Some things — like a gorgeous sunset, a Tiffany masterpiece or a video of any of Prince's best blues-tinged guitar solos _ are so awe inspiring, they seem to be perfection itself.
You wouldn't change a single aspect.
To a devoted fisherman, the same perfection might be found in fish flesh. Though, granted, this is America, not Japan: Most of us feel compelled to cook a piece of fish before we truly enjoy it.
But how to prepare it?
Conversations with two local experts indicate a fisherman does not get up at 4:00 in the morning to catch something he is later going to tart up with some kind of trendy homemade fruit salsa in the interest of impressing somebody.
That's not what floats his boat.
Instead, the fishing enthusiast spends years honing frying, grilling and broiling skills until he/she is an expert at cooking a fish just enough and serving it simply _ so the taste of fresh, sweet fish comes through like a sunbeam.
Asked for some cooking advice, Stillwater resident Ed Skorupski, a member of the New York State Outdoor Writers Association whose work appears in "The Express," a Mechanicville weekly, offers this four-word commandment: "Do Not Overcook Fish." (Capitalization — well-suited to a needlepoint project — being his.)
"There is a fine line between done and over-done that can be crossed in a minute," he says. "Overcooked fish dries out, loses its flavor and is the main reason people don't like eating fish."
The best way to test for doneness when following his guidelines for grilling or broiling (which follow) is to stick to recipe times faithfully, then test a white-fleshed fish by poking the thickest part with a fork. As soon as the flesh in the middle turns opaque, it's time to touch fish to dish.
One catch, though: "If it's a deep-colored fish, say salmon, you want to be able to see a little of the original flesh color in the center," says Skorupski. "Now that's all according to taste. Some people like burnt offerings and won't change."
Interestingly enough, as much as he loves to prepare everything from grilled striped bass to salt-cured salmon and trout, to pickled herring, his wife of 40 years is just not that into the kind of fish Ed brings home.
According to her husband, Anna's "definition of fish" is scallops and shrimp." But Ed doesn't frequent those kinds of waters. And unless Ed transforms some of his excess fish into fish cakes or pan fries some breaded perch from an ice-fishing venture, she's going to stick to a salad.
Now, Tim Blodgett, who — along with his wife, Rose — owns Saratoga Tackle and Archery on Route 29 in Schuylerville, says, "I'm a fish fry man, myself. Nothing beats a good fish fry."
Blodgett recommends a beer batter for this purpose and has tried making his own batter mix from scratch, but admits he'd rather use a good purchased batter mix. And, to him, the taste is equally appealing.
His favorite beer batter mix is called Shore Lunch, which he stocks in his own store and can often find at Ocean State Job Lot stores as well. In addition, Hannaford supermarkets stock a good store-brand mix packaged in bags, he says.
Is the type of beer you use for this purpose crucial?
"My philosophy is, a good beer is to be drunk and a lesser one — maybe a domestic — is to be used for batter making," Blodgett laughs. "Don't go overboard.
"I've done it with a preferred drinking-quality beer and, sure, maybe the fish did taste just a little bit better, but not sufficiently better to warrant wasting a perfectly good drinking beer."
Once he's got his beer batter prepared according to package directions, he places a large cast-iron pan over medium heat. You can use vegetable oil or olive oil for frying fish, but Blodgett greatly prefers Crisco shortening. It gives "a cleaner taste."
When the oil is hot enough, dredge each piece of fish in flour or some of the dry batter mix until it is lightly coated on both sides. Dip the dredged pieces completely into the prepared beer batter, then bring them out. Hold for a second, then carefully drop them by hand into the very hot oil.
Fry the fillets for a couple of minutes per side, turning them gently, until the coating on each piece is golden and crisp. If the oil is not hot enough, Blodgett warns, the batter will absorb too much of it and the fish's flavor will suffer.
Drain the fried fish on layered paper towels and serve it quickly with your favorite fish fry accompaniments. You can try making your own tartar sauce with just pickle relish, mayonnaise and a little lemon juice, but Blodgett usually foregoes the sauce.
"I'm usually eating the fish right as it comes out of the pan," he laughs.
Skorupski is in complete accord: "I'm just not a sauce person," he says. Not even on fish cakes, which most people top with either catsup or tartar sauce. "If anything, I'll just use salt and pepper."
Where do these two sportsmen get the fish they love to cook?
Blodgett favors Saratoga Lake and feels it is "a pretty safe place to fish." But he advises those new to the hobby to check state Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines, available on-line, for where to go for what species and how often it's safe to eat such fish.
Skorupski, however, casts his line in a lot of places, moving with the seasons to different locations and species. He has caught salmon in the Columbia River, out of Astoria, and from October through December gets both salmon and trout out of Lake Champlain. From Christmas to mid-March, he's ice fishing, mostly on Saratoga Lake.
He's also fond of the Poestenkill Creek for its "plentiful stripers and herring."
The following methods and recipes have been developed by Skorupski, a chemical engineer before he retired, during the eight years he has been teaching people to fish and writing about his adventures:
ED'S GRILLING AND BROILING GUIDELINES
Grilling Striped Bass ("Stripers"), Cod or Halibut — Such fish have firm white flesh that is not oily. To grill these fillets, give them a light rub of olive oil, some salt and pepper, then place them right on a hot grill, skin side down. Cook on "high" for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness of fish.
Grilling Salmon or Trout _ These fish are higher in fat content (more oily) than white fish, states Skorupski, "and consequently are inherently more 'flavorful.' They can be treated simply with oil, salt and pepper, but also stand up well to grilling sauces.
"I've recently tried a soy, shallot reduction with a touch of brown sugar, which turned out pretty tasty."
Due to the higher fat content, though, these fish tend to flare up on the grill, especially if cooked with the skin on. "So watch them carefully."
Broiling Fish _ Broiling is a good alternative if you don't want to, or can't, grill outside. Treat the fish the same as if you were grilling. "Get the oven HOT! Keep the broiling pan/sheet within 4 inches of the heater element."
This method is also Skorupski's preferred way to cook pan fish (any fish small enough to fry whole in a pan). He uses an oiled, all-cast-iron skillet, placing in it 6 to 8 fillets rubbed with a little olive oil and dusted with panko or Italian-seasoned bread crumbs. "Broil for about 5 minutes and you've got a tasty meal."
Stick to olive oil, he advises. He switched to using a soy/sesame oil blend once and found it overpowered the fish's flavor.
Eating gravlax — salt-cured fish eaten cold and thinly sliced — might seem terribly elegant, but Skorupski says this recipe is easy. "You'll be surprised with the outcome."
- 1 full-sized fillet of salmon or trout (not lake trout)
- 1 cup coarse kosher or pickling salt
- 1/8 cup sugar
- Fronds of fresh, baby dill
- Line a glass tray with plastic wrap. Stir together the salt and sugar; sprinkle about 3 tablespoons of this mixture onto the plastic.
- Place fillet skin side down on the tray. Place dill fronds evenly on top of fillet, then do the same with strips of lemon rind.
- Cover the dill- and peel-covered fish with the remainder of the salt and sugar.
- Cover completely with plastic wrap. Place a sheet pan on top, making sure the pan is sitting on the salt-covered fish, NOT the rim of the underlying tray.
- Weigh down the sheet pan by placing water-filled gallon jugs on top (as many jugs as will fit). Place in refrigerator and let cure overnight.
- Be careful not to over-cure! Small/thin fillets will take only 8-10 hours. Heavy/thick fillets (like those shown in photo) require 16-20 hours.
- When the curing time is up, remove from the refrigerator, unwrap the fillet, then brush off the salt mixture, dill and lemon peel. Rinse quickly under fresh cold water, then dry very thoroughly.
- Wrap gravlax in plastic food wrap to store. Can be stored in the refrigerator for as long as 1 week.
- Slice very thinly to serve. Tastes exquisite eaten plain. Or (as other people might) enjoyed on cream cheese and crackers or thin slices of dark bread.
"I make this only April through June," Skorupski states, "when the herring are up in the Troy part of the Hudson."
- 10 fresh herring
- 1 cup coarse kosher or pickling salt
- 1 quart cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons McCormick pickling spice blend
- 1 red onion
- 1 lemon
- Sterilized canning jars with lids, rims. (Skorupski prefers pint jars.)
- Scale and fillet the herring. Prepare a brine by dissolving 1 cup salt in 1 gallon of water. Put the herring in a large glass (glass is a must!) container and slowly pour brine on top. Cover and let sit in refrigerator overnight.
- The next day, mix the vinegar with 1 quart water. Heat this to a boil, then add the pickling spices. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
- Once the pickling mixture is cool enough, line up your canning jars and lids. Cut both onion and lemon into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
- In the sterilized jars, place in order (bottom of jar to top) the following: onion slice, 2 or 3 fillets, onion slice, 2 or 3 fillets, lemon slice.
- Add the vinegar/spice solution, filling to the top. Slide a clean butter knife around the inside to work out the air pockets. Tightly cover with jar lids.
- Refrigerate for 4 days before eating. Can be stored in refrigerator for as long as 1 month. Jars can be cleaned and re-used, but lids must be discarded.