The variety of edible fish is very considerable, most of them being wholesome and nutritious. Yet white-fleshed and red-fleshed fish, oily fish, shell-fish, etc., differ widely in their properties. In general, fish contain less fat than ordinary meat, while often much richer in nitrogenous tissue. The suitability of fish for the table varies with the season, its food supply, the length of time it has been taken out of the water, and the treatment it has received. It is in the highest condition just before the spawning time, being then fatter and of richer flavor. Herring, mackerel, and many other fish are best immediately after being caught, while the ray and some similar fish improve by keeping for several hours.
As a rule, white fish are more digestible than red fish, and the less oily than the very oily. Among those best suited for weak stomachs are fresh-water fish, such as shad, whiting, etc. Salmon, while the most esteemed of table fishes, has an evil reputation with dyspeptics - this being probably due less to the fish itself than to its condition when cooked and its accompaniments.
Fish of all kinds should be eaten as fresh as possible, and should be kept near the ice until cooked. A fish in good condition should have firm flesh, bright-red gills, and full, clear eyes, with little odor about it. Before cooking it should be thoroughly cleaned and wiped with a cloth wet with salt water. For frying and broiling purposes oily fish, such as shad, mackerel, herring, salmon, and bluefish, are the best, as they do not become dry.
Most of the smaller fish are eaten fried. They are generally termed pan-fish. Clean well, cut off the head, and, if the fish is large, cut out the backbone, and slice the body crosswise. Season with salt and pepper. Dip in Indian meal, or wheat flour, or use beaten egg and roll in bread or fine cracker crumbs (trout and perch should not be dipped in meal). Cook in a thick bottomed iron frying-pan, laying the flesh side down, and using hot lard or drippings. Fry slowly, turning when lightly browned.
Bend the body of the fish in a circle, pour over it half a pint of vinegar, season with pepper and salt, and let it stand an hour in a cool place. Then pour off the vinegar, and put the fish into a steamer over boiling water, and steam twenty minutes, or longer for large fish. When the meat easily separates from the bone it is done. Drain well, and serve on a napkin placed on the platter, decorating with sprigs of curled parsley.
Split and wash the shad, and dry it in a cloth. Season with salt and pepper. Grease the gridiron well, heat it, and lay the shad upon it, the flesh side down. Cover with a dripping-pan and broil for about a quarter of an hour, or more, according to the thickness. The fire must be clear and hot. Butter well, and send to the table. Covering the fish while broiling gives it a better flavor.
Cut into slices an inch thick, and season with pepper and salt. Having buttered a sheet of white paper, lay each slice on a separate piece, and envelope them by twisting the ends. Broil gently over a clear fire, and serve with anchovy or caper sauce. When higher seasoning is required, add a few chopped herbs and a little spice.