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Don’t cremate that fish

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The way some people cook fish, it’s no wonder some people won’t eat fish.

How fish is thawed makes a difference in how it will taste. By the time the inside is thawed at room temperature, bacteria are building condos on the outside. Fish should be thawed in a refrigerator or in ice water. Fish in a sealed plastic bag will thaw more quickly in ice water than in a refrigerator.

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Most people tend to overcook fish. It’s so easy to do. When you’re cooking thin pieces, the difference between perfect and cremated can be a matter of seconds. One lesson I learned at the School of Hard Knocks: Never turn your back on a cooking fish.

Fish not only cooks quickly, but cools fast, so those who will be eating it must be controlled. I’m like a drill sergeant when I cook. When I start cooking the fish, I want everyone sitting down, ready to eat. There are enough unknowns without not knowing how long it will be before everyone is at the table.

I don’t have space here to get into all the various fish-cooking methods, but here’s one of my favorites: pan-searing and finishing in the oven.

Regardless of the species, I season it lightly with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper on both sides. Sometimes I’ll use blackening spices or a little paprika, which is a browning agent. I’ll put a little light olive oil and a dab of butter in a saute pan and sear the fillets or steaks for a few seconds on each side over medium heat. I then transfer the fish to an oven in a Pyrex dish. I set the oven temperature at 250-350 degrees, depending upon the thickness of the fish and how soon I want it to be done. I like to serve “restaurant style” with a nice presentation, so cooking fish by this method gives me time to assemble other dishes. I heat the plates before “plating up,” and the last thing I put on them is the fish and garnishes. This ensures that the fish won’t be cold when it’s eaten.

One problem with cooking fish “just right” is that the thinner parts cook sooner than the thick parts. Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking,” suggests compensating for uneven thickness by cutting slashes across the thick areas, effectively making them thinner. Another strategy, aimed at blocking radiant heat, is to fold aluminum foil loosely over thinner parts.

Determining when fish is done takes some practice. One guideline that will get you in the ballpark is 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Raw fish has a translucent appearance. Cooked fish becomes opaque — milky looking — and will flake. Fish flesh becomes flaky at around 130 degrees F.

“Check the fish early and often for doneness,” author McGee advises. He goes on to say there’s no substitute for checking individual pieces with an instant-read thermometer or by making a small incision and looking.

My advice: Make some mistakes, and learn from them. With experience, you’ll get it right every time.

Contact Les Palmer at lpalmer@alaska.net.

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