PARIS — Living in France has meant that my once passing fancy for all things that swim has exploded into a very big love. From picking out the tiniest of bulots (sea snails) with needlelike tools and cracking open the claws of a fresh-caught homard (lobster) to learning that the best way to enjoy raie (skate) is with a simple lemon, butter and caper sauce, I have fallen hard. I find myself visiting the poissonnieres more often than I do the butcher, because I’ve learned that fish — which I once believed was a tricky thing to cook — is one of the easiest and healthiest dinners you can make.
And supersonic fast. Mussels? Just a few minutes, and they’re steamed and ready to serve. Salmon, into the oven at high heat, usually takes less than five, depending on the cut. White fishes like flounder, cod, sole and snapper, ditto.
Fish is simple, elegant food.
If you replace meat with fish during Lent (which began on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13) but rely on restaurants to prepare it, try cooking your own this year.
The key is to find great fresh fish, then not overcook it.
Which is easy to do, wherever you are.
For those of you who are timid about fish, fear not. Fish isn’t finicky; it just requires you to pay attention. Close attention. If you’re one of those people who likes to throw something on the stove and then leave the room (and you know who you are), please don’t do this to fish (or to anything, really). You’ll end up with fish that’s overcooked and dry, and when this happens, there’s not much you can do to save it.
Enough of what not to do. Here are few tips on how to make fantastic fish every time:
Before buying any sort of fish, check to see what species are in season and plentiful, and not on any watch list as being overfished or harmful in any way. The Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org) post updated lists of sustainable seafood and what to avoid buying.
Buy only fish that have clear eyes and the faint scent of the sea. Never buy fish that smells “fishy,” as counterintuitive as that may sound.
Tell your fishmonger what you’re planning to make and ask which fish would be best. Lots of the white fishes may be easily swapped out for one another, so he or she may guide you to a suitable choice that’s readily available.
If you’re not sure about how to cook a particular fish, just ask an expert. Many years ago, I remember buying a piece of fish and wanting to cook it en papillote (“in paper”) to impress a guy I was dating. This was before the Internet, and I didn’t have a cookbook that gave me any sort of instruction, so I just picked up the phone and called one of Dallas’ top restaurants and asked to speak to the chef. To my surprise, he picked up the phone and was really happy to walk me through the (very easy) steps of steaming fish in parchment paper. I couldn’t believe how easy it was, and my date? Totally impressed.
Keep a pair of tweezers in your kitchen drawer to remove pin bones. Although most fishmongers do this for you, it’s always good to double-check and pull out any that were missed.
When in doubt, undercook your fish. I know I’ve said this already, but there’s nothing worse than overcooked fish. I like my fish pretty rare and take it out at the first opportunity and I suggest you do the same; if it’s not cooked enough for you, pop it back in for just a minute or two. To avoid a mistake, be sure to use your timer.
BAKED FISH STICKS WITH PARMESAN OVEN FRIES
Makes 2 servings
As fun for a kids’ birthday party as for a grown-up dinner party. Double or triple the recipe as needed. These will disappear quickly.
1 cup breadcrumbs
Sea salt and pepper
10 ounces medium-firm white fish, such as halibut
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes, cut into sticks a la French fries
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan
About 2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Arugula, for serving (optional)
Lemon wedges, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper, a smallish one and a larger one for the fries.
2. In a shallow bowl or pie plate, mix the breadcrumbs with a pinch of sea salt and pepper.
3. Cut your fish into about 12 sticklike pieces (I like mine about ½ inch thick by 1 inch wide), coat in 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and dredge each piece in the breadcrumbs. Place fish sticks on your smaller cookie sheet.
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