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Cheap, Poison-Free Fish

What you need to know about fish. How to buy it, cook it and eat it on a budget.

In 2008, actor Jeremy Piven, better known as the insanely high-strung Ari Gold from Entourage, pulled out of a Broadway play because of mercury poisoning. An avid sushi eater, he blamed his illness on some bad tuna, but the play's writer, David Mamet, was dubious, responding, “[Piven] was leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”

So what's the real deal with mercury poisoning? How much fish is safe to eat? And if you're not rollin’ in dough, how can you afford it? For the answers, we sat down with Jeff Black, Corporate Executive Chef and owner of BlackSalt seafood restaurant in Washington, D.C., one of the Washingtonian’s 100 Best Restaurants of 2011.

It's All in the Eyes (and Gills)

If you’re looking to upgrade from frozen fish sticks, try a local grocer or fish market. Just make sure to do business with the same vendor so you don’t purchase crummy fish. “When I buy fresh fish, I look at the eyes, and the gills. The gills should be red, and when you cut into the skin, it should be clean cut, with no discoloration,” Black advises. He also says you should cook fish immediately. “Don’t freeze it. When you put fish in the freezer, the water held within the cell freezes and breaks the cell walls down, which makes the fish mushy.” Also, be aware of the names of fish. There are multiple names for the same fish, often depending on the region. For example, white tuna is actually a butter fish, but some consider albacore tuna a white tuna, which can throw off consumers.

Tried These Yet?

There's more out there than canned tuna and salmon. Black recommends cobia or trigger fish, which grill easily. “You don’t need to do a whole lot with it except to add salt, pepper and olive oil.” Another option is black sea bass, which is a great substitute if you like rock fish. If you're strapped for cash, try the drum fish. “It's small, and you can get a whole fish that ranges from four to nine pounds. It's delicious off the grill. You can pan-sear it and doesn’t need a lot done to it,” he says.

If you're eating out, try something new that may be too challenging to cook at home. “The turbot fish is phenomenal. It is a bit pricey, but it is a delicate, wonderful fish.” Another great option is the sturgeon. This is a fatty fish, which also has a mild, subtle flavor.

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