Tips from the pros on buying seafood
One of the benefits of living in the Keys is access to fresh seafood year round. To ensure you get the best of the catch, use your eyes, nose and hands when picking out your dinner.
Your local fish market is the best bet for finding that day’s catch. They deal with the local fisherman on a daily basis, and sometimes they even get deliveries twice a day.
George Eigner, the owner of Fish Tales Market and Eatery in Marathon, said that they usually have five to ten different types of fish on display depending on the season.
“I can tell you exactly when that fish was caught compared to the grocery store where they would have no idea how fresh that fish was,” he said. “It could come from all over Florida.”
Go shopping with the knowledge of what seafood is in season, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of the staff. If you aren’t happy with what you see on display, ask if they have anything fresher in the back.
“If you don’t like the look of the color, the person behind the counter should tell you right away if they have something better looking,” Eigner said. “There’s always one fish that I’ll recommend over the other.”
Brett Gregory, who has been the seafood manager at the Fish House Restaurant and Seafood Market in Key Largo for 24 years, said that fresh seafood should not have a fishy or foul smell. Instead, it should smell like the ocean. He noted that you should also watch out for a freezer or ammonia smell
With filleted fish, check to make sure that the piece has a nice clear color with no blemishes and bright red blood lines. The older the fish gets, the lines will turn brown, and the meat will have a slimy feel.
When looking at a whole fish, you should look for clear rounded eyes that are not sunken in or cloudy. The gills should be bright red and not a brownish color. The skin should be free from slime and blemishes and have scales that adhere tightly. Both filleted and whole fish should be firm and spring back to the touch.
For shrimp, make sure that they are translucent with no black lines or legs. They should also feel firm to the touch. “Key West shrimp are one of a kind,” Eigner said. “They are probably the best shrimp. It has its own sweet flavor.”
With lobster, it’s best to get them alive when they are in season. Just like whole fish, you should look to see that the eyes are clear and crisp looking. Also, see if the antennae are broken. This could be an indication that the lobster was roughly handled. If you are buying the tails already wrung, the meat should be firm and not spongy. You don’t want to see the meat separating or bulging from the shell. There should be no black lines on the meat or black discoloration where the tail was wrung from the body. When looking at crab, Gregory said that the smell was the greatest indicator of freshness. “Crab can go bad overnight, and you can really tell when it does.”
Although oysters and clams are not from Keys’ waters, Gregory said that they are still quite good and available fresh. He said that he prefers the oysters from Northern Florida because he thinks that they taste saltier and cleaner.
“Shellfish should be completely closed,” he said. “If it’s open, you shouldn’t even attempt to eat it. They should sound solid if you tap on them, not hollow. When you open them up they should smell like the ocean because they hold the water inside.” He added that the colder months are the best months for eating oysters. They spawn in the warmer months and have less meat. In the colder months, they fatten back up.
Since scallops usually come from the northern east coast, Gregory said that 90% of the time they are frozen. It’s hard to tell if they are really fresh, unless you get them live in the shell like oysters.
The same goes for conch. Since it is illegal to harvest conch in US waters, it almost always comes frozen from the Caribbean. When buying, make sure that the color is solid white and not gray. Try to get meat that has never been thawed.
Keep in mind how much seafood you will actually be using right away. Eigner recommended using fresh seafood within two days. The colder you keep your catch, the longer it will last, so store seafood in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Think about bringing a cooler with you to the market to transport your purchases home.
Gregory said he felt fortunate to live in the Keys and have such ready access to fresh seafood.
“It’s like growing your own vegetables,” he said. “If you’re getting it right out of the ocean here, you know what you’re eating. If you get it from someplace else, you don’t know what chemicals are on it or how old it is. Living here it’s going to be untouched, unadulterated.”
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