When you go shopping for vegetables, you make sure you buy the freshest of the lot. You do this instinctively as you are aware that insipid vegetables will not taste good irrespective of what magic you whip up in the kitchen. No matter how many spices you add or for how long you cook the vegetables if the vegetables are not of good quality then there isn’t much you can do to make the dish flavoursome. Whether it’s beans, spinach, tomatoes, or carrots, even a hint of staleness will spoil your dish.
Culinary wizards, who are revered for their food craftsmanship, insist on using the best raw produce for cooking. Three-Michelin-starred, legendary Italian chef Massimo Bottura, owner of Osteria Francescana, which is ranked the number 2 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, says, “buy the freshest ingredients, make sure the recipe pays respect to them, and keep it simple.”
Cooking is an art, a culinary art. An artist needs raw materials like paints, brushes, canvas and other tools of good quality to be able to produce a piece of art that touches us. Similarly, in the kitchen, you need the right tools and authentically good raw produce to be able to create a dish that hits the right spot.
“There is absolutely no substitute for the best. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavour. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing.” ― James Beard, one of America’s pioneering gastronomes, who popularised food shows and wrote extensively on all things relating to the foodie experience and the art of cooking.
Whether its Italian, French, American, Australian, or Asian cuisine, the key to their success, in addition to the cooking methods, is the quality of produce they use. Hence, masters of gastronomy from different parts of the world will always advise you to pick the freshest raw produce to create dishes that please the palate. And it makes good sense. If you are mindful of the pots and pans, the grilling techniques, the baking and boiling methods and other such little tips to improve the taste of your dish then why not pay as much attention to arguably the main factor that influences and powers your dish with flavour- the quality of your produce!
Think about it. If skilled chefs, who are equipped with the best tools and techniques, still emphasise on top-notch quality raw produce then there must be something to what they’re saying.
That is how it works with a seafood dish too. Unless the raw produce is brimming with freshness, the dish you create will not be impressive. The underlying taste of any dish is its main ingredient. If you’re making Thai Red Curry with Halibut, you may add the choicest ingredients i.e. homemade curry paste, fresh coconut milk, and aromatic herbs, but if the Halibut is not fresh and of good quality then the dish will just not turn out remarkable.
This is why world’s most accomplished chefs stress on using only the best produce and ingredients. In fact, they go as far as to say if your ingredients and produce are of brilliant quality then you don’t really need to do much to the dish. British celebrity chef and restaurateur, Rick Stein, who has hosted many popular food shows and authored a bunch of books on cookery (many of them on seafood), believes, “nothing is more exhilarating than fresh fish simply cooked.”
Fresh Seafood Simply Cooked
Of course, you do not pick up cheap and visibly poor quality seafood at the local fish market. You know better than that. However, even items that may appear to be fresh at the local fish market are not necessarily of superior quality and you never know when they’re going to begin to go bad. So, even if you’re picking the best of the lot, it can be considered best only in a limited sense. Sometimes, you may get lucky and enjoy a truly succulent Pomfret for dinner that you bought earlier that day at the fish market. But you’re not necessarily going to be able to pick up the same quality of Pomfret the next time you visit the fish market. This is because there’s no consistency in the quality of raw produce available.
Where fruits or vegetables are concerned we try to procure the best that we can. Consider Alphonso mangoes as an example. Alphonso is a variety of mango that enjoys huge popularity amongst mango connoisseurs in western India. So, Alphonso mango aficionados look to buy export quality mangoes every summer, as they know that this is going to be the best of the lot. The logic behind it is that one should get the most out of their foodie experience in terms of taste, texture and aroma, and the best way to guarantee that is to opt for the highest grade, which, in this case, is export quality.
Why not follow the same principle when it comes to buying your meat or seafood?
A dish that doesn’t taste like you imagined it, leaves you feeling disappointed. Imagine that you invest the time, effort and money to make the marinated Prawn salad that you had recently eaten at a friend’s place. He shares the source of the recipe with you. You go through the recipe, look up all the ingredients, make a list of them, and then head to the market and buy all the items on your list. You use the exact proportions and follow the recipe to the T. However, the Prawns turn out not to be of the desirable quality and so the dish eventually lands up being lackluster. That’s a real downer, right?
Such experiences can be avoided if you ensure to pick the finest quality raw produce every time.
What do we mean when we say ‘quality’?
Well, to begin with, raw seafood shouldn’t smell ‘fishy’. Fishy usually means it is beginning to go bad. It should ideally have only a mild ‘fish’ or ‘seafood’ smell. It should have firm flesh. Stale seafood is usually discoloured and dull in appearance. What you should be looking for is clean meat that is healthy in appearance, and does not smell bad.
Usually, the seafood available at the local fish market comes through a supply chain, which probably means that it is usually 4-5 days old by the time you pick it up. Many factors such as temperature control and hygiene standards determine for how long the seafood can be kept fresh. In the case of the local fish market, the supply chain is not regulated so there’s no way of knowing what your fish has been through before it made it your plate. Basically, it is difficult to ascertain the produce’s quality.
Therefore, it is preferable to buy seafood, which has undergone standardized processes and procedures to determine its quality: freshness, grade and size.
Always choose the best
When we cook, we do so to bring out the inherent flavours of the produce. While using different spices and techniques enhances the taste of what we’re cooking, it cannot add taste to it if the produce itself is nothing special. Raw produce of supreme quality is elementary for creating a winning dish!
Where seafood is concerned, or for that matter any food, ‘purity, freshness, and quality’ of raw produce should be your mantra.