I am in a period of fish confusion. While I am not a prolific fish eater, I like fish a lot. And, I like it more than a lot when it is prepared for me. However, I persist in believing that fish is difficult to prepare. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. Fish might be one of the easiest things in the world to prepare, and it is exceptionally forgiving. Overcooked fish is about a million times more edible than overcooked beef or chicken or pork. Let’s not make that a goal, of course, but you get my point.
In addition to my fish-cooking anxiety, I have now embarked on a journey that is causing me some discomfort. But, let us just say that I have had fish on the brain lately.
First, I have been thinking lately about bycatch, which is the name for non-targeted species caught by commercial fishing boats (or recreational fishermen for that matter). I’m writing a story about how we all need to become more accustomed to trying new species, and create a viable market for them, so that we don’t, essentially, wreck our big fishing pond. Time just ran a huge piece on aquaculture and the newly popularized “farming” of fish, which is a great idea, and an often badly executed one at the same time. I have been mildly ticked off for months since I found out that most of the catfish we buy at grocery stores (and in down home catfish parlors) is from China. I’m honestly, seriously ticked off about it.
We will be hearing a lot about all of this in the future as food needs on our planet increase. But, I don’t mean to get into all of this now except to say that the delicious fish pictured here is sea bass, and it was neither farmed nor blessed by the Pope or whatever rating agency is currently letting us know what we should feel good or bad about eating. I saw it; it looked delicious; it was a firm white fish which is what I needed for my plan of attack. I bought it, reflexively. And, only on the way out the door did I think, “Oh hell, this is exactly the sort of fish I’m going to be asking people to eat less of in mere weeks.” I’m going to have to start practicing and practicing what I preach. But, since this is the first Chilean sea bass I’ve purchased in over a year, I decided that it could work nicely with my overall thesis which is…you can’t eat the big predator species fish all the time anymore (but every so often is okay). The idea being that if we expand our fish palate a bit, there will not be so much pressure to supply these big marquis fish. So, you have my blessing to substitute whatever firm white fish floats your boat for this. I, myself, will probably try something different next time. I know that TJ’s Seafood Market, a local fish store in Dallas, is going to start carrying some of these bycatch species and I’m very much looking forward to having some new options. TJ’s is a great little shop. The proprietor, Jon Alexis, even introduced my kids to the lobsters, which they found endlessly entertaining. And, Jon is also looking into sourcing MSC certified sea bass…so next time I buy it there I will be able to feel a like I’m making some progress in my own fish education and consumption. (See Note)
This is a great method for preparing fish. It just could not be any more simple. I sautéed some Vidalia onions and then added diced tomatoes and water and let it simmer for a bit. Then I merely added the fresh herbs, the fresh tomatoes and peppers, then nestled in the fish. It is finished in 10 minutes from that point. It is juicy and succulent and savory. The tomatoes and peppers are a sauce and a side at once. And, I got to use all kinds of goodies out of my tiny vegetable garden. The two little peppers are just miniature bell peppers. Aren’t they cute? The tomatoes are mine. Porter, I believe. And for herbs, I used chives, sage, Mexican mint marigold, and thyme. The Mexican mint marigold is a dead ringer for tarragon. This was probably the highest ratio of self grown things I’ve ever had in one dish and it made me very happy.
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
1 medium sweet onion, sliced
1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup water
1 large (or two small) yellow bell peppers
8 to 10 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 Tablespoon assorted fresh herbes (thyme, chives, tarragon, sage)
2 (6 ounce) filets of a firm, white fish
Kosher salt and pepper
1 lemon, halved
Melt three tablespoons of unsalted butter in a large skillet. Add the onions to the melted butter and gently cook them over low to medium heat for 10 minutes or until they are tender and just beginning to get golden. Add the canned tomatoes and water and stir to combine. Allow the mixture to simmer for 5 minutes.
Scatter the halved tomatoes and peppers in the pan. Sprinkle the fresh herbs over it all. Gently stir the mixture so that everything is moistened.
Season the fish on both sides with a little kosher salt and pepper. Tuck the fish into the tomato mixture. The sauce should come at least 2/3 up the side of the fish. Place a pat of butter on top of each filet. Place the cover over the pan and reduce the heat to the lowest flame possible. The sauce should be just barely bubbling.
After 5 minutes remove the cover and with a spatula, carefully turn over the fish. Replace the cover and let it cook an additional 3 minutes. Check the fish for doneness. It should be opaque in the middle and just flaking. You can cook for another minute or two if needed. Remove the fish from the heat and sprinkle it with fresh lemon juice. Serve with a helping of the sauce.
My fish journey is just starting. Let’s learn about sustainable seafood practices together. I really want to do a better job of feeding my family healthful foods. I’m not an extremist, but it is not extreme to want to know where your food comes from. I will sometimes choose to purchase things made in China, but I want to choose that, not unwittingly purchase it. A shirt has a tag that says “made in China” and a fish does not, nor does a butchered piece of meat. But, more and more, the tags on our food are giving us hints as to the origins of our food. There are times when I will choose the least expensive option. But, more often than not now, I am demanding to know where my food comes from…especially meat, fish, poultry and pork. I’m not trying to impugn foreign farmed fish, nor am I saying that catching wild fish is bad (by any means), nor am I throwing any grocery store under the bus. But to learn, one needs information. And, this mother and wife is starting to pay attention. Do join me. We will figure this all out together.
For a start, MSC certified means that the Marine Stewardship Council has determined that a particular fish from a particular fishery is part of a well managed and sustainable environment.