The best way to cook seafood is simply and with good fish

Learning to cook seafood with confidence is like any other skill: It takes study and practice. That’s the message Karista Bennett delivers in “For the Love of Seafood,” a cookbook that can help you settle into that comfort zone.

“Seafood is like a blank canvas,” said Bennett, who encourages home cooks to view it as a broad category of food that can open up a world of new flavors and dishes.

Get the recipe: Grilled Salmon With Pistachio Lemon Pesto

Her cookbook begins with an efficient “Seafood 101” chapter that covers topics such as sourcing quality and sustainable seafood, mastering cooking methods, and assembling pantry items and cooking utensils. It also features a finfish and shellfish chart that shows differences in taste and texture, cooking methods, and flavor-pairing tips.

What comes next are 100 seafood recipes divided into three skill-based chapters that let you work your way from super-simple anchovy toasts to complex bacon-wrapped stuffed trout with a wine sauce.

“I want you to take what you are learning in the first chapter and apply it to what you’ve learned in the next,” she said, adding that exposure to good, well-prepared seafood is the key to falling in love with it .

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Bennett empathizes with folks who don’t cook (or consume) creatures from the sea. She grew up in Arkansas eating fish sticks but married her husband, Craig, who hailed from San Diego, and is so gravitated toward fresh seafood. It was something she tolerated until a fateful birthday dinner at a Baton Rouge restaurant, when she ordered a red snapper with lump crab and a lemon beurre blanc and was wowed by how the delicate fish and crab meat went so beautifully with the rich sauce. She began dipping her toe into more seafood.

That dovetailed with her realization in her mid-30s that, after 10 years in health care administration, she longed for a change. She attended the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona to become a better home cook, but with her first class, she was hooked on cooking — and eventually on seafood, too.

In time, her family moved to the Pacific Northwest, and her cookbook’s recipes came from ones she’s amazed as a cooking instructor in Seattle, a sous and prep chef, and most recently a private chef.

As an instructor, she thinks she’s addressed just about every obstacle to cooking with seafood. Here are a few of the most common.

It’s too hard to find. Today, Bennett lives in Bend, Ore., about five hours from the coast, so she has easier access to seafood than many, but she recalls her Arkansas days, too.

Community-supported fisheries, similar to CSAs with fishermen selling directly to consumers, are becoming more common, he said. To see whether one exists in your area, visit localcatch.org. She also recommends online sellers, such as Sitka Salmon Shares or Sea to Table.

But don’t discount your supermarket and frozen seafood. More fishers are vacuum-sealing and blast-freezing seafood on the boat or right at the dock, making it a great option, too, he said. Look for heavy, well-sealed packaging with no ice crystals on the seafood and for labels such as FAS (frozen at sea) or IQF (or individually quick frozen).

The next step is to ask questions and figure out the fish that suits your taste and cooking method (hence her detailed charts). For example: Don’t just buy cod; consider that Atlantic cod is meatier and tougher and so better for stewing, while Pacific cod is a lighter, more tender fillet for quicker cooking methods, Bennett says.

How to cook fish and not mess it up

It’s too complicated to cook. “First, I tell people, even if it falls apart, it’s still going to be delicious.” She recommends starting with a fattier fish, such as salmon. “The higher fat content makes it easier to flip.”

For a simple fillet, Bennett recommends a skillet over medium heat and a generous amount of fat. Pat the fish dry, place it flesh-side down and leave it undisturbed until a light brown crust begins to form at the edges. Next use a fish spatula to flip it. Then top it with a sauce, salsa or fresh herbs. A good rule of thumb: “Cook the fish eight to 10 minutes for every inch of thickness.”

It smells. Most fresh seafood should smell like the sea and not produce a strong odor, but Bennett recommends roasting, steaming and poaching as the best methods for combating scent. For beginners? “Try baking fish in parchment with lots of aromatics, shallots, lemon, herbs,” she said. If pan-cooking, remove the skin, “which is more pungent than the fish.”

Or “just grill it,” she said.

How to grill fish without sticking and other common pitfalls

This grilled salmon with pistachio lemon pesto is an example of seafood’s versatility. Also try cooking it on the stovetop in a grill pan, and if you don’t care for salmon, substitute swordfish or mahi-mahi.

Bennett encourages home cooks to gather everything they need and just jump into seafood. As she notes in her cookbook: “If you don’t get something right the first time; just try again. I promise, over time, cooking skills are honed, and eventually, cooking seafood will become second nature.”

Get the recipe: Grilled Salmon With Pistachio Lemon Pesto

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