Friday, September 16, 2005

Advice (and the ignoring of it)

Now that I have made the conscious decision to continue eating seafood, I'm quickly working it into our menu. I have cooked with shellfish a few times before, with mixed results, and I have now worked with canned salmon (something I am not entirely comfortable with yet). Earlier this week, while making our menu, I came across a recipe for Lemon-Dill Fish Filets in my Cooking Light 5-Star Recipes cookbook. It looked simple enough, ease being a requirement for my first foray into baked fish, and though it wasn't as spicy as something I might normally make, I planned a strong-flavored side dish to serve alongside it.

The recipe called for orange roughy or other firm white fish fillets, and I have to admit almost complete ignorance here when it comes to picking the right fish to pair with specific spices. I didn't want to buy fresh fish too far ahead of time, so I went out this morning to pick up some sort of white fish to serve tonight. When I got to the fish counter, I was chagrined to see that I had only two choices: Tilapia and the aptly-named Whitefish. So I stood there dumbly for a minute, unsure about what to do. I have heard tilapia is a good non-fishy kind of fish (for whatever that is worth), but I don't know that I have ever been exposed to whitefish. Luckily for me, there was no shortage of advice behind the counter.

The fish lady asked me what I needed and I replied that I needed two four-ounce white fish fillets. She looked at me sternly over the tops of her eyeglasses and said that wouldn't be possible. And then the lecture began.

I was told that whitefish wasn't available in that size fillet without her having to perform major surgery (something she made perfectly clear she didn't want to do), and she asked how I would be cooking the fish. Put on the spot, I drew a near blank and told her it would involve a lemon & dill sauce and that I would bake the fish (partially true, but not nearly detailed enough info for her to properly advise me). The fish lady warned me that tilapia is almost a tasteless fish and that it goes best with strong spices, working perfectly in Cuban recipes. Then she rattled off three or four different recipes at Yankee warp speed, but I was so overwhelmed that I have already forgotten them.

She said, "I may just be an old lady, but I have been cooking since nineteen and fifty-eight and I believe I know a thing or two about fish." And with that, she wrapped the fish up tightly, filleted to the exact size I had requested and told me she hoped to see me back often.

Now that I have gotten over the shock of meeting a woman more opinionated than my own mother, I realize what an ally I have over at the fish counter and I plan to go back and visit her tomorrow, this time with a notebook and a mini-recorder so I can get some of her recipes.

Amazingly, even after that impromptu lecture this morning, I came home and mostly ignored all of her advice, and ill-advised move on my part. As it turned out, my recipe was too bland for such a blank-slate kind of fish, something I would have known if I had paid more attention. The coating consisted of finely crushed melba toast, paprika, grated lemon rind, dillweed and dried mustard; and while it was a classic mix of fish spices, the flavors weren't strong enough to infuse the tilapia with enough zing, and it ended up tasting more like the kind of fish fillet you would expect on a sandwich. I got wary halfway through the recipe, but was afraid to try adapting it on my first real try with fish. If nothing else though, I have gained confindence in the actual cooking of the fish and it was a big boost to find out how easy it is to get the perfect flaky texture. I've still got a lot to learn though.

The true success in tonight's dinner was in the Meditteranean Collard Greens that I served alongside the fish. This was based on a recipe that I cut out of John Kessler's column (man, I want his job!) in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution food section a few months back, and I was tickled to death with the results. Up to now, The Carnivore and I have always cooked fresh collards in a pot of water with onions, vinegar and black pepper. While the greens were always yummy enough, it hadn't occured to us to replace the water with broth to get a more vibrant flavor. This recipe didn't give a lot of measurements and became quite the guessing game for me tonight, especially since I had to do some substitutions along the way, but I'm truly looking forward to playing with this one some more. This is my mildly adapted, and better measured, version.

  • 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • Red onion, chopped
  • Two cloves of garlic, minced
  • Tomato, chopped (My fresh tomatoes were horrifyingly dead in the crisper drawer, but I found a can of Golden Roma Tomato Strips in my pantry that stood in quite well)
  • 1 Tbs tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 lb chopped fresh collards
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh coarse ground black pepper
  1. Saute the onion & garlic the olive oil over medium heat until onions are translucent.
  2. Toss in the tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, wine, broth and collards.
  3. Cook, covered, over medium heat, for about 30 minutes.
  4. Season with salt and pepper, and add more vinegar if needed.

Odd Toddler wasn't crazy about the greens, but he devoured a big portion of my fish. The Carnivore and I fell in love with the collards, but were bored crapless by the fish. Such is life.

For the second time this evening, Odd Toddler climbed into the shower, fully dressed and wearing his shoes, while The Carnivore was taking a shower after work. This time though, he stood front and center under the spray, and emerged completely drenched from the top of his large round head to the toes of his now very clean sneakers. It is partly for this reason that I will not put any stock in his opinion of tonight's dinner.

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