As the coast recovers, don’t forget about the fish

Striped bass with lentils.
Striped bass with lentils.

Whatever you do for the next weeks and months, don’t forget that folks Down East are hurting. Florence may have left the national spotlight, but her scars on our state, well, there’s no telling how long they will last.

Do what you can to help alleviate the physical and emotional toll many people have gone through. Donate money or your time. Wilmington, Morehead City, New Bern, the beaches, and the Inter-Banks, like Belhaven are returning to life. Take a trip, even a day trip, to support the business in these areas when roads are clear.

I feel a bit guilty over this column. I had outlined it before Florence as a tongue-in-cheek way to get ready for all that “oh, so good” but not very good for you State Fair food. I had to go with it because Florence visited my little paradise on the Pamlico River as it flows into the sound, and I spent most of the last two weeks getting ready or cleaning up after the storm. I was luckier than most this time.

Now, eating fish and seafood can get you in shape for all those goodies hitting your belly in a few weeks at the fair.

Lots of folks are still afraid to cook fish at home unless it comes out of a box from the frozen food aisle. Seafood is really easy to cook, and we have better choices than ever before.

Remember these keys:

▪ Don’t cook fish till it flakes. By that time it’s overcooked and dry.

▪ Use an 8-minute per-inch rule instead of 10.

▪ Know that several types of fish, like salmon and tuna, are much tastier when cooked rare or medium.

▪ Find a fishmonger you like and can trust. Buy what’s the freshest that day. This recipe will work with any firm-flesh fish. Heck, you can even pull this off with shrimp or scallops. Follow those guides and you are almost home free.

▪ Mix up the types so you don’t get bored. If your family is not fish friendly, start with far-raised catfish or tilapia. Both are mild and will absorb the flavors around them and can take the place of the grouper or wild striped bass in the recipe below. Both grouper and wild stiped bass are sturdy, meaty fish that can hold up to an assortment of flavors.

▪ Be prudent about the fish you eat. Some like blue fin tuna are being slammed worldwide.

▪ Oily and deep cold-water fish are in general better for your heart, but to me, all fish are good for you because of the protein structure and lack of fat.

I like to serve another good-for-you food, lentils, with the fish to round out the plate. You can certainly leave out the pancetta (Italian bacon) out or cut it in half.

Cooking can be very therapeutic. Even here in Triangle, we’ve all been stressed. Walk into the kitchen and take a deep breath, grab a pan and cook something.

Serving suggestions

Serve with: Some grilled asparagus, or sautéed spinach would be perfect alongside the fish and lentils.

To Drink: A Sauvignon Blanc would be traditional, but with the heartiness of the lentils and the structure of the fish, I tend to drink a Pinot Noir. Red wine heart healthy, right?

Grouper or Wild Striped Bass (Rockfish) with Lentils and Pancetta

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, diced (you can substitute thick-cut bacon)

2 cups chopped onions

1 large garlic clove, chopped

3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth

2 cups lentils (about 13 ounces), rinsed

2 small bay leaves

6 6-ounce Wild Stripe Bass (rockfish) fillets

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and sauté until crisp and brown, about 8 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to paper towels to drain.

Add onions and garlic to drippings in pan. Sauté until beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add chicken stock, lentils and bay leaves and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until lentils are tender and most of stock is absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper. Add to skillet and sauté until brown and just opaque in center, about 5 minutes per side.

Spoon lentils onto plates. Top with fish; sprinkle with pancetta. Serve immediately.

Serves 6