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Fish on Fridays: From head to tail, get the most out of your recipes this year
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Phuong Le looks over his fish coolers on Tuesday, March 12, at Atlanta Highway Seafood Market. Le has owned the market and restaurant for 11 years. - photo by Nick Bowman

Fried, grilled, boiled or baked — fish is such a versatile ingredient that you need not fall into a rut this season.

Fresh fish is trucked or flown in from the coasts four times each week to Atlanta Highway Seafood Market, and owner Phuong Le likes to keep it that way.

“We come from a fishing family, so we try to buy from domestic vendors as much as we can,” Le said, sitting in his restaurant waiting on the lunch rush. “That's the way we were raised, so it keeps them having a job.”

With business picking up this time of year, Le and others have some advice for home cooks getting more fish in their diets.

“It starts to pick up during Lent,” Le said. “And we're Catholic too, so we're able to provide for all the Catholics and Christians that eat fish on Friday. That’s a pretty good feeling.”

When it comes to cooking fish, Le and the cooks at Atlanta Highway Seafood Market are experts in the business.

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A fish rests in a cooler on Tuesday, March 12, at Atlanta Highway Seafood Market. - photo by Nick Bowman

Working in Gainesville, it’s no surprise he said his favorite way to cook fish is to fry it using a cornmeal batter. The batter and spices he uses — which is a secret blend — give the fish a citrus taste, which he said “enhances the fish flavor.”

If that’s the route you want to go at home, Le recommends flounder. If you’d like to grill something instead, he said the tried-and-true salmon is all you need.

One of the best ways to do it at home, though, is to put it in a pan and bake it in the oven. Le said it’s best to sear the fish on the stove first to get a crispy skin and then finish the cooking in the oven. If it’s a fresh fish — which you can find whole in the coolers at his restaurant, Gainesville Seafood Market and grocers around town — you shouldn’t need much else.

“I recommend light on the seasoning, light on the spices,” Le said. “You don’t have to overwhelm it with the seasoning. With fresh fish, you can just salt, pepper, lemon and it's good. You don’t have to put a bunch of stuff on there to cover it up and mask it. Just enjoy the flavor like it is.”

If you buy a whole fish and filet it yourself, there’s a lot more you can do as opposed to throwing it out when you’re done.

Chris Mitas, culinary instructor at Lanier College and Career Academy, said that’s one of the important parts of being a chef and even home cooks should explore options in getting the most out of the fish.

“Being sustainable and appropriate to the animal (is important),” Mitas said. “It was a living thing at some point, so you’ve got to respect it.”

In doing that, he’s learned every part of a fish has a use.

After a fish has been filleted, Mitas said he likes to cook the cheek meat, one of the fattiest, most tender parts of the fish, instead of simply throwing the head away.

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Looking to get the most out of Lent? Seafood like this red snapper is available at local shops like Atlanta Highway Seafood Market. Gainesville Seafood Market also sells fresh fish. - photo by Nick Bowman

And once the cheeks have been used, the rest of the fish can be used to make a stock or broth for soups and other dishes, like ramen. All it takes is water, onions, carrots, celery and whole peppercorns with bay leaf, parsley or thyme. Let all of those ingredients slowly heat with the fish carcass and you’ll have a base for a wide variety of recipes.

One way Mitas likes to use that broth is to make shrimp and grits more flavorful.

“Cook your grits in the fish broth and now you have a very flavorful shrimp and grits,” Mitas said. “Use that fish broth with stone-ground grits. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re not looking for just cooking them in water. This brings more flavor.”

With crawfish season running roughly from January to the start of summer, you can try that same technique — using crawfish shells and heads for stock — for Cajun recipes.

If you’re looking for a way to dip your toes in the water with fish or if you’re looking for ways to cook it at home, grouper may be the way to go. Le said that’s the most popular fish he sells at Atlanta Highway Seafood Market.

“We sell more grouper than anything,” Le said. “People like grouper … It’s a good fish. It’s good on a plate, it’s good on a sandwich.”

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Brian Le, right, helps a customer on Tuesday, March 12, at Atlanta Highway Seafood Market in Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman
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