Seafood’s secrets for your own kitchen

Chef Johnson makes a point. (Photo by Jennifer Brizzi)

We’re afraid of fish. Whether it’s the cost, the odor or the intimidation factor, many of us are afraid to buy and cook it. So we leave it to restaurant chefs and pay top dollar for small portions.

This need not be so, says Stephen J. Johnson, a lecturing instructor in culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The Texan chef says that 67 percent of the seafood we eat is at restaurants, with the remaining third being cooked at home.

At a recent class for culinary enthusiasts at the CIA, Chef Johnson shared secrets of the sea, showing us not only how easy it is to make seafood classics like chowder, crab cakes and paella, but also that filleting your own flounder or flatfish is not as tough as it sounds.


I was excited to spend a day at “Under the Sea,” the class held at the Hyde Park college. I was eager to learn more about one of the subjects I’m most passionate about: seafood. That we would get to taste and take home a myriad of piscatorial delights was a bonus. In fact we were required to bring a cooler to class that we stuffed with the delicious things we’d made, plus a quarter of a salmon, subtly and deliciously cold-smoked.

The class began with an illuminative lecture for 15 or 16 of us, in which Johnson went in-depth on various kinds of popular seafood. He told us that it’s much cheaper to buy a whole fish and fillet it yourself than to buy filets, and that a flatfish like flounder or sole is the easiest kind of fish to filet. Salmon is this country’s most popular fish and we eat more of it than any other nation, consuming 26 percent of what the world produces, but producing only 2 percent ourselves. Salmon has a long shelf life, and as he demonstrated later, can be filleted at home as well.

One of the reasons people don’t buy fish to cook at home, he said, is that a smell lingers after you cook it and that is off-putting to some. He also says that the high price is a factor; seafood is generally more expensive than meat. A consistent freshness and quality are factors too, as knows anyone who has ever eaten fish that was improperly handled or past its prime.

“Because fish is 70 percent water,” he said, “Freezing makes it dry.” He added that fish can be flash-frozen with blast freezing but a better quality is achieved through cryogenic freezing, with results closest to fresh; however, it’s a somewhat more expensive process. Fish labeled “FAS,” he pointed out, was frozen at sea, and “IQF” means individually quick-frozen.

The fish’s scales protect it so the quality breaks down if scaled too soon, and storage is crucial. Fishmongers use saltwater ice; Chef Johnson suggests using crushed or shaved ice rather than cubed to increase the surface area.

He talked about another popular favorite, shrimp. He said that white shrimp, wild from the Gulf of Mexico, has the best flavor and texture. The worst is the much cheaper black tiger, farmed in Southeast Asia, with “heavy shrinkage” and a muddy taste.

He said farmed fish are often fed by-products like chicken meal or corn, and 55 percent of our fish is farmed now. He is in favor of the practice, however. “We have to have it or we’ll run out of fish from the natural ocean,” he said. He said in some cases it tastes better, like with catfish, which is a bottom feeder and muddy in its natural state. He said that farmed fish is often healthier because you can control the omega-3s with the fish’s diet.

He showed us how to tell when fish is fresh; the flesh is springy to the touch, the gills sweet-smelling. The fish should not have water sitting on it. “You have a right to smell, touch and feel your fish before you buy it,” he added.

He told us that contrary to popular belief, lobsters don’t scream when you put them in boiling water. “That’s air or gas escaping,” he said. “They don’t have a brain or feel pain; they react but don’t process it. They have a nervous system like a grasshopper.”



In the kitchen, we began by each preparing our own rich, sumptuous clam chowder that we would be able to take home with us. I had just made some for a column in this space, but this version was thick and decadent, studded with salt pork and heavy cream, restaurant style. Meanwhile, we each were issued our own whole flounder to filet, and with a quick demo from Johnson and guidance from him and some assistants we were all soon filleting like fishmongers.

We made a killer crab cake mix to take home too, with sweet Jonah crab from Maine. We chopped dill and measured brown sugar for a gravlax cure for salmon (that went home too). We watched Johnson whip up a speedy anchovy-laced Caesar dressing and take apart a huge salmon. We teamed up to make luscious-but-easy paella.

After a few hours of cozy group cooking and camaraderie we adjoined to another room to consume the fruits of our labors. Behind the scenes chefs had rolled up our flounder filets and bathed them in beurre blanc, had crisp-cooked asparagus to perfection and dressed romaine with the heady dressing Chef had made. We had our divine paella as well with plenty of San Pellegrino (which I adore) to wash it down.

We left with not only lots of fish, but a CIA apron and a copy of the CIA’s comprehensive tome: Kitchen Pro Series: Guide to Fish and Seafood Identification, Fabrication and Utilization by Mark Ainsworth, who often teaches the class.

“Under the Sea” will be offered again at the CIA in Hyde Park on March 31, April 28, May 19 and June 16. The dishes cooked will vary according to which chef is teaching the particular class. More information on the Weekends at the CIA program is available online at

If seafood isn’t for you, there are dozens of other classes, like From Roosters to Roasters, Behind the Meat Counter, Bistros and Brasseries, Cooking for One, The Flavors of Asia, Healthy Cooking at Home, and the new classes Summer Salads and Summer Soups and many, many more.

I’m always tickled pink to be able to taste good seafood, and to learn so much about how to choose, store, and prepare it was a real treat. And the people at the CIA should know; the school goes through 15,000 pounds a week of the stuff!