BlueSky Business Aviation News

Paula Kraft, founder and President of Atlanta, GA-based Tastefully Yours Catering. 

If it smells like fish . . .

ne of the most often asked questions during my training classes is about serving fish on board. Questions about its selection, its handling, its cooking or reheating.

There is so much information to share about fish - more than we can cover in one article - so I will attempt to hit the high spots.

First and foremost, keeping fish safe requires proper handling and considerable attention; not only by the caterer, but by the delivery person, the intermediate handlers (the FBO or crew member) right through to onboard handling during, and on completion of, the cooking process.

Fish poses a risk for you, A large risk. Fish deteriorates quickly. Fresh fish has as a very short shelf-life and should ideally be consumed within a day or two of purchase. And if the fish has been marked on the grill and left raw (or 80% undercooked to finish on board) it is

especially critical to get that fish delivered and wrapped with some sort of ice pack, and close to freezing, as soon as possible.

A few simple rules

I think we should start out with a few rules: (I guess not really rules, but things I want you to know and think about when the catering request has fish on the menu). These are my personal precautions for you.

If we lived in an ideal world I would suggest putting fish on the aviation off-limits list.

But we don’t, and our passengers want more and more fish served. This requires us all to think outside the box and find the safest possible way to keep the fish from making anyone ill:

Generally speaking, you order fish with grill marks or lightly seared and not fully cooked. This is one of the key places in the cold chain where the highest risk occurs. Your caterer will heat the surface of the fish and this allows bacteria to grow - and if its not properly and quickly chilled, that bacteria will continue to grow when its removed from the heat. Because fish cooks so fast, the simple act of reheating a fully cooked piece of fish on board would cause it to be so dry you would choke on it.

So how would you make sure that fish had been chilled completely?

  • When ordering fish, receive fish ONLY from a reputable source. Be selective in your source. A source that goes through a lot of inventory, that doesn’t have any old fish hanging around. A facility that follows a strict food safety program, and has access to a blast chiller to quickly cool off the fish if seared.

  • Packaging. Ensure the fish being delivered is wrapped with ice packs, ice blocks or a bag surrounded by shaved ice in a cooler box. Seems like a pain in the you-know-where, but I assure you, this is the safest way to transport fish. KEEP it cold!

A tidbit of trivia for you: Use shaved ice to protect the skin/flesh of the fish from being punctured by shards of ice. All fish are highly perishable, below 40 but preferably near freezing. The crushed ice reduces bruising the fish and excessive handling which hastens deterioration. Normal refrigeration causes rapid surface drying, dehydration and spoilage. If no ice is available, then the fish should be wrapped in nonabsorbent paper to slow the deterioration, and absorption of odors . . . that is if you are getting it raw.

You want that fish to be ice cold until the minute it goes into the oven or microwave. Note: never thaw fish at room temperature, and never refreeze fish that was frozen. This is one more reason to order from a catering source that understands fish handling. The food safety guidelines state: “Thaw frozen fish by placing in the refrigerator, allowing 18-24 hours per one-pound package. For a quicker thawing method, place fish under cold, running water”. Well, that won’t work for the aircraft.

Your fish should be sealed in a Ziploc bag with ice in the bag to cover the fish - but the ice should also be contained in a Ziploc. You don’t want your fish floating in water. Another option is to have the fish delivered - chilled with exterior ice packs - seasoned and ready to cook. Ice packs should stay around the packaging until ready to pop into the oven. If the fish comes in contact with melted ice, the liquid not only carries away the flavor but also a high percentage of the nutritional value.

Now, let’s rethink this out of the box. You do not want to deal with a bunch of ice going down your drain smelling things up. My suggestion is to order your fish delivered raw, seasoned and then cook it on board. BUT, what if there is no third crew member? Don’t order it! Do not trust anyone who is not trained in food safety to prepare the fish. Fish contain toxins . . . basically poisons. You can suffer an allergic reaction at any time when eating seafood, even if you have eaten it over and over without a reaction. It may never happen or it could happen the very next time you eat it. You want that third crew member or trained person ready if you need help.

Another ordering request; be sure and ask for the fish flesh to be lightly covered with an oil to prevent the leakage of juices and moisture from the fish. A light brushing with olive oil with really make a huge difference. At Tastefully Yours we always coat the fish before seasoning, but send along a slice of homemade seasoned butter that melts when the fish is heated adding a subtle delicate flavor to the finished fish. Another option to the way you order fish prepared is to request it delivered fully cooked to be eaten without reheating. Grilled or Seared Salmon over a mixed green salad, a cold
poached salmon served with an orzo pasta salad and marinated vegetables . . . yum! The fish should still be requested to be delivered with an ice pack attached to the packaging to keep it as cold as possible until consuming.

To preserve a fish's moisture, try these simple steps.

  • Coat the fish with oil. Oil will seal some of the moisture inside.

  • Keep careful watch over the fillets and flip them as soon as the fish is cooked at least ½ way through.

  • Watch the filets closely after flipping and remove the fish from the grill as soon as it is cooked through.

