“Don’t be afraid to buy frozen, but stay away from the barbeque."
That’s just one of the many (many) tidbits seafood authority John Susman has for Broadsheet readers eager to partake in that most Australian of eating traditions, seafood over summer.
In both a personal and professional capacity, Susman has eaten plenty of seafood in his time. He has more than 25 years of industry experience, and his seafood-marketing business, Fishtales, works closely with catchers, distributors, retailers and chefs. He’s also one of the co-authors of the Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook. Three years in the making, and packed with reference material and recipes for 60 different species, the book has been hailed by Neil Perry as “the bible for seafood: the only book you’ll ever need on the topic”.
In short, Susman is more than qualified to talk about how to get maximum bang for your fish-buying buck. He shares his tips on buying, eating and storing seafood.
Broadsheet: Seafood at Christmas is a great Australian tradition. Discuss. John Susman: Seafood is taking more of the centre-of-table position than it ever has, and Christmas is one of the two or three periods of the year when the average punter consumes seafood. As a category it punches well above its weight in restaurants, but we’re not eating a lot at home. It’s still a scary ingredient to the average consumer.
BS: How do we change that? JS: Having a relationship with a fishmonger is almost more important than having a relationship with a hairdresser. You need to be able to go with an open mind and ask what he’s been buying, and what he’s taking home for dinner. The insider’s knowledge comes from consistent buying.
BS: What’s better, fresh or frozen seafood? JS: Crustaceans are highly perishable and fragile, so you should think about the practicalities, and that includes buying frozen. Frozen shouldn’t be looked at as a poor relation, it should be looked at as a means by which integrity and quality have been captured at the point of harvest. The technology used ensures that you get a really high quality product. A crab caught five or six days prior and sold fresh is not necessarily the same quality as a crab caught and frozen within 24 hours. When thawed slowly in a fridge and not under running water, the integrity captured at the point of freezing will be retained.
BS: Prawns? Raw or cooked? JS: If you’re going to use them in a salad or for eating cold, buy them cooked. If you’re going to use them for hot preparations, buy them raw. Size isn’t everything when it comes to buying prawns. A medium-size prawn will offer really good value and is often the best eating experience.
BS: And what about crabs, live or cooked? JS: The ultimate eating experience is a live crab, but they’re very fragile. You don’t want to buy a live crab, then jump in the car for a five-hour trip to your holiday house. Crabs that are cooked live by the fisherman tend to retain their integrity the best.
BS: What should we be serving with our crabs? JS: The classic Marie Rose cocktail sauce speaks summer and shellfish to me. If you don’t have the wherewithal or inclination to make your own, it’s really easy to mock up using a good commercial mayonnaise. I also really like lemons and olive oil. Don’t forget that seafood absolutely loves salt. And we salt after we cook.
BS: Got any advice for cooking fish? JS: Make your life easy – cook it whole. You can have a glass of champagne and forget about it for a bit, it’s not going to suffer as much as a skinless, boneless fillet. Cooking a fish whole retains the moisture and it can take more flavour. Staples such as salmon, trout and snapper are relatively simple in terms of their bone structure. The farmed cobia from Queensland is in brilliant condition at summertime. It's got a very high fat content and won’t dry out. That’s a new fish on the horizon.
BS: What about stuff I can cook on the barbie? JS: Be really careful, because seafood typically doesn’t like high heat. Turn the heat down as low as possible, and use the hot plate rather than the bar grill. Cook shellfish in the shell or fish whole, on the bone and in the skin. I always like to add a little more protection to fish by putting it into an alfoil pack with some moisture – butter, oil, white wine – and some herbs and vegetables. If you really want to cook something over the grill, make sure that it’s marinated with plenty of moisture, and put your beer down while you’re cooking it.
BS: Seafood leftovers: what’s the best way to ensure they don’t go to waste? JS: If you’ve cooked a whole fish, then pull the meat off the frame and mix it with leftover roast potatoes to make a fish hash for breakfast. If you’re going to be generous and peel the prawns for your guests, keep the shells and either fry them up with some oil to create a prawn oil or make a stock for your recovery soup.
BS: Word on the street is you throw a mean party, John. Got any entertaining advice you can share? JS: Get an extra bag of ice so it’s not just the beers that are cold. Seafood absolutely hates heat and you want to try and keep it under four degrees. If you’re putting prawns out on the table, give them a good covering of ice. Store them in Tupperware containers with a cake rack inserted. Put a layer of ice under the rack, put the seafood on the rack, seal it up and place it in the crisper at the bottom of the fridge where it’s coldest. Also, everyone should learn how to shuck an oyster. It’s a social skill akin to being able to take a cork out of a bottle of champagne, which we all do during the festive season.
Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook by Susman, Huckstep, Swan and Hodges (Murdoch, $80) is out now.
This article was updated on December 19, 2017.