April 20, 2015 — 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.