Cool fish

Cook the fish for these salads at your leisure.

halibut 88 (photo credit:)
halibut 88
(photo credit: )
When I was growing up in Washington DC, fish salad to me meant canned tuna or salmon mixed with mayonnaise. I liked it, although I couldn't call it elegant. In Paris I encountered an entirely different style of seafood salads, in which the fish was served on a bed of cool, crisp salad greens. The vibrant green leaves and the fish were moistened with a light vinaigrette dressing and added up to a refreshing entree. Discovering such salads was a matter of lucky timing. I happened to be living in France during the period known in culinary history as "nouvelle cuisine," characterized by great creativity, lighter food and heightened appreciation of fish. At cooking school we steamed fish steaks or fillets for salads, making use of this classic Asian technique, which was not common in France, to preserve their natural flavor. Then we placed the warm fish on sturdy or spicy greens such as watercress or assertive baby lettuces, and sauced both with a vinaigrette made of flavorful nut oil and wine vinegar. This enticing entree was perfect for hot weather. In traditional European cuisine fish was usually accompanied by steamed potatoes, but in the late 1970s chefs in France began to partner fish with vegetables, and were soon followed by other chefs in the West. Often the vegetables were cooked but for summertime some matched fish with raw salad greens. Naturally, chefs came up with many interpretations of these salads. Instead of steaming the fish, some prepared it by other techniques: poaching in a flavorful broth, grilling it or even breading and frying it, "schnitzel style." French chef Alain Senderens, author of La Cuisine Reussie, made a salad of seafood baked with a hint of butter and white wine, fresh dill and shallots, then set the fish on a bed of tender greens and dressed the dish with fine olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Basically such salads have a simple three-element formula: the fish, the lettuce and the vinaigrette. California chef John Ash, author of Cooking One on One, illustrates this with his elegantly simple tuna salad, made of grilled tuna served on mixed baby greens and sprouts, and sauced with sesame ginger vinaigrette. For a more elaborate entree, he bakes halibut with basil-mint pesto, and then sets it on baby lettuces mixed with orange, grapefruit and lime sections and spoons citrus mint dressing over all. Cook the fish for these salads at your leisure, and serve it warm or cold. If you'd like the greens to be slightly softened, cut the leaves in strips and just before serving, set the still-warm fish on top to wilt the greens just a bit. HADDOCK, RED PEPPERS AND WALNUTS ON BABY GREENS Sautéing the fish makes this colorful salad substantial enough to satisfy hearty appetites. You can substitute cod, sole or any other white fish steaks or fillets for the haddock. The oil used to sauté the vegetables, accented with a little wine vinegar, forms the dressing. If you like, skip the step of sautéing the vegetables, and, add the celery and pepper strips raw to the greens, or use roasted peppers from a jar. In this case, simply whisk the oil and vinegar to make the vinaigrette, and, if you like, use walnut oil, which is best uncooked. 4 or 5 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil 2 celery stalks, peeled if they are stringy, cut in thin strips 1 small red bell pepper, cut in thin strips 4 to 6 cups baby greens about 1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour 4 haddock or halibut steaks, about 2.5 cm thick (total about 800 gr.) Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 to 2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup walnut halves, toasted, halved lengthwise if you like Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium skillet. Add celery and pepper and cook over low heat, stirring often, until tender but not brown, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Leave vegetables in the skillet. Put greens in a shallow bowl or on serving plates. A short time before sautéing the fish, spread flour in large plate. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper on both sides. Lightly coat fish with flour on both sides. Tap and shake to remove excess flour. Transfer fish pieces to a large plate and arrange side by side. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 halibut steaks. Sauté them over medium-high heat about 2 minutes, then over medium heat 2 minutes. Turn carefully using 2 wide slotted metal spatulas. Sauté second side over medium-high heat 2 minutes, then over medium heat until a thin skewer inserted in thickest part of fish for 10 seconds comes out hot when touched to inner side of your wrist, about 2 more minutes. If oil in skillet begins to brown, reduce heat to medium-low. Add another tablespoon oil if pan is dry, heat it and sauté remaining halibut. Remove from skillet. Reheat vegetables in their skillet until sizzling, then remove from heat and add vinegar to pan. Set fish on greens and spoon vegetable mixture over fish. Sprinkle with toasted walnuts and serve. Makes 4 servings. HALIBUT ON SPINACH SALAD WITH SUN-DRIED TOMATOES Instead of halibut, you can make the dish with steamed cod or grilled or baked salmon. If you don't have a steamer, poach the fish; see the note following the recipe. For other variations, substitute mixed baby lettuces or bite-size pieces of romaine for the spinach, or roasted red peppers for the sun-dried tomatoes. 600 to 800 gr. halibut steaks Salt and freshly ground pepper 11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. white or red wine vinegar or lemon juice 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 6 cups bite-size pieces of trimmed, well-rinsed spinach leaves 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped basil or fresh coriander 1⁄2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, cut in strips or bite-size chunks Bring water to a boil in base of a steamer. Season halibut pieces lightly with salt and pepper on both sides. Put them in one layer in top part of steamer above boiling water. Cover and steam about 4 minutes or until just tender. Drain quickly on paper towels. If necessary, steam halibut in two batches. Break fish into large chunks, discarding any bones and skin. Set greens in large bowl. In a small bowl whisk vinegar with salt and pepper; whisk in oil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside 2 tablespoons dressing. Add remaining dressing to bowl of greens and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve salad topped with halibut. Sprinkle fish with reserved dressing, then sprinkle salad with basil and sun-dried tomatoes. Makes 4 servings. To poach the fish: Combine 2 cups vegetable broth, 1⁄2 cup dry white wine or water and a little salt in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add fish and return to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 7 minutes or until fish is opaque inside; cut to check. Remove carefully with a slotted spatula or spoon to a tray lined with paper towels and let cool. Faye Levy is the author, along with Fernand Chambrette, of La cuisine du poisson, published in France by Flammarion.