One of the lessons that I have learned while developing my seafood palate, is that I always need to be prepared to scrap my dinner plans if the conditions are not ideal. This never happens when I head to the store to pick up a chicken breast or some ground beef, but it certainly can with a seafood dish. A couple of weeks ago, I was heading over to a dinner get together with about half a dozen friends. I’d just worked out a scallop dish that I was really proud of and I wanted to share it with them. I told everyone what I was bringing and they sounded pretty excited. At my first seafood market, the scallops were smallish and previously frozen and didn’t look that great. At my second stop they had a few great looking scallops and a few that looked a little grey and smelled just a bit off. My choices were that I could abandon the scallops plan and go to plan B, or push forward with lackluster scallops and put out a dish that I didn’t feel great about.
I took a few steps down the seafood case and saw some outstanding quillback rockfish. I picked up a couple of those and made some macadamia nut crusted rockfish, which got rave reviews from my friends. In this situation, one of the guests had not tried a scallop before, which made the decision easy for me. This person might have tried that questionable scallop and decided that they didn’t like scallops at all. What if this person was not willing to give it a second try? I would hate to make a meal that turned someone off to such a great protein. If you are as picky about your seafood as I am (and you should be), these situations come up often.
I’m a planner and I like to be prepared a week in advance for my meals. I write out the menu for the week and try to do all of my shopping on the weekend, except for my fish. I always pick these up the day that I plan to cook them and I always leave myself an alternative. I prefer to go to the fish market with no preconceived notion of what fish I plan to buy. Then I can walk the whole case and see what looks the best. Once I know what options I have for that day, I narrow it down to the ones that fit what I was planning to cook and then I choose my favorite from whatever is available. By not being married to a single fish, I can always pick the freshest one. Freshness is the number one critical factor in a seafood dish. Species is much less important.
If, like many Americans, you are only comfortable with salmon, shrimp, and tilapia, your options will be limited. If you take the time to purposefully expand your comfort level with many species of fish, you can make a substitution with confidence. Better to venture into unfamiliar territory with a new and somewhat unknown fish, than to pick an obviously substandard version of your favorite fish. Of course, this is all predicated on being able to tell if a fish is good or not. For a short lesson on this topic, see: