a.k.a.: Atlantic, Pacific, Greenland, California, and black halibut. "Chicken halibut" denotes a young, small variety of this fish.
Waters:Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
Description (in water): Of the flounder family and the largest of all flatfish, halibut are gray with some white mottling. Most weigh between 50 and 100 lbs., but Atlantic halibut can exceed half a ton. Young chicken halibut are much smaller (2 to 10 lbs.)
Description (in market): Tender chicken halibut is considered best for eating. Atlantic and Pacific halibut are also good, with extremely lean, firm, tight-grained white meat. Halibut are delicately flavorful, albeit a bit dry.
Greenland, California, and black halibut are considered less desirable, culinarily speaking.
Sold as: Steaks (skin on) are most common; smaller specimens can be available as fillets or fresh and whole (headless and dressed). Halibut cheeks, sold in gourmet shops, are considered a delicacy.
Best cooking: A firm, fine-textured fish, halibut poaches, grills, broils, braises, and steams particularly well. It is also good roasted or sautéed. The edible skin need not be removed; in fact, leaving the skin on helps steaks keep their shape while cooking.
Buying tips: Steaks should be sweet-smelling, with glistening pure white flesh that's free of browning, gaping, and signs of dryness.
Substitutes: Cod, dogfish, flatfish, haddock, turbot
Notes: The Atlantic halibut population has dropped considerably in recent years, resulting in a higher price tag for this popular fish.
a.k.a.: Sardines (young herring), common herring, California herring
Waters:Northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
Description (in water): Over one hundred species of this silvery school fish inhabit the cold saltwaters of the world. Most range from 1/4 to 1 lb. Shad, which ranges from 3 to 5 lbs., is the largest member of the herring family.
Description (in market): The dark flesh of fresh herring has a rich, strong flavor, a high fat content, and a soft, fine texture. When cured, herring acquires a firm texture; its flavor alters according to the way it has been cured (smoked, salted, pickled, etc.).
Sold as: Whole; canned and sold as "sardines"; smoked; salted; pickled
Best cooking: You can prepare fresh herring in the same way that you would mackerel and other dark-fleshed, soft-textured, strong-flavored fish. It is particularly good broiled or breaded and pan-fried, and can also be baked, sautéed, or grilled.
Buying tips: When purchasing fresh whole herring, look for unbruised specimens (these delicate fish bruise easily). Make sure they're well iced and fresh-smelling.
In the U.S., it's not always easy to come across fresh whole herring--most of it has been cured. It's important to know the names of the available varieties and the differences between them: kippered herring, or kippers (herring that's been split, salted, dried, and cold-smoked); bloaters (same as kippers but larger and milder in flavor); Bismarck herring (skinless fillets cured in a vinegar-salt-sugar-onion mixture); rollmops (individual Bismarck fillets wrapped around small pickles or onions, preserved in vinegar); Pickled or marinated herring (names used interchangeably for herring that's been marinated in vinegar before it's bottled in a sour cream or wine-based sauce, or herring that's been dry-salted and preserved in brine); schmaltz herring (large, fatty fillets preserved in brine); Matjes herring (reddish fillets cured in a vinegar-sugar-spice mixture).
Substitutes: Sardine, mackerel
Notes: Fresh herring is in season in the U.S. in springtime; you'll find it in specialty fish markets on both the East and West Coasts.
a.k.a.: Dory, St. Pierre
Waters:Atlantic Ocean (Most are harvested off the coasts of Europe and Africa.)
Description (in water): This unusual-looking fish is yellowish-olive or grayish in color with a flat, compressed oval body that's spotted on both sides. The dorsal spines are particularly long, and the eyes and mouth are large.
Description (in market): A firm-textured white-fleshed fish with a mild, sweet flavor and low fat content.
Sold as: Whole, fillets
Best cooking: Here's a good fish to cook whole; like porgy, it's well suited to roasting or baking. Fillets can be poached or sautéed, or cut into chunks and added to chowders or stews like bouillabaisse. The bones add great flavor to soup stock.
Buying tips: Harvested mainly in Europe, the fish is often air-shipped to U.S. fish markets. Look for bright skin, red gills, and other signs of freshness; the scent should be sweet.
Substitutes: Porgy, grouper, monkfish
Notes: In parts of France, this odd-looking fish was once known as l'horrible; fishermen were inclined to throw it back to the sea. But the French have, in time, come to recognize the culinary merit of the John Dory, to which they now fondly refer as poulet de mer (chicken of the sea).
a.k.a.: Northern or Southern kingfish (drum family); king whiting; king mackerel, cavalla
Waters:Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to Florida (Northern and Southern kingfish); Northern Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean and North Seas (king whiting); Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (king mackerel)
Description (in water): "Kingfish" is one of the most confusing names is fishdom: It can refer either to the white-fleshed fish of the drum or whiting families or to the dark-fleshed mackerel. The Northern kingfish of the drum family is slate gray in color with dark stripes running diagonally across the sides and a white belly; the Southern kingfish is similarly colored yet has no stripes. The king mackerel has a shimmering bluish-green body slashed vertically with black stripes. The king whiting has a slender silver-gray body, large eyes and mouth, and sharp teeth.
Description (in market): The white, fine-textured meat of both Northern and Southern kingfish is low in fat and mild in flavor. (See mackerel and whiting for particular descriptions.)
Sold as: Steaks, fillets, whole (less common)
Best cooking: The low fat content of Northern and Southern kingfish make these excellent choices for poaching, steaming, or pan-frying. Try adding the poached meat to salads. (See mackerel or whiting when using these fish.)
Buying tips: Look for pure white fillets that are free of browning, graying, and signs of dryness. The meat should glisten and smell fresh. (See mackerel or whiting when using these fish.)
Substitutes: Northern and Southern kingfish can be used interchangeably with any member of the drum family--eg. croaker, weakfish, white seabass. (See mackerel or whiting when using these fish.)
a.k.a: Clawed lobster, northern lobster, European lobster, spiny lobster, thorny lobster, South African rock lobster
Waters:While lobster used to be as almost as common as cod in the waters surrounding Europe and North America, popular appetites have reduced its territory. The ever prized Maine lobster can be found off the Atlantic coast of the northern U.S. and Canada, while the European varieties inhabit the warmer Mediterranean and South African waters. Spiny or rock lobsters live in the coasts bordering South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Florida and Southern California.
Description (in waters): There are two kinds of lobsters, "clawed lobsters," which have, as their name suggests, two large front claws, and "spiny lobsters," which have longer antennae and a rougher shell then the clawed species -- perhaps to make up for their own lack of claws. All lobsters have ten legs, a jointed body and hard shell encasing their flesh. The European clawed lobster has a dark, almost blue tint to its shell, while the American lobsters tend to be colored primarily orange and black.
Description (in market): It's imperative that you buy live lobsters on the day you intend to cook and eat them. They must either be cooked immediately after you kill them, or cooked still alive. Therefore, you'll find live lobster sold in tanks at many fish markets, as well as whole and chunk lobster sold precooked. While live lobster maintains a mottled orange, blue and black shell, cooked, the lobster shell will take on a vivid coral color. While clawed lobsters wear their meat in both their two frontal claws and their tails, the meat of spiny lobster is almost exclusively located in their long, broad tails.
Best cooking: Because lobster meat is so delicately flavored, tender, and rather costly, most chefs agree that it's best not to over-embellish. While whole lobsters can be cooked in a variety of different ways, many people think it's at its best simply broiled or boiled, and eaten fresh from the shell, dipped into melted butter or a light sauce.
Buying tips: When buying live lobster, you'll want to make sure to pick the plumpest, healthiest specimen in the tank, since sick or dead lobster carry bacteria. Pick up the lobster and look to see if its tail curls under its body -- a sign that it is alive. When buying live lobster that was stored on ice, pay extra attention to the curl of the tail, since their frozen confines make the lobsters slow and unresponsive. When purchasing precooked whole lobster, the bright red tail should also appear curled -- a sure sign that it was alive when it was cooked. Like clams, lobster are distinguished and sold according to their size; "jumbo" weigh over 2 pounds each, "large" average from 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, "quarters" weigh 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds, and "chicken lobsters" typically weigh only a pound each.
Notes: While lobster is considered one of the rarest delicacies today, back in 18th century Maine, the creatures were so prolific that farmers used lobster for fertilizer, and prisoners complained of their steady, monotonous diet of lobster. Similarly, in 19th century Europe, lobster was thought of as poor man's fare.
a.k.a.: Common or Atlantic mackerel, Spanish mackerel, tinker mackerel, Pacific mackerel, king mackerel, kingfish
Waters:Most species are harvested off the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North America; there is a Pacific variety as well.
Description (in water): There are many species of mackerel; most are iridescent bluish-green in color with dark horizontal stripes. Common (a.k.a. Atlantic) and tinker mackerel weigh 1 to 2 lbs. on average, while Spanish and king mackerel tend to be somewhat larger.
Description (in market): The firm, dark flesh of the mackerel is fatty and rich with a strong, sweet flavor. The high fat content of the meat should not deter you--most of this is "good" fat rich in Omega-3 oils; only a trace amount is of the cholesterol variety. Mackerel is a scaleless fish; the skin is edible.
Sold as: Whole, steaks, fillets; smoked, salted
Best cooking: It's a good idea to complement the rich, fatty meat with acidic ingredients like citrus- or tomato-based sauces or marinades. You can do almost anything with mackerel--the firm flesh broils, grills, bakes, poaches, and sautés nicely. It can also be minced and used as the base ingredient for Thai-style fish cakes.
When using salted mackerel, soak it overnight in cool water to reduce the saltiness.
Buying tips: An oily fish, mackerel does not freeze well; it's best purchased fresh from the sea. Look for bright, iridescent skin (the fish tends to lose its shimmer soon after the catch--the extent to which the skin has faded should give you a sign of how long the fish has been sitting in the market). It should smell fresh and of the sea.
Substitutes: Bluefish, butterfish, mahi-mahi, pompano, striped bass, tuna
Notes: Mackerel is not a bony fish; you can fillet it yourself, without the help of a fishmonger, if you wish.
a.k.a.: Dorado, Dolphinfish (not to be confused with its namesake, the marine mammal dolphin)
Waters:Warm saltwaters worldwide
Description (in water): Bright and colorful, this fish ranges in weight from 3 to 45 lbs.
Description (in market): The firm-textured, dark meat of mahi-mahi turns white and opaque when cooked. It is a moderately fatty fish with a strong, pleasant flavor. The skin is tough and usually removed before cooking.
Sold as: Steaks, fillets, whole (less common)
Best cooking: The firm steaks and fillets broil, grill, and pan-sear very nicely. They can also be cubed and added to soups and stews.
A strong- but not particularly full-flavored fish, mahi-mahi benefits from bold spices and vibrant sauces.
Buying tips: Steaks and fillets should glisten and be of a bright, uniform color. Avoid those with streaky flesh that has taken on a brownish cast--these signs indicate that the fish has been sitting in the market a little too long.
Ask your fishmonger to remove the skin, which is thick and not particularly savory.
Substitutes: Swordfish, mako shark