Caveat: Long post ahead
While at school, a typical day in class (for me) was divided largely into two halves. In the first half, between beginning of school and the mid day lunch I would dream of what was packed in my tiffin. In the second half I would dream of what would be cooked at home for lunch. The ringing of the final bell at school would mean a sprint back home. To be welcomed by mum and the all time Mangalorean favourite staple of fish curry and rice. Even today, as I sit back and smile when I remember these incidents, I guess there was where my love affair with fish began. Partly my Mangalorean genes, and to a large extent that I live in Mumbai where thankfully the supply of fish is abundant all year round; this love affair with fish continues. I have scarcely come across someone who doesn’t like eating fish. And, I know quite of few of them who are terrified of cooking fish. Ever since I started the blog, I have had a lot of readers write back with questions on cooking fish. So then, in this post of the ‘How to cook’ series I will try and answer all questions that you would have about cooking fish. Of course, there are some delish recipes for you to tuck in to towards the end. So, lets get started.
Before we begin the process of cooking, it is essential to understand the kinds of fish available. Each of the varieties mentioned below is different from the other in terms of texture (when cooked), flavor and most of the times cannot be used inter changeably.
- Crustaceans- Simply called shell fish. These are fish who have a hard external shell, covering the delicate flesh. In most cases, the shell is discarded or used to make a nice little fish stock. This is one variety of fish that is prized for its sweet and delicate flesh. E.g. Crabs, Scallops, Lobsters, Prawns, Mussels.
- Firm Fleshed- In other words, white fleshed fish. This variety of fish is one that has a flaky white colored fleshed, that is firm to the touch (if the fish is fresh). This flesh is covered by a thin silver skin. E.g. Kingfish (Surmai), Basa, Cod, Pomfret.
- Oily Fish- One of the more healthier variety of fish, this one is rich in healthy oils. These are usually used in salads or shallow fried. E.g. Mackerels, Sardines.
Now that we know the basic varieties of fish, lets proceed to the cooking.
That, we must use fresh ingredients while cooking is a given. But this thumb rule take all the more precedence when it comes to cooking fish. Fish should be fresh to taste best. A good thing to do is buy just when you have to. But if that’s inconvenient, here’s how to identify the freshest catch of the market.
- Go by the eye- Both yours and the fish- Fresh fish will always always proclaim itself. The first thing to do is check the eye of the fish. It will be white and clear. If you find it a bit bit dull or off whitish. Move on to the next fish monger.
- Fresh fish will smell salty (like sea breeze) and not fishy.
- Next tip a finger to the fleshiest part of the fish. If the fish is fresh, the flesh will spring back. Else, your fingertip will leave a dent in the flesh.
- Check the scales on the fish. It should be firm and tightly packed. If the scales are off or loose. Leave the fish alone.
- Take a look at the gills. They should be bright, and red.
So, you have sourced the best fish possible. Now move to cooking.
Prepping the fish
One of the biggest debates of the culinary world is should we prep fish or not. Especially since it has a very delicate flavor and strong marinades may tend to over power the natural taste and texture; but on the other hand prepping the fish accentuates the flavor. So, the choice of prepping or not according to me depends on the dish you are making and the cooking style. Personally, I like prepping fish, before cooking.
- Whatever you use to marinade or prep the fish; don’t do it for more than 10 to a maximum of 15 minutes. Anything more than that, especially if your marinade includes an acidic ingredient will begin reacting with your fish and affect the end product.
- One of the simplest and most basic prepping methods is by simply rubbing it with salt, pepper, lime juice and turmeric powder. Keep in mind that when you cook fish, you need something acidic like lime juice or vinegar in the cooking process. I’m not sure where and how this theory originated,but my grandmum used to say the acid will dissolve any small bones that are not visible to the eye. Lol 🙂 Nevertheless, I have found adding acidity to fish only accentuates the flavors. So, Amen to that.
- Other ways you could marinate a fish are by preparing a concotion of olive oil, lime juice, salt, pepper and herbs of your choice. For a more citrusy kick, replace lime juice with orange juice.
- ALWAYS, ALWAYS bear in mind the style of cooking and then prep the fish accordingly. For example, don’t use the orange juice marinade for a fish curry. 😛
And so, to the toughest part. Cooking the fish.
Once your preps are done, cooking the fish is almost a breeze. Like I’ve said before fish actually doesn’t need time to cook. Especially the crustacean variety like prawns get done in less than 4 minutes. So, listed below are the only some of the cooking methods that are popular across the world.
