Lessons From a Fish Monger
Advice from Dorian Mecir, owner of Dorian's Seafood.
I recently spent a morning with Dorian Mecir, owner and manager of Dorian's Seafood Market on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Dorian and her staff opened this popular market in 2001 after working together at the former Rosedale Fish Market which had been on Lexington Avenue for 98 years. I asked her about the basics of fish and shellfish and what city cooks should know before buying. Here's some of what we talked about:
How long have you been a fish monger?
I have been in the fish business for 23 years, starting in high school on the paperwork end of it. I've been working hands on, with the fish, for about 14 years.
Why is fish so expensive?
Fish is extremely perishable so the number one contributor to its price is the cost of shipping. A lot of fish comes from far away places. For example, our halibut comes from Nova Scotia and our wild salmon comes from Alaska and the west coast. All are sent over-night because it must get here ASAP to ensure freshness. And we're paying for that. Shipping costs have also gone up with the price of gas. Since 9/11, due to security requirements, dry ice requirements have become more complex and these costs have also skyrocketed. Price is also a result of supply and demand. People are more aware than ever that fish is part of a healthy diet. Doctors recommend it. Nutritionists recommend it. Plus more people want wild fish. So if supplies are limited and more people want it, the prices will be higher.
What's the biggest mistake that people make when they buy fish or shellfish?
The biggest mistake is probably not buying at a specialty store. If you're not familiar with fish and your first buying experience is from a supermarket, you may be disappointed. Instead stick with a specialty store that has a skilled, knowledgeable staff and a good turnover so you can be sure their products are fresh. The other big mistake that I think people make is buying fish to freeze it. It's not the worst thing in the world to do, and some fish freeze better than others, but you do lose something in the freezing.
Is it best to always buy a whole fish and then have it filleted? Many home cooks who aren't experienced in buying fish only know to buy fillets, meaning fish that are boned and cut into boneless pieces.
In a good fish market, like here at Dorian's Seafood Market, every piece of fish that comes into the store is a whole fish. Then we have our skilled fillet men -- Angel Cruz and Tony Conception -- spend the day boning out fish as our customers make their purchases. For example, our grey sole, flounder and fluke come in every morning and Angel will bone out a little bit and as we sell it, he or Tony will bone out more later in the day. However, we do leave a lot of fish whole to give people a choice on how they want to cook it. Most of the time, with fish like grey sole or fluke, people prefer to cook fillets. But with other fish such as snapper or brook trout, we give people options: Do you want the head and tail on or off? Do want the bone in or out? Do you want it cut like a book? Do you want to stuff it? Do you want us to tie it for you because you're going to poach it? By our leaving fish whole we give you the choice.
Is there a recommended amount of fish per person or per serving?
We suggest 8 oz. per person for a medium adult portion. But there are some fish that are very rich, almost buttery, that we suggest a little less, perhaps 6 oz. per portion. These would include Chilean Sea Bass, salmon or sea scallops. Other fish that are lighter, like fillet of sole or anything white like halibut or cod -- those you can have 8 oz. portions.
Other than buying from a quality fish monger like you, Dorian, when buying fish, what should a consumer look for?
A fish should have a clear, bright eye. A whole fish should be clean. There should be no residue or murky looking pasty surface on it. It should be firm in a whole fish stage. Also, if you want to ask to see the gills, they should be bright red. Nothing brown. And of course, the smell: it should be clean and fresh. No rotten or ammonia smell.
All the bad news out of China has made consumers understandably worried about where their fish and shellfish come from. How can we be sure our fish comes from a safe place?
Customers ask us all the time -- where is this fish from? And we know. By law, we have to save all our tags for 90 days and everything will have a tag or a label on the box. If I can't remember where something is from, I'll go into the cooler to look at a tag or I'll check out a shrimp box and we'll have the answer. The horrifying news coming out of China -- well, it's the old story that you get what you pay for. If the product is dirt cheap and someone's selling fish poorly shipped and it's not refrigerated properly, it's a risk and you shouldn't buy it or eat it.
If you want a finer product with quality control you have to go to a reputable vendor who can tell you, yes, we have tags, we know where this fish is from, we can trace it. This is regulated by the federal government.
