a.k.a.: German carp, Chinese carp
Waters:Native to Asia but now harvested in freshwaters and fish farms worldwide.
Description (in water): Most weigh under 10 lbs. but can range from 3 to 50 lbs. Carp have large scales; their dark gray backs fade into paler sides and pearly bellies.
Description (in market): Carp meat is off-white in color, with a dark midlateral strip that's often removed before cooking. It is low in fat, firm in texture, and mild--though it can be muddy, especially the farm-raised variety--in flavor. The skin is edible but not particularly tasty.
Sold as: Whole fish (most common), fillets, steaks. Often sold live, kept in tanks.
Best cooking: It's a good idea to remove the midlateral strip of darker flesh before cooking--it can infuse the meat with a strong, musky flavor. Carp bakes, fries, and poaches nicely. It is also the main ingredient in the Jewish dish "gefilte fish," and is popular in Chinese cuisine.
Buying tips: You may choose from live carp in tanks at the fish market; choose out of tanks that are not overcrowded--the fish should have room to keep active and healthy. It is not always easy to scale this fish, so ask the fishmonger to do it for you.
Substitutes: Striped bass, blackfish, catfish, cod, grouper, monkfish
Notes: The mossy, earthy flavor sometimes evident in carp tends to be stronger in the warmer months; carp harvested from November to April will have less of a river-bottom taste.
a.k.a.: Channel cat or channel catfish, bullhead
Waters:Rivers, lakes, estuaries. Catfish are popularly farm-raised in Mississippi. There is a saltwater variety called the Alantic Wolffish.
Description (in water): Scaleless dark-gray fish with long whiskerlike barbels (feelers) around mouth. They range in size from 5 to 10 lbs.
Description (in market): White flesh of medium-firm texture and low fat content. Cultured catfish are mildly flavorful; wild catfish can have a "muddy," though not necessarily unpleasant, taste reminiscent of the river.
Sold as: Whole; fresh or frozen fillets
Best cooking: Catfish skin is not edible and is usually removed before cooking. Suited to almost any style of cooking, including pan-frying, baking, oven-frying, roasting, poaching, steaming, grilling. In Mississippi kitchens, fresh whole fish are often dipped in cornmeal and deep-fried. Firm-textured meat stands up well to soups and stews.
Buying tips: In the U.S., most store-bought catfish is farm-raised and sold in frozen fillets of excellent quality. Look for pure white fillets and avoid those with a gray tinge or with browning.
Substitutes: Blackfish, carp, cod, dogfish, flatfish, grouper, haddock, ocean perch, pollock, rockfish, red snapper, weakfish, whiting, wolffish
Notes: Catfish are farmed and harvested in 34 American states; in Mississippi, catfish farming is the state's largest commercial industry.
a.k.a.: Arctic char, alpine trout, salmon trout
Waters:Icy-cold fresh and saltwaters of North America and Europe. Almost all store-bought char are farm-raised.
Description (in water): The saltwater variety have metallic blue or green backs, yellowish sides, and are patterned with small spots. The freshwater variety are multi-hued, silvery, and similarly spotted. Market-bound specimens usually weigh from 3 to 4 lbs.
Description (in market): Flesh color ranges from white to orange-pink to deep red. The flavor is strong and has been described as a cross between salmon and trout (char is related to both); texture ranges from flaky to firm.
Sold as: Whole fish, fillets
Best cooking: Prepare it as you would salmon, which is versatile and responds well to baking, broiling, frying, grilling, poaching, and steaming. Whole fish can be stuffed prior to baking.
Buying tips: Whole fish should look alive, with skin that is shiny and bright. Make sure your fish has not been sitting too long in the market; smell for freshness. Since most char is farm-raised, fillets are usually of excellent quality, although one should always check for bruises and browning.
Substitutes: Salmon, trout
a.k.a.: hard-shell clam, quahog, littleneck clams, cherrystone clam, chowder clam, Pacific littleneck clam, pismo, butter clams, soft-shell clam, steamer clam, razor clam, geoduck clam, cockles
Waters:A variety of edible clams can be found in the deep waters and along the shorelines of both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.
In the Atlantic, mahogany clams, with their shells of an appropriate dark brown hue, are harvested from boats in the deeper waters, while the hard-shell clams of all sizes are generally found closer to shore. If you've ever taken a beach walk after an Atlantic storm, you might have noticed surf or bar clams washed along the shore, large and white-shelled. Razor clams, named after the long, straight razors used in barber shops, are found buried deep in the sand along the Atlantic shoreline.
The Pacific Coast offers the smallish littleneck and Manila clams, and the most eccentric of all sea creatures -- geoducks (pronounced "gooey-ducks"), whose neck-like siphons can protrude up to three feet out of their oval shells. Similar in appearance to the Atlantic razor clam, the Western Jackknife clam also resembles an antiquated straight razor.
One of the most attractive of the clam relatives, cockles, found on the frigid North Atlantic Coast and off of New Zealand, look like small sea snails, delicately ridged on one side, and tinted a soft green on the other.
Description (in market): Of the many sorts of clams found in nature, usually only a few types will be available at any given time in the market, so it's a good idea to be aware of which clams make the tastiest, most tender additions to a raw bar, and which steam or stew best.
Sold in their shells still alive, clams in the market bear scant difference to clams in the sea. Both Atlantic and Pacific hard shell clams are generally sold according to the size of their shells, with the smallest (littlenecks) measuring about 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 inches across the shell, and the largest (chowder clams) measuring over 3 inches in width.
Most clam meat is pale gray, except the cantaloupe colored flesh of the Atlantic mahogany clam. In the market, soft shell clams are distinguishable not for their shells which, albeit appearing thin, still resemble hard shelled clams, but by the small tentacle-like siphon poking from their necks. Similarly, geoducks are sold in the market with their enormous necks intact, since some people like to eat the siphons.
Sold as: Whole live raw clams, in the shell, frozen or fresh shucked, canned
Best cooking: The larger the clam, the less it costs per pound, and the tough meat lends itself well to fried strips or chowders. Smaller clams like the Atlantic littlenecks are tender enough to be eaten raw on the half shell, steamed with butter and lemon, or cooked into savory soups. Cherrystone and butter clams are just the right size for stuffing. Razor clams can sometimes be found in Chinese cooking, while the siphon of the geoduck can be sliced and blanched for an excellent sushi filling.
Buying tips: There's no need to buy the small, costly clams if you intend to fry them or use them for chowder. For steamed or raw clams, however, it will be worth the extra expense to purchase the smaller, more tender varieties. When buying live hard shell clams in the market, choose those with tightly closed shells; should you find a clam attempting to peek out, give the shells a squeeze and if the creature doesn't reseal, discard it. Soft shell clams are prohibited from ever fully closing by the neck-like siphons protruding from their shells. To test and see if a soft shell clam is still alive, just give it a poke and see if it reacts.
a.k.a.: Scrod or schrod (market names used interchangeably for young cod, haddock, and sometimes pollock), tomcod, true cod (Pacific), arctic cod, Greenland cod, Alaska cod
Waters:Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with a concentrated population in U.S. off coast of New England
Description (in water): Color varies, though the back is usually dun-colored with a greenish cast and brown mottling. Weight ranges from 1 1/2 lbs. to over 100 lbs.
Description (in market): The classic, all-purpose white-meat fish, cod is lean, medium- to firm-textured, and delicately flavorful. Tender, thick fillets with large flakes that "gape" (separate) when cooked.
Sold as: Skinless fillets (most common), steaks, whole fish (smaller specimens, up to about 10 lbs.), salted (referred to as salt cod), dried, smoked, pickled. Cheeks, tongues, and sounds (air bladders) are also eaten.
Best cooking: If you wish, remove any bones from fillets before cooking (cod fillets often contain a few small bones). Cod is excellent for poaching, broiling, baking, braising, and frying. A popular main ingredient in chowders, which are creamy and binding enough to support the big flakes of meat that fall apart when cooked. Whole cod are often stuffed and baked. Heads and bones make fine soup stock.
To prepare salt cod, soak in cold water overnight or for up to 24 hours; change the water several times.
Buying tips: Fillets should be sweet-smelling with pure, glistening, snowy white flesh; make sure they are free of brown spots and signs of dryness. The thickest portion of the fillet--often called the "loin" or "captain's cut"--is considered the best.
Substitutes: Blackfish, carp, grouper, haddock, halibut, monkfish, red snapper, tilefish, turbot, weakfish, whiting, wolffish
Notes: Due to overfishing, cod is not as easy to come by (and not as inexpensive) as it once was.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was named for this plentiful, ever-popular fish.
Bacalao is Spanish for salt cod.
a.k.a.: Conch queen conch
Waters:Conches are found in the more southern waters off the coast of Florida and in the Caribbean.
Description (in water): Conches are snails, and have one muscular foot with which they drag themselves around. They have brightly colored spiral shells, a pinkish body, and have spikes protruding from their shells.
Description (in market): Most conches are purchased in their shells so they should look much as they do in water. If they're already out of their shells, then the edible part is the small muscular foot, which is pale gray or tan in color.
Sold as: In addition to being sold fresh, conch meat is also sold canned and frozen.
Best cooking: Conch meat is most easily cooked by simmering in salted water or vegetable stock. It can also be cooked just slightly, removed from the shell, and then cooked in a sauce or stew. The rather tough meat is also frequently chopped and added to soups. One must also be very careful to cook it adequately as undercooked conch has been known to cause illness.
Buying tips: Buy them fresh still in their shells. Conch shells should be shiny and the meat firm and clean looking. It should smell fresh and of the sea.
