For many people, Lent is a time of sacrifice and self-denial. Practiced throughout the world in many different forms, Lent most commonly marks the 40 day period from Ash Wednesday leading up to the week of Easter Sunday. This year, it begins on February 14th. Believers mark the event by fasting and performing other acts of penance such as abstinence from particular activities, foods, or drinks. This is meant to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. People often give up things like chocolate, alcohol, or swearing during this time. One common practice is to abstain from meat on Fridays during the period of Lent. Some groups abstain from eggs and dairy as well. Some groups observe this practice on both Fridays and Saturdays. During this time, seafood fills the void. Some people view this as the real penance, but it doesn’t have to be.
I’m not an expert in theology, but I’m pretty confident that enjoying your fish during Lent is not forbidden. By all means, suffer the penances required by your particular faith, and revel in self discipline and sacrifice as you wish. Enjoy the traditions, but recognize that you probably only give up a couple of choices when you give up meat. For most people, that is beef, pork, and chicken. There are thousands of types of fish and shellfish. They make up the most diverse group of proteins available. So, for those of you who begrudgingly eat fish during lent, consider this: Saying you don’t like fish is like saying you don’t like sandwiches. It’s too broad and too varied a category to just rule out. I am certain you can find something that you will like from beneath the surface of the water.
If you are among the people that will eat fish, but rarely enjoy it, this can be a great opportunity to purposefully expand your comfort zone with seafood. Start by thinking through what it is that you don’t like. Then you can start to dial in on choices that work for you. Most people will say that they don’t like fish that tastes “fishy”. That term can mean a lot of different things to different people. I consider myself to be particularly sensitive to fishy flavors. I eat fish 3 times a week and I can’t remember the last time I ate a fishy fish. I have put in the time and effort to find what I like and find places to buy it that ensure I’ll get a quality piece of fish. If you are afraid of getting a fishy fish, here are some fish that are generally mild flavored and easy to find. If you buy a fresh piece of any of these, you can be confident you won’t have any fishy flavors. Quillback rockfish, vermilion rockfish, striped bass, ocean perch, black seabass, tai snapper, pink grouper, blue nose, red drum, black drum, and lingcod. These are fish that are very forgiving and very mild. If they look good, you have a very high chance of success. There are other great fish like Mahi Mahi and Halibut that are great when they are great, but can have some fishiness very soon after they hit the boat deck. These are two of the best fish, texturally and flavor-wise, but they might not be so perfect by the time you get them. There is a small risk of a slight to moderate off flavor with Mahi Mahi and halibut, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take if I see a pretty slab in a seafood case.
Other people are uncomfortable with the textures of fish that they’ve tried and don’t want to try again. Fish span a broad range of textures, from the arrowtooth flounder and black cod that can be pasty to almost gelatinous in texture, all the way to sturgeon that is almost a perfect match for slow cooked pork. If soft fish turns you off, try one of these more firm and meaty options: Mahi Mahi, albacore tuna, sturgeon, cobia, salmon, swordfish, halibut, red drum, or jack crevalle. Jack Crevalle is hard to find, but is interesting. You can cook it like beef and if you didn’t know better, you’d think it was beef. The meat is red and chewy like beef. The others are more normal and easier to find. All of these have a nice firm texture more like terrestrial animals than other fish.
Another avenue you might explore is sushi. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a fan of cooked salmon. It develops an assertive flavor when exposed to heat that I’m just not in love with, but I can’t get enough of that melt in your mouth buttery flavor that comes with a bite of salmon sashimi. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you aren’t enjoying cooked fish, try it raw. The textures are of course, completely different, and the flavors are much more subtle. Fishiness is almost non-existent with raw fish. You can tiptoe in by eating cooked offerings first. Try a tempura shrimp role with some spicy sauces and then work your way up to a salmon nigiri.
If fish just isn’t your thing, there are still many other options in the sea. Shellfish are even more diverse. A scallop is a bit of a textural freak out with its complete lack of structure and blobiness, but it might just blow your mind. Octopus and squid can be hit or miss, but a great piece of calamari is something really special and there is nothing like it in any other animal. Shrimp are usually a safe bet, with a generally pleasing texture and mild flavor. Shrimp is a good gateway seafood. Mussels and clams are fantastic and not nearly as adventurous as they look. The flavors are generally mild, and the preparations are generally full flavored and saucy, so these are a safe bet. Crab works for some people, but not everyone and for me, freshness is key. I’m not confident in crab unless I start with a live one. Even so, it is worth a try. Good crab is a sublime eating experience.
Another way to make fish OK for those that are on the fence about it, is to cook it in ways that are “safe”. Coating fish with a bold texture like crushed nuts, panko, or a tasty beer batter makes it appealing to just about anyone. Try one of these to achieve a texture that you will enjoy.