Living in France has meant that my once passing fancy for cooking all things that swim has exploded into a very big love.
I find myself visiting the poissonnieres more often than I do the butcher because I've learned that fish - which I once believed was tricky to cook - is one of the easiest and healthiest dinners you can make.
It's also supersonic fast. Mussels? Just a few minutes, and they're steamed and ready to serve. Salmon, into the oven at high heat, usually takes less than five, depending on the cut. White fishes such as flounder, cod, sole and snapper, ditto.
If you replace meat with fish during Lent (which began on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13) but rely on restaurants to prepare it, try cooking your own this year.
The key is to find great fresh fish, then not overcook it.
For those of you who are timid about fish, fear not. Fish isn't finicky; it just requires you to pay attention. Close attention. If you're one of those people who like to throw something on the stove and then leave the room (and you know who you are), please don't do this to fish (or to anything, really). You'll end up with fish that's overcooked and dry, and when that happens, there's not much you can do to save it.
Enough of what not to do. Here are a few tips on how to make fantastic fish every time:
• Before buying any sort of fish, check to see what species are in season and plentiful, and not on any watch list as being overfished or harmful in any way. The Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org) post updated lists of sustainable seafood and what to avoid buying.
• Buy only fish that have clear eyes and the faint scent of the sea. Never buy fish that smells "fishy," as counterintuitive as that may sound.
• If you're not sure about how to cook a particular fish, just ask an expert. Many years ago, I bought a piece of fish and wanted to cook it en papillote ("in paper") to impress a guy I was dating. This was before the Internet, and I didn't have a cookbook that gave me any sort of instruction, so I just picked up the phone and called one of Dallas' top restaurants and asked to speak to the chef. To my surprise, he answered the phone and was really happy to walk me through the (very easy) steps of steaming fish in parchment paper. I couldn't believe how easy it was, and my date was totally impressed.
• Keep a pair of tweezers in your kitchen drawer to remove pin bones. Although most fishmongers do this for you, it's always good to double-check and pull out any that were missed.
• When in doubt, undercook your fish. I know I've said this already, but there's nothing worse than overcooked fish. I like my fish pretty rare and take it out at the first opportunity and I suggest you do the same; if it's not cooked enough for you, pop it back in for just a minute or two. To avoid a mistake, be sure to use your timer.
Baked Fish Sticks With Parmesan Oven Fries
• 1 cup bread crumbs
• Sea salt and pepper
• 10 ounces medium-firm white fish, such as halibut
• 2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 pounds red-skinned potatoes, cut into sticks like french fries
• 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
• About 2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
• Arugula, for serving (optional)
• Lemon wedges, for serving
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and line with parchment paper two cookie sheets, a smallish one and a larger one for the fries.
In a shallow bowl or pie plate, mix the bread crumbs with a pinch of sea salt and pepper.
Cut your fish into about 12 sticklike pieces (I like mine about 1/2 inch thick by 1 inch wide), coat in 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and dredge each piece in the bread crumbs. Place fish sticks on your smaller cookie sheet.
Make the Parmesan fries: Place the potato pieces on the large cookie sheet, drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and toss with your hands, making sure to evenly spread out the potatoes. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and bake for about 45 minutes, making sure to check on them frequently and flip them so they brown evenly.
When the potatoes are nearly done, put them on the bottom rack of your oven and place the fish on the middle rack. Let the fish cook for 2 minutes then carefully turn each stick and cook for 2 more minutes. Then remove everything from the oven.
Sprinkle Parmesan and parsley all over the fries, and serve on a plate with the fish sticks. Garnish with a handful of arugula and a lemon wedge.
Per serving: 788 calories, 22 grams fat, 102 grams carbohydrates, 46 grams protein, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 584 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber, 25 percent of calories from fat.
Salmon With Cherry Tomato Salsa
• 4 (4- to 5-ounce) salmon filets, pin bones removed
• 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
• Sea salt and pepper
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 2 green onions, chopped
• Pinch of red pepper flakes
• 1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
• 2 teaspoons capers
• Splash of red wine vinegar
• 2 large leaves of fresh basil, chopped
Preheat oven to broil and place a rack to the middle. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Lightly coat salmon filets with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place on the cookie sheet. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
To start the salsa: Place the garlic, green onions and red pepper flakes in a medium skillet with another tablespoon of olive oil and turn the heat to medium-low. Let this cook until you can smell the garlic, 3 to 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and capers and let them cook until tomatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes.
When the tomatoes are soft, place the salmon in the oven and set the timer for 4 minutes (this should give you a medium-rare filet). While the salmon is cooking, add a splash of red wine vinegar to the skillet and half of the chopped basil. Remove the salmon and serve with a heaping spoonful of salsa on top; garnish with the rest of the basil.
Per serving: 211 calories, 11 grams fat, 4 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, 59 milligrams cholesterol, 126 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.
Salmon With Creamy Mustard Sauce
• 2 (4- to 5-ounce) salmon filets
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• Sea salt and pepper
• 5 ounces Greek or plain yogurt
• 1 tablespoon of your favorite Dijon mustard
• 2 big handfuls of mesclun
• 1 lime, cut into wedges
• Fresh chives
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and line a small cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Divide the olive oil between the two pieces of salmon, and rub it all over them. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place on the cookie sheet.
Bake the salmon for 5 minutes (or less), depending on the thickness of the filets.
While the fish is cooking, whisk together the yogurt and the mustard.
Put a handful of mesclun and a wedge of lime on each of two plates. Serve the salmon next to the salad with a spoonful of the mustard sauce on top. Sprinkle with fresh chives.
Per serving: 222 calories, 11 grams fat, 7 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 185 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 44 percent of calories from fat.