Food & Drink

4 tips to make the best fish at home

Braised Curry Fish is an easy and quick recipe.
Braised Curry Fish is an easy and quick recipe. Fred Thompson

It’s fish season. How do I know? Look at the ads on television. Every fast food joint is promoting its fish sandwich. That Gorton’s fisherman, with his famous yellow storm coat, is on the airways. (It’s Gorton’s biggest sales quarter.)

As one of my best college friends used to say about this time of year: “Knit shirt season is coming, let’s go eat some fish.” The 40 days of Lent have become a signal to look to our waters for nourishment.

As a group, we are eating more seafood than ever before, but are you cooking it at home? After two seafood cookbooks and years of teaching seafood cookery at Southern Season and other venues, I’ve noticed a couple of things. Folks want to cook fish at home, and most are afraid to do so.

The first article I did for The News & Observer was a piece called “Fearless Fish.”

Here are some tips for success at home.

1. It starts at the seafood counter.

You want the freshest product. Get to know your fishmonger. If you smell fish or an ammonia scent, go somewhere else, because the seafood is being mishandled. Fish and shellfish should be in separate parts of the case. Whole fish should be buried in ice, and fillets should be on a tray on top of ice. There are new cases that are used that negate ice, but ice is still the gold standard in the fish market.

2. Don’t be sold on just one type of fish.

In the recipe below, I give you several options for the fish. The cod might not be as fresh as the grouper. Use the freshest type.

But Fred, how do you tell? Let’s focus on fillets. Ask for a smell. It should smell clean, faintly of the ocean. Get your fishmonger to press on the fillet. The meat should bounce back like a baby’s skin. Odd colors or spots are signs of age. Also know that many times, your best option might be frozen fish that’s processed and blast-frozen on the boat that caught it.

3. Watch the flakes

When it comes to cooking the fillet, forget you ever heard the phrase “Till it flakes.” Fish flakes because it’s overdone and dry. Also think in terms of cooking 8 minutes an inch instead of 10, which is widely touted.

4. Consider braising

Braising fish is not commonly thought of as a method for cooking fish, and that’s a shame. With so many folks worrying about overcooking fish, and the texture and flavor being bland and dry, braising sets up a natural defense to combat all those negatives. Braising fish is not a long process as with other proteins, which makes this recipe work as easily for a busy weeknight dinner as it does for the weekend or company.

You can change your braising medium for a change of pace. Replace the curry with a Thai chili paste and use coconut milk in place of the stock. Season the fish with a barbecue spice, replace the bok choy with spinach or thinly sliced collard greens, and make a braising liquid of a North Carolina-style barbecue sauce or a thicker sweet style cut with water.

Once you try this recipe, it will become one of your go-to favorites. It’s easy, quick and just plain tastes awesome. Eat fish, live longer, or so they say.

Pro tips

Serve with: Cooked jasmine rice as a side makes for a great meal. Add a salad with a miso dressing and you are done.

To drink: A Sancerre is perfect.

Braised Curry Fish

2 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 6-ounce fillets of any firm white fish such as grouper, monkfish, sea bass, cod or tile fish

Superfine flour, such as Wondra, for dredging

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon peeled and chopped fresh ginger

2 heads of baby bok choy, roots removed, white parts finely diced, green leaves sliced

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon curry powder blend

2 teaspoons Tamari sauce

1 seeded jalapeno pepper, chopped

2 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons chopped chives

Toasted sesame oil for drizzling

Heat the olive oil in a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat until it just simmers. Salt and pepper fillets. Coat them with flour. Place the fillets in the hot pan and sear on one side for 3 minutes. Turn fillets and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the fillets to a platter.

Add the onions, garlic, ginger and white parts of the bok choy. Sauté until softened. Add the chicken broth, lime juice, curry powder, Tamari and jalapeno.

Bring to a simmer and add the fish back to the pan. Continue cooking while spooning the liquid over the fish for about 6 minutes. Add the green parts of the greens to just wilt. Remove fillets to a bowl, pour over the braising liquid and garnish with the cilantro and chives. Drizzle with the oil. Serve hot.

Yields: 4 servings