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A chef’s guide to seafood

Josh Niland shares his hot tips for buying, preparing and cooking seafood

Photograph: Anna Kucera

Josh Niland, head chef at Australian seafood restaurant Saint Peter, loves fish. But he also appreciates that cooking seafood is a bit of a dark art, so we joined him on a walk through the Sydney Fish Market where he gave us the low down on what to buy, when to buy it and what to look for when you want the freshest seafood in Sydney.

The golden rules for seafood

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1. Make friends with your fishmonger
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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1. Make friends with your fishmonger

Somewhere like the Sydney Fish Markets everyone buys the best and the best is consistent. Everyone buys the best snapper and the best prawns. It also depends what's running at the moment so in kingfish season they will be everywhere. You just have to get comfortable with one of the vendors, make one of them your pal and the more serious they think you are about it the better fish they are going to try to give you.

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Pyrmont
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2. Start out easy
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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2. Start out easy

Buy a friendly fillet of ocean trout from Tasmania or a barramundi portion and cook it in a pan with some oil. Cook it with the skin on and finish it in the oven. It’s the simplest way to start off.

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3. Know what to look for
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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3. Know what to look for

Consider how good-looking a fish is. If it’s still got all the colour in its scales, all its fins are intact, eyes are still nice and pronounced on the head – not milky or sunken – you’ve got s nice fresh piece of fish on your hands. You want to avoid washed out fish or fish that's lost its colour or been beaten up by ice. Avoid anything that looks like it's sat in ice or water too long. Go for fish that look like they have just come out of the water. With swordfish you actually look for something almost glassy – it should have a real shine to it. If you’re buying oysters shucked you also want quite a glassy appearance - really moist and sitting in its own brine. Avoid ones that are flooded with water, have severely discoloured shells or holes in the shell because when you see a hole in the shell maybe a worm popped in there

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4. Eat ethically
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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4. Eat ethically

If you want to eat sustainably ask for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified varieties. Farmed fish like barramundi and mulloway are also good options that are run very responsibly. Your best bet is to just talk to your fishmonger and try to buy local. Rays bream is what fishermen used to call black snapper. It's so delicious and so cheap and you can cook it the same way as the albacore. A leather jacket is good in a bag with spices herb and wine. It’s also good for crumbing.  

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5. Be open to new things
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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5. Be open to new things

Instead of looking at the fillets every time have a look around the edges. There might be live urchins that are still whole and spanner crabs from Ballina. You might find flame cockles, surf clams, turban shell clams, live pipis – there’s so much cool stuff. 

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6. Not all bad reputations are deserved
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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6. Not all bad reputations are deserved

Blue mackerel is a stigmatised fish. People think we don't eat blue mackerel or that's too oily but you can chuck it on the barbecue or even eat it raw Albacore tuna is probably one of our most underrated fish. It’s all about knowing how to cook it. If you put that into a hot pan like any other fish it will turn to chicken and it would put you off fish. At the restaurant we put it under the heat lamps and let it warm up and then it kind of sets and we serve it like that so it's almost the same temperature as your mouth. To replicate that at home you need a warm oven. Put your steak in there with some oil and just let it warm up. When it's done it's cooked all the way through but it eats like it’s raw.

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7. Timing is everything
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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7. Timing is everything

When you’ve bought fish, to be safe you’d want to eat it within three days. To enjoy it you’d want it to be within two days and to have the best time buy fresh fish on the day you want to eat it. With prawns though, it’s a different story. If they’ve been frozen on the boat, when you defrost them they are only hours old - people have this thing that frozen fish isn't as good but in certain cases frozen is better.

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8. The season matters
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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8. The season matters

Winter is an awesome time for all fish and shellfish. There is a broader range of everything and a better price point.

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9. Overcooked is worse than undercooked
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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9. Overcooked is worse than undercooked

Big fish like barramundi and mulloway you want to eat just at the set point. You want it to be even in colour, but have the proteins be all bound together and full of juice and moisture. Before that is medium rare when it's slightly translucent still. Big oily fish are a bit better rare. 

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10. But not everything is good raw
Photograph: Anna Kucera
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10. But not everything is good raw

If it’s fresh you could potentially eat just about anything here raw – it's just about whether it would be delicious. I wouldn't be hoeing into some mulloway raw. It's quite a muscular kind of fish and can be a bit mushy as well. 

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Pyrmont

Want a behind the scenes tour?

Sydney Fish Market Behind the Scenes Tour

If you want to catch fishermen at work, you’ve got to get up early. Sydney Fish Market runs almost-daily tours that start at 6.40am. Wrapped up warm, our group of six visitors meet outside Doyle’s Restaurant where tour guide Alex gives us a briefing and a few impressive facts about the largest fish market in the Southern Hemisphere. For one, it’s now considered the second most diverse seafood market in the world after Tokyo’s markets. We enter the auction floor on the mezzanine level, where we can see buyers seated in front of three huge screens, jeering as a sale is completed. Alex jokes that the jeers might be because the young bidder paid too much and set the bar high for the other sales in that category. In any case, we’re fascinated by the electronic Dutch auction system, which gives the buyers in the room just two seconds to make a decision. Sydney Fish Market has been using the Dutch auction system for over a decade and their data informs the cost of fish purchased on any week of the year. Auction prices start at $3-to-$5 above the data price per kilo and as the counter clicks at high speed, buyers in the room tap away on blue keypads at plastic desks and a sale is made before you can say ‘medium blue swimmer crab’. Alex says it’s significantly more efficient than a voice auction, and wasted stock is as low as 0.5 per cent on any one day.  We learn that there’s 55 tonnes of fish out on the auction floor on this Monday morning, brought in by more than 1,000 suppliers

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Sydney Fish Market , Pyrmont Until Monday November 6 2017

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