” I bought all these little eggplant on sale- what should I do with them?”
“What knife should I buy for my first kitchen?”
“What is this weird looking vegetable at the grocery store *texts photo*”
” I can’t find ancho chile powder; what can I use instead?”
These are just a few of the texts I get from my siblings. I get questions about the photos I post on Facebook, I get texts and emails from the grocery store or in a panic mid-cook “is it supposed to look like this?” People ask me what to do with the okra I’m picking up at the farmer’s market, how I’m going to cook the bag of nettles I’m gingerly picking up with tongs, what I’m going to do with the chicken feet or skate or pork cheeks I’m buying.
I started thinking that it might be fun to have some kind of “Ask Christine” feature here at Cognitive Leeks- it’s the reason I started this project in many ways. I love the interaction of a question instead of just sharing what I’m cooking .
It seems like a lot of my friends agree. When I asked on Facebook, I got an enthusiastic response- and my first question from Heidi:
“I can’t seem to get fish to ever taste right when I make it at home. Do you have some tips to foolproof a fish dish?”
First, choosing the fish: generally, I think that round bodied fish species like salmon, cod, snapper, grouper, and arctic char are easier to handle than flat species like flounder and sole. The flatter and thinner the fish fillet, the less time it takes to cook (which makes them much easier to overcook), and the more fragile it is to move and flip while cooking. A 4-6 ounce filet of a fairly thick fish is a great place to start. It’s easy to handle, and doesn’t have a lot of bones. If you are shopping in a store that has a seafood department, ask for something with a little more oil- something flaky or meaty. And be picky- if it smells “fishy,” it’s not fresh. The piece of fish should be smooth- if it looks like the fish is starting to flake apart, it’s getting dry and starting to break down- that’s not fresh fish.
Second, the hardware. I usually only use non stick cookware for eggs and fish, so I recommend a non stick skillet large enough for all the fish filets you plan to cook to fit without touching.
Unwrap the fish you have bought and dry it off with a paper towel. This will help the surface brown a little. Season the fish with a little salt. Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet and turn the heat on to about medium. After a minute or two, place the filets in the skillet “presentation side” down first- meaning the side you want to be showing on the plate goes into the oil first. The more things heat and cook, the stickier they tend to become, so cooking the presentation side first means you have a better chance of the fish staying in one piece and looking nice when it’s done.
If the fish is close to an inch thick, turn it with a wide spatula after about 3-4 minutes- thinner pieces should be checked after about 2-3 minutes. Move it gently and don’t be afraid to use your fingers to guide the flip- the top probably won’t even be warm at this point. The bottom surface should have a hint of golden brown and the bottom half should just be beginning to become opaque.
Lower the heat to low and put a cover on the skillet. A little condensation will form and finish cooking the fish gently with a little help from steam. Check it after about 3 minutes; you should get a hint that the flakes of fish are starting to loosen. It should be springy (not mushy, not hard) to the touch and the fish will be opaque – no raw line. A sign that you’ve gone too far is that the filet will be completely firm and then some of the protein will begin to seep out between the flakes and will become white “bubbles” on the fish’s surface. Slightly underdone is better than overdone when you turn off the heat. Leaving the fish inside the skillet with the lid on for another 5 minutes while you warm the plates will give it time to cook through with a gentle moist residual heat that will keep the fish from drying out.
If you want to make a simple sauce, a squeeze of lemon juice into the pan after you remove the fish, whisked with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt is always nice.
Fish usually takes less time to cook through than you might think. It is also usually leaner than any meat you are used to cooking so there isn’t much fat to keep the flesh from drying out. Just like you don’t want to over cook a beef tenderloin filet, and chicken breast gets tough and dry when overcooked, you don’t want to overcook fish. And simple is usually better when it comes to the delicate flavor of fish- a little salt and a hit of lemon is often all it needs.
I also wrote a post about poaching fish, another gentle cooking method that minimizes the risk of overcooking your fish.
I hope that was helpful. If you have more questions, Heidi, you know where to find me.
If anyone else has a burning question I might be able to help with, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on the Cognitive Leeks Facebook page and I’ll see what I can do to help.