, I'd always want to have some katsuobushi or bonito flakes.”
Cimarusti also recommends using a pastry brush to coat the cooked fish with a little olive oil or melted butter just before serving. “Especially if it's a fish with a crispy skin, it's always nice,” he says, “It gives the fish a bit of shine and adds a little extra flavor.” He also emphasizes the importance of acidity, which doesn’t necessarily have to come from lemon juice, but could be vinegar or another ingredient. “It keeps your palate fresh, awake and alive, and makes you want to go back for another bite.”
Ultimately he encourages home cooks to keep it simple, “Really let the fish shine and be the star of the plate. Because fish, I really feel, needs to be treated in such a way that whatever you put on the plate with it should really just flatter the fish and not overshadow it.”
And if you’re ever in doubt of what you want to cook or what goes well with your selection, the team at Cape Seafood, including chef Gray, are always on hand to offer guidance. “That's the other facet of the shop that is a little bit different from most of the other places in town, which is that we have a staff that's mostly made up of culinarians that can guide you on your way if you're not feeling 100% confident,” Cimarusti says.
The next cooking classes that Cimarusti will host at Cape Seafood and Provisions will be on March 2 and 30 from 7-9pm. Each class is $100 per person, and you can sign up by calling the shop at (323) 556-2525 or sign up for the e-newsletter on the website to get more details on upcoming classes. Each class is capped at 10 participants.
“I really hope that the classes help to dispel some of the myths people hold about how fish is properly cooked and also that they walked away with a little more confidence about being able to work with the species we have here,” Cimarusti adds.
Halibut with Morels and Asparagus (Courtesy of Executive Chef Michael Cimarusti)
- 4 4 oz Fillets halibut
- 1lb morel mushrooms
- 2 diced shallots
- 12 peeled, blanched asparagus tips
- 1 bunch chopped chive
- 1 lemon
- Simple lemon vinaigrette
- 5 oz butter
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Clean the morels thoroughly in several changes of cold water. Quarter the morels.
- Place the morels in a non-reactive saucepan with one ounce butter, the shallot and a squeeze of lemon, cover the morels and allow them to simmer slowly while you cook the fish.
- Dry the fish with paper towels and season both sides with salt and Espelette pepper.
- Warm a large skillet and add olive oil to coat the pan. When the oil begins to smoke add the halibut.
- Cook the halibut on high heat until the fish begins to brown lightly.
- Place the skillet in a 350-degree oven for 2 minutes.
- While the halibut is in the oven add the remaining 2 oz of butter to the morels to thicken their juices.
- In a separate pan, melt 2 oz butter until it begins to brown and roast the asparagus tips until they are well browned, season with salt and pepper.
- Taste the mushrooms and their juices and adjust as needed with salt and lemon.
- Remove the fish from the pan and place it on paper towels to rest.
- Add the chopped chives to the mushrooms and divide them among four warmed bowls and place the fish on top.
- Spoon some of the morel juice over the fish, place the asparagus spears around the fish and serve.
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