I have never cooked much fish, mainly because most preparations seem to lack the “oomph!” fish’s inherent blandness begs for. I won’t go so far as to say that fish is (ahem) mean-spirited, like chicken; it does not appear to be reluctant to embrace other flavors. Rather, it seems to me, it is too seldom actually introduced to them. And so I have remained lukewarm with regard to preparing fish for my table. Until, that is, I encountered Rick Bayless’s way of getting sassy with a fish!
The Bayless creation of which I speak is one of those rare dishes that have the ability to stop me cold in my tracks. When I first made it, with every bite I kept saying “OMG, this sauce is sooo fantastic! OMG, this sauce is sooo fantastic!” It was so ridiculously tasty that I savored every single bite, and left not one drop of sauce on my plate. But what’s insane about it is that it is one of the easiest dishes you will ever make. Do I have your attention yet?
JALAPEÑO-BAKED FISH WITH ROASTED TOMATOES
4 medium (1 pound) red skin boiling or Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 T jalapeño chili pepper pickling juice
2 T olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted – Muir Glen is a great organic brand), including their juice
1 large clove garlic, cut in half
1/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish (remember, the greatest flavor in a sprig of cilantro is in the stem. Don’t waste it!)
1/4 cup sliced, pickled jalapeño chili peppers
1 T jalapeño chili pepper pickling juice
4 (1 to 1/1/4 pounds) skinless fish fillets, such as mahi-mahi, halibut, grouper, snapper,
Preheat the oven to 400º F.
In a microwaveable 8” x 8” baking dish (I use a Pyrex pie plate), toss together the potatoes, 1 tablespoon of the oil, 1 tablespoon pickling juice and the salt, and spread out evenly. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the top. Microwave on high (100% power) until the potatoes are nearly tender, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, combine the tomatoes with their juice, garlic, cilantro, jalapeño chili peppers and the remaining tablespoon of pickling juice. Process with a few quick pulses until well combined but not quite smooth.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil and quickly sear the fillets on both sides, about 15 seconds per side. Remove from the hot pan and set aside.
When the potatoes have finished cooking, place the fish fillets in a single layer over the potatoes. Pour the tomato mixture evenly over the fish and potatoes. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the fish can be flaked easily with a fork.
Divide among individual plates and garnish with cilantro. Serve hot.
Following is the best preparation for mussels I have ever tasted. I don’t get the same buzz from mussels as I do from say, steamers, where all you want to do to dress them up is to serve some drawn butter on the side. Mussels beg to be immersed in real flavor, and this recipe delivers that in spades. Coconut milk, Thai red curry paste, wine and a heap of zesty cilantro come together to create a sauce that elevates the naturally mild-mannered mussel to new heights of spicy boldness.
SPICY THAI STEAMED MUSSELS
A COUPLE OF NOTES IN PASSING:
1) The last time I made these mussels was for my daughter Jenn and her family in August, and at the table we realized that the sauce sorely lacked the heat that lovers of Thai food have come to expect. So what I recommend is this: prepare the sauce as directed, through the initial heating of the sauce. Then taste it and plan on adding more Thai red curry paste to taste. Then, add either some sambal oelek or garlic chile sauce until it is hot enough to wake up both the mussels and your taste buds when you serve them, to your and your guests’ tolerance level. To me, heat and spice, especially in a dish such as this, should be tailored by the cook.
2) If you use cilantro in the kitchen, you should know that its most flavorful part is the stem. I had read that before, but it was only when I became besotted with banh mis (when properly made, THE world’s best sandwich) that it actually sank in. As I would drive off from Hiep Phat, the little Vietnamese grocery store in Hartford where I regularly snare me a world-class banh mi, I would take a bite, and then all-too-quickly take another. Searching for…searching for … what? What I finally realized I was searching for was the flavor and crunch that only the cilantro stems (not the leaves) can deliver. Trust me on this one. Never, repeat, never underestimate the special qualities your cilantro stems have to deliver!
5 pounds mussels (preferably cultivated)
a 13 1/2-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk (I love Mae Ploy brand. Look for it in your Asian market)
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 T Thai red curry paste
1 1/2 T minced garlic
1 T Asian fish sauce
1 T sugar
2 cups fresh cilantro sprigs
Scrub mussels well and remove beards. Squeeze enough juice from limes to measure 1/3 cup. In an 8-quart kettle boil lime juice, coconut milk, wine, curry paste, garlic, fish sauce, and sugar over high heat, stirring, 2 minutes. Add mussels, tossing to combine. Cook mussels, covered, stirring occasionally, until opened, about 5 to 8 minutes. (Discard any unopened mussels.) Chop cilantro and toss with mussels.
Serve mussels with lime wedges.