Ever made rubber in the oven?
Let’s just say my first experience cooking unprocessed fish at home didn’t go so well. I was in college and trying to eat healthy recipes – or maybe frozen cod filets were just on sale, I can’t exactly remember. Anyhow, I clearly didn’t know a whit about how to cook fish, since the meal was pretty much inedible after I baked the fish, and I didn’t buy fish again for home cooking for at least half a decade.
At that point, we went through a phase when we learned about omega 3s, decided we had to eat more fish recipes even though my husband didn’t like it. We cooked tilapia once or twice a month (before I found out that tilapia is actually high in omega 6s and low in 3s because it’s farmed, arg!).
We then switched to wild Alaskan salmon, always cooked the same way: pan-fried with a little fish under our spice.
My husband won’t eat it any other way, and any time I don’t dredge it thickly enough in our St. Peter’s spicy fish seasoning, he wrinkles his nose.
Recently I got an amazing sample of fresh fish directly from some Alaskan fishermen that included black cod and halibut. Perfect timing for Lent! We’ve been making “Lenten fish recipes” a lot more often, and I’m really enjoying it.
Today I wanted to share some encouragement with you from a former fish-hating and fish-failure family – you CAN cook fresh fish at home!
Real Fast Food?
In a whole foods kitchen, it can be awfully tough to have truly fast food, especially if you have a day when you didn’t plan ahead to thaw some meat.
Eggs are always an option, but if you’ve already had scrambled eggs for breakfast, and perhaps even egg salad for lunch if it’s a Friday in Lent, you might be a little egged out by dinnertime.
I’ve come to appreciate fish as a quick, simple, healthy meal. Fish filets only take 30 minutes or less to thaw in a pan of water, and they cook in well under 10 minutes, so if you can just add some steamed veggies, maybe fried potatoes or bread, you’ve got a true “30 minute meal.”
Just remember two tenets of cooking and buying fish:
- DO NOT overcook. That’s where the rubbery awful texture comes into play.
- Always buy sustainable fish – anything marked “Alaskan” is always wild, never farmed, because Alaska won’t allow fish farms. (Smart Alaskans!!!) Farmed fish can be harmful to the environment because of the large concentration of waste in one spot in the ocean and harmful to you because the fish are often fed corn, which makes them high in omega 6s, the opposite of the omega 3s you want.
There was an article recently about fish being mismarked, up to 80% of the time, including where it was caught and even what KIND of fish it is. Be picky. Find quality fish.
Now that GMO (genetically modified) salmon has been approved (Heaven help us), they will be farmed…until, of course, a few escape and mate with wild fish, and then there aren’t any non-GMO salmon to be found. How many years will that take…and how many cans of salmon do I want to stock up on before it happens? Le sigh…
Carrying on with the good part – this is basically the “everything” post I needed to read ten years ago when I was skeered to death of making fish into a mess – five different ways to cook and serve fish that are simple (almost foolproof).
Preparing Fish to Cook
Whether your fish is locally caught or from the frozen foods aisle, nearly all kinds of fish can be cooked in many ways, all of them easy – and all of them FAST.
Fish can be thawed in the fridge overnight, but it’s also really quick to thaw thin filets in a pan or bowl of cool water, either in its plastic packages if singly wrapped or bare.
If you have a huge fish, you can give it a few hours on the counter to get just a little bit thawed, then cut smaller pieces off with a sharp knife and finish the process:
Hello, 2-foot long Alaskan halibut…what am I going to do with YOU?
Cut off a chunk, then slice lengthwise to make it thinner for faster cooking. Plus, my husband needs a little fish with his spice, so it has to be thin around here.
Place individual filets in a single layer in a glass dish.
Cover with cold water to thaw evenly without risking food poisoning on the outer edges, since they thaw more quickly than the center.
Now my fish is ready for anything!
I have heard from a friend but have not tried it – rinsing your fish with milk after thawing and before cooking is supposed to help take some of the “fishy” flavor OUT that some folks don’t enjoy. You can also soak the fish in milk for a time (in the refrigerator), but then since you can’t use the milk, it feels a bit like a waste of good raw milk. Just pour a bit of milk on the fish and work it in, then squeeze it out.
5 Ways to Cook Fish Filets
1. Pan Fry
This is the only way I ever made fish for a long time, because it seemed like the simplest and most in control for me.
We always use St. Peter’s spicy fish seasoning, but you could season your fish with any spices you like, including simply salt and pepper and lemon juice.
- Melt fat of your choice in a hot pan (I love cast iron for fish).
- Place the filets in a single layer.
- Put a lid on the pan over medium to medium low heat.
- For ~1/2″ or smaller filets, set a timer for 3 minutes.
- Flip the fish, put the lid on again, and time it for only 1-2 minutes.
- Check the fish with a fork. If it flakes when you stick the fork in and twist, it’s finished. If there’s any gumminess, glistening in the center, or color variation in the center, cook longer, only 1-2 minutes at a time. It goes fast!
- Remove to a plate and enjoy!
Make it a one-pan meal:
To do it like the photo above, heat some bacon grease in the pan and toss in frozen green beans (or fresh, but give them 2-3 more minutes). Cover and cook over medium or medium-low for 3 minutes, then toss the green beans around and push them to the sides. Put fish fillets in the center and season ; cook as you would above and just stir the beans around when you flip the fish. It will all be done at the same time!!
I covered my broiling pan (for the toaster oven in this case) with parchment paper because I was already making way too many dishes, but you wouldn’t have to – the sticking/mess was minimal.
