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Schools of cooking

September 03, 2003|Russ Parsons

With the multitude of fish in Southern California, markets can be intimidating: Just how do you cook a tai snapper, anyway? And how can you tell when the shark is done?

Because of their widely varied natures, there isn't a single simple rule. Some fish need moist heat -- poaching or steaming -- while others need dry heat -- sauteing, roasting or grilling. Some can be cooked either way.

Some need to be cooked all the way through, some just barely, if at all.

Dividing them into general families with shared characteristics is a good place to start. This guide, developed with Water Grill's Michael Cimarusti and Jar's Suzanne Tracht and Mark Peel, should prepare you to handle pretty much anything with fins.

Tunas and jacks: (yellowtail, albacore, yellowfin, mahi-mahi, opah, bonito): Meaty fish with a fair amount of fat, usually cut in steaks. Cook with dry heat. These are best served as rare as possible. They can be seared on the outside, but will dry out if cooked through. Remove the skin before serving.

Small, oily fish (anchovies, sardines and mackerels, also barracuda and wahoo): Soft, fatty, dark flesh. Cook with dry heat. These need to be cooked all the way through. Look for the meat to lighten in color. Freshness is paramount.

Salmon and trout: Flaky and fairly fatty. Cook with either moist or dry heat. These fish are very forgiving: They can be served rare but can also be cooked until the flesh flakes. A happy medium is to cook them until the flesh just begins to flake on the outside. That way it'll still be moist at the center. With dry heat, leave the skin on, but make sure it gets crisped; with moist heat, take it off beforehand, the texture is unpleasant.

Rockfish and grouper: Fairly lean with very delicate, white and flaky flesh. Cook with moist heat. These fish should be cooked through, until the flesh flakes. If you're serving whole fish, you should be able to pull the meat away from the backbone.

Sea bass, true snappers and cods (white sea bass, striped bass, black sea bass, tai snapper, gulf red snapper, cod and lingcod): White flesh, somewhat delicate and flaky but quite firm. Cook with dry or moist heat. These fish should be cooked thoroughly, following the same guidelines as rockfish. Their thin skin has great flavor if browned.

Flatfish (soles, halibut, sand dabs, flounder, fluke): Very low in fat with dense, pale flesh. Cook with moist or dry heat. These fish should be cooked thoroughly, following the same guidelines as rockfish.

Meaty (sharks, swordfish, sturgeon): Creamy-colored, finely grained flesh. Cook with dry heat. These fish are almost always cut in steaks. Cook thoroughly. Because of the fine grain, doneness can be a little hard to detect. The best way is to try to pierce the steak with a skewer or the point of a small sharp knife; the fish is done when it will penetrate easily all the way through. Remove the skin before serving.

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