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A Little Dab Will Do Ya


The dinner was simple and, to my taste, practically perfect for a spring evening: sparkling fresh sand dab fillets broiled and served with butter that had been gently simmered until it was tan and nutty; fat spears of asparagus glazed with their butter-enriched cooking juices; perfumed tropical fruit spiked with just an herbal hint of lime juice.

Perfect for a cook and an eater, that is, but pretty useless for a recipe writer.

The problem, essentially, comes down to ego. It's just not very impressive to write a recipe telling someone to broil fish until it's done or to mix raw fruit with a little sugar. What was I supposed to add to these dishes to make them worthy of note?

At first I thought about spinning the recipes a little--adding a little bit of this or a touch of that, maybe garnishing one with fresh herbs or improvising a fancier sauce. But that struck me as contrived or, even worse, downright dishonest. Especially for someone who's always preaching about the importance of cooking simply, letting great natural ingredients show to their best.

I was stuck between my ideals and my ambition; never a comfortable place under any circumstances.

Simplicity won, but even in recipes as basic as these, there are some sticky points. The first is the brown butter. It must be cooked very slowly. What you want is butter that has just begun to brown; you need to stop before burning the milky solids. You'll know when it's done as much by smell as by color. Just keep sniffing, and when you smell hazelnuts, remove the pan from the heat. It'll take 10 to 15 minutes; don't rush it. If you see black flecks or smoke, the only thing to do is dump out the pan, wipe it clean and start again. Burnt butter is not the same thing.

The fish takes some managing as well. Sand dabs are fairly delicate, and you don't want to have to turn them if you can avoid it. At the same time, they're one of those fishes that aren't so good undercooked; the meat sticks to the bones and has a little too much of a mineral taste. The way around this paradox is to preheat the broiler very hot with the pan in the oven. Then you can put the fish on the hot pan on a low rack and the fish will cook evenly. Brush it with butter and move it closer to the heat for the last couple of minutes to give it a nice brown color on top.

(Incidentally, sand dabs--which are almost always sold and cooked on the bone--can be problematic for first-time eaters as well. If you've never been served them in a fancy restaurant where the waiter fillets them for you, here's how to get the meat off the bones: With a table knife, make a neat slice down the center of the top fillet. Gently push the two halves to either side, taking care to keep them whole. Pick up one end of the skeleton between fork and knife and gently lift, running the table knife underneath if necessary. The bone should come cleanly away, leaving a whole fillet underneath.)

With the asparagus, the goal is to create a glaze from the reduced cooking juices and the butter. This is done by reducing the cooking juices to a syrup, then turning up the heat, adding the butter, and shaking the pan frequently to make sure it coats the spears.

It might sound nice to squeeze on some lemon, but if you must, do it only after the cooking is complete. The acid in the lemon reacts weirdly with the cooking juice and the butter. Even worse is vinegar, which turns the glaze an interesting--though certainly unappetizing--purple.

Finally, mangoes are one of my favorite summer fruits, combining the lusciousness of great peaches with spicy herbal top notes, but they can be a pain to clean. Frankly, it's the pits. They're large, flat and firmly attached by surrounding fibrous material. Clingstone peaches are a joy compared to mangoes. The secret is to figure out which way the pit runs before you begin cutting. That's easy to do: Just look closely at the fruit and you'll notice that it is slightly flattened on two sides. The pit runs in the same direction. Just cut two slightly concave slices that run parallel to the pit.

Pay attention to what your knife is telling you when you cut. You'll feel it slip easily through the good part. When the going gets rough, you're in the fiber and you should begin cutting outward a little until the slicing is easy again.

If you'd rather serve the fruit in chunks, you can cut mangoes "hedgehog" style. Once you've removed the two slices, cut a crosshatch pattern in the flesh of each, going just to but not through the skin. Push the slice "inside-out" and the crosshatches will turn into protruding diamonds that can be easily cut away from the skin.

All that may make this menu seem more complicated than it is. Maybe that's a good thing; that way I don't feel so bad about not complicating it more myself.


1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter


2 pounds sand dabs


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