It's been said that you shouldn't buy red snapper after the 15th of any month. Is this still true?
No. There has been a change in the regulations for fishing snapper, which, by the way, had only applied to Florida red snapper. Since January 2007, fishermen are given yearly quota permits. Depending on the size of your boat and how long you've been in business, regulators issue permits for an annual catch. So now you can fish on any day of the month but if you were issued, for instance, a 50,000 pound quota -- if you knock out your 50,000 pounds in one month, you're done. Or you can stretch it out throughout the year. So consumers no longer have to worry about when they buy their snapper and Florida red snapper is now legally available 365 days of the year. There are snappers from other regions that weren't affected by these rules. But Florida reds do have the nicest quality so this is a good solution.
Should we worry about mercury and other toxins in swordfish and tuna?
Over the years industrialization has caused more mercury to be in the air and in our waters. The big fish -- tuna, swordfish, and some say halibut -- tend to have more mercury. It's something to be concerned about in that I wouldn't tell you to eat tuna for all three meals, seven days a week, for the rest of your life. Just like someone wouldn't eat red meat every day because that would be a poor diet. Because variety and moderation are fine, if you have it occasionally, it's okay. But nowadays it's an occurrence we need to understand and be aware of. I don't expect it to go away.
What is the rule about not buying oysters in any month with the letter "R" in the name?
It's folklore that came out of good judgment. Years ago they didn't have the means of refrigeration that we have today and when shipping oysters, they were concerned with the heat. This obviously wasn't a problem in the colder months [with the letter "R" in the name]. But oysters are today readily available and plentiful all year-round. We sell plenty of them. They are a good source of protein, vitamins and calcium for your diet. They're on a heart-healthy menu and doctors recommend them. So I'd say make oysters a part of your diet all year-round. Don't deprive yourself during the summer months just because there's no "R" in the name.
Some fish and shellfish have a short season. For example, soft-shelled crabs in the summer. Which other fish or shellfish have limited seasons?
Most fish are year-round but there are some exceptions. Soft shells start in the spring and go into mid-to-late summer. Shad and shad roe are very, very popular seasonal items and very delicious. These are available only in the spring time for several weeks and we have a waiting list that begins in the winter months with people saying, "call me when the shad roe is here." Stone crab claws start around Thanksgiving and go to New Year's. And the Nantucket bay scallop season, which is very short, is popular, at least with our customers. Also the Copper River salmon which only runs for a few weeks at the end of March or into April.
What's the most important thing we should we know about our fish monger or any store where we buy fish and shellfish?
You want your fish monger to have an experienced staff. For example, here, Angel Cruz worked at the Rosedale Fish Market for 35 years; Tony worked at another market for 12 years. Our Chef Pedro has been in the fish business for almost 30 years. You do not want the person behind the counter who is serving you to have been working at the car wash last week and today he's serving you your clams. You want skilled fish mongers, skilled cutters, and a skilled market with experienced buyers.
What's your favorite fish to cook and eat?
Grey sole or salmon. I cook grey sole very simply: flour, salt and pepper. I sauté in butter with a squeeze of lemon at the end. Fast, easy, delicious, light.
Here's my favorite recipe for salmon: I clean and chop up some leeks and dill and wilt or sauté them in equal amounts of olive oil and butter, adding salt and pepper. I then pour this mixture over raw salmon in a Pyrex dish, cover it with foil and bake for 15 minutes at 375ºF. It's delicious. I got this recipe about 15 years ago from a one-time cash customer at Rosedale who I never saw again. She was waiting for her fish to be cut and I asked her how she was going to cook the salmon and this is what she told me. It's a great recipe and I'm glad to pass it along.
Do your kids like and eat fish?
I have two kids and they are big fish eaters. They especially love grey sole and local fluke from Montauk. I bread it and sauté it for them. They're also big shellfish eaters -- especially shrimp, lobster, and baked clams.
Any other advice for our readers?
Fish is best simple. Let the flavor come out. Don't make it fancy because you don't need to. People are busy with their jobs and families and have time constraints. But fish is easy. You just need to try.