Fear of fish can afflict even the most confident cook.Fewer and fewer fish have crossed my stove in recent years. This is partly out of guilt, because wild species are so often out of season or endangered, and farmed fish are so often unappealing. It is partly because in my apartment, to cook fish for dinner is to live with its smell for a day and a half. And it is partly because I ate so much fancy fish in restaurants to make up for my failings as a home cook that I had forgotten how delicious a simple buttery pan-fried fillet can be.The modern fashion in restaurants is to serve fillets swimming in a broth, juice or nage (as if returning to water is somehow natural for cooked fish). Other chefs like oil-poaching, which involves a slow simmer in gallons of top-quality oil; expensive and impractical for Tuesday-night dinner at home.And others recommend that home cooks start with en papillote: folding up individual fillets in parchment paper with butter and herbs, which steams the fish and produces a kind of thin broth. This is not a thrilling outcome.For weeknight home cooking, I wanted a way to cook a fish fillet the way I cook all my favorite proteins (steaks, shrimp, lamb chops): quickly, simply and over high-enough heat to bring on the browning that makes food crisp, appetizing and fragrant. (Food science nerds call them Maillard reactions.) But a simple sear in oil isn’t the answer for fish: overcooked and flavorless fillets are the result.I brought the quandary to Mark Usewicz, a former chef and current co-owner of Mermaid’s Garden in Brooklyn, where he teaches classes for home cooks, like “How to Cook Fish in a New York City Apartment.”
His solution (of course) involved butter.The best way to cook a fish fillet, he said, is on top of the stove in a heavy skillet, with constant attention - not a tall order, as the whole process takes less than five minutes from start to finish. The short cooking time seriously reduces the chance of lingering smells.The initial sear should be in oil that will not burn over high heat: grapeseed, canola or even extra-virgin olive oil. (Although experts advise us not to waste extra-virgin oil on sautéing, using a few teaspoons here and there is well worth it for convenience and taste.)To finish the cooking, add a nut of butter to the pan, flip the fillet and baste furiously. The melting butter will keep the flesh tender, help form a tasty crust and finally brown lightly to become a sauce for the finished dish. A few fresh herb sprigs tossed in at the same time perfume the whole thing nicely.“It’s a variation on the most basic restaurant recipe, the first one you learn at the fish station,” he said. In most restaurant kitchens, the cooking starts on top of the stove but is finished in a hot oven, to make room for the next table’s order. For home cooks, heating the oven to 400 degrees for five minutes of cooking time is an unnecessary step.Renee Erickson, a Seattle chef who specializes in seafood at her restaurants, the Whale Wins, the Walrus and the Carpenter, Boat Street Café and Barnacle, also relies on butter-basting as the best basic way to cook fillets, from fatty salmon to slender flounder. “There are more delicate ways to cook fish, I suppose,” she said, but not tastier ones.“If you order a pan-fried fillet from one of our kitchens, it comes out seriously browned,” she said. If the pan and contents get too hot during the cooking and threaten to scorch, she advised, add a bit more cold butter or squeeze in the juice of half a lemon.The method works for small whole fish, too, she said, as well as skinless and skin-on fillets. You can score the skin with the tip of a sharp knife to prevent the fillet from curling as it cooks or (even easier) just press down on it lightly for the first minute or so of cooking.What kind of fish to buy for this dish? Assuming your fish is in good shape, and the right thickness - not less than a 1/2-inch thick or more than 1 inch - almost any fillet can be cooked this way, from brook trout to Arctic char. Black cod, rockfish and halibut are excellent choices from the Pacific; from the Atlantic, sea bass, grouper and snappers; red drum from the Gulf of Mexico.Usewicz said that selecting the right fish for a particular recipe is prominent among the anxieties people bring into his shop.“It is amazing how afraid people are of fish,” he said. “Afraid of cooking it, afraid of buying it, afraid of keeping it.” Most of his customers, for example, firmly believe that fish can’t even be kept overnight in the refrigerator without spoiling. “Fish is like any other kind of protein,” he said. “It’s perishable.” But that doesn’t mean it’s on the verge of spoilage.“A really nice piece of fish lasts a few days in the fridge, and it doesn’t smell up your house any more than steak does,” he said, as long as it’s been treated properly from the moment of catch. That usually means eviscerated on deck, frozen or flown to market within hours and kept cold at all points on the way to the case.“People get all caught up in choosing exactly the right kind of fish,” he said. “But really, the most important thing that will affect your dish is how it’s handled before you ever see it.”Pan Roasted Fish Fillets With Herb ButterYield: 2 servingsTime: 20 minutes2 5- to 6-ounce fish fillets, like black bass, haddock, fluke, striped bass, tilefish, snapper or salmon, 1/2- to 1-inch thickSalt and ground black pepper3 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil2 tablespoons unsalted butter2 sprigs fresh thyme, tarragon, chives or another herb1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley, optionalLemon wedges1. Pat fillets dry with a paper towel. Season on both sides with salt and pepper.2. Heat a heavy 10-inch nonstick or cast-iron skillet over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil. Place the fillets in the pan, skin side down (if applicable), laying them down away from your body. If fillets have skin, press down gently with a spatula for about 20 seconds to prevent curling.3. Lower heat to medium and let sizzle until fish is golden and caramelized around edges, about 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully flip fillets and add butter and thyme to pan. Tilt pan slightly to let the melted butter pool at one end. Use a spoon to baste the fish with the pooled butter. Continue basting until golden all over and cooked through, 45 to 90 seconds more, depending on the thickness of your fish. Serve immediately with chopped parsley (if using) and lemon wedges.(Adapted from Mark Usewicz, Mermaid’s Garden, Brooklyn)And to Drink ...Almost any good, dry white wine will go with fish fillets like these. But one in particular will have such a beautiful, delicious relationship with these fillets that it stands out. That is Chablis, the most singular expression of chardonnay, in which the wines lean toward steely and firm rather than opulent. Seek out a good premier cru Chablis from a classic year like 2012 (maybe too young), 2010, 2008 or 2007, but even a straightforward village-level Chablis will do. If not Chablis, other white Burgundies won’t disappoint, even less expensive bottles from the Mâconnais, and firmer, less flamboyant chardonnays from the West Coast. Good Italian whites like fianos from Campania or carricantes from Mount Etna on Sicily will work well, too, as will Sancerres and other Loire sauvignon blancs.© 2015 New York Times News Service
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