Fishy Fishy

Fish is not hard to cook. We are just trained to think it is. Early on in my cooking “career” (graduate school) we picked up a large cookbook about fish that meticulously broke down multiple techniques with several examples of each and hints about which kind of fish which technique was suited for. I remember bringing the odd piece of fish home, thumbing through the book to try and figure out what to do and then throwing up my hands when I couldn’t find the right set of instructions out of the right list. Then I’d make the fish and it would come out overcooked and tasteless.

My fish epiphany came during my first trip to Paris. I sat down in a semi- upscale bistro run by a famous chef and ordered a simple piece of white fish in a white wine and butter sauce. It was like no fish I’d ever had before. The fish that I was used to encountering came in one of two states: a sort of seared medium-rare almost sushi texture in the middle, which really doesn’t work with anything but tuna or salmon, or horrendously overdone, flakey, and dried out, the standard configuration for the thin mild fish in the U.S. This was different. It was soft and not overdone, and yet it flaked apart easily. It was tender but firm. And most of all, it was perfectly infused with the moisture and taste of the sauce. A true wonder.

I have not, in fact, learned to make fish like that, although I come close once in a while. What I have learned is that in the home kitchen there are three high probabilty schemes for making fish come out well without too much work.

1. Pan fried. Do this with a nice snapper filet if you can get it. Salt and pepper the filet and then bread it lightly with flour, egg wash and bread crumbs. Then toss it into a frying pan with enough oil and cook on both sides for two or three minutes each, depending on how thick the fish is. You want the fish to start to flake apart but you do not want it to dry out. This general scheme will work well with any thin filet as long as the fish is firm enough to hold up in the pan.

2. Pan roasted. Lightly flour the fish on both sides. Season with salt and pepper. Then sear it in the pan with some hot oil on both sides. Maybe a minute on each side. Then throw the pan in the oven to finish it off. You want to do this with thicker pieces of fish like salmon, halibut, and so on. Thicker pieces work better in the oven because everything cooks more evenly and at a slower rate, giving you more latitude. Keep and eye on things every three or four minutes depending on how thick the fish is. After a while you will develop a feel for when the fish is done. It will call to you from the oven: “Hey! Time to let me out now!” A nice side effect of the pan roasting is that sometimes get cool burnt bits to make a simple sauce with. Deglaze the pan with white wine and add sauteed shallots and butter. Yum.

3. Semi-poached. I’ve written this up before. The idea here is to cook the fish in a pan, either on the stove or in the oven, in a small amount of liquid to keep things moist and yummy. I like to do this with small whole fish (trout, bass) that is very fresh. It cooks the fish gently and you can check on it a lot to make sure you don’t kill it. Standard liquid mixes include:

1. White wine, butter and some water. Salt and pepper.

2. Wine, soy sauce, green onions, ginger. Salt and pepper.

3. Onion, carrots, celery sauted in olive oil, etc, along with some water and white wine. Salt and pepper.

You get the idea. For the oven, put the fish in a shallow pan, pour the liquid mix around it and then just bake it. You can cover the fish or not, do whatever you like.

Sticklers for detail will now complain that I have left out their favorite method. I left out grilling because it never works for me. I left out steaming because I am too lazy to pull the steamer out of storage every time I happen to find a fresh bass at the store, and the wet oven scheme above works almost as well. Finally, I have not mentioned seared tuna, partly because everyone and their mother is doing “seared ahi tuna” with frozen tuna steaks from Costco and I’m tired of it, and partly because whenever I try to make seared tuna I end up with either an overdone tasteless mess or an underdone tasteless mess. Also, everyone knows tuna is best as sushi anyway, so what’s the point of cooking it.

With these three main techniques in mind, here are a few other tips that I find useful:

- Season the fish. It is fashionable to look upon fish as some kind of healthy alternative to meat as part of a low fat, low salt, low taste diet. Resist this tempation. Fish tastes a lot better when you put enough seasoning on it. I’m not saying you should cake it with salt and brine it in salt water. I’m saying that if bland fish is getting you down, maybe you aren’t seasoning it quite enough.

- Butter makes everything taste good. Especially when used in a simple white whine sauce for your sea bass.

- When practical, whole fish are yummier.

- Fresh is better. This is an obvious rule, but hard to apply. If you live in Pittsburgh, go down to the Penn Avenue Fish Market and look at what they have. Their stuff is the freshest I’ve seen in Pittsburgh recently. When they clean and cut up a whole fish for you, it bleeds, which is a good thing. Lotus also has nice fish. Whole Foods is good, but not as good as the other places and usually more expensive. They are also insufferably smug about some of their humanitarian “policies” towards animals that have a central nervous system the size of a small set of legos.

That’s all I know about fish. Go buy some cheap stuff and practice. Then get some halibut from Alaska and go nuts.