Very rarely does a chef get a 4-star review while a critic is still at the table, but in my case our resident critic (that would be Craig) exclaimed, on biting into the fish you see above, “This is seriously the best fish I’ve ever had in my life. You could charge $40 for this at a restaurant!”
You might think Craig was hyperbolizing, but when I bit in I felt the same way. And it wasn’t like I considered myself a big fish expert by any means; because good fish takes more effort to find than good chicken or good produce, I very rarely make it. This dinner was a total anomaly but because it turned out so terrific, I’m thinking it’ll become a regular weeknight staple for us. Why did it turn out so good? Let’s examine.
Reason #1: I Bought Great Fish.
I’m very lucky to have McCall’s Meat & Fish Company close to my apartment. It’s where I got the seafood when I made my Bouillabaisse; and it’s where I always mean to go when I want to make fish. Because it’s a tiny drive, though, I rarely work up the energy at the end of the day and make chicken instead. (For some reason, probably good ones, I can’t bring myself to buy seafood at my local Gelson’s; it always looks so sad and gray under those fluorescent lights.)
The key to buying good fish is to ask questions. I told the fishmonger that I wanted fish with skin that I could crisp up and that I was planning to serve it with a fennel salad; he suggested the Arctic Cod. Two fillets were expensive–$24, in fact–but fish is one of those things where you just have to pay more to get the best results. In this case, paying $24 yielded some of the best fish we’d ever had, so it was entirely worth it.
#2: I Consulted The Experts.
I jokingly Tweeted, later that day, “Will someone ask Eric Ripert if I should pan sear the Arctic cod I bought for dinner?” James Beard Award nominee Kenji Alt Tweeted back, “What could possibly be stopping you?” He sent me a link to this marvelous post he wrote all about searing fish and after consulting that, I also dug into my own cookbook referring to Rebecca Charles’s advice and Alain Allegretti’s.
It was from Allegretti that I got the idea to serve the fish with a fennel salad; that was such a winning move. Slice the fennel as thin as you can and then, in my case, I tossed it with segmented cara cara oranges, a splash of rice vinegar, olive oil, Kalamata olives, salt, pepper and chopped parsley and dill:
Be generous with the olive oil and vinegar and you have a killer sauce that peps up your fish as you eat everything together.
#3: Get Your Oil Hot and Don’t Be Afraid of Flare-Ups.
Ok, here are the secrets to perfect fish at home. For starters, use a small metal skillet because it keeps the heat in. Use one per fillet. Coat the bottom of it with vegetable oil or canola oil because it has a high smoke point and can get really hot. Blot your fish very dry with paper towels, sprinkle it with salt and then heat your oil on high heat for at least a minute, maybe longer. A good test to know if the oil is ready is: stick the back of a wooden spoon in the oil. If bubbles form around it, it’s ready.
Lay the fish in carefully, skin side down, and it should immediately sizzle. Per Kenji’s instructions, lower the heat slightly here. Cook for about two minutes and as it cooks, you should see the flesh of the fish go from transparent to opaque. The moment to flip is the moment when the skin detaches itself naturally. I stupidly didn’t have a fish spatula on this night, but the next day I went and bought one: it makes this job much easier.
Still, I used a metal spatula and carefully slid it under the skin to test whether it was detaching yet. When it went under effortlessly, I flipped the fish.
Here’s where I had a flare up! Some of that hot hot oil hit the flame and the pan lit up with flame. A lesser home cook than me would’ve flipped out and started crying. And though there were tears and a few “SHIT SHIT SHIT”s, I kept my cool, moved the pan away from the heat, and when the flame subsided (it goes down really quickly, as you probably have seen on Top Chef or any other high-octane cooking show) I put it back on the heat to finish the job. Kenji suggests taking the fish’s temperature with an instaread; I did, and when it was 120 in the center, I lifted it out of the pan, blotted with with paper towels on the spatula (another chef trick I learned) before laying it on the plate next to the salad. As a final touch, I drizzled the whole thing with good, flavorful olive oil.
And there you are, one of the best dinners I’ve made in a long, long time. So good, I can’t wait to make it again. Next time, I’ll have my fish spatula at the ready and I won’t freak out if there’s a flare-up. Ok, maybe I’ll freak out a little, but not as much. You can teach a man to cook fish, but you can’t teach him not to freak out at flare-ups. That happens naturally over time.