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Fish is Easy
Among the most perplexing excuses for avoiding the cooking of fish is the perception that fish is tricky. I've heard paranoia of fish-cooking so deep that a friend believed that the fish would somehow ruin itself despite her best efforts.
That was then. This is now.
My friend loves to cook fish. It's so simple as to defy itself as a topic for this story. And fast? Overcooking fish is more trouble than doing it fast and right.
Autumn is a great time of year for fresh fish. Not only is it low in fat and high in protein, the waters are cold and a huge array of fresh fish is available in supermarkets as well as in that antiquated retail source, an actual fishmonger. Maybe your city has stores specializing in fish. If so, shop there. Fish professionals love their specialty and will know specifics about freshness and how to describe the taste and texture of the cooked fish.
Like many American cities, mine has given up the ghost on true fish markets. We are forced to buy fish next to the meat case in a grocery store. It's a bit more difficult to judge the freshness unless you stand there and ask blunt questions. However, if your city has an Asian segment, you will always find fresh fish at shops owned by Chinese, Vietnamese or Japanese merchants. To start, I suggest buying fillets rather than fish "steaks." I love the way the fillet cooks -- tender, soft, succulent. A fillet is cut from the fish's side. If the piece is filleted well, you'll encounter very few bones, if any.
And this is where our story picks up -- when you bring your fish home and begin to cook it.
Fish can be sauteed in butter or olive oil in a frying pan; baked in a little butter or oil in a non-metallic baking dish just large enough to hold the fish; or most delicious, steamed.
Some fillets to try are: salmon, halibut, sea bass, striped bass, snapper or redfish, cod, flounder, or sole.
Once you decide on how you'll cook the fish, the cooking TIME remains your chief challenge. Remembering that fish is eaten absolutely raw on sushi will help you keep cooking times short. For fish to be called "cooked," all you need to do is get rid of the raw state and serve.
To estimate how long to cook fish, there's an easy formula called the Canadian Theory. It goes like this: 10 minutes of cooking for every inch of thickness -- regardless of the cooking method.
This is the TOTAL cooking time!
For example, if you're sauteeing a 1-inch-thick piece of fish, this means you'd fry it for 5 minutes on each side. To bake, you'd keep the fish in the oven 10 minutes without turning.
What if your fillet is thinner than 1 inch? Simple calibrate the timing downward to 7 or 8 minutes. If it's thicker, adjust upward a few minutes. Some finicky chefs complain that the 10-minutes-per-inch-of-thickness rule isn't perfect. I say it gets you REAL close to perfection! And it's easy.
For a no-fat entree, a 1-inch-thick fillet of salmon can be set on a plate, sprinkled with salt and pepper, then set on a rack inside a wok filled with a shallow depth of boiling water, and steamed, COVERED, over high heat for 10 minutes. Squeeze a lemon wedge over the fish and serve.
A 1-inch-thick fillet of halibut can be lowered into a small frying pan of hot melted butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and fried for 5 minutes on both sides over medium-high heat. Squeeze a lemon wedge over the fish and serve.
A 1-inch-thick fillet of sea bass can be set in a buttered baking dish just large enough to hold the fish, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and placed in a preheated 425-degree oven for 10 minutes. (TIP: fish bakes nicely between 400 and 425 degrees F. This is higher than chicken's baking temperature. The high temperature cooks fish quickly without prolonging the time spent in heat.) Squeeze a lemon wedge over the fish and serve.
Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking