It's low in saturated fat and sodium, high in protein and full of vitamins and minerals. What's more, it's versatile, melding with a wide range of flavors. And, as if that weren't enough, it takes only minutes to cook. Why, then, don't we eat more fish?
In large measure because we don't know enough about it.
"People are not aware of the huge amount of high-quality fish now available," says Katherine Alford, director of instruction at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School. "In their minds there's shrimp, salmon, sole, tuna and swordfish, and not much else, but that's just a tip of the iceberg."
And an expensive tip it is. There are dozens of varieties of fish swimming into local stores unrecognized. Ms. Alford ticks off half a dozen good buys: "Skate is a sweet, white-fleshed, succulent fish that's a good substitute for flounder or sole.
"Tilefish can be used in place of any firm white flesh fish. Wolffish, another firm, white-fleshed fish, is very good broiled. Mackerel and porgies are two more widely available choices. And if you can find triggerfish, a tender whitefish fillet, use it in place of costly flounder or snapper."
Replacing one fish with another in recipes is more a matter of vTC matching texture and tenderness than taste, says Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of the Angeli restaurants in Los Angeles and author of "Cucina del Mare, Fish and Seafood Italian Style" (William Morrow, $23), due out in May.
"The actual taste of fish is very subtle, and that's one of the reasons people are afraid to cook it. When it's the star of the dish, if the texture and flavor are not perfect, the end result is disappointing. But if you make fish a player on a larger stage, you won't have to worry about overcooking it, and you can save a lot of money to the bargain," says Ms. Kleiman.
"Use cheaper, lean cuts such as whiting, pollock, porgie or tile for soups, stews and pasta dishes," she suggests. "Pair the fish with capers, a squeeze of lemon, olives and pepper, and in a few minutes you can have a saute to mix with pasta. Or cut fish into small pieces and add it, with a bit of tomato and whatever fresh herb you find in the market, to risotti."
More economical fishes often do best when baked, Ms. Kleiman says. She suggests making a marinade with olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs -- parsley and the zest of orange is a favorite combination -- and marinating the fish half an hour before baking.
Those inexpensive blocks of frozen fish you get at the supermarket work well in chowders and stews, not in dishes that require broiling or sauteeing, notes Brooke Dojny, co-author of "Cheap Eats" (HarperPerennial, $9.95). Thaw slightly in the refrigerator, then cut with a serrated knife and add to the pot near the end of the cooking process, says Ms. Dojny. Never thaw frozen fish in a microwave, she adds. The oven cooks the fish slightly and you end up with toughened patches, she says.
When buying any fish, let your eyes and nose be the judge. Whole fish should have a nice luster, says Roger Tollefsen, president of New York's Seafood Council, with shiny clear eyes, bright red or clear gills and a firm texture. Fillets should have a shiny appearance, too. One of the best indicators of quality is the smell. There shouldn't be any, except perhaps a sense of the sea.
Remember that fresh fish is a perishable item, adds Ms. Alford. It's best to use it the same day you buy it. Once you get fish home, put it on ice, in a colander so water can drain out until you are ready to cook, she advises.
Freezing fresh fish for later use is not recommended. "You lose some of the flavor," says Bill Bowers, owner of Jake's Fish Market, "but if you must freeze it, wrap the fish in freezer paper, then in plastic wrap. Use it within two months."