Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy heading out to a favorite fish fry place on a Friday to ponder the eternal question: should it be batter-fried, breaded (maybe Italian- seasoned crumbs), or broiled? At least with the crumb coating there is the chance that the fish will emerge moist and flavorful. Anointed with a squeeze of fresh lemon it’s mighty good. And I really don’t want to deep fry at home. The temperature of the oil has to be just right and then maintained. It’s tricky, and restaurant chefs (should) know how to do that. Besides, my vent system just can’t eliminate fish aroma. When I order the broiled fish, however, I have to emphasize to the waitperson that I prefer it slightly undercooked: it will finish cooking on the plate on its way to our table. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. So I’d rather have an occasional breaded and fried fish at a restaurant and save the simplest presentation for my kitchen, grill, or—yes—microwave oven at home.
Thanks to years of experience I’d like to pass along the most useful tip I ever learned from the years of my association with James Beard, he who was christened “The Passionate Pasha of Food” by Life magazine way back when. (And, you know, he looked every inch a pasha, being quite tall, quite wide, and cue-ball bald—all in all a very imposing guy with a vast knowledge of things culinary.)
Have you ever wanted to make a fish stock for a seafood stew or a warming soup? You find a recipe and it probably includes fish bones, trimmings, and even fish heads. Now try to find these things even in the top local markets. Zero and zilch. That’s because most of the fish in our stores comes in and is sold already filleted. So let me concentrate this little essay on fillets and fish steaks, also available and ready to carry home and cook. (I have friends who live in outlying areas a bit of a drive away from the store. When they shop for fish it is with an insulated bag with ice packs, to insure the fish stays as chilled as possible.)
The variety of fish in markets varies with the part of the country and the season. With fast shipping you might find the catch from—who knows where? A seller will identify the source.
You might find these usual suspects in the case: salmon, flounder, sole, haddock, perch (perhaps?), trout, red snapper, sea bass, striped bass, blue fish, tilapia, monk fish, pollock, and mackerel are varieties I most often see, and each have their devotees. If you are new to buying and cooking fish, keep a simple log and enter your (and your family’s) impressions of each type and how long it was cooked. When you read a little further along about the easy method of cooking fillets, you might find yourself enjoying fish more often. And you know about the benefits of that.
When buying fish I rely on the seller to help me choose the pick of the lot that day. And make sure the fish in the seafood case is atop a bed of chopped ice.
How much to buy? Beard recommends between a third- to a half-pound fillet per serving. Heck, I might cook a little bit more and have the leftovers the next day served atop some mixed greens and anointed with a doctored-up mayo, the doctoring being some added chopped dill or tarragon and some capers and maybe little cubes of peeled red or yellow bell peppers. Go for it.
One Simple, Reliable Cooking Rule
I love that phrase, “I heard the facts and the scales fell away from my eyes!” How appropriate when we talk fish cookery. I remember Beard telling the cooking class that he had picked up a method of cooking espoused by none other than the Canadian Fisheries Board. Here it is, in boldface, and I quote from The New James Beard Cookbook—a volume that belongs on every good cook’s shelf:
“According to the size of the fish and whether it is flat, like flounder, or round, like cod, the thickness will vary from 1/3 up to 1 1⁄2 inches or even more. No matter…there is one simple, reliable rule for broiling, sautéing, or poaching fillets or, for that matter, steaks or whole fish: “Measure the depth of the fillet at the thickest point (from underside to top side) and cook 10 minutes per inch or fraction thereof.
“If the fish measures one-and-a- quarter inches, cooking time will be just over twelve minutes (OK, make it thirteen!!). Beard then goes on: “If the fillets are thicker in the center than at the ends, cut down a little on the cooking time or the ends will be overdone.”
I get around this with my own method that I also strongly advise when cooking fish in the microwave (a splendid method by the way). Simply tuck the thinner end under the fish so you have a more or less even “package.” And, by the way, allow five minutes per inch and use 100 percent power for thin fillets and 50 percent power for thicker when microwaving and use only thawed fish. The microwave keeps the fish nicely moist, so loosely cover with paper towel (thin fillets) or wax paper (thicker).
Do not salt fish before microwaving and remove the fish the instant it turns opaque; any area not quite “done” in the center of a large piece will finish cooking as the fish stands. Another thought: try cooking the fish (or start cooking it) with the smooth side down and the skinned- side up. Also, turning thin fillets is precarious—just cook on one side and use a wide spatula to retrieve the fish when done.
The most popular sides for fish on restaurant menus seem to be mac and cheese and coleslaw. At home, don’t let the nutrition police catch you tossing fish sticks in the oven, grabbing a who-knows-how-old container of store-bought coleslaw, and making do with a boxed macaroni
and mystery-cheese concoction. There are wonderful recipes for the pasta all over the place (try Beard), worth just that little bit of effort.
As for the coleslaw—and while on the subject of James Beard—here’s one of his recipes that I have used for years and years. He learned it from the Chinese chef at his mother’s residential hotel in Portland, Oregon. I found it in his autobiographical book Delights and Prejudices. It is a delight, and perfectly accents that glorious fish you made.
This serves 4 to 6 and I also love to use it to top cold-cut sandwiches.
1⁄2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
6 tablespoons sugar (I use 3 to 4)
1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar (I sometimes use champagne vinegar)
1 cup heavy cream mixed with 2 egg yolks and 1⁄2 teaspoon ground white (or black) pepper
1 medium cabbage
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet or sauté pan; add the flour, and blend well. Add the salt, mustard, Tabasco, sugar, and vinegar. Stir until thickened. Remove from heat and let this slightly cool for about 1-2 minutes. Vigorously and gradually stir about 1⁄4 cup of the hot oil mixture into the egg-cream mixture, and then pour this combo into the oil mixture. Shred the cabbage very thin and combine with the hot dressing. Cool and chill several hours. If the dressing is too thick, mix with a little more heavy cream or with a touch of mayonnaise.