  • Microwave the fish 3-6 minutes per pound in a 600-750 watt oven on high power.

Note : I have only mentioned fin fish so far. The exact same food handling techniques should be practiced for shell fish as well. There is so much information to share and I get excited trying to get it all in a short article.

More tidbits of information: Fish is categorized into 2 categories- fin fish and shellfish. Finfish are all fresh and salt water fish with a fin, whilst shellfish (also called crustaceans) include lobster, crayfish, crabs, molluscs like clams, oysters and scallops.

The Healthy Eating Diet

Fish is a major part of a healthy eating diet and the media makes sure that we are all aware of it. I know I am eating more fish on my new diet, at least several times a week. So should you request wild caught or farm raised when you order fish for the aircraft?

Many people assume that wild-caught fish must be a lot better for you because it's more "natural." But it this necessarily the case? And what about environmental issues, food safety, sustainability, and cost? Choosing between wild-caught and farm-raised fish depends on what kind of fish you're buying, as well as where and how it is fished (or farmed). Like chicken in cages, farm fish too are kept in cages or huge tanks in rivers, ponds, bays and oceans. And just like caged chicken, they are packed in there pretty tight. Some say that a farm raised animal is more stressed and more prone to illness. The bodies of water they are held in may be more polluted, dirtier and contains high amounts of their feces. Because they are prone to be stressed, they may receive antibiotics. When fish are farm raised, they may also receive hormones to help the fish grow big, pesticides may be added to the water to kill undesirable things in the water and artificial dyes may be added to make their flesh a brighter color.

In 2004, a widely-cited study found the levels of PCBs, a potentially carcinogenic chemical, to be ten times higher in farmed fish than in wild-caught fish. That sounds pretty scary, but the amount of PCBs in the farmed fish was still less than 2% of the amount that would be considered dangerous. Both farm raised fish and wild-caught fish have their downsides. Antibiotics and hormones on the farm side and mercury and higher cost on the wild- caught side.

The fish that present the biggest concern (swordfish, king mackerel. tilefish, shark, and tuna) are all wild-caught. The most common farm-raised fish (catfish, tilapia, and salmon) all have low or very low mercury levels. It boils down to personal choice. The negative of each pretty much equal each other out. Can you taste a difference? I can, but can you in the air where you have humidity, air pressure, smell, and other factors negatively impacting the taste of food served.

Fish known to be high in Omega-3 fatty acids include herring, mackerel, sablefish, salmon, tuna, sardines, and anchovies. Moderately good sources are oysters, bluefish, halibut, ocean perch, trout, smelt, bass, Pollock, hake, and mullet. Fish are excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. contain all essential amino acids. Fish is easily digested and assimilated by the body. Some fish are seasonal or more abundant during certain times of the year, so be sure to order what is in season or you may get a frozen fish steak.

If you were to shop personally for the fish to serve on board here are some clues to determine its freshness

  • Bright clear eyes, even bulging eyes.

  • Reddish pink color around the gills, sometimes the gills are dyed red to make a fish appear fresher than it is.

  • The fish should be odorless, smell like a deep whiff of an ocean breeze.

  • Brightness or sheen of tightly adhering scales.

  • Firm flesh and elastic- springs back, and not sticky to touch.

If you know the correct terminology when you order from your catering source, you should get what you expect. The way the fishmonger cuts the fish will determine which cooking method is best for the portion, bias cutting and steaks allows for a larger surface for grilling or searing.

  • Filet/Filets are the fish sides, cut lengthwise from the backbone.

  • Steaks are the cross section slices of a dressed fish large enough for one or more portions.

  • Dressed fish eviscerated and usually with head, fins, and tail removed.

  • Roe the eggs of the fish generally considered a delicacy. Salmon roe and caviar- from Sturgeon roe are generally used for hors d’ouvres, canapes and often times a garnish.

Here is some fish trivia that I always think is fun to know when you need to remove the skin from your cooked fish before serving. It doesn’t have to be a daunting task:

To remove the skin of Dover sole and Frey sole- and only these two fish - dip the tail, just to where the skin begins, into very hot water for 5 seconds. The skin will pull off both sides with no effort.

Skate, Turbot and Brill (after braising or poaching), can be placed on a cold plate grey skin side down, while you remove the white skin with a knife, then you can simply lift the fish off the plate and the grey skin will stay behind on the plate. Wow, how easy, right?

For Trout and Pike, the same thing works but only after braising (the term used to mean cooking in a liquid which does not cover the fish).

The bone should lift out with slight resistance from Salmon and Cod steaks when it is done. If it lifts too easily, the fish is overdone. Pierce the skin and roll around a fork like a key to remove, the small bones.

Not all fish are okay for all types of preparation and their qualities determine their preparation. Most require very short cooking time because of their lack of connective tissue. The fat content of fish determine cooking. Lean fish do not lend themselves to dry heat unless some sort of fat is added in preparation or cooking. High fat fish content are best broiled or baked.

