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GOOD COOKING / ABBY MANDEL

Company's Coming--Serve Them Fish

November 04, 1998|ABBY MANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cooking for friends at home seems to be enjoying a slight edge these days over visiting with friends at a restaurant. Will it last? I'm not sure. One thing I know is that for hosts and guests alike, there is more satisfaction in enjoying great food and lively conversation around the table at home than in a restaurant.

Of course, our restaurant days have affected the way we eat at home. Consider our increasing preference for fish. Many of my friends eat only fish or prefer it to any other main course option.

Cooking fish intimidates many people, however, even though it's surprisingly quick and easy. In fact, the hardest thing about serving fish is not cooking it but buying it.

Look for a fish shop or supermarket where there are high-volume fish sales. Buy fish the day you plan to cook it and don't hesitate to ask for a close look (and whiff), especially if it's displayed behind glass. Fish should smell clean, not fishy. Fillets should should have a translucent, wet look. In general, avoid fish that looks dull and opaque. Don't worry if you're not a fish expert: If the fish looks and smells like something you want to eat, buy it; if it doesn't look or smell right, choose something else.

Recently, I made a fish dinner for six that was stylish but incredibly easy to put on the table. The first course was thinly sliced smoked salmon arranged over fennel slaw with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkled with capers. Broiled red snapper fillets with tarragon mayonnaise was the main course, served with baked orzo with tomatoes and Kalamata olives.

The rest should be as effortless as possible. Pick up pistachio nuts and herbed goat cheese and crackers to serve with drinks.

Smoked Salmon on Fennel Slaw With Capers

Total Preparation Time: 18 minutes * Active Work Time: 12 minutes * Make-Ahead

The key here is a lightly smoked, not-too-salty salmon. Ask for a taste of the salmon before you buy it.

Salt

3 large fennel bulbs, stems trimmed and reserved, bulb cut into long, thin strips

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground pepper

12 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon

3 tablespoons light sour cream

Snipped fennel greens, optional

Lemon wedges, optional

2 tablespoons drained small capers

* Bring large pot of salted water to boil, add fennel and cook 1 minute. Immediately drain and transfer to bowl.

* Add olive oil, lemon juice, pinch salt and pepper to taste. Toss well to combine. (Can be made a day ahead to this point and refrigerated. Before using, toss slaw and check seasoning.)

* Few hours before serving, mound fennel slaw on 6 salad plates, dividing evenly. Arrange salmon over fennel, dividing evenly. Spoon rounded teaspoon sour cream in center of each. Garnish salmon with snipped fennel greens and lemon wedges. Scatter 1 teaspoon capers over each serving. Can be refrigerated, covered, 3 to 4 hours.

* To serve, let rest at room temperature 20 minutes.

6 servings. Each serving: 145 calories; 1,555 mg sodium; 13 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Broiled Red Snapper With Tarragon Mayonnaise

Total Preparation Time: 16 minutes * Active Work Time: 5 minutes

The fillets are spread with tarragon mayonnaise and baked, then briefly broiled. The mayonnaise keeps the fish moist and well-flavored. Once really fresh fish is skinned (most fish sellers will do this for you), it cooks without any unpleasant odors permeating the kitchen. Try serving the fish on a bed of garlicky spinach or sauteed zucchini matchsticks.

6 red snapper fillets (or other fillets of choice), about 6 ounces each, skinned, rinsed, blotted dry

Salt, freshly ground pepper

Oil

1/2 cup light mayonnaise

2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Lightly season fillets with salt and pepper. Arrange fillets in single layer on baking sheet lined with foil and sprayed or lightly coated with cooking oil.

Combine mayonnaise, tarragon and lemon juice.

Spread each fillet with 1 rounded tablespoon tarragon mayonnaise. (Can be prepared to this point several hours ahead and refrigerated.)

Bake fillets 9 minutes at 400 degrees on center rack of oven. Move fillets to broiler, about 8 inches from heat source, and broil 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

6 servings. Each serving: 244 calories; 243 mg sodium; 50 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 0.02 gram fiber.

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