Friday, June 25, 2010

Butter Poached Fish

There are days when I get home from work, usually after I've put in some decent work scouring the internet for some dinner time inspiration, totally psyched to get my hands dirty cooking a labor-intensive meal. Then there are days where I want nothing more than to sit down to a cheese plate with some good bread and butter (which is why I usually find myself with no less than four different cheeses on hand…) and, lately, piles upon piles of radishes.

But then there are those in-between days, when I want something warm, but something that's not going to suck those last few precious drops of energy from my body. Sometimes those days end in eggs, gently poached and piled atop something or other - sometimes green, sometimes grain. But sometimes that just won't do - sometimes I want something that most normal people would consider a proper meal - and for those days, I turn to butter poached fish.

I don't cook a lot of meat at home - not for any particular reason, really. I don't frequently crave it as is, and it seems almost silly to prepare meat when it's just myself I'm feeding. Chicken is easy enough I guess, but chicken is also boring. Since it's easily portioned and any uncooked portions can be frozen and quickly defrosted at a later date, fish is a pretty good choice to prepare for one. It also cooks in a snap. But because of this latter feature, fish is sometimes tricky to prepare properly, since you have to pay such close attention to it as it overcooks so quickly. And if there's one thing that suffers after a day at work, it's my attention span. Poaching the fish in a shallow pool of fat, however, is so forgiving that even my post-work brain can handle it.

This butter poached fish is something I first read about in the Times a little over a year ago. It seemed so simple - too simple, really, so I gave it a try. Not only was it just as easy as advertised, its deliciousness belied its simple roots.

Since pretty much every ingredient can be swapped out for another or changed at your whim, this dish is more concept than recipe, more guidance than anything. Every element can be varied, from the herbs or spices, to the fat in which you're cooking, even the fish itself - none of it's safe from your tinkering. The important thing to remember is to select a firm-fleshed fish, or else you risk having it crumble and disintegrate. It'll still taste good (not that I know from experience or anything), but you won't have the satisfaction of stabbing your fork into those bigger hunks of fish.

Poaching the fish in fat, as opposed to water, not only imparts so much flavor, but ensures that your finished product is going to be moist and, well, buttery. Both fresh herbs and dried work equally well. I've made this with both the dried mint recommended by the Times article and with fresh parsley and dill, both to great effect. And the fat in which you've done the poaching makes an excellent sauce - whether you choose to use it is up to you and your diet. The fish and sauce are wonderful over egg noodles in the winter; for a lighter summer meal, lift the fish out of the pot with a slotted spoon and serve along side some barely cooked vegetables or a barely-dressed salad. So do as you please, and rest easy that you'll enjoy.

Butter Poached Fish
Adapted from Melissa Clark, original recipe here.
Serves 2 well.

Again, this is more guidance than rule, so go crazy. The general idea is about a pound of firm-fleshed fish, about four tablespoons of fat, be they butter or olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and herbs of your choosing.

One pound firm-fleshed fish, such as halibut, mahi mahi, basa or even salmon. Cod is a bit delicate for this, but if you're careful, it can definitely work.
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil*
3-4 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
4-5 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced

1. Season the fish generously all over with salt and pepper. In a medium-size skillet just large enough to fit the fish in a single layer, heat the butter and oil over low heat. Add the fish, dill and 3-4 tablespoons of the parsley, and let cook slowly until the fish begins to turn opaque, about 3 minutes.

2. Stir in garlic and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and cook until the garlic is fragrant and the fish is just cooked through, another 3 minutes or so (the heat should be low enough so as not to brown the garlic or fish but high enough to gently cook everything; the cooking time will vary widely with your stove).

3. Taste and add more salt and pepper and a few drops of lemon juice if desired. Stir in the remaining fresh parsley and serve (using a slotted spoon to leave the cooking liquid in the pan if desired).

*I use a mix of butter and olive oil, since I like the taste of butter, but I don't like having to worry if it's going to burn. Even though that's unlikely since we're cooking over such low heat, the olive oil allows me to rest easy that it won't burn, which is a good thing given my aforementioned attention span.