Grilled or fried fish are the usual choices at many fish restaurants, a testament to their popularity. Yet for home cooking, gently braising a fish in a flavorful liquid has certain advantages over these techniques. After all, fish tend to have dry-textured flesh and benefit from being kept moist while they cook.
The beauty of braising fish is that the liquid used to keep it succulent turns into a delicious sauce. Braised fish is a convenient dish, as it can be made ahead. Fish braised with olive oil or vegetable oil rather than butter are also good cool or at room temperature, as first courses for Shabbat.
Mediterranean cooks are especially fond of braising fish. I’ve enjoyed Moroccan braised fish with sweet and hot peppers, garlic and cilantro, which sometimes had potatoes as well. In France, a favorite entree of mine was a delicate dish of oven-braised fish with shallots, white wine, fish stock and butter. In the Basque country bordering France and Spain I liked the fish braised with tomatoes and sweet peppers.
Braised fish in a spicy red sauce is popular in the Balkans. The fish portions are cooked in fresh tomato sauce flavored with sweet and hot paprika, as well as a liberal dose of sauteed garlic.
There are two basic ways to braise fish – in the oven or on the stovetop. Fish for braising is left whole or cut in portion- size pieces; if a fish is diced and cooked in sauce, then it is a stew, not a braise. The difference between braising and poaching lies in the amount of liquid to braise a fish; you use a small amount of liquid so that it turns into a concentrated sauce as the fish cooks; to poach a fish, you immerse it completely in liquid.
James Peterson, author of Fish & Shellfish, recommends a variety of braising liquids, including white and red wine, beer, fish stock, cider, tomato sauce, vegetable juice and unsweetened coconut milk. Good flavorings to add are minced shallots, garlic, celery, mushrooms, gingerroot and herbs, including thyme, marjoram, tarragon and parsley. If you are buying whole fish, recommends Peterson, the first step is to ask the fishmonger to clean and scale them thoroughly.
Unlike braised meat, fish is not usually browned during braising before the liquid is added, but there are exceptions. Benny Saida, author of Food from the Balkans (in Hebrew), braises red mullets in hot pepper wine sauce by first frying the whole fish in olive oil, and then baking them with white wine, thyme and sauteed onions, garlic and hot peppers. His baked fish plakya calls for baking lightly fried fish pieces in fresh tomato sauce enhanced with hot and sweet peppers and garlic sauteed in a generous amount of olive oil. Given the richness of this type of sauce, I heartily agree with Saida’s suggestion to serve lots of fresh bread for dipping.
SEA BASS IN GARLIC TOMATO SAUCE
This flavorful, easy-to-make Italian-style braised fish makes a savory cold appetizer accompanied by fresh bread or a tasty hot main course served with bow-tie pasta or rice. For this fast-cooking, one-pan dish, the fish simmers right in its sauce. Instead of sea bass, you can use cod or halibut.(Makes 4 servings)
✔ 700 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled and seeded (see Note); or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained
✔ 2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
✔ 6 large garlic cloves, minced
✔ salt and freshly ground pepper
✔ 700 gr. sea bass fillets or steaks, about 2.5 cm thick
✔ 4 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Puree fresh or canned tomatoes in a blender or food processor.
Heat oil with garlic in a large saute pan over medium-low heat for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 8 to 10 minutes or until thick. Add half of parsley to sauce. Add fish in one layer and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, spooning sauce over fish from time to time, about 10 minutes or until thickest part of fish has changed color inside when checked with a sharp knife. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Serve fish hot or cold, sprinkled with remaining parsley.Note:
To peel and seed tomatoes:
Cut cores from tomatoes, turn tomatoes over and slit skin in an
X-shaped cut. Put tomatoes in a pan of enough boiling water to cover
them and boil 15 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon and put them
in a bowl of cold water. After a few seconds, remove them and pull off
their skins with aid of a paring knife. Cut each tomato in half. Hold it
cut side down over a bowl and squeeze to remove seeds.MULLET WITH POTATOES AND SAFFRON
This recipe is from La Cuisine du Poisson, the book I co-authored with
Master Chef Fernand Chambrette. If you wish to use this method to cook
smaller fish, bake the potato-onion mixture in the oven for about 20
minutes before setting the fish on top.
(Makes 8 servings)
✔ 2 mullets (buri) of 1 kg. each, or other whole fish
✔ 80 to 110 gr. butter or 6 to 8 Tbsp.olive oil
✔ 2 onions, sliced
✔ 1 large garlic clove, chopped
✔ 8 large potatoes
✔ salt and freshly ground pepper
✔ 2 cups fish stock (see Note below), vegetable broth or water
✔ pinch of saffron threads or powder
✔ 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Preheat oven to 200ºC. Snip fish fins with sturdy scissors and trim
tails straight. Rinse fish inside and out, removing any scales, and pat
Melt 30 grams butter in a large flameproof roasting pan or gratin dish,
or in a saute pan. Add onions and cook over low heat, stirring often,
for 5 minutes or until slightly softened but not brown. Add garlic and
cook for 1 minute. If you used a saute pan, transfer the mixture to a
Peel potatoes and slice them thin. Add them to the onion mixture and
season well with salt and pepper. Add enough stock to nearly cover the
potatoes. Add saffron. Dot potatoes with half the remaining butter or
drizzle with half the oil.
Set the fish on top of the potatoes and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Dot with the remaining butter or drizzle the oil.
Cover loosely with foil and bake the fish for 10 minutes. Uncover and
bake, basting the fish occasionally with the liquid in the pan, for
about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender when tested with a
fork. Check if fish is done by inserting a skewer into its thickest part
– the skewer should come out hot; or cut into the thickest part of the
fish and check its color, which should be opaque, not translucent.
Serve fish and potatoes in their roasting pan, sprinkled with parsley.Note:
Quick Fish Stock: Rinse 450 grams fish bones, heads or bony fish
pieces. Put in large saucepan. Add 6 cups water, 1 bay leaf and 1 fresh
thyme sprig and bring to a boil; skim off foam. Simmer uncovered over
low heat, skimming occasionally, for 15 minutes. Strain into a bowl. If
making it ahead, refrigerate it as soon as it cools. Freeze the extra
stock for other recipes. Faye Levy is the author of Classic Cooking Techniques.