Buying fish can be hard. The selection at grocery stores is often lacking in terms of both variety and sustainability, and the quality often leaves a lot to be desired. I've dropped a bundle of cash at Whole Foods or Central Market on supposedly fresh fish that has actually been chilling in a freezer for several months.
So how do you know what fish to buy if the city's best grocery stores don't have the best seafood? Enter fishmonger Jon Alexis, Dallas' own "fish nerd." On any given day at Alexis' TJ's Seafood locations in Oak Lawn and Preston/Forest, you'll find cases filled with fish, shellfish, and crustaceans that were hanging out in the ocean just one day before you buy them.
Even though Alexis isn't willing to slam his supermarket competitors, he did share the secrets of buying and cooking fish that he's learned in over 15 years of owning one of the city's best fish markets.
Unfortunately, there's no across the board "safe bet" when it comes to buying seafood at a grocery store -- it all depends on what looks good that day. "Seafood tells you when it's fresh. You can tell by looking at it, and you can tell by smelling it. People need to pull the fish out and smell it. Your nose knows. If they won't let you do it, then that's a problem," says Alexis.
The most popular fish sold at TJ's Seafood are probably what you'd expect -- tuna, salmon, and tilapia. According to Alexis, salmon is one of the world's "real, true superfoods." People tend to like tilapia because it is extremely mild and inexpensive, and consumers perceive it to be a great value, especially when their cardiologists are prodding them to eat more fish.
Just 15 years ago, most of us had never heard of tilapia. But, because the fish takes well to farming and will eat just about anything, it quickly became a cheap way to incorporate more seafood into an American diet that was sorely lacking. Recently, though, concerns about farmed tilapia from China and Vietnam began to surface, especially after we learned that many of these fish farms relied on pig feces as a food source.
Maybe that's actually a good thing. It's cheap, but Alexis doesn't consider it all that great of a value. You can certainly buy good tilapia, which is often farmed in South America, but most of the time you're getting what you're paying for. "Even the best tilapia is not giving people the nutritional benefits they assume they're getting with seafood. It's low-calorie, lean protein, but tilapia is significantly less nutrient dense than any other fish. It's missing vitamin D, vitamin A, selenium, and especially omega-3s. It's full of long-chain omega-6 fats, which it makes it more difficult for your body to absorb omega-3s."
He also sings the praises of bycatch, or the fish that is caught in pursuit of commonly-fished species like salmon or grouper. "We need to be eating the fish we catch," says Alexis. "You would be amazed at how much fish is thrown back because it doesn't fit what the fishery is catching that day." Some of the less common and sustainable specimens in the fish cases at the TJ's location in Oak Lawn include barrel fish, monkfish, and moonfish.
You should also probably stop ignoring shellfish, which is easy to cook at home and healthy. "Clams and mussels are an incredibly great value. They're easy, and incredibly nutrient-dense. You can do any preparation you want. Feeling Spanish? Add chorizo, tomato, and saffron. Want Asian? Add lemongrass and chili paste." Mussels are fully cooked when their shells open, which is a pretty easy way to tell that your food is ready to eat.
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SHOW ME HOW
If you're struggling with online recipes and can't seem to prepare fish that you enjoy, the culinary school grads behind the counter at TJ's Seafood can help you figure out where things are going wrong. Recipe cards and preparation tips line the wall beside the fish counter, which Alexis uses to explain cooking and preparation techniques to fish novices. "If I had to go fix something in my car, I would go ask an expert," he says. "That's what we want people to do at TJ's. We make that information available so that the seafood isn't intimidating."
Even the best-followed recipes go awry, and some of us need truly idiot-proof ways to prepare fish. If you're capable of setting a timer, you can perfectly cook a piece of fish. Alexis suggests setting the oven at 400 degrees, and cooking the fish for twelve minutes per inch of thickness. You'll have to adjust if your fish is thinner or thicker than one inch, but you can generally expect a well-cooked piece following this technique.
But not necessarily well-done. Most of us tend to overcook fish because we're concerned about dying from some ocean-dwelling parasite that lurks within, but Alexis considers well-done fish to be unappetizing. Shoot for medium, when the fish is warm and slightly pink inside. You can use a meat thermometer to gauge the doneness of your fish, but make sure to insert the probe along (instead of against) the flake of the fish to avoid tearing up your expensive filet.
For the home Master Chefs among us, Alexis warns against overly fussy preparations of fish that include dozens of ingredients. "The Top Chef-iest thing you can do is show someone that you can cook a piece of fish perfectly. The fish only needs a little salt and pepper, then you can go crazy with sauces and sides. Showing restraint is impressive."