Seafood safety

"Reports of unsafe fish and shellfish may cause questions in the mind of the consumer, but the safety of eating seafood is comparable to the safety of eating meat or chicken," maintains Kenelm Coons, executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Foundation, a fishing-industry group.

"Eighty-five percent of the reports of problems with seafood have been traceable to raw or uncooked crustaceans or shellfish," Mr. Coons says, "and people eating raw shellfish should make sure they know exactly where it is from. The tremendous amount of seafood that reaches the consumer is safe, clean, and free of contaminants and chemicals," he concludes.

The Food and Drug Administration, which in the past two years has stepped up its fish-inspection procedures, focuses special attention on temperature abuse, especially with bluefish, tuna, mackerel, and mahi-mahi. It's important to keep fish at a consistent, cool temperature.

Home cooks should take special care to refrigerate fish quickly after purchase. Fish must be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, in its original wrapper, and used within a day. Unwrapped fish ideally should be kept in the refrigerator on a bed of ice with a wet dish towel over the fish. How to buy fish

Truly fresh fish will have a mild odor, slightly marine if it is an ocean fish. Strong odors usually indicate spoilage. Fresh fish should look and smell fresh. Skin should be bright, eyes clear and full, not milky or sunken.

Flesh should be firm and elastic - it should spring back when pressed with a finger. Look for bright red gills and shiny, tight scales.

Fish fillets and steaks should have a moist, translucent appearance. If the flesh is dry-looking, milky white, or discolored around the edges, reject the fish; it is past its prime.

Careful shopping is just as important when buying frozen fish. Careless handling may cause fish to thaw and freeze repeatedly, losing flavor and risking spoilage. While it's difficult to detect an off-odor in frozen fish, reject any frozen-fish packages that are torn or have misshapen boxes. If fish hasn't spoiled, it may be dry and tasteless. Some fishmonger terminology

Round: Fish "in the round" are fish that are sold exactly as they come from the water - guts, gills, scales, and all.

Drawn: Scaled, and entrails removed. Sometimes, not always, fins are removed.

Dressed: Gutted, scaled, headed, and trimmed of fins. Small fish in this form are called "pan-dressed."

Fillets: The sides of fish that have been cut lengthwise from the backbone. They are usually 1/4 to 1-inch thick. Fillets are the most delicate cuts of fish and can be cooked in numerous ways, but care must be taken not to overcook. One pound serves three.

Halved: Pan-dressed round fish are often split down the backbone and sold with both skin and bone attached; especially suitable for broiling. One pound makes two servings.

Steaks: Steaks are cross-section slices of large, dressed fish cut 3/4 to 1-inch thick (thickness varies depending on use). Skin is not usually removed, as it holds flesh together. Halibut, swordfish, salmon, tuna, and eel are most frequently sold as steaks. A cross-section of the backbone is usually the only bone in the steak.

Chowder Pieces: Trimmings from the fillets are economical and excellent for soups and chowders. Serving sizes

The serving size of fish is based on its richness: the richer the fish, the smaller the quantity needed per person. If a serving of seafood is planned as the only course (perhaps with a salad), the quantity is more generous. As a general rule, a 6- to 8-ounce portion is ample. A 4-ounce serving is a bit small, unless there is plenty to go with it. A 10-ounce serving is often excessive.

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