Friday, October 25, 2013

Fear no Fish!

If you're intimidated by cooking fish at home, there really is no need. It's a relatively simple thing to do, and what's great is that it takes a short amount of time to prepare and to cook. Plus, the health benefits of eating fish makes it worthwhile incorporating it into your weekly meal plans.

We hear a lot about the "Mediterranean Diet" which focuses on fruits and vegetables, lean protein, especially fish, using olive oil for fat and drinking moderate amounts of wine, and many health professionals consider it to be the world's healthiest cuisine. Eating this way can do a lot to prevent disease. Fish is an important component of the cuisine, providing lean protein and the ever-important EFAs (essential fatty acids) that our bodies need to thrive.

When fish is fresh it should smell like salty sea air. It is best eaten the same day it was purchased (or at least within 2 days). After that it loses its freshness and the smelly fishiness starts to set in. Don't push it - fish is not very forgiving. We want flavor, but we don't want THAT kind of flavor.

If you're new to fish or are afraid of the fishiness factor, marinate it. I like making a little "sauce" of olive oil and fresh lemon juice, a little salt and pepper and setting the fish in it for a few hours. You can get fancy and add some fresh or dried herbs to it as well, but that's up to you. Put the marinade and the fish in a heavy ziplock bag and pop it in the fridge in the morning to eat that night. Just make sure to throw away the marinade and not reuse it.

What type of fish to buy? I like the white fish varieties. I am not a gamey meat kinda gal, so the whiter anything is, like chicken and turkey, the better I like it. Go to the fish counter at your supermarket, or better yet, to a fish purveyor or specialty market where they get fresh fish in daily, and ask him/her for a recommendation on what's freshest and the least fishy. Start there. You can always experiment later. Personally, I like halibut, John Dory (an Australian seabass), sand dabs, tilapia, and sole.

Where does your fish come from? Whatever you end up buying, try to avoid farmed fish whenever possible. The potential health hazards in eating farmed fish are being documented more and more. Farmed fish are given antibiotics to keep diseases in check because these fish are confined to living in pools where disease is rampant instead of out in the wild. They are also usually fed an unnatural diet, which passes along into the meat which we later consume (this is actually the case with beef, chicken and every other kind of meat as well, so sourcing your fish, meat and poultry is very important). Check out this website for more information on what types of seafood are best eaten in your region, in terms of sustainability, toxic load, and what should be avoided due to overfishing. The Monterey Bay Aquarium updates their Pocket Guide regularly so you can download it and carry it with you when you shop or go out to eat.

How to cook it? For smaller, thinner fish such as sole or sand dabs, pan sauteeing is best, and for thicker, denser fleshed fish such as swordfish or salmon, grilling is nice. Poaching is another simple way to make fish and you can do that with just about any of them, from the delicate ones to the sturdier ones. Here are two of my favorite fish recipes.
Pecan-crusted Fish with Beurre Blanc

Nuts with fish are a great combination and a nutritional powerhouse of essential fatty acids. Serves 2.

2 fillets of any type of white fish I listed above, about 4-5 oz. per person
salt and pepper
2 oz. finely chopped pecans
1 Tbsp each olive oil and butter
Beurre Blanc (recipe follows)

Season the fish with salt and pepper. Place the chopped nuts on a cutting board or plate and press the fish into the nuts so that they adhere to one side of the fish. Heat the butter and oil in a wide saute pan until very hot. Place the fish fillets in the pan nut side down, turn down the heat to medium and cook for about 4 minutes per side. Turn over and cook the other side. Transfer to warm plates and drizzle with Beurre Blanc or serve the sauce in ramekins alongside the fish if you prefer.

Beurre Blanc

1/4 cup minced shallots
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar, such as champagne
1/4 lb. cold butter

Combine shallots, wine and lemon in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce until the liquid is nearly gone. Don't let it get too brown, but a little darkening is good for flavor. Cut butter into chunks. Remove pan from heat and let it cool slightly. Remove half of the reduction and save to make another batch. Add a piece or two of butter to the pan and stir steadily with a spoon or whisk until it melts. Return the pan to very gentle heat, adding a little more butter, continuously adding more butter until all of it is incorporated. Season with salt and pepper if desired. Keep the sauce warm by either leaving it in the pan if using immediately, or transfer to an insulated container for longer keeping.
Variation: add a Tbsp of chopped herbs such as dill, fennel, tarragon, chives or chervil to the finished sauce.

Salmon with Balsamic Onion Marmalade

The acidity of the vinegar and orange juice nicely compliments the richness of the salmon for a nice balance of flavors. Serves 2.

1 red onion
2 tsp. olive oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (can be an inexpensive variety)
2 salmon fillets (about 6 oz. each)
salt and pepper

Peel onion and cut into 8 wedges. Pour 1 tsp. oil into a 2-3 qt. pan over medium-high heat. When pan in hot, add onion and cook, turning once, to lightly brown, about 5 minutes. Add orange juice and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce heat, cover, and simmer until onion is very tender when pierced, about 45 minutes. Shortly before onion is done, pour remaining oil in a fry pan over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add salmon. Cook, turning once, until fish is opaque but still moist-looking in the thickest part, 7-9 minutes total. Transfer salmon to plates and serve with the onion mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve alongside an asparagus risotto.

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