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Up until recently, the time I did spend in coastal areas was with the Big Store mentality, i.e. go to Costco and buy a giant bag of flash-frozen pre-cut identical fillets that were farmed in Southeast Asia. Nothing wrong with buying frozen fish. Especially if you happen to be inland or don't cook often enough to go through a fish. However, there are some scary issues cropping up with farmed fish, especially the stuff from Asia, so choose wisely.
The past couple of years, though, I've been learning about how fish used to be done, when fish meant going to your local fishmonger. I can thank my husband for this: he spent two years in Japan, and got used to some insanely good fish. That meant that the first time we walked into the little Asian market in Japantown, San Francisco, I stood there and stared at the fish counter. No fish smell. None. Zero. It smelled like ocean water in there. Fish doesn't have to smell like fish?!
1) Fish should not smell like fish!
If your fish smells like fish, it's old. Nothing you do will improve it. Whole fish should have bright eyes (not sunken or dull), shiny scales without patchy or discolored places, bright red gills, and smell like the ocean. Fillets should also smell fresh, with no cloudy liquid. Also, smaller and/or lower on the food chain contains less mercury: skipjack tuna versus Albacore, for example.
2) It's almost always easier to buy sustainable seafood locally. Organic doesn't mean much in terms of seafood (since wild-caught is healthier and more sustainable), but Marine Stewardship Council certified does. You can also check out the great Seafood Watch program from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
3) Find a fishmonger or local seafood market. A real one, not a guy at the meat counter at the grocery store. Obviously, this is harder to do these days, and it can take some hunting. Go in (smell the air!), strike up a conversation. Ask what's fresh that morning, how it was caught, what's in season. Like most small farmers, bakers, beekeepers and anyone who loves their craft enough to stay small, a good fishmonger will be chatty and enthusiastic if you come in with a friendly and curious attitude.
Looking for fresh fish in the Bay Area? Here are some options I'm going to be trying soon (if I'm missing a good one, leave me a comment!).
San Francisco Fish Company
Right off the docks at pillar point in Half Moon Bay. I hear that the Harbormaster suggests calling at around 9am the day you're going to be there to see what's available. Fishfone 650-726-8724.
Mission Market Fish and Poultry
Cook's Seafood in Menlo Park
Race Street Fish and Poultry Market, San Jose
Many Bay Area farmer's markets also have fish stands...all rules apply! Good fishing!