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School of Fish: The Short Course

April 08, 1993|FAYE LEVY

Despite constant admonitions that we should eat more fish, many people still are afraid of cooking it at home.

In a cooking class, one man said he had once caught a huge shark but didn't know how to clean it. Another complained about traditional recipes that call for making a special stock called court-bouillon in which to cook the fish, then preparing another sauce for accompaniment. Someone said she found it impractical to buy fish at the last minute and cook it just before serving.

But when it comes to speed of cooking, few foods can compete with fish. It is true that it's best to purchase fresh fish a short time before cooking, preferably within a day. Still, there's no need to be concerned about cleaning fish unless you're going fishing. For quick cooking, steaks and fillets work well--and this is how fish is most frequently available, anyway.

There are ways to make fish a flexible menu item. One of the easiest is to cook fish directly in a flavorful sauce. The sauce can be a quick tomato sauce or simply a "sauce" of sauteed vegetables in olive oil. It should be generously seasoned, perhaps with garlic, onion or peppers, or with cumin or curry powder.

These types of sauces have many advantages over old-fashioned fish sauces that call for butter, cream or flour. They are in line with today's nutritional guidelines. In addition, their flavors and textures are good even when served cold, enabling you to serve the fish hot, cold or at room temperature.

When reheated, these sauces don't curdle, coagulate or separate like hollandaise or other classical fish sauces. And if you're careful not to overcook the fish, you can even reheat it in the sauce.

You don't need much sauce, just enough to flavor the fish. Strictly speaking, this technique isn't poaching because the fish is not covered with liquid; it could be considered a form of braising. The pan is covered so the steam helps cook the fish evenly.

For this easy dish you can also use ling cod, haddock, sea bass or salmon. Steamed rice and cooked green beans are good accompaniments.

HALIBUT IN MIDDLE-EASTERN TOMATO SAUCE 1 pound tomatoes or 1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil 1/2 large onion, diced 6 large cloves garlic, chopped 2 tablespoons tomato paste 2 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric 1/4 teaspoon paprika Dash cayenne pepper 1/2 cup chopped cilantro or Italian parsley 1 3/4 pounds halibut, sea bass, haddock, cod or other fish fillets, about 1-inch thick Salt Freshly ground pepper 3 tablespoons chopped green onions

Peel fresh tomatoes, if desired. Remove core and seeds and cut into large chunks. (Drain and chop canned tomatoes into large chunks.) Puree tomatoes in food processor or blender.

Heat oil in large skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat until golden. Add pureed tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, 1/4 teaspoon cumin, turmeric, paprika, cayenne and 1/4 cup cilantro. Bring to boil. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.

Season fish to taste on both sides with salt, pepper and remaining 2 teaspoons cumin or to taste. Add fish to sauce and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons chopped green onions. Cover and cook over low heat 7 minutes. Turn fish over and cook until it flakes easily, 7 to 10 minutes longer. Sprinkle fish with remaining 1/4 cup cilantro and remaining 1 tablespoon green onion. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

You can use any type of sea bass in this dish, but if your market carries Chilean sea bass, try it. Its pure white color and rich flavor are perfect in this dish. You can also use cod, scrod or halibut. If you don't have saffron, omit it and increase the amount of garlic to eight cloves. Serve this Moroccan entree with rice, couscous or orzo.

SEA BASS WITH SAFFRON AND SWEET RED PEPPERS 5 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 large sweet red pepper, seeded, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice 5 large cloves garlic, chopped 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads Cayenne pepper 2 pounds sea bass steaks or fillets, 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick, cut into 8 pieces 1/2 teaspoon dried leaf thyme, crumbled Salt Freshly ground pepper 4 teaspoons chopped parsley

Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in large oven-proof skillet. Add sweet red pepper and saute over low heat 7 minutes. Add garlic, saffron and cayenne to taste and cook 1/2 minute.

Add fish to skillet to form single layer over pepper mixture, folding under any thin "tails." (Divide mixture among 2 skillets if necessary, heating second skillet few seconds first.) Turn fish to coat with seasoning mixture. Sprinkle fish with remaining 1 to 2 tablespoons oil, thyme and salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer to baking pan and cover with foil. Bake at 400 degrees until fish can just be flaked but is not falling apart, about 15 minutes. Taste liquid and adjust seasonings to taste. For thicker sauce, remove fish and boil liquid 1 to 2 minutes in saucepan to thicken. Then return fish and sauce to pan.

Serve fish hot or lukewarm. Sprinkle with parsley. Spoon some of cooking juices with sweet pepper over each piece. Makes 4 servings.

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