How I Conquered My Fear of Eating Raw Fish at Home

On a menu, I'd order raw fish in any form — but I'd never tried making it at home for fear of poisoning myself and everyone I love.

Seamore's Poke
Photo: Alex Stein

Recently, my five-year-old daughter heaped lavish praise on my ability to reheat food that I didn't actually cook. "You make the best next-day pizza, Mom," she said, with what I could swear was a patronizing tone. Truthfully, while I love and appreciate good food, I've never been an accomplished home cook. This wasn't a problem for years, living in New York with some of the world's most interesting restaurants a few blocks away, but the arrival of kids put a damper on our habit of eating out regularly — or even ordering in, as takeout for four usually devolves into an expensive and chaotic catered event. Yet I still want to eat well while also exposing my kids to a diverse menu. So far I've re-created, with varying degrees of success, most of the cuisines we used to eat, but there's one category I haven't touched: raw fish.

On a menu, I'll order it in any form — crudo, tartare, ceviche, poke, sashimi — but I've never tried making it at home for fear of poisoning myself and everyone I love. In an attempt to conquer that fear, I got some tips and a pep talk from Seamore's founder Michael Chernow. The Manhattan-based seafood restaurant, which recently opened an outpost in Arlington, Virginia, relies on sustainable fish for its menu of locally sourced fish tacos, lobster rolls, tuna poke bowls, and more. "You don't need a culinary degree to do it," Chernow assures me, with the confidence of someone who holds one from the French Culinary Institute. "Raw fish is eaten all over the world, in many different cultures, and has been for centuries. People tend to believe that fish gets people sick, but it's really greens and vegetables that are much more prone to foodborne illness than seafood."

What I just heard: Salads aren't worth the risk — stick with sushi. Below, find Chernow's best tips for putting together an easy, delicious raw fish dish at home.

Find the freshest fish

According to Chernow, the most important element of preparing a raw fish meal at home is the source. "Ultimately, what it comes down to is where you're getting your fish and how it's handled," he says. Research the best local shops and fishmongers, and build a relationship. "Ideally, have a local fishmonger who you trust and care about."

The fishmonger at my local Whole Foods tells me they don't stock sushi-grade fish for legal reasons and that I should beware of anyone who will sell me raw fish for consumption. I appreciate his honesty, so although I won't get any fish from him today, this trust is the building block of what could be a long-term relationship for other, non-raw fish recipes. I search online and find an independent shop with good reviews and call first. The selection is lacking, but they have frozen, sushi-grade tuna and salmon.

Trust, but verify

Chernow prefers buying a whole fish and asking the fishmonger to fillet it, as opposed to buying already-filleted fish, so he can determine the freshness and the quality. "When a fish is really fresh, it has crystal clear eyes and they're plump, not deflated," he says. "It's apparent when it's not fresh — its eyes are cloudy and sunken into the head." You should also ask the fishmonger to press into the side of the fish: You want the flesh to bounce back right away. If it stays indented, it's not super fresh.

Obviously this doesn't work when you're buying large fish like tuna or salmon, so in this case, Chernow advises looking at the color. "There shouldn't be any gray," he says. "You want it to look bright, bright red and fresh, just like you want to sink your teeth into it right there." I examine the four-ounce, pre-packaged frozen tuna at my local spot. I don't have a strong urge to bite it, but I also don't see any gray, so I take a leap of faith.

Alex Stein

A sharp knife is key

Chef's knives are at once staggeringly expensive and indispensable, but I don't own anything more impressive than a block set from my wedding registry that I occasionally use to tear open Amazon packages. Still, Chernow insists an "[extremely] sharp slicer" is imperative. I find my sharpest, non-serrated blade and manage to slice the tuna into relatively small, uniform cubes.

Splurge a little

Preparing meals with raw fish at home can be expensive, and while there are some cheaper options, like sea trout, Chernow says you should avoid cutting corners. His go-tos include mackerel, fluke, salmon, yellowtail, and albacore. (Albacore happens to be a super sustainable species, he says.) Additionally, sea scallops are easy to prepare since there's no deboning. "I slice them in thin discs and pour a good amount of olive oil over the top of them, then sprinkle some red pepper flakes and sea salt," he says.

Since I don't have access to fresh sea scallops, Chernow recommends cubing and dousing the tuna with a ponzu made from soy sauce, citrus, and sesame oil to taste.

Keep raw fish cold

At Seamore's, Chernow's team butchers all the fish in a dedicated protein walk-in refrigerator. "It's not rocket science; you just want to make sure that the fish is cold at all times," he says. Since I can't climb into my own fridge, Chernow suggests using this at-home hack: Put ice on a baking tray, then place another baking tray on top of that to prepare the fish. "You just want a cold surface, but make sure the fish isn't touching the ice directly," he says.

Basically, the fish should stay cold outside of when you're cutting it or dressing it. This is easy enough, and I lay out the ponzu-doused, cubed tuna, then pop it in the fridge until dinner. We eat it as a first course with rice crackers, and I'm transported to beachfront Montauk before the sound of my five-year-old's surprised approval brings me back.

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