I absolutely adore grocery shopping.
I love to carefully select my produce piece-by-piece, to scan cheese cases for new and interesting finds, to select the crispiest crusted loaves of bread, to find the milk with the best expiration date, to decide between pasta shapes, and to tarry before the jams making arguments for fig, strawberry, black cherry, or apricot-raspberry. I don’t even mind crowds, or small children throwing temper tantrums, or awkward cart jams in the aisles. I just kind of wander through doing my thing (much to the chagrin of everyone else I go shopping with.)
But as much as I love shopping for food, I abhor buying fish. I know what to look for in a decent steak or chicken, I know how to pick fruits and vegetables by give and heft, but I have no real working knowledge of what I am looking for with fish. And because I am almost completely lost…I hate doing it.
I’ve read the seafood buying guides printed in magazines and books, but I can’t keep the different fish names straight, and I can never remember which ones are on the over-fishing watch list…is it Chilean sea bass, cod, snapper, or all of the above? I always forget which fish have which texture or flavor and which cooking methods best suit them. I know fish should look fresh (whatever that means), I know it shouldn’t smell fishy (the world’s biggest oxymoron), and I think I am supposed to buy it on or around Fridays (because Catholic tradition stuck and influenced delivery schedules.) Beyond salmon, tuna, and swordfish I am pretty well lost.
My valiant attempts at just buying whatever and hoping for the best have resulted in some very good meals, some weird ones, and some messy, stuck-to-the-pan disasters. Beyond the three fish I know well, I pretty much ask for a “flaky white fish” and pray for divine culinary assistance. But with this approach, I feel like I am missing a world of other fishes. Unless flaky and white is pretty much all there is….
This week, though, I found a market that I hope can solve my problem, or at least make shopping for seafood fun. The market is run by a lovely young Chinese family whose adorable little twin boys managed, in the fifteen minutes I was there, to crawl, run, or trike, and climb over every inch of the store.
Though the shop has a small case of pre-cut fish, you are not only invited but encouraged to go behind the counter and scan a long table of fresh whole fish, clams, scallops, oysters, and shrimp (with heads!) of all different sizes and colors. Though the man speaks very little English, we communicated well about which was the freshest and which type he likes the best. I finally settled on a particularly dandy-looking red snapper which he beheaded, de-scaled, and filleted for me on the spot.
For fear of ruining my perfect, shimmering fillets, I decided to stay simple with the fish preparation itself (salt, pepper, a few spices) and go rogue on the rest of the dish. I made a spicy slaw with red and green cabbage, mango, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro and loads of lime juice and some rice wine vinegar. The simple almost-sweet sautéed fish over the fresh, acidic slaw—eaten on the porch with a bottle of good, dry rose—was perfection.
I think walking into a place that I know is good, admitting ignorance, and keeping it simple might be the key to buying fish. Or perhaps this was just a guess-turned-success soon to be followed by some miserable fish grilling horror story. But let me bask in the glow of triumph…at least for now.