Try the nasal appraisal before adding fish to your next meal


Seafood is the original fast food with a difference. Cooked properly, it's as tasty as it is healthy. Fish is a high-quality protein low in calories and saturated fat and very low in cholesterol. The fat it contains is polyunsaturated, which fights cholesterol buildup.

Grandma used to say that "fish is brain food." Fats, along with water, are the chief components of brain cell membranes and the specialized tissues enclosing the nerves.

The saturated fat that comes from meat and full-fat dairy products is not what the brain cells need. They need polyunsaturated fats, especially the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish which are call eicosapentenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexenoic acid (DHA).

Fish may not make you smarter, but it's a smart thing to add to your diet, and it will do your heart good. Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, reduce blood clotting and help prevent heart attack and stroke.

If calorie counting is important to you, use leaner, white-fleshed fish such as grouper, shark, flounder, red snapper, swordfish, perch and mahi mahi. If calories are not a big concern, try medium- to higher-fat fish such as freshwater catfish, salmon, tuna, mackerel and rainbow trout.

The best methods for cooking fatty fish are baking, broiling or grilling. Lean fish require preparation methods that retain moisture, such as steaming, poaching or microwaving. Lean fish can also be baked or broiled if basted frequently or cooked with a sauce. Both lean and fatty fish can be fried.

Keep the fat in your fish dish to a minimum by not using rich, buttery or creamy sauces. Better options include a quick sauce of catsup and prepared horseradish or herbs and spices. Try a spice blend of equal parts basil, parsley flakes, chervil, marjoram and tarragon. Sprinkle it on the fish during cooking, or use it in a shaker at the table. Lemon and orange juice add a fresh taste to fish.

Don't overcook your fish, or it will be too dry with a strong flavor. Generally, fish is done when the flesh flakes or slides apart along natural divisions when fork tines are inserted. The fish should look milk white or opaque in the thickest part. If the flesh resists flaking and the color is gray-white, cook a little longer.

Another good guide for taking the guesswork out of cooking fish is to allow 10 to 15 minutes of cooking time per inch of thickness. If the fish is stuffed or rolled, measure it after stuffing or rolling. If you're cooking in sauce, add 5 minutes to the total cooking time.

A fish steak one inch thick should be cooked five minutes on each side, for a total of 10 minutes. Pieces of fish less than half an inch thick do not have to be turned over.

The microwave is a good choice, especially for lean fish. For even cooking, arrange the thickest portions of fish toward the outer rim of the baking dish and the thinner portions toward the center. Check for doneness after the minimum cooking time, and continue to cook if necessary, checking every 30 seconds.

Fish is considered to be done when the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees F. A meat thermometer is the only way to check that.

When buying fresh fish, use the nasal appraisal as a quick test of quality. A fish past its prime will have an odor. A fish in its prime will smell fresh, and the flesh will spring back when touched.

Use seafood within one to two days of purchase, or freeze it if you know you won't use it within that time. Once you're home from the market with your fresh fish, refrigerate it immediately. And for best quality, thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator until it is no longer icy, then use in your favorite seafood recipe.

Pregnant women should put some limits on eating fish though not eliminate it altogether. The Food and Drug Administration notes that nearly all fish contain some methylmercury, a chemical which can affect an unborn child's developing nervous system. Long-lived, larger fish accumulate the highest levels.

The FDA advises pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.

Other fish are suitable for pregnant women to eat as an important part of a balanced diet, but the amount should be limited to 12 ounces of cooked fish per week.