September 2006 Edition
Seafood: Healthy, Hot and Versatile

When it comes to seafood, customers are ready to expand their palate. Just visit any fine dining restaurant, flip through a food magazine or even tune into one of the many cooking shows on FoodTV and you’ll see Arctic char, tuna, sea bass and many others becoming mainstream menu items.

But just as more exotic fish are hitting the menu, so are the methods of preparing them.  One chef at a fine dining restaurant in Toronto, Ontario changes the fish on his menu based on availability.  Right now his best selling fish is Sable marinated with soya, maple, chilies and miso, but tuna grilled rare is also popular.

“When we get a new fish to put on the menu,” says the chef.  “We usually use methods from our own repertoire, or the sous chefs and I will discuss different preparations and go from there.”

A 2006 survey conducted by StarChefs.com confirms the trend for more exotic foods.  According to the results, at least 30% of chefs felt their typical diner was sophisticated and aware of seasonal ingredients, and 20% described their customers as culinary adventurers who are looking for unusual food and preparations.  The StarChef survey also revealed that fish had taken over as the number one selling dish on most fine dining menus.  In other words, when it comes to fish, nearly half of the people eating at your restaurant are ready for something other than salmon.

 

Hooking your customers onto fish

However, even though industry trends sound positive and North Americans are consuming an average of 4% more fish a year, be wary; many diners are still afraid of venturing into strange waters. 

Salmon is still a popular choice for lunch and at parties.  “At lunch, I think it’s popular because it’s a nice light dish and is healthy,” says one Toronto-based chef whose restaurant caters a number of special events.  “We also use it at parties because usually there is a wide variety of diners —from people who eat out twice a week to people who eat out once every few months —so salmon is a fish option that is sure to satisfy.”

One way to get customers to try something new is to educate them.  Try comparing the new exotic fish to a local fish so they can imagine the difference.  For example, Artic char might be described as a lighter, less fishy tasting version of halibut. 

The most profitable fish are pan fish like trout, sea bream, orata, snapper, but professionals in the cooking industry say profitability depends on size.  “If they are 1-1½ lbs then you basically get one order per fish with minimal waste,” explains a chef of a popular restaurant.  He also says farmed salmon is a good choice as it’s readily available.  Plus, because most restaurants sell it in some way or another, it keeps the price of the fish low. 

 

Fresh or frozen fish: Which is better?

While 70% of people surveyed by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute said they preferred fresh rather than frozen fish, the truth is most consumers cannot tell the difference when it’s on their plate.  In fact, frozen seafood can be superior in quality compared to their fresh counterparts.

Both fresh and frozen fish are perishable.  Fresh fish can last a few days, but as “fresh” fish in the market could be up to nine days old, for optimal results it’s best to use it within two days of purchase.  Surprisingly, the term “fresh” doesn’t mean “just caught”, but means the fish has never been frozen.

 

Many fish are “flash frozen” within hours of being harvested.  Flash freezing freezes fish in as little as three seconds, preserving the juices and maximizing the flavour and texture of the fish.  To know if your frozen fish has been treated this way, look for the words “Frozen at Sea” (F.A.S.).  If you’re still not sure, check the fish’s appearance.  It should appear somewhat shiny and have no white freezer-burn spots.  

 

Getting more out of your fish

Adding finfish to your menu can be an exciting and rewarding challenge.  It gives you the chance to experiment with new flavours and enhance the taste buds of your customers.   Plan your menus or specials around your catch of the day, and keep in mind fish does not have to be served as a fillet.

 “We prepare our fish using many different methods, ranging from oven roasting, grilling, steaming, hot smoking and yes, pan searing —depending on how we think it should be done and what will sell the best,” explains the owner of a fine dining restaurant in Thornhill, Ontario. 

One other solution that can help you get more out of your fish is using it other than a main course.  Dishes such as pastas, appetizers and bouillabaisse are not only popular, but give you the chance to use fish in a creative way.

 

Choosing the Catch of the Day

 

When choosing fresh fish look for:

  • Bright, clear eyes
  • Bright red or pink gills
  • Shiny skin with tight scales
  • Fillets and steaks that appear moist

Avoid fish with:

  • Cloudy, pink or sunken eyes
  • Gray, brown or green coloured gills 
  • Soft flesh that slips away from the bone
  • A fishy or ammonia smell