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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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Pesce, pescado, fische, peixes, etc. Lots of names that sound better in other languages. These other words sound exotic, fancy when compared to "fish." But if the word is so simple to say, sounds so basic, why are people so afraid to cook it? They shouldn't be.

Now you're not going to get Trotter quality salmon the first time you cook fish, but did your first grilled steak taste like it came from Gibson's? I doubt it. Mine tasted like horrible shoe leather.

Maybe you don't cook fish because you don't like the way your mother cooked it and everything looks so confusing when you're standing at the counter that your eyes glaze over and just grab another box of fish sticks. Stop it! Fish is relatively simple to cook. There are a couple of simple pointers to remember, but unless the finger that hits "print" is broken you can take this info with you when you go to the store.

If you're cooking to impress, and if you've never made anything more complicated than a fish stick, I'd recommend practicing a little bit before you'd serve it to someone you're hoping to whisper sweet nothings to later on.

First rule of cooking fish: You don't talk about cooking fish. You just do it.

Second rule of cooking fish: Keep It Simple Stupid! Most fish taste best with a minimum of stuff done to them.

Third rule of cooking fish: Buy fish that doesn't smell like fish, or bleach, or other chemicals. Don't be afraid to ask to smell a piece of fish in the counter before having it wrapped. If you get a fuss about this, go someplace else. I've eaten bad fish, you don't wanna do it.

Fourth rule of cooking fish: If you're going to keep fish in your fridge for more than a day or so before cooking it, freeze it. Fish needs to stay at 32 degrees to stay fresh, while most meats are fine at 40 degrees -- which just happens to be the temperature most refrigerators are kept at. Your other option is to put the fish in a zipper bag, and put it inside another zipper bag, fill that bag with ice, and put it in the back of your fridge. Most fish that spoils does so at home, not at the store.

Fifth rule of cooking fish: Clean your broiling pan.

The broiler is the knob on your oven that causes heat to come from the top of your oven instead of the bottom. You will also place your food much closer to this heating element than when baking. This means that you're going to be cooking your fish at a higher temperature than you're probably used to. Most of the flavor difference that you're going to notice between baking and broiling is due to the intense heat reacting with the fish, and you can broil almost any cut of fish. There are several types of fish that you can't grill, but the only type of fish you can't broil is a large piece of fish. Keep it under 3 pounds and you'll be fine.

(Here's a broiler tip. You want it to be Hotttt! So turn it to broil about 15 minutes before you're ready to put the fish in. If you have an electric oven, set your oven to the highest baking temperature possible and keep it there for 15 minutes, switch over to the broiler and let the element warm up for about three minutes. Often electric broilers will shut themselves off. That's good if you forget to turn it off, it's bad if it happens while you're making dinner.)

Since this is an article on fish in general, and I want you to be successful so you've got the confidence to cook some of the slightly more complex recipes I have in mind, I'm going to suggest you pick out catfish for this recipe. It has a mild flavor and it soaks up other flavors very well. It is also a moderately firm fish which means it will stick together as it cooks so you'll have less chance of ending up with a pile of fish bits instead of a beautiful fillet. It is also inexpensive, so you don't have to worry about breaking the bank. For the price of a box of fish sticks, you should be able to get a pound of catfish.

When you look at fish in the counter you're likely to see two different cuts: fillets and steaks. Fillets are cuts that go parallel with the spine, likely to be an entire side of a fish. Steaks are cross-sections of the fish and are usually cut from large fish like tuna and salmon. Fillets are often cheaper and they usually come with the skin on.

Quit with the "ew!" You're not going to eat the skin. It's just going to keep your fish moist, flavorful and in one piece while you cook it. Consider that skin your fish-cooking training wheels. You're also going to want to pick out pieces of fish that are about 1" or slightly less in thickness. If you go for the big thick fillet, you're going to have to flip it and flipping risks breaking the fish. They're also easier to find.

What was the first rule of cooking fish? You don't talk about cooking fish, you just do it.

1.5 to 2 pounds of fish fillets
1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil or melted butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 lemon squeezed of juice (remove seeds from juice)
a few lemon wedges or parsley for garnish

Place the fish on your lightly greased pan (here's your opportunity to actually use that broiler pan in your oven) situated so it will be evenly under the heating element. If you have more than one fillet, keep them about an inch apart. Brush the olive oil or butter on the fish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the pan on the top most rack of your oven. It should be about 2-4 inches away from the heat. Keep your oven door open a crack and stay nearby so you can smell if something has caught on fire. If your fillet is half an inch thick it should be finished in about 4 minutes, 3/4 - 1 inch thick it should be done in 6 minutes. You'll then sprinkle the lemon juice on the fish, add garnish to your plate and voila! You're done.

How long do those fish sticks take to cook? Yep, you can have super-simple, super-cheap, healthy and tasty food in less time than Mrs. Paul can get crispy.

How do you know when the fish is done? This is probably what keeps a lot of people from cooking fish. With a fish like this it's easy because it goes from being translucent to opaque and white. If you look at your filet, you'll see little lines running through it -- you should be able to insert the tip of a thin knife along one of these lines (at the thickest point of the fish) separate the two pieces and see through it. If it isn't opaque all the way down to the skin, throw it back in for a minute and check again. If you want to get super-anal, you could purchase a meat thermometer and look for a temperature of 135 degrees, but the poke and prod method works just fine for me. After you cook fish a few times you'll start to notice how the color changes as it cooks.

What if you don't want to serve the fish with the skin on? Take it off. Once the fish is cooked, depending on the type of fish you're using, you should be able to pick the fish up with a spatula, flip it onto a plate, and peel off the skin, being careful not to burn your fingers. If you have a cat, it will love you forever for sharing this with it.

What if you want something a little more flavorful to serve over your fish? The easiest thing to do is to make a flavored butter. You can mash up a couple tablespoons of butter with a fork, sprinkle something flavorful on it, such as garlic or dill, put it into a covered bowl and let it sit overnight. If you need more of a recipe than that, try this. Take two tablespoons of butter and mash it with a fork. This will work easier if your butter is room temperature. Add 1 tablespoon of your favorite mustard (dijon works great, yellow mustard does not) and stir until combined. You could add some salt and pepper to this as well as a teaspoon of any fresh herb. Store it in the refrigerator overnight and just before serving your fish put a dollop on top of the fish.

What if you think butter is too fattening? You could make a quick citrus sauce that might even convince your tastebuds it isn't ass-bite cold outside. Take one small orange and half a lemon. Squeeze the juice out of the lemon and the orange. Use a spoon scrape most of the pulp out of the fruit. Stir in 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Stir well to incorporate the spices and drizzle over the fish, garnishing with the bits of fruit pulp.

Top that, Mrs. Paul!

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LD / January 27, 2004 1:41 PM

Great article. I was never really sure when to use the I know and I love fish, so I'll be trying this out!

emily / January 29, 2004 2:18 PM

I love fish, and I am a pro at salmon, but I've never attempted catfish. I have never known it any other way than deep fried, a method of cooking which I refuse to get into the habit of using at home. I am going to be courageous and cook some catfish soon. Thanks for the push!

armaghetto / February 2, 2004 5:32 AM

Was that a PJ reference???

armaghetto / February 2, 2004 5:34 AM

Uhm, disregard, I'm obsessed.


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