Ways to reheat and cook fish on board

Bake: This is a form of dry heat cooking - baked best in a small amount of sauce or liquid unless the fish contains a high amount of fat. If cooking the fish from a raw state on board, season it and then place it in a preheated hot oven.

Steaming/Poaching: Yes, this is possible on board. I am not suggesting boiling fish as if it is still swimming in the ocean, but you can simmer in a bit of court bouillon provided by your catering source on the side (or if you are in a pinch and you forgot to order it, try a bit of ginger ale or 7-Up in its place). My favorite method of sending fish to the aircraft is in Papillote or wrapped in a banana leaf to cook fresh and quickly. The only difference in these three cooking methods the amount of liquid used, when steaming the fish, it is covered tightly so steam is generated. Simmering the liquid should partially cover the fish, and baking is dry heat.

Papillote: cooking in parchment paper makes a beautiful presentation and the fish is cooked to perfection in a matter of minutes. Generally when cut open the entire meal is enclosed, and when we do the banana leaf wrapped fish, we send the vegetables on the side. The visual impact for the person getting this pouch containing the meal or fish, opened in front of them to see the vapors escape is awesome, it feels so fresh). This method is most suitable for a lean fish, unless a fatty fish is precooked slightly before used and assembled cold and all ingredients in the pouch are cold as well.

Here is the technique if you want to attempt this: Begin with a heart shaped piece of non-absorbent paper. It should be larger than 14” across. An individual piece of fish is placed on one side of the heart with butter, lemon and seasoning, over possibly matchstick or thinly sliced vegetables. If you choose a very crisp vegetable, precooking it may be necessary. The other side of the heart is then folded over from the center. The parchment is then greased on the outside edge to prevent burning and then placed into a hot oven. If this is prepared by your catering source, have them pack it into the pan you will heating the fish in to save handling. Then request that the pan holding the fish have an ice pack attached to the base to keep the ingredients cold.. The fish will cook in its own juice and be moist. The bag will puff with steam as it cooks and the paper edges will be a beautiful golden brown. Cut with a scissor or knife in an X when it is plated and peel back as it is served.

In the event you choose another method to prepare fish on board, here again are a few tips to keep the fish moist. Remember moisture is a critical element that we must fight for on the aircraft. We must think outside the box to have it.

  • Coat the fish with oil. Oil will seal some of the moisture inside.

  • Keep careful watch over the fillets and flip them as soon as the fish is cooked at least ½ way through if you choose to sauté in the oven or on a cooktop on board.

  • If you choose to cook the fish in the microwave, microwave for 3-6 minutes per pound in a 600-750 watt oven on high power.

So, in conclusion I want to stress the importance of food safety when handling fish throughout the cold chain and if it smells like fish, then don’t accept it. It should smell like the ocean breeze as you stand on the warm sandy beach breathing in the deep breaths of the ocean.

Continuing our 'Fishy' theme this week, Bon Soirée's Derek Freeman presents his recipe for Grey Mullet with Asparagus, Peas, Cep Puree and Black Summer Truffle. Click here


Let me introduce myself . . . 

My name is Paula Kraft and I am founder and President of Tastefully Yours Catering, an aviation specific caterer, located in Atlanta, Georgia for over 35 years.

Aviation Catering is a science not taught in Culinary School; it’s a function of experience, experimentation, basic trial and error, with constant feedback from flight crews and clients. It is a two-way communication. It is vital that this information and knowledge be shared throughout the industry. To this end, I have worked as the Chairman of the NBAA Caterer’s Working Group, a subcommittee of the NBAA Flight Attendant Committee, the NBAA Caterer Representative to the NBAA Flight Attendant Committee, for 9 years. 

Currently I am an active member of the NBAA Flight Attendant Committee Advisory Board and the NBAA International Flight Attendant Committee, Women in Corporate Aviation, Women in Aviation International, National Association of Catering Executives, International Flight Catering Association, the International Food Service Association and the International Caterer’s Association.

I have coordinated training programs and clinics for NBAA, EBAA and BA-Meetup conference attendees for over 10 years, created mentoring programs for caterers and flight attendants to broaden their aviation culinary skills, and to assist them in adapting to the unique challenges and constraints found in catering for general aviation. I recognize the need for training and have worked closely with flight departments, flight crews, schedulers and customer service reps at the FBOs to ensure that catering specific training provides information and skills necessary to reduce risk while assisting them in their job duties that include safe food handling, catering security, accurate transmission of food orders, and safe food production, packaging and delivery.

I fell into aviation catering quite by accident. I was the in-house caterer and bakery supplier for Macy’s department stores in Atlanta when catering was ordered for a Macy’s customer which was soon to change my life. After the client enjoyed the catering provided, I was summoned to the client’s corporate office to provide several of the items delivered through Macy’s to the executive dining room. Within a week, I was providing food for the flight department and my first order was for the President of a foreign country (as I was too be told soon after). So, here I am, some 35 years later, still loving every minute of every day in aviation catering.

Got a question?

Paula welcomes your comments, questions or feedback


©BlueSky Business Aviation News | 19th January 2017 | Issue #400
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