Please don’t be shocked when I say that I’ve become a fan of frozen fish. I think this conversion began many years ago when I was living in Chicago and picked up a piece of fish from my otherwise well-stocked grocery store. It was the end of a long day, I was tired, and I didn’t want to eat pasta yet again. So I hiked over to Treasure Island to get a piece of fish, a few vegetables, and a bar of chocolate.
I should’ve known I was headed for yucky when I could smell the fish counter from way down in the produce section. I brushed it off and picked a snapper filet. I smelled the fish all the way home, and still held out hope, thinking I’d rinse it off and it’d be like new. Far from it. Now my kitchen smelled of the bad fish. I decided veggies and chocolate would be it, and that a girl could do worse.
I never cooked fish again in my Chicago kitchen, taking a stand on the fact that we couldn’t get decent fish there, so I would eat it only in restaurants or when I was up north in Michigan or traveling.
Then I moved to San Francisco and had the kind of fish-cooking and fish-eating experience that ruins you for all other. When fish was on the schedule for the day in culinary school, whole fish would arrive from the pier just a few blocks from the school, at around 10 a.m. There was never, not ever, a fishy scent from these beauties, and we learned how to handle them, from scaling (an awful job) to skinning, fileting, and cooking fish every which way.
But that was then, and this is now, and I live in a place where the only fish I really want to cook at home is Lake Superior whitefish or lake perch, both wonderful fish but generally relegated to summer. This week I am spending a few days with Mama and co. in Florida, and I was all set to go out and get me some fresh fish for our Lenten fish recipe. I asked my brother the best spot to get it, and he launched into his devotion to frozen fish.
I learned long ago that when Richard talks with passion about food, as he often does, I best listen. The point of good frozen fish is that it’s caught, cleaned and flash-frozen within hours. So what you’re getting is the flavor and texture of extraordinarily fresh fish. There’s no telling how long your fish has been in the display when it’s purchased fresh—even if it’s been frozen and then thawed in the display, it doesn’t take long for the fish to begin to deteriorate, smell bad, and taste bad.
So I headed to Publix. First I marched up to the fresh fish display and perused. Smelled bad. I went after the vacuum-packed frozen red snapper feeling funny about taking frozen fish in the face of all of the fresh in the display. I was skeptical, but after I’d read more about flash-frozen fish, this had to be worth a try.
Besides, Publix had shocked me by stocking Joyva tahini for our tahini sauce—I nearly shouted for joy myself when I saw it. I had already traversed the store looking for tahini when I was directed to the international aisle. The entire aisle was dedicated to the foods of Italy, Greece, Korea, the West Indies, Brazil, Mexico….and no Middle East. Boo. I said out loud: you’ve got to be kidding me. A stock boy was nearby and asked if he could help. I told him I wanted tahini, and that Publix needed a Middle Eastern section in their international aisle. He reminded me he had nothing to do with that, as he pulled down the Joyva from the kosher section. You’ve got to be kidding me! I said. This is the BEST tahini! He said, I guess we did something right. You did, I said. And then I made the fish, which was fresh and clean and smelling of nothing but the sea.
Sauteed Snapper with Tahini Sauce and Toasted Pine Nuts
This dish is in every Lebanese cookbook I own. I had never tried it until recently, because even though the Lebanese eat a lot of fish in Lebanon, they don’t in Michigan. Typically the snapper is baked, but I think the dish requires the delicious flavor that sauteeing imparts. Fresh fish should always glisten, have little to no scent, and be firm to the touch. Frozen fish is ideally cleaned and flash-frozen right after it is caught. Look for vacuum-packed frozen fish, which protects the delicate flesh.
For the tahini sauce:
½ cup Joyva tahini (well-stirred before measuring)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup water
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the snapper:
2 fillets red snapper
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
Make the tahini sauce by placing the tahini, garlic and salt in the food processor. With the blade running, slowly pour in the water and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Depending on your tahini, the sauce can have a slightly bitter taste which can be corrected with more lemon juice, water, and salt.
Season fish with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Bring fish to room temperature, about ½ hour.
Heat a large heavy pan over high heat. Once pan is hot, reduce heat to medium high and add the butter and olive oil. Once the butter foams up and is very hot (but not browned yet), add fillets to the pan, being sure to leave space between fillets. The fish should sizzle the moment it touches the pan. If it doesn’t, remove the fillets and wait for pan to get hotter.
Cook fillets until golden brown on one side, about 3 minutes, flip them over and cook until golden brown on the second side and fish is opaque and flaky in the center, another 2-3 minutes.
Spread the tahini sauce on a platter. Lay the fish over the sauce and sprinkle the fish with toasted pine nuts and parsley. Serve the fish very warm.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.