Slow cooking fish brings out silky texture

It’s counterintuitive, but the fish comes out with a sublimely silky texture

Washington PostApril 2, 2013 

If Phyllis Pellman Good could do it all over again, she would rethink the fish soup recipe.

As the author of a half-dozen books packed with dishes for the slow cooker – that minivan of kitchen appliances – Good develops recipes with multiple ingredients and mostly just two steps:

1. Put everything in the cooker.

2. Set the timer for six or eight or 10 hours.

Her fish chowder is more complicated. There’s a third step, sauteing an onion, and another that calls for adding half-and-half during the last hour of cooking.

But if she were writing the recipe today, says Good, “I’d add the fish at the end.” Good and her husband, Merle, own Good Books Publishing in Intercourse, Pa. Her “Fix it and Forget It” series of slow-cooker books has sold more than 11 million copies.

Fish in the slow cooker seems counterintuitive. Fillets cook quickly, with a narrow window between done and dry, especially when they are baked. The most common reaction to my kitchen experiments with fish has been: What’s the point?

But my first attempt at slow-cooker fish was alarmingly successful: a drizzle of oil in the ceramic insert, some coarsely chopped shallots and smashed garlic, a hunk of farm-raised salmon. I squeezed lemon juice over the fish and set the cooker to low. An hour later, a creamy, kind-of-poached salmon emerged. With a smattering of chopped fresh dill, it was dinner.

A similar preparation appears in “The New Slow Cooker,” Brigit Binn’s book for Williams-Sonoma. She sets salmon in a tarragon-and-white-wine-based broth that has already heated for 30 minutes.

“The texture is amazing,” she says. The low-and-slow method of cooking fish, she adds, “kind of approaches sous vide,” the method of slowly controlling a cooking temperature to create meat with a sublimely silky texture.

Since the publication of Binn’s cookbook in 2010, one of her most frequent reader inquiries has been about fish.

Today’s slow cookers are more sophisticated than their forebears, with removable inserts for easy cleaning and serving, plus digital timers that shift to “warm” when the cook period ends. That allows more variety in both cooking methods and ingredients.

Technique has evolved, as well.

“You can’t just dump and go,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor at America’s Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook’s Illustrated and a raft of cookbooks. The more hands-on approach is what most slow-cooker fish recipes require. Davison worked on both “Slow Cooker Revolution” (2011) and “Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2: The Easy-Prep Edition,” which comes out in September.

Davison had an “aha” moment while experimenting with fish: “Not only is it incredibly easy in the slow cooker, but it’s good.”

For one thing, she points out, “there’s more of a window to catch the fish at the correct doneness.” And slowly bringing up the temperature of a protein retains moisture, so the result is more delicate.

“In the end, it has a silky texture and is tender and moist,” she says.

ATK’s 2011 book offered no fish recipes except one with anchovies. The newer edition has six, including chowders, stews and poached salmon.

Adding fish dishes meant shifting the slow-cooker mind-set to the idea of cooking in stages, says Davison.

For example, she gave me an early look at a recipe for garlicky shrimp that appears in the upcoming ATK book.

“You start by poaching garlic in oil and pepper for 30 minutes,” so flavors are infused, Davison says. Then the shrimp is added to cook on high for another 20 minutes.

One of my fish experiments – mussels with garlic, white wine and stewed tomatoes – was a failure: The shells opened too quickly and the mussels overcooked.

My third fish experiment was more successful. I started with red Thai rice and cubes of sweet potato. In went stewed tomatoes, plenty of garlic and enough water to cover. Once the rice was nearly cooked and the sweet potatoes became fork-tender, I added coconut milk and dollops of Thai curry paste. When it had heated through, I submerged four tilapia fillets in the stew. It took about 20 minutes for the fish to reach an opaque flakiness.

The tilapia was difficult to remove intact, so the dish became a kind of Thai curry hash, which I finished with ribbons of fresh basil. That, of course, affirmed another truth about slow-cooker food:

It’s more important to taste good than to be pretty.

Slow-Cooker Garlicky Shrimp Adapted from the upcoming “The Slow Cooker Revolution, Volume 2: The Easy Prep Edition,” from America’s Test Kitchen (September 2013). The gentle heat of the slow cooker is terrific for producing shrimp that are not overcooked. The poaching oil gets a 30-minute head start to develop flavor and soften the raw garlic. For easy, hands-on eating, leave the tails on the shrimp. 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 2 pounds extra-large (26-30 count) raw shrimp, peeled and deveined 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley (optional; garnish) Crusty bread for dipping

COMBINE the oil, garlic, paprika, salt, black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes in a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker, stirring until blended. Cover and cook on the high setting for 30 minutes.

STIR in the shrimp to coat evenly; cover and cook on high about 10 minutes. Stir to ensure the shrimp are cooking evenly. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or until all of the shrimp are just opaque.

TRANSFER the shrimp and some of the sauce to a wide, shallow serving dish. Sprinkle with the parsley. Serve warm, with crusty bread for dipping in the sauce. Per serving (based on 8, with half of the sauce): 210 calories; 23g protein; 2g carbohydrates; 12g fat (2g saturated fat); 170mg cholesterol; 290mg sodium; 0g dietary fiber. Yield: 6 to 8 appetizer servings

Slow-Cooker Salmon With Shallot and Green Beans Adapted from Williams-Sonoma’s “The New Slow Cooker: Comfort Classics Reinvented,” by Brigit Binns (Weldon Owen, 2010). The moist environment produces salmon that is mild-tasting, non-oily and softly flaky. And you’ll smell no aroma of fish in the house as it cooks. 1/2 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth 1 cup dry white wine 1/2 small onion, thinly sliced 3 sprigs tarragon, plus 1 teaspoon minced tarragon leaves 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper 6 (5-ounce) skin-on salmon fillets 1 pound haricots verts (thin French green beans), trimmed 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 large shallot, minced 2 teaspoons tarragon vinegar (may substitute white wine vinegar)

COMBINE broth, wine, onion, tarragon sprigs, salt and 1/2 cup water in a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. Season with pepper to taste. Stir, then cover and cook on the low setting for 30 minutes.

