The freshest fish for the finest of feasts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 1995, 12:00am

THE cardinal rule for preparing a fish entree is to have the freshest fish money can buy.

In the central San Joaquin Valley of California, where I grew up, seafood was always available, but never jumping-alive fresh as it is in Hong Kong. Consequently, it required visual and olfactory senses to select the best quality.

The unpleasant fishy odour of seafood is directly related to the length of time a fish has been landed. Bacteria which abound on the slimy, scaly surface of the fish begin immediately to metabolise a natural compound called trimethylamine oxide, reducing it to trimethylamine or TMA. This latter compound is responsible for the fishy odour associated with the ageing catch. The older the kill, the stronger the smell.

The selection criteria we used also apply to the fish markets in Hong Kong, though the variety and quality of freshness here make fish so much easier to select. The primary points to look for are the following: Clear, transparent eyes with no sign of cloudiness; bright red gills - not greyish, mauve, or dull pink; no fishy odour; and when you poke your finger gently into the fish flesh, it should have a slight springiness to it.

Fish contains omega fatty acids, which are beneficial in lowering cholesterol; consequently, the native fat in fish tends to outweigh the usual problem of dietary fat intake. However, this does not mean that deep-fried fish or fish swimming in added fat or oils is acceptable to the smart cook.

Cooking oils add a lot more calories than desirable. Alas, even the steamed fish in Cantonese restaurants is usually bathed in a generous pool of oil drizzled sizzling hot over the fish just before serving.

Here are two delicious low fat recipes for fish which anyone can enjoy without compunction.

SMOKED FISH (Makes 4 to 6 servings) 11/2 pound whole pomfreit, trout, or salmon tail (with skin and bone intact) 3 tblsp (45 ml) soy sauce or Maggi sauce 1/2 tsp salt (2.5 ml) 1 tblsp (45 ml) sherry 3 slices ginger, minced 1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) sugar 1/2 cup (125 ml) each: dry black tea leaves, uncooked rice, brown sugar (packed) Wash whole fish (or salmon tail) and pat dry thoroughly. In a small bowl combine soy or Maggi, salt, sherry, ginger and sugar and rub into fish, inside and out. Let marinate 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Place fish on small baking rack; place rack on baking pan and bake for 15 minutes. Line a large wok with heavy gauge aluminium foil. Place tea leaves, rice, and sugar into the foil and mix them together.

Remove fish and rack from oven and place rack in the wok, making sure rack is at least two inches above the surface of the tea-rice-sugar mixture.

Using a second piece of heavy aluminium foil, seal the fish inside to make an air tight package. Turn heat on high and smoke at high heat for 10 minutes. Turn heat to moderate flame and continue smoking an additional 10 minutes.

Let cool for 15 minutes in sealed foil. Remove to platter and de-bone and skin fish if desired or garnish with coriander, parsley, and lemon slices and serve either hot or cold.

STEAMED FISH (Makes 4 to 6 servings) 2-3 pound whole fish (red snapper, sea bass, sole) 2 tblsp (30 ml) sherry, divided 1 tsp (5 ml) olive oil 1 tsp (5 ml) garlic, finely minced 3/4 cup (180 ml) chicken broth 4 tblsp (60 ml) light soy or Maggi sauce 1 tsp (5 ml) sugar 1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) sesame oil 2 tblsp (heaping) ginger, finely julienned 3 green onions, finely julienned 1/4 cup (120 ml) coriander leaves, coarsely chopped Make three deep cuts on each side of fish. Drizzle fish with 1 tablespoon of sherry inside and out. Place on steaming platter.

Bring water to boil in steamer. Cover and steam for 15 to 22 min (about seven minutes per pound). Test to see if it's done by inserting a toothpick (easily enters clear to the bone). Timing is of the utmost importance.

Heat olive oil in non-stick pan, saute garlic briefly; remove to small dish. Add chicken stock, remaining sherry, sugar, Maggi sauce and sesame oil to pan; bring to a rapid boil.

Place fish on serving platter (discard any liquid from steaming). Cover generously with ginger, green onions, and coriander.

Add the sauteed garlic to the boiling hot stock and pour evenly over the green onions-coriander-ginger garnish. Serve immediately.