Notes: Summer is the peak season and the freshest conches will be found in specialty shops or Italian markets, since Italians have always considered these snails a delicacy.
a.k.a.: Dungeness crab, king crab, snow crab, blue crab, stone crab, soft-shell crab
Waters:North Pacific coast, Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to the Bahamas, Caribbean, Gulf and Florida coasts
Description (in water): Crabs are distinguished as ten legged crustaceans, the front two marked by pinchers. This definition, however, includes crabs whose shape, color, and habits are vastly different, usually determined by those features which make them most adaptable to a given habitat. Crabs come in shades of red, blue and brown, and in all sizes. The Alaskan or red king crab, boasts a vivid red shell, and can grow to a tremendous size (25 lbs!), with most of the weight centered in their well-developed legs. By contrast, the Atlantic blue crabs are small swimmers and carry most of their weight in their comparatively stocky bodies.
Description (in market): Live crabs in the market look exactly as they do in nature, without the scenic backdrop (see above). Cooked crab meat is sold out of the shell and is white or yellowish white and sometimes ringed with red. It comes in either clumps or flakes. Cooked crab legs or Dungeness crab have bright red shells.
Sold as: whole (live or cooked), cooked legs, cooked lump crab meat (from the white meat in the body), flaked (light and dark meat from the claws and body), soft-shell (whole and either alive or dead), frozen, canned, pasteurized
Best cooking: Crab tastes delicious when cooked in any number of ways, from lumped meat served as a crab cocktail, to freshly boiled and salted, dipped into melted butter and flavored with just a twist of lemon. King and snow crab meat is generally sold pre-cooked, so all you have to do is warm it up (or eat it cold) and serve. Dungeness crabs, however, which often come live, should be thrown into a pot of boiling water and thoroughly cleaned before you eat them (be sure, while cleaning, to save the "crab butter," the golden viscera clinging to the inside of the top shell, as it is a real delicacy and tastes delicious spread lightly on toasted bread). Soft-shelled crab, a seasonal treat, ought to be cleaned before they are cooked -- preferably pan-fried or deep-fried, which allows their shells to remain deliciously crisp. Crab meat makes a wonderful addition to soups and gumbos, or fried up with other ingredients into crab cakes.
Buying tips: As with all seafood, fresh (in this case meaning live) is of course best, however, just-cooked crab or crab meat, purchased from a reliable source, can be nearly as good. Generally, the more meat on the crab, the fatter its legs and claws in particular, the more you'll pay, since spindly limbs make for difficult meat-picking. When shopping for snow crab in particular, don't be put off if the shells bear brownish or even black patches -- these are simply a sign of age in the animal, and in no way influence the taste of the sweet, fresh meat.
Substitutes: Often, when a recipe calls for crab, people substitute processed white-fleshed fish (called sea legs or surimi) that had been pinked to look like crab meat, especially in less expensive sushi.
Notes: Crab meat is at its most delectable when the fresh meat is picked and eaten straight from the shell. The meat emerges from the shell in pinkish white clumps, tender and succulent.
a.k.a.: Crawdads, crawfish; there are over 400 varieties of crayfish including Red Swamp Crayfish, White River Crayfish, Pacific Crayfish. Crayfish should not be confused with spiny lobsters or saltwater crayfish which are of a different species.
Waters:Crayfish are found only in fresh waters, usually in streams, creeks and lakes. Crayfish can be found around the world; many American crayfish are fished for in Louisiana ("crawfish capital of the world"), California, and Oregon.
Description (in water): Crayfish look like miniature lobsters, complete with claws and antennae. They range in size from 3 to 6 inches in length and weigh between 2 and 8 ounces.
Description (in market): Crayfish should always be bought live and should look exactly as they do in water. However, one can also buy soft-shell crayfish (similar to soft-shell lobsters which have shed their shell and have yet to grow a replacement) which are sold in vacuum packed containers.
Sold as: Live, frozen, or vacuum-packed soft-shell variety.
Best cooking: Crayfish are most often cooked by throwing them (live) in a pot of boiling water and simmering for 5 to 8 minutes. All kinds of spices and herbs can be added to the water; Scandinavian traditions favor bunches of dill; the French like vegetables (e.g.. carrots, onions, celery) and herbs (such as tarragon and parsley) and perhaps a little wine; Creole spices are preferred in Louisiana. The crayfish are served either hot or cold, still in the liquid which was used to cook them. Crayfish, like lobster, are eaten with the hands; a juicy, messy treat best savored by sucking the meat out of the tail. The soft-shell variety can be eaten whole, but for the two calcium stones (called gastroliths) used to create a new shell. To remove them, snip off the eyes and mouth and squeeze out the two stones.
Buying tips: Buy them live. Ask to see them before your fishmonger picks them out for you. Dead crayfish will not be fresh. It's possible to buy whole crayfish frozen but you're best off with the live version.
Substitutes: Shrimp or lobster meat.