Debra writes: I have a family of 4. My youngest likes fish, my husband and daughter are phobic. For dietary reasons I would really like to start making fish once a week. What do you think would be the best way to start?
Tony’s take: So there are a couple of ways to look at your dilemma, Debra. The traditional tack would be to follow the “fishy-ness” spectrum; start with a mild gateway fish like cod or sole, prepare it simply (oil or butter, S+P, maybe some breadcrumbs), and if this takes, eventually graduate to the more aggressive flavors of tuna or salmon. This approach has worked for decades. But then there is the more modern and Machiavellian method of putting flavor before fish: that is, throw in whatever you need to to get the family to like it (think fish sticks, only more desperate). My advice lies somewhere in between: pick out mild fish, but then don’t be afraid to get a little creative; jazz it up with bright, friendly accompaniments that the family will like (without quite resorting to throwing the filet in the fry-o-lator… not that there’s anything wrong with that). Below are a handful of ideas for mild, diner-friendly fish. One important caveat before getting going: don’t stink up the house! No kid wants to grow up in a place that stinks of fish. Even if the kids learn to love fish, if that aroma is allowed to hang around the house, it’s going to leave a mark. Play dates will go badly, clothes will suffer, therapists’ bills will accumulate. Trust me, I know – I was that kid! Salmon became a staple in our house back in the early 80’s and I’m not sure I ever recovered (sorry, Mom). That said, rinse the fish before cooking to wash off any funk, crack open a couple of windows, light up some scented candles, and turn on the kitchen fan.
Baked Pank0-Crusted Cod with Yukon Chips, Garlic and Rosemary: This plays like a healthier (baked) version of fish and chips. I picked up the inspiration for this dish while apprenticing at a seafood restaurant in Rome: one of my more menial tasks was peeling and thinly slicing about 5o-lb of Yukon-like spuds each morning. The roast cook would roast filets of Italian sea bass on top of the golden thin chips and it was always one of my favorites (despite the pain that was cutting all those potatoes). Anyway, in this take, the fish gets sprinkled with the Japanese bread crumbs so they crisp and the potatoes are cut thinly so they brown nicely: prepare a mild fish between two crisp layers and it’s hard to go wrong. Pick up a couple of thick cod filets (about 1 1/2 lb for 4 people). Rub with a little olive oil and sprinkle with S+P. Toss some panko (about 1 cup) with some olive oil or melted butter (1 to 2 Tbs.) and chopped fresh herbs (1 tsp. rosemary) and a light sprinkling of S+P and pat onto the top of the cod filets. Heat the oven to 425F. Toss thin slices of 1 Yukon Gold potato (about 8 oz) with a good coating of olive oil and S+P. Spread in a single layer on a large baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Roast until the potato starts to brown and soften, about 10 minutes. Set the fish atop the potato and roast until it just cooks through and begins to flake, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve with lemon.
Halibut and Baby Bok Choy in a Soy-Ginger Broth: This fish combines the best of both worlds: firm-textured, but relatively mild flavor. You could take this recipe in two different directions: poach the fish in the fragrant Asian broth or saute it first before tucking it into the broth. Either way, it’s pretty easy. To make the broth, mix about 1 1/2 cups chicken broth with 2 Tbs. soy sauce, 1 Tbs. rice vinegar, 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil, 1 tsp. sugar and combine with a couple thin slices of fresh ginger and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (if your family doesn’t mind a touch of heat). Bring to a simmer in a medium pot. Either set the fish into the broth – 1 1/2 lb halibut steaks or filets, sprinkled with S+P first – along with 1/2 lb halved baby bok choy (wash and dry it well first) and gently poach until the fish just cooks through and the vegetables are tender, about 10 min. Or saute the fish (after seasoning it) in a non-stick skillet with a light splash of olive oil until just cooked through (about 4 minutes per side) and then transfer to the broth to cook for another minute or so; cook the baby bok choy in the broth first. Sprinkle with scallions and serve with steamed brown or Jasmine rice.
Spanish Fish Stew with Tomato and Saffron: So, I’m not sure the words “fish stew” will have them running to the table, but this quick braise is mild enough to be familiar, but has a little complexity that will hold your interest. You can use any mix of fish and seafood: my suggestion is cod, mussels, and shrimp. Make the broth by toasting a couple garlic cloves (thinly sliced) with a splash of olive oil over medium heat until the the garlic starts to sizzle steadily. Add a large pinch of safffron (about 1/2 tsp.), 2 cups chicken broth, 1/2 cup pureed tomato, 1 Tbs. sherry vinegar (or red wine vinegar), some chopped fresh thyme (1 tsp.) and S+P. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, and add some cod (1 lb). Once the fish pieces start to become firm, stir in some shrimp (peeled or unpeeled is fine, about 1/2 lb.) and mussels (about 1 lb.), cover the pot, and cook until the mussels open up and the fish just cooks through, about 4 more minutes. Season the broth with S+P and more vinegar to taste and serve with a baguette and a green salad. Note: you could throw canned garbanzos or chorizo into the broth to give it a little more substance if you like.