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John Besh: Stop Beating Up Fish

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Chef John Besh

© Courtesy of John Besh Restaurant Group
Chef John Besh knows fish.

New Orleans–based chef John Besh released his second cookbook this week: My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking, a collection of simple, comfort-food recipes. The longtime Louisiana booster has also been making moves to support Gulf seafood. In the New Year, Besh will open his ninth restaurant, Borgne, which emphasizes the region’s coastal cuisine. He shared recipes for shrimp bisque and swordfish picatta in this month’s Food & Wine, and even features a chapter in his new book called “How to Cook a Fish.” Since this "What Not to Do"series revolves around disaster prevention, we asked Besh to describe the worst offenses you can commit against seafood.

1. Buy bad fish. The easiest way to foul a fish dish is to not have a relationship with your fishmonger. If you don’t know where the fish is coming from and when it was caught, you’re making the first mistake.

2. Over season. You can mask a fish's delicate flavor with too many spices. We're in this day and age when everyone has a can of something they love to shake over food. But not all cans are created equal, and fish requires restraint; a little touch of salt will go a long way. An exception would be a really firm fish that's great for grilling, and can also handle heavier seasoning.

3. Cook it like chicken. People beat up fish by treating it like chicken or beef. Fish should be cooked as little as possible. When you overcook it, it pulls apart and gets very dry, since there's not that much fat. People who don’t like rarer fish can cook it, but no more than medium. You can test for doneness the same way you would with any other meat—to the touch. You want to cook it so the flesh slightly springs back when you push on it with your finger. Beware of carryover cooking, which is when food continues to cook even though it's been taken off the heat. Unlike meats that take 10 to 20 minutes to rest, fish are made to be eaten straight from the pan.

4. Disregard the style of fish. The texture will tell you how to cook it. A white, light, flaky fish like sole is easy as sin to overcook. Sole is meant for a little flour and brown butter in a pan—a squeeze of Meyer lemon and you’re in business. If you grill something delicate, you’ll taste the smoke instead of the fish. Mahi mahi and tuna, on the other hand, are great for the grill.

5. Make a heavy sauce. Fish are delicate, and when they’re fresh, you should be able to taste the sea. Fish have a lot of flavor and you want to sauce them in a way that will elevate the flavor, not steal the show. Vinaigrettes are under-rated; grilled salmon needs just a citrusy, sweet-sour vinaigrette. Lemon and butter are two things that white flakey fishes crave.

Related: John Besh's New Orleans Recipes
Quick Fish Recipes
Thanksgiving Recipes

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

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