Sam Gorenstein's Tips on Fresh Fish, Part One: Shop for Guts, Slime, and Bloodlines

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The phrase "catch of the day" might evoke thoughts of family-run fishing boats, quaint coastal towns and early morning markets. Add a couple of seagulls, a few fishmongers wearing yellow rubber overalls and you have quite the romanticized vision of fresh fish.

Unfortunately, today this catch phrase can more easily refer to fish farmed in Asia, fed artificial ingredients, processed, frozen, and then shipped thousands of miles. Just doesn't sound charming, right?

Sam Gorenstein, the James Beard Award semifinalist and partner at My Ceviche, is here to help. When Sam and his business partner, Roger Duarte, opened the casual seafood joint they had a simple mission: to offer affordable, local, fresh and delicious fish. So, with these eight tips from Sam, you can finally skip that dull farmed tilapia and instead opt for the real, true flavors of local Florida catches.

Sam Gorenstein's Tips on Selecting Local, Fresh Fish

1. Ask to see the whole fish, guts and head included
Sam works with trusted local purveyors, but he also knows that the freshest fish comes with guts and a head. To keep fish from spoiling, fishmongers have to start cleaning out fish as days go by. So, if you're buying a fish that has guts, that means the fish was caught earlier in the day or the day before. If the fish has no head, then it could have been fished a week ago. If you are shopping just for a fillet, then chances are the fish came out of the water over a week ago.

2. Don't be shy, press on the flesh
Fresh fish has a firm flesh, so be sure to take a gentle poke at it before taking it home.

3. Slime is good
Fresh fish is slimy and can have a thick, gooey substance coating its body. Some fishmongers might wash the sea slime off, but if you do happen to spot some of it, don't fret. The slime coat is actually one of the fish's natural defense mechanisms against potential bacterium and infections.

4. Give the fish some eye contact
Once you've spotted a fish with a head and some guts, look for a sharp, bright eye. Check for clarity, no cloudy or murkiness should be in sight.

5. "Fresh fish doesn't smell like anything"
Sam doesn't like to hear that fish smells fishy, because fresh fish doesn't smell at all. Stick your nose into the gills of a fresh catch and take a whiff. It will be odorless.

6. When shopping for fillets, look for a vibrant bloodline
If you can't buy a whole fish, then check for a bloodline. Bloodlines are markers for freshness and Sam stressed that master sushi chefs show it off as an indicator of prowess. Look for a reddish, slightly purple bloodline. If the bloodline looks dark purple or black, step away from it. It isn't fresh.

7. Ask about fishing method
Local fisherman usually offer spear-fished or line-caught fish. Commercial fisherman use large nets that might produce a lot of bycatch, which is seafood that has been accidentally caught while trying to fish a different species. Spear-fishing or line-catching is more sustainable and is usually indicative of a local fisherman.

8. Know that nature doesn't always give you what you want
Buying fresh fish is all about the whims of nature. Sam and Roger don't specify types of fish on their menu, because they don't know what will be fresh every day. The chef doesn't select the menu, nature does. So, if you feel like eating fish, don't set your heart on a specific type until you've seen what's available.

Now that you went out and bought a whole fish, guts and head included, with clear eyes and gooey slime, you might find yourself stuck staring down at it, wondering what to do next. Don't worry. Stick that fish in the fridge until you can check out tomorrow's post, which will feature a pictured step by step guide of Sam filleting a Spanish mackerel.

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