LONDON, Ont. - "I never met a fish I didn't like," Jeff Morrison of Ottawa states with conviction.
The avid sportsman, known as "The Outdoors Guy" in his blog and newspaper column, can now add author to his resume with not one but two cookbooks coming out June 1 — "Canadian Fishing Cookbook" and "Canadian Outdoor Cookbook."
Another on wild game will likely be released this fall, all published by Company's Coming.
Morrison has travelled the nation pursuing his passion for catching and eating just about every type of fish and seafood imaginable. Consequently, his "Fishing Cookbook," the one he wrote first, "is sort of like reading through a diary of my outdoor life."
But "people who do their fishing in the fish market" will have no problem, he says. While some dishes in the book may be more common in the regions where the fish originates — Maritime cod, northern pike, Pacific halibut, Lake Erie smelt — most are accessible in fresh or frozen versions at supermarkets and fishmongers across the country. Other featured species — walleye (called pickerel in Ontario), bass and trout, for example — are naturally found coast to coast.
Even eel, cod cheeks and sunfish are covered and he includes lots of recipes for side dishes, salads and sauces to accompany the fish entrees.
Since Morrison often catches his own supper, determining freshness is not generally a problem. But he acknowledges that it can be for those buying "fresh" fish at a store. "There's nothing worse than eating fish or seafood that isn't fresh," he says.
One issue is that signs of decay vary among species. Cloudy eyes in some whole fish may signal that they've been around too long, but in others, the eyes turn opaque within a few hours, so that's not always a reliable measure.
Shiny, metallic-looking skin on a fish is said to be a good sign, as are bright red gills. Some sources recommend avoiding fillets with a milky liquid on them, but again, Morrison says, this occurs quite quickly in some species.
"Let your nose be the guide," he says. "There is a difference between the smell of fresh fish and the smell of rot. There'll be a distinctive smell that tells you when fish is no longer fresh."
At home, fish should be refrigerated no more than two or three days before using. Frozen fish should never be stored in a frost-free freezer because it will dry out, he says.
For the trepidatious, Morrison suggests starting with mild-tasting walleye or whitefish, both freshwater fish, and halibut or cod, both saltwater fish. For the more adventurous, pike and muskie "are some of the best eating in my opinion," but only if properly filleted.
As for cooking methods, frying, baking, poaching and grilling are all options depending on the recipe and type of fish. But frying is probably his favourite. His recipes use different types of oil, including peanut, sunflower, olive and canola. But it's hard to beat the taste of fish fried in butter, Morrison says. "It just adds a certain something."
It's important to keep an eye on fish while it's cooking to make sure it doesn't dry out, he says. Some types contain more oil so are less prone to drying, but others — halibut steaks on the grill, for example — will get dry if cooked too long.
"It's easy to overcook fish. Some seafoods, such as scallops or shrimp, cook so quickly. In literally 30 seconds they can go from not quite there to fully cooked. You don't want to go past that point really. It's not like cooking a big tenderloin."
He recommends medium to medium-high temperatures for frying and likes to keep a lid on the frying pan "so you get a nice little steam effect, fluffs it right up."
Each of Morrison's recipes is introduced by a story — some about memorable meals or fish tales about the ones that got away, including the biggest brook trout he never saw (but his dad did).
Morrison has degrees in both environmental science and fish and wildlife biology, so scattered throughout is information about the fishing industry in Canada, conservation, sustainability and the issue of mercury and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination.
Sustainability is the focus of Ocean Wise, a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to educate consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood.
Robin Poirier, the Toronto-based Ocean Wise accounts representative for the eastern provinces, says the program works directly with restaurants, markets, food services and suppliers to help them and their customers "identify the ocean-friendly or the ocean-wise seafood options."
The 450-plus participating "partners" at more than 3,100 locations across the country display an Ocean Wise logo with their products or on menus indicating the selection is sustainable.
Those who do not deal with Ocean Wise partners can still inform themselves about sustainability by checking out the extensive list of fish and seafood on the Ocean Wise website — www.oceanwise.ca — or iPhone app. It indicates not one of 13 varieties of snapper is recommended, for example.
But making a knowledgeable choice requires the consumer to know a lot about the fish being considered — the exact type, where it came from and how it was caught.
If you don't know, ask the retailers, Poirier says. And if the retailers don't know, urge them to find out.
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.
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