Monday, February 21, 2011

Breaking Out of the Routine

Just because I blog about food does not mean that I am making magic every time I step in the kitchen. I have a bit of a phobia about pork and fish, and good cuts of beef are getting pricier all the time, so I find myself going back and forth between chicken and ground chuck a LOT. I do, in fact, get into a rut with my cooking if I am not constantly vigilant.

Two things pushed me out of my rut yesterday. First, my oldest son, who does not get migraines, is the hardest eater to please in the immediate family. Part of the problem is that he has gotten hooked on Food Network just like me and there are so many great things on there that our migraine patient can't eat. We had a long weekend (which is when I prefer to try new cooking techniques and skills), and he was ready for something new.

The second push came from watching The Worst Cooks in America. This show involves a lot of detailed instruction (much of which is reproduced or even expanded upon on the website) and the cooks all start out as worse than hopeless. Seeing these contestants build their skills and cooking fish helped give me some confidence with it.

Cooking fish without citrus, vinegar or wine was the last obstacle to getting in the kitchen. This recipe for Morrocan-style Tilapia was the trick. 100% migraine friendly (!!!), it uses an inexpensive variety of fish that is not too fishy and is relatively easy to work with.

Here are the challenges I faced and how I dealt with them. I bought a little over 8 oz. per person. They came frozen and were hard like plastic plates, which is great for storage, but a little tricky if you want them for dinner. Fish cooks very quickly, so quick thaws can risk cooking the fish. I decided to put the filets in a gigantic mixing bowl (you MUST get at least one - it's a great problem solver). I filled the bowl with hot water from the sink. the fishy ice cubes cooled it down quickly, so nothing cooked. In 15-20 minutes, they were ready to pat dry with paper towels and cook. Easy, breezy, beautiful! (Yes, I watch too much America's Next Top Model too.)

While the fish thawed, I worked on the mango. Mango is a delicious fruit, but it poses a couple of challenges if you're not familiar with it. First, the skin is very tough. I used a chef's knife, but you may find it easier to use a vegetable peeler or a smaller knife like a paring knife. Second, mangos have a gigantic pit, shaped like a huge almond. YouTube has some videos on cutting mangos that are worth checking out. Some techniques bypass the peeling, eliminating that issue completely.

Cilantro turned out to be the biggest issue in my meal. I eat it, but I don't use it much in my own recipes. The trick here was to not use too much. I tried "eyeballing" it and my son insisted on grabbing the measuring cup. He took some out, and as it turned out, it was still more that I would have preferred. My two tips: chop it very fine (food processor if you have to) and add it gradually, tasting periodically.

A salsa of just mango and cilantro is something you might want to improve on. I could see finely chopped shallots going nicely with it, plus maybe a touch of white vinegar to balance the sweetness. Maybe a tiny bit of red pepper flake would help too. However, mango is such an awesome fruit that it alone would be wonderful with the fish.

Seasoning the fish is not too tricky. I like to use spices from the farmer's market as opposed to the grocery store. They are usually cheaper, fresher, and they taste SO much better. Cumin and coriander are essential to my cooking, so they are worth the trouble of the occasional road trip. My only issue here was how to season the "B side" of the fish. A couple of tricks to try: 1) use a wire cooling rack to minimize contact with the seasoned "A side" while seasoning the "B side"; and 2) start with the flat side down, so when you flip to season the "B side", less of the "A side" side is in contact with the wire rack. Seasoning the "B side" after you put the seasoned "A side" down in the hot pan is awkward and potentially dangerous if you have to rub the spices into the fish. (Full disclosure: I rubbed it with a spatula) I used sea salt, which tastes better than table salt. Kosher salt is probably too big and grainy for this purpose.

Cooking: I used a non-stick pan. I had to cook in batches because only four filets would fit in the pan. I had a holding plate and a pre-formed tent of aluminum foil to keep the earlier batch hot. My son threw dish towels on it to keep it even warmer. Worked great. Non-stick pans require safe utensils. I used a large plastic spatula (don't have a fish one) so I could get completely under the fish and not break it. I used non-scratch tongs in my left hand to assist. Oil just needs to barely cover the pan surface. You'll probably need to add a bit after each batch. Fish should be cooked to "fork tender", not to "flaky and dry". Watch the fatter part of the fish to make sure it it cooked all the way through. If there was a line next to where the fish's spine was, it will not disappear completely with cooking.

This dish was a welcome change from "the usual", it did not make a ridiculous amount of mess, and it helped me build my confidence with fish. If you are ready to branch out from beef, chicken and pork, this is not a bad place to start. Enjoy!