Put a little EVOO or butter on top of each filet.
Season to taste. This is Italian seasoning with the EVOO and spicy seasoning with the butter (although still only about 2/3 as much as my dear husband would prefer).
Broil for 5 minutes, then check the fish. In my toaster oven, this 1/2″ piece was totally done in 5 minutes.
This one needed just 1-2 more minutes after the photo was taken. See the bit of shine in the center where the fish changes from white to more pinky/gray? It felt totally different in texture and did not come apart easily (“flaking”).
When you see that fish isn’t quite finished, don’t give it “5 more minutes” like you would banana bread or chicken breasts. Give it one or two more minutes. Fish cooks quickly and goes to rubbery if it’s overdone.
Trust me, you will KNOW when fish is not done. My problem was always that I was petrified of serving undercooked fish, so I’d keep cooking a few more minutes “just in case.” If it’s your first time making fish, check it really early so you can see the difference and get a feel for it.
Prepare fish just as you would to broil.
For each inch of thickness, bake at 400-450F for 10 minutes (but I would be checking at 7-8 minutes, to be safe. You can always bake longer but you can’t “undo!”)
You can bake completely frozen filets, but you should expect about 20 minutes bake time (check after 15).
A friend says recipes for baking/broiling fish with Dijon mustard and nuts on top are the best, so now I’m curious to try one…
You can also grill fish on foil for a similar amount of time, but I’ve never actually done it myself. It’s not the time of year for grilling in snowy Michigan…
Other seasoning ideas:
- cilantro; serve with sliced avocados and salsa
- Italian seasoning; serve with pasta or breadsticks and marinara sauce
- ginger and garlic; serve with Asian fried rice and soy sauce
4. In Soup
Make up any soup and then add chunks of fish for the last 5 minutes or so (when broth is boiling) until it flakes, then it’s done. Probably the simplest protein to add to soup that you can find!
I chose to make a “fish chowder” without the fish last week on Friday. I made a variation of a cream of potato soup and pan fried the fish next to it, and then I could stir in the cooked fish after the fact. My reason? So that hubs could eat the leftover soup and it wouldn’t be fishy. Aren’t I thoughtful?
5. In a cream sauce
In a little twist on pan frying, I decided to work on a new recipe for the gorgeous Alaskan halibut I received from the hard-working fishermen of Alaska, and it turned out delicious. Hubby still wouldn’t eat it, but I had two different friends try it out and they said I should publish the recipe.
- 4 Tbs. butter
- 1 medium to large onion, sliced
- 1 Tbs. white wine or chicken stock, optional
- at least 4 fish fillets, ½-1” thick
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- ⅓-1/2 c. whole milk or cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ tsp. marjoram
- 2-3 tsp. lemon juice or 2 wedges, squeezed
- 1 bunch greens, like spinach, Swiss chard, or collard greens
- Melt the butter over medium heat and add the onions. Stir around for a few minutes over medium to high heat, then turn the heat to low, cover and ignore for 20 minutes.
- Remove the lid, stir, and cook another 10 minutes over medium low, uncovered. Stir occasionally.
- (You can caramelize the onions more quickly if you're willing to babysit them a bit more. You'll know they're ready when they're slightly to medium brown and much thinner than they started, almost looking sticky.)
- Push the onions to the sides of the pan and put the fish in the center, adding more fat if necessary. Salt and pepper the fish fillets.
- Put the lid on the pot and cook on medium for 4 minutes (for approx. 1-inch fillets).
- Deglaze the pan by adding a tablespoon of white wine or chicken stock (optional), along with the garlic and marjoram. Stir that around a bit, then flip the fish, salt and pepper the other side, and pour the milk or cream in around the fish.
- Bring the cream sauce to a gentle boil, watching carefully for scalding on the bottom.
- If you're serving over wilted greens, heat some fat in a separate pan at this point and add your greens, stirring to coat. Cook over low heat, covered, while you're finishing the fish.
- As soon as it's hot, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook about 3 more minutes or until fish flakes in the center when pierced with a fork. Squeeze two wedges of lemon overtop the whole pan (or use about a tablespoon quality prepared lemon juice).
- The fish will hold on low okay if the rest of the meal isn't ready to serve yet.
*Thicken sauce by adding a tablespoon of extra fat and a scant tablespoon of flour to the pan. Cook a minute before adding the cream to get the flour taste out. For gluten-free, add a teaspoon of arrowroot starch/flour to the milk or cream and mix together before adding to the pan.
*Try just pesto and cream sauce but no onion.
*Any white fish, particularly a solid/dense fish, should work great for this recipe, and I can only imagine salmon would be delicious as well.
*Put sliced green onions on top, sliced avocado, or add red peppers in with the onions for the last 5-10 minutes.
Creamy Alaskan Halibut with Caramelized Onions shown on a bed of sauteed greens with creamed cauliflower and a spring salad.
Other Fish Recipes and Serving Ideas
Once you’ve made fish for a meal, you can still vary the presentation even more:
Try cold (or warm) fish on a salad…
Salmon patties or cooked fish filets on a roll for a sandwich…
Leftover fish in a crepe or tortilla as a wrap…
When my husband isn’t around and I want fish, I’ll use canned salmon – you can get high quality, BPA-free cans from both Vital Choice and Costco, plus a few other brands. I mix it up with a little homemade mayo, mustard, and pickles if I’m so inclined and we eat it on crackers or bread, in a wrap or on a salad, or just with a fork and a few side dishes.
How do you like to cook fish? Were you/are you nervous about it?
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