People always stop me on the street and say “Hey, aren’t you that food blog guy whom I have no idea what you look like and almost never read?” Why, yes. Yes I am. The next thing they ALWAYS ask is “I like trying out fish recipes with fancy sauces and stuff but shouldn’t I know the basics on how to cook a simple piece of fish?” Yes. Yes, you should is what I tell them. It’s no doubt super fun to cook and eat a cedar smoked, maple glazed fillet of salmon or a sexy baked whole fish with a nice creamy seafood sauce. However, it’s important (and also super fun to cook and eat) to know how to simply pan fry a nice cut of fish.
As with any good quality steak or seafood if you’re starting with a great, fresh fish there is no need to get it all gussied up like it’s going to a fancy party. Seasoning and heat. It’s all you need. Any questions? Lots of questions? Oh, I thought I was done here but ok. First and foremost you need to be able recognize quality fish. The best bet for that is to make it out to a reputable fish monger. In a pinch, as is often my case, some standard grocery stores will have someone working the fish counter that knows what they’re doing. Well, at least when it comes to ordering nice fish. What should you look for? If you’re buying whole fish take a look at its eyes. Take a deep, long loving look into them. Ok, not that long. They shouldn’t look like they just blazed one up with Cheech and/or Chong. That means it ain’t fresh. It also means they like to party dude! They should look clear and alert, if you will, like they just saw Cheech and/or Chong get ready to blaze one up. Whether filleted or whole the fish should never look goopy and slimey. If it’s a pink/red fish like tuna or salmon, the colour should be bright and zazzy. If it’s a white fish it should look kinda dry meaning not all glossy and wet. If after looking at a fish you still aren’t sure then listen to your nose. What does it tell you? Not much, right? But what does it smell you? If you can smell it from a few feet away then say “Smell ya later!” and get the hell out of there and just make something else for dinner.
So now you are heading home with a nice piece of fish. Let’s try this super simple meal. By the way, I hope you got trout cause that is what I am making here so it would be weird if I’m talking about cooking trout and you picked up cod.
No Doubt Pan Fried Trout
2 -4 to 6 ounce trout fillets
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 Gloop of butter
Salt and Pepper
A tiny bit of finely chopped fresh parsley
If you managed to get your fish at a fish monger’s place they should be able to scale it for you pretty quickly. If you got your fish at a cheap ass grocery store, I sometimes like to go to Cheap Ass Groceries and Such, you can ask them. Just know the answer to the question “Can you scale this for me?” will likely be “Umm. I just did. I told you, it’s 300 grams.” Oh boy. In a case like that make sure to take an extra look to make sure your fish is decent and then weep silently for the bi-product of our shattered education system. So, if you need to do this step on your own and aren’t sure about it you can get it done with a small paring knife and rub it against the grain of the scales like in the image above. It’s not really that hard and I’m not squeamish but holy hell do I hate doing this task. It’s up there with tying a roast or laying down lasagna noodles. I just don’t find it fun. At least it pays scale. Queue the kazoo!
So the next step is pretty much to heat up a pan on high heat and glug in the olive oil. As the oil heats up toss in the gloop of butter. I know you technically aren’t supposed to use olive oil at a high heat but adding the butter gets it nice and silky and you aren’t frying for long with this so it’s not like risking having the oil smoke out like if you were making fries with it. When the pan is good and hot get the fish seasoned with salt and pepper. DO NOT add lemon juice until you know you are putting it in the pan. In fact, wait until the fish is in the pan before putting any. The juice of the lemon will quickly change the colour of the meat, essentially starting to kind of cook it vis a vis the acid. The lemon is entirely optional anyway so don’t add it if you don’t like lemon or if you’re a purest like my lady friend who likes fish as basic as possible: salt and pepper. So lay the fish skin side down into the pan. Now, you need to stick close by to keep an eye on this cause it really doesn’t take long. Keep it on high heat for about two minutes. That’ll make sure you get the skin nice and crispy. Don’t like eating fish skin? Then maybe you never had it nice and crispy.
After two minutes dial down the heat to medium. Get out a soup spoon and spoon some of the oily butter (or is it buttery oil?) onto the fish. This will actually help cook it through a bit and keep it nice and juicy. Overdone fish is icky so you want to avoid burning it or drying it out by keeping it in there too long. The best trick for that is to watch the side of the fish. You should be able to see a line across it to show you where it is cooked through to. Through to, through to, through to…wow that sounds really weird when you say it out loud. Once that you see that line is a bit less than halfway up the fillet go ahead and flip it. Doing this with your bare hands is pretty cool but also dumb so use a spatula. I wouldn’t use tongs cause the fish is delicate and could start to fall apart. You might think that actually stating not to use your hands is stupid of me and you’d be right. Sort of. Someone once complained to me that when they tried to fry their pompadoms (Indian crunchy taco like amazingness) that it was annoying that they always curled up. I suggested he use his hand to hold it flat in the oil. After a long pause he asked me if I was kidding. I should have said no to see if he would actually go through with it but I am too nice. What the hell was I talking about? Oh yes, the trout. Once flipped let it cook only for a minute or so just to get a nice little sear on the flesh side. Set it on a plate to cool for a few minutes. Add some more lemon juice if that’s your thing. Garnish it with the parsley and SHANGDAMBO! that’s it.
There are few dishes simpler than this and when done to perfection they are hard to beat. It’s key also to understanding various types of fish and how they cook and is a great building block to move onto other methods and/or fancying it up in any number of ways. By the time I made it to the table to eat, my kids were pretty much already done. “Wow, you guys loved it?!” As they ran out the door they yelled “Ya, ya, gotta go biking with our friends. They’re waiting. Bye!” Nailed it!