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Master cooking fresh fish at home

Chef Mark Palicki Fortune Fish Co. Fortune's kitchens 1068 Thorndale Ave. Bensenville with his dish Cobiwith Chanterelle Mushroom Olive Clam

Chef Mark Palicki of Fortune Fish Co., at Fortune's kitchens, 1068 Thorndale Ave., Bensenville, with his dish, Cobia with Chanterelle Mushroom and Olive Clam Broth. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: October 30, 2012 9:26AM

In the 1970s and ’80s, the fish cooked in most Midwesterners’ homes came out of a box and was square or rectangular in shape.

I was lucky to be part of an Italian family who celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes at Christmas Eve, so I was exposed to real fish. But for the rest of the year, the fish I ate consisted of squares and sticks, too. These didn’t taste or smell very good. The best part were the fried potatoes served on the side.

I vividly remember the first time I had a truly fresh piece of fish. It was nothing like a fish stick. There was no odor. It was tender and moist, with a wonderfully mild flavor. I was hooked.

Seafood became my passionate teacher. I worked at seafood-focused restaurants throughout college and my culinary career.

Cooking fish at home can be intimidating for many people, which is why seafood is most often eaten at restaurants. Here are some simple tips on how to saute a piece of fish at home:

First, wrap the fish in absorbent paper to remove excess moisture so fish is dry to the touch. This allows the fish to brown while cooking; otherwise, the fish will steam in its own moisture.

The thickness of the fillet will determine how hot you need the pan. You want the fish to get nice and brown on one side — three-quarters of the way cooked — and then flip it just to finish cooking on the other side.

If the fish is very thin like flounder or sole, set the heat to high. For a thick piece of halibut, medium is about right, and for salmon, turn it up to medium-high. If the fish is extremely thick, it is probably best to brown the fish in a pan and finish cooking in a 400-degree oven.

Don’t move the fish very much in the pan. Just move it a bit right after you put it in the pan to make sure it doesn’t stick. A fresh piece of fish just needs salt and a little pepper to enhance its elegant flavor.

Mark Palicki is the corporate chef and vice president of marketing at Fortune Fish Co. in Bensenville.

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