ADD the salmon fillets; it’s OK if they overlap. Cover and cook on low for 1 hour or until the fish is opaque and tender. Use a thin, slotted spatula to carefully transfer the fish to a platter, discarding the skin. Cover loosely to keep warm. Discard the braising liquid and tarragon sprigs.

BRING a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat while the salmon is cooking.

ADD the haricots verts and cook for about 4 minutes, until crisp-tender. Immediately pour into a colander in the sink and rinse well under cool running water. Spread on a clean dish towel or paper towels to dry.

WHEN READY to serve, heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and stir to coat; cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the haricots verts and stir to coat and warm through, then add the vinegar and minced tarragon, tossing to incorporate.

SCATTER the dressed haricots verts and shallot over and around the salmon fillets. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving: 230 calories; 30g protein; 6g carbohydrates; 9g fat (3g saturated fat); 80mg cholesterol; 150mg sodium; 3g dietary fiber.

Yield: 6 servings.

Olive-Oil-Braised Tuna With Orange-Olive Tapenade Adapted from Williams-Sonoma’s “The New Slow Cooker: Comfort Classics Reinvented,” by Brigit Binns (Weldon Owen, 2010). 1/4 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth or fish stock 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for the spinach 1/4 cup dry white or rose wine 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped 6 dried bay leaves (may substitute 3 fresh bay leaves) 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed Freshly ground black pepper 12 ounces fresh center-cut tuna, cut into thick steaks 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced Grated zest of 1 orange 5 ounces pitted, mild green olives, such as picholine or lucques (about 3/4 cup) 5 ounces pitted, brine-cured black olives, such as nicoise (about 3/4 cup) 1 teaspoon red or white wine vinegar 5 to 6 ounces fresh baby spinach

COMBINE the broth, 4 tablespoons oil, wine, onion, bay leaves and salt in a 3-quart slow cooker; season with pepper to taste. Stir, then cover and cook on the low setting for 30 minutes. During this time, let the tuna steaks come to room temperature.

ADD the tuna, turning to coat the pieces evenly. Cover and cook on low for 15 minutes; use a spatula to turn the steaks, cover and cook for a total of up to 35 minutes, until the fish is opaque and firm (start checking after 25 minutes). Use a slotted spatula to transfer the fish to a cutting board or large plate, then use two forks to separate the pieces into large flakes. Cover loosely to keep warm. Discard the braising liquid.

COMBINE the garlic, orange zest, olives, vinegar and the remaining tablespoon of oil in a food processor while the fish is cooking. Pulse to form a thick puree. You should have about 1 1/2 cups.

TOSS the spinach in a mixing bowl with a little oil to lightly coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide among individual plates, creating a bed for the tuna. Distribute the fish evenly among the portions. Top with the tapenade. Serve at room temperature. Leftover tapenade can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. Per serving (based on 6, using half of the tapenade): 110 calories; 14g protein; 3g carbohydrates; 5g fat (1g saturated fat); 25mg cholesterol; 330mg sodium; 1g dietary fiber.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Thai-Inspired Slow-Cooker Tilapia The base sauce with rice and sweet potato needs to cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours before the remaining ingredients are added. 1 large (about 1 pound) sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces 6 cloves garlic, crushed 2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil 1 cup raw jasmine rice or Thai red rice 1 (14-ounce) can no-salt-added stewed tomatoes, whole or diced 7 ounces canned low-fat coconut milk (about 1 cup) 3 to 4 teaspoons Thai red curry paste 1 pound tilapia fillets 6 to 8 fresh basil leaves, rolled and cut crosswise into thin ribbons (garnish; optional)

COMBINE the sweet potato and garlic in a baking dish. Microwave on high (100% power) for 8 minutes; the sweet potato should be slightly softened. (This allows the sweet potato to finish in the slow cooker when the rice is done.)

COMBINE the oil and rice in a 5 1/2- to 6-quart slow cooker, stirring to coat. Add the parcooked sweet potato and garlic, stewed tomatoes and enough water to barely cover (about 1 1/2 cups). Cover and cook on the high setting for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. (The time will depend on which rice you use; jasmine rice cooks faster than red rice.) The rice and potato should be tender, and the liquid should be absorbed.

GENTLY STIR in the coconut milk and curry paste (to taste). Cover and cook on high for 10 to 20 minutes, then uncover and gently add the fish, pressing to submerge it in the rice mixture. Cover and cook on high for 15 to 20 minutes; the fish should be opaque and flake easily.

USE a slotted thin spatula to transfer the fish, along with some of the rice mixture, to individual plates. Garnish with the basil. Alternatively, stir to form a thick, messy stew, then spoon it into individual bowls. Garnish each portion with basil. Serve warm. Per serving: 510 calories; 29g protein; 69g carbohydrates; 12g fat (4g saturated fat); 55mg cholesterol; 310mg sodium; 5g dietary fiber.

Yield: 4 servings

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