I found recent articles in The Atlantic and investigative reports from the Boston Globe covering the topic of “bait & switch” when it comes to restaurants and fish mongers advertising one fish when in fact through genetic tests conducted (in Guelph, Ontario) to be unsettling in the least. Beth Daley and Jenn Abelson of the Boston Globe found that many fish at were mislabeled at many local restaurants, including some high-end ones!
Fish mongers faired slightly better with distributors labeling less desirable species and passing it off as something else (presumingly a fish of higher demand). Some distributors mislabel unknowingly and others to intentionally deceive and they continue to get away with it as the industry is not as regulated as the meat industry.
So here we are, trying to eat better – less meat and more vegetable dishes in our diet and incorporate more fish and seafood instead of red meat. This new problem compounds the average consumer’s trepidation when it comes to buying fish: finding a reputable fish monger, knowing how to pick a fresh fish and buying a fish that’s not endangered and eating a sustainable fish. So, now one has to find out if the fish you’re buying is actually the one advertised/labeled? Sadly, yes.
One of the most commonly mislabeled fish has to be the red snapper…practically any fish with red skin seems to be labeled a red snapper. One friend complained of a tough, dense red snapper when in fact she was sold a parrot fish (in the grouper family). Here in Toronto I see sardines on restuarant menus when in fact the species of fish are larger than the sardines I know from the Mediterranean and they are related more to the herring than sardine.
Sea bass is another fish that falls into the grey area of labeling. There are so many types of sea bass…European (lavraki or branzino), the Porgy or sea bream has been labled as sea bass and the striped bass is another! Oh, there’s the poor endangered Chillean Sea Bass which I still see sold in many fish shops.
Another issue is many fish stores will sell very little by way of whole fish and for me as a consumer – that’s a big problem. One – I can’t tell for sure what fish I am actually buying nor will I be able to inspect the fish’s eyes, gills or smell the fish, looking for that fresh smell of the sea. Many people still are squeamish about seeing the fish’s head still on their plate but I ask you: don’t you want the freshest fish and don’t you want to know you’re not being ripped-off and being sold an inferior fish or one that is endangered? i don’t.
Last week I cooked some red mullet – a small red to orange fish that’s a delight to eat with it’s firm, moist white flesh – wonderful fried. I posted pics of the dinner and a reader of the blog opined that they thought red mullet had too many bones and I replied that they likely were sold/ate a goat fish (looks like red mullet but with many more thin bones inside). Yet another reader gave me the ‘OH YUM’ comment and proclaimed my “mullets” looked delicious. Mullets are an entirely different fish that’s blue-black, longer and much more readily available in fish shops.
There’s no easy way to quickly get up to speed on fish and seafood but I can recommend two books that will help you make educated choices when buying fish and seafood: the Field Guide to Seafood. It’s compact but thick with lots of info and most of the more popular fish having photos. The other book is titled Mediterranean Seafood with drawings for each species. Both of these books also provides the names of this fish in many languages, different sub-species from different waters, when the fish is in season, how to choose a fresh one and even some suggested cooking ideas!
I’ve been to Greece over twenty times and this invaluable experience has helped me to choose fresh fish at a good price and avoid a bad fish or one in season or endangered. I’ll continue to write about fish and share whatever wisdom I’ve picked-up along the way. I urge you to eat more fish and seafood – you’ll improve your diet, learn more about fish and seafood and gain confidence in choosing with each meal.
Today’ fish is the mullet, found at fish mongers here in Toronto and they are in season in North America November-December. This fish was likely caught in the southern Us (Florida) and when fresh, it’s hard to beat. That being said, there’s a lot of mullet out there that doesn’t look that tempting so be patient. When you see one with clear eyes, pink gills, firm body and it smells of the sea – grab some and get your grill ready.
I first saw mullet in a big way when I visited the area of Messolonghi on the western side of Greece. Messolonghi is situated on a vast lagoon known for producing sea salt and fishing – mainly eel, sea bream, mullet and the highly valued mullet roe which goes towards making “avgotaraho”…or better known as bottarga (Italian). The roe of the mullet are removed then heavily salted then dried in the sun and finally preserved in bee’s wax before being sold in the markets.
This past summer I visited the city of Xanthi in the northeastern province of Thrace where I visited another vast lagoon called Porto Lagos. There, I saw fishermen pulling out blue crab, lots of mullet and preparing the roe for transport. The local fishermen told me the two major producers of Agvotaraho buy up the mullet roe of Porto Lagos.
My friend chef Stella Spanou and her husband treated us to some fresh-caught mullet that probably had no more than 6 hours between being caught and being grilled outdoors at her summer home. As per usual, fish should be prepared with the simply with just salt and pepper as seasoning, grilled and dressed with a oil/lemon dressing that us Greeks call “ladolemono” or oil/lemon.
I do love crispy skin on fish but many will find the skin of the mullet to be a little tough. Simply peel off the skin and cut the head off, remove the upper fillet then remove the spine and any remaining pinbones in each fillet. Pour the lush sauce made of the very best Greek olive oil and fresh lemon juice. I always like to add an herb – dried Greek oregano is wonderful here.
4 whole mullet fish, scaled and gutted
coarse sea salt and fresh ground pepper
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste
2 tsp. dried Greek oregano
- Pre-heat your gas or charcoal grill to high heat and brush the surface to remove any grill residue (the cleaner your grill, the less chance of your fish sticking). Drizzle your fish with olive oil and season both sides and the cavity with salt and pepper.
- As soon as your grill is ready, take some paper towel and dunk it in some vegetable oil and wipe your grill surface (to lubricate it). Now place your mullet on the grill and cook for about 6-7 minutes/side. You know your fish has been cooked when you’re able to pull-out the dorsal fin from the fish.
- While your fish is grilling, Add the olive oil, lemon juice and some salt to taste and place in a jar, close and shake well. Adjust flavourings, add the dried Greek oregano and shake again.
- When the fish is cooked, carefully remove from the grill and place on each plate/platter. With mullet, you may remove the skin then pull away the spiny bones that run along the top and bottom part of the fish, Make an incision just behind the head and lop off then make an incision with a knife along the top part of the fish then along the bottom part of the fish. Now now should be able to freely lift and flip-over the top fillet of the fish. Now you can pull out the spine of the fish and discard and hence have two fish fillets. Inspect the fillets for any remaining pin bones (near the front and around the belly) and pulls those out with your fingers.
- Shake the Latholemono in the jar and pour over your fillets. Serve with rice pilaf or potato salad, some boiled Vlita and serve with a chilled Gerovassliou White.
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