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Broiled Fish: When There's No Smoke, There's Often Great Flavor

December 05, 1991|FAYE LEVY | Levy is a cookbook author

At a stylish new Italian trattoria in Los Angeles, the fish of the day was described as "broiled, with a little virgin olive oil, a touch of garlic and a sprinkling of rosemary." We could choose salmon, sea bass or imported John Dory. How refreshing, I thought, that a just-opened California restaurant was offering broiled fish instead of following the craze of grilling everything.

All three fish were wonderful--fresh, perfectly cooked, their flavor gently accented by the seasonings. It was a pleasure to taste fish that wasn't charred and didn't have its fine flavor obscured by smoke.

For home-cooked meals, broiled fish is a superb choice as well. In fact, broiling is much more practical for fast cooking than grilling. After all, coals take about half an hour to heat up, while the broiler is hot almost instantly.

Broiling, like grilling, creates a light crust on the fish and seals in its flavor. But it's much easier to check the fish for doneness in the broiler than on the barbecue. And how well a fresh fish is cooked determines how delicious it will be.

Since many broiler racks have nonstick surfaces, fish doesn't stick to them, but it often adheres stubbornly to grill racks. Of course, in the broiler there is no problem of bits of fish falling into the coals as it is turned over.

Simple seasoning is best with a good-quality fish. A little salt and freshly ground pepper, a dash of cayenne, a sprinkling of thyme, oregano or rosemary, or perhaps a dash of cumin are all you need, plus a little olive oil to rub on the fish so it won't dry out.

The "Canadian method" of cooking fish--allowing 10 minutes' cooking time per inch of thickness--works well in the broiler, but I check after eight minutes because some fish have a lighter texture and cook more quickly. To check, insert the point of a thin sharp knife into the center of the fish and look inside--the flesh should look opaque; in other words, it should have the color of cooked rather than raw fish.

Like grilling, broiling is a dry-heat cooking method. The fish is set on a rack, so the heat circulates underneath and the fish doesn't steam. But I must admit that, to save time, I occasionally put the fish on a double piece of foil, so there's no rack or pan to clean after dinner.

While the fish is broiling, I usually prepare a Mediterranean salad of diced tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and green onions. The only other accompaniment needed is crusty baguettes or Italian sesame bread. With a high-quality fish, this fresh, colorful dinner is a real treat. And let's not forget a bonus: It also happens to be light and healthful.

Although Moroccan cooking can be extremely spicy, this dish is subtly seasoned with cumin, paprika and olive oil. It's very quick and easy, and is wonderful with rice or couscous, and with tomato and cucumber slices.

BROILED SALMON WITH MOROCCAN SEASONINGS

2 (1-inch thick) salmon steaks

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Lemon wedges, optional

Line broiler rack with foil, if desired. Preheat broiler with rack about 4 inches from heat source. Lightly oil broiler rack or foil.

Remove any scales from salmon steaks. Mix cumin, paprika and thyme in small bowl. Sprinkle about half of mixture on 1 side of salmon. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Drizzle with half of oil.

Set salmon on broiler rack and broil 4 minutes. Turn fish over. Sprinkle with remaining spice mixture, salt and pepper to taste and remaining oil. Broil 4 to 5 minutes longer.

To check whether salmon is done, make small cut with sharp knife near bone--color of flesh should have become lighter pink all way through or nearly all way through if you like fish bit less done. Serve hot, with lemon wedges. Makes 2 servings.

The tangy taste of capers makes them a favorite Mediterranean partner for broiled fish. If you like, serve the fish on a bed of mixed lettuce as a warm salad. Peeled sweet red peppers or green peppers also make a tasty accompaniment. Broil, peel and cut them in pieces before cooking fish.

BROILED BASS WITH CAPER VINAIGRETTE

4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Cayenne pepper

1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon drained capers, rinsed and chopped

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 1/2 to 2 pounds sea bass or halibut fillets, about 1 inch thick

Whisk lemon juice with salt, pepper and cayenne to taste in small bowl. Whisk in 1/4 cup oil, capers and parsley.

Preheat broiler with rack about 4 inches from heat source. Sprinkle fish lightly with salt and pepper. Brush gently on both sides with remaining oil. Arrange on broiler rack. Broil until fish is just opaque when checked inside with small knife, 4 or 5 minutes per side.

Whisk dressing. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve fish hot. Spoon dressing over fish when serving. Makes 4 servings.

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