- Curried fish: Any Mangalorean worth his salt would willingly part and arm and a leg for his staple fish curry and rice. A nice, spicy preparation of earthy spices ground along with fresh coconut to a fine paste. Simmered to perfection. Add your fish towards the final stages and turn off the heat let it rest a bit. have it with rice to experience nirvana. Best Suited for white fleshed fish like pomfret, king fish and crustaceans like prawns and crabs
- Fish Fry: No one. Trust me no one is able to resist a piece of fish that is coated with a batter and fried to perfection. From the simplicity of the Indian masala marinade of ground red chillies, turmeric, salt, pepper and vinegar which is shallow fried to the very British thick beer battered fish and chips. This one is food for the soul. Best suited for white fleshed fish like pomfret, king fish and crustaceans like prawns
- Grilled fish: This one is for the outdoors. Heat up the grill to its highest point. when there, reduce the heat and add a dash of oil and add your fish. Always remember to first out the skin side down. Cook for about 2 minutes, then turn. and cook for about a minute. Remember when you grill, sear fish you don’t need to cook it on both sides for an equal amount of time. One side needs to cook well and then the other side needs to just heat up. A test for done-ness is to check the flaking of the fish. The natural seems in the flesh of the fish will just begin to separate. That’s when your fish is done. If the flesh is disintegrated, your fish is over done. Best suited for white fleshed fish like pomfret, king fish, cod, red snapper. Always remember to rest the fish for atleast 10 minutes before tucking in to it. If you cut the fish straight out of the grill, the essential juices will flow out and you will end up with dry fish.
- Pan Seared- Much like the indoor version of the grilled fish. Follow the same techniques mentioned
- Stir fry- Usually preferred in Asian style especially Chinese style of cooking. Heat up your wok to the highest point (but be very careful if you’re doing it the first time or are not confident) add garlic, aromatics and other veggies along with sauces and seasonings mentioned in the recipe. Add the fish and stir fry for a minute or two and serve. Prawns and other crustaceans are best cooked in this manner.
- Ceviche (pronounced – Say- B- Che): An all time American favorite. But some say the French invented it. But nevertheless, a nice way to enjoy fish that is allowed to marinated in some citrus juice that could be orange, lime usually overnight. Then, flavored with peppers, salt and other mild herbs.
- En – Pappilotte (pronounced On- Pa- pee- otte): Trust the French to device cooking methods that bring out delicate flavours. In this french cooking technique you need to cover the fish in parchment paper or foil and immersed in water that is boiling at a temperature of about 160- 180 C. Anything more than that will destroy the fish.
Roughly, white fish should not take more than 10 minutes. Like i mentioned in the post on pasta start looking for done-ness in about 8 minutes. Similarly, prawns etc should not be cooked for more than 3 to maximum of 4 minutes.
Well, that was a long post. I do hope that by the end of it, you would have garnered enough knowledge to go about cooking fish.
Sicilian Seared fish in White Wine Sauce and Roasted Potatoes
They say, no one cooks fish like the Italians do. Coupled with Italian favorites like white wine and roasted potatoes. This one is a perfect meal for the winter nights.
For the fish
- 1 fillet of any firm white fleshed fish
- oil for searing
- Dash of salt and pepper
- Juice of half a lime
For the potatoes
- 2 baby potatoes
- Huge dash of rosemary
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil
- Water for boiling
For the white wine sauce:
- 5-6 pods of garlic
- 1 stalk of celery
- 1/2 teaspoon of Italian herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano)
- 1/2 teaspoon red chilli flakes
- 1 small stalk of parsley
- 15 grams butter
- 30 ml olive oil
- 100 ml dry white wine
- 80 ml chicken stock.
- 4-5 French beans blanched OR a bunch of baby spinach blanched.
Keep the dish in which you want to plate ready. We will be preparing each of the components separately and building up the dish.
Firstly, blanch the french beans or spinach and keep on the plate
For the potatoes:
- Peel, wash & boil the potatoes till they are about 80% done.
- Once cooled, drizzle with rosemary and olive oil and bake in a preheated oven at 200 C for about 12-15 mins till the potatoes are charred.
- Take out from oven and keep on one corner of the plate as shown in the photograph.
For the fish:
- Clean, Wash and marinate the fish with the lime juice, salt and pepper
- Heat the pan to smoking point and them lower the heat
- Add oil and when it gets hot, add the fish skin side down and cook for 2 mins. Then turn and cook for a minute.
- Remove from flame and place on the french beans as shown.
For the white wine sauce:
- Heat the butter and olive oil in the same pan as the fish.
- Once it gets hot, add the garlic and celery and give it a quick stir allowing the garlic to turn reddish brown. Don’t let it burn too much else it will give out a bitter aftertaste.
- Now, deglaze your pan with the white wine and let it simmer.
- Once the wine has reduce, add some more olive oil.
- Add in the herbs and red chillies.
- Lastly, add in your chicken stock. Allow it to simmer.
- Once done, take off the heat and pour generously over the fish and potatoes.
- Enjoy with a glass of white wine.
The authentic Biryani has many fans across the world. I am sure this Mangalorean take on the Mughal classic would have them tearing their hair apart. But fact remains that coconut milk gives it a nice cushion on the spicy marinade. And, after all fried fish is something no one can resist
Whether your craving for a mid week protein and carbs fix or have planned a weekend night party with friends keep this ready in the fridge. Take my word, the guest and you will come back for more.