Let your fish go nuts

A tasty macadamia-crusted halibut that I enjoyed at a local restaurant reminded me of how useful this type of dish can be in a home kitchen.

halibut dish 88 (photo credit: )
halibut dish 88
(photo credit: )
A tasty macadamia-crusted halibut that I enjoyed at a local restaurant reminded me of how useful this type of dish can be in a home kitchen. In a way, it seemed like an upscale version of schnitzel, the popular meat cutlet with a coating of flour, eggs and breadcrumbs. We often make schnitzel from chicken breasts, but this technique works very well with fish fillets, too. The nutty crust was a distinctive, refined way to enrobe a fish. Today's creative cooks use all kinds of nuts - almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamias, cashews and pine nuts to add interest to fish. The nuts might be used alone, or blended with breadcrumbs, crushed crackers, flour or seasonings. Instead of nuts, some chefs make crusts from other ingredients, from whole spices to sliced or pureed vegetables. How to stick the crust onto the fish is another area for improvisation. Before pressing the fish into the nuts, some people dip it in eggs, as for schnitzel. Others spread the fish with Dijon mustard or garlic butter, or dip it in oil or buttermilk. I haven't found nut-crusted fish to be a time-honored recipe in any specific country; the idea seems to have come into fashion fairly recently in many areas. Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi writes that, "Crusting fish with herbs, spices, nuts, seeds and other ingredients such as potatoes... has grown in popularity over the last decade or so (Roy's Fish & Seafood, written with John Harrisson, Ten Speed Press, 2005)." He feels that crusting not only provides flavor and texture, but also helps to keep the fish moist. Italian restaurateur Piero Selvaggio, author of The Valentino Cookbook (with Karen Stabiner, Villard, 2001), credits the French for this trend. In his recipe for potato-crusted salmon trout, he writes: "This is as much as we want to cross the border into France. You could very easily think that this is a French recipe." Certainly French chefs are fond of fish with interesting coatings. Just today I received an announcement of the upcoming annual gala dinner of the Club Culinaire of French Cuisine, an organization of French chefs; the menu's highlight will be a hazelnut-crusted turbot. American chefs are equally enthusiastic about such dishes, especially in regions known for their nuts. Pecans, which are native to North America, are especially popular in the southern US, and not just in pie. Pan-roasted whitefish with pecan crust is a specialty of Maryland Chef Joe Randall, author of A Taste of Heritage (with Toni Tipton-Martin, Macmillan, 1998). He dips the fish in a mixture of seasoned pecans, flour and parsley. Macadamia nuts, a famous Hawaiian export, are a favorite partner for the islands' fish. Sam Choy, the author of Sam Choy's Island Flavors (Hyperion, 1999) marinates fish in olive oil, ginger and garlic, coats it with macadamia nuts and herbs, then bakes it and serves it atop Caesar salad. Yamaguchi also dips fish fillets in macadamia nuts, then sautes them and serves them with coconut-basil sauce or curry sauce. Yamaguchi likes sesame seeds, too. For a light dish, he coats fish with black and white sesame seeds, then steams the fish instead of sauteing it, and serves it in a Japanese sauce flavored with shiitake mushrooms. Pine nuts, a Mediterranean favorite, are used by Israeli chef Amir Ilan of Tel Aviv's Dixie Grill Bar to make the pesto coating for his intriguing entree of salmon with crispy pesto, which he serves with spiced carrot juice enriched with butter. His recipe appears in The Chef's Kitchen by Elinoar Rabin and Zeev Aner (Hebrew; Hed Arzi, 1999). In cooking coated fish, the main concern is that the coating might burn. To prevent this, some chefs coat only one side of the fish and saute the coated side only briefly to crisp it. Others saute the fish just enough to lightly brown the coating, and then finish cooking the fish in the oven. An even easier method, suited for home cooks, is to bake the fish without the preliminary sauteing. Nutty Sole Use macadamia nuts, almonds or pecans to make the crust for this fish. The nut butter adds a festive finishing touch and is good with any broiled fish. Serve the fish garnished with lemon wedges. 1/3 cup all-purpose flour 1 cup (about 130 grams or 4 1/2 ounces) macadamia nuts, almonds or pecans, ground fine in a food processor 2 eggs or egg whites 1/2 kilo sole fillets salt and freshly ground pepper 1/4 cup vegetable oil Nut Butter (optional) 1/4 cup macadamia nuts, almonds or pecans 6 tbsp. butter, slightly softened, cut into bits 1 tsp. lemon juice 1 tbsp. chopped parsley To make nut butter, grind nuts in a food processor until very fine. Add butter and process to blend. Scrape down mixture, add lemon juice and process until blended. Transfer mixture to a small bowl, stir in parsley, and season to taste with salt and pepper. You can refrigerate it for 2 days; serve it at room temperature. Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F). Spread flour in a large plate. Put nuts in a shallow bowl. Beat eggs in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle a fish piece with salt and pepper and lightly coat with flour on both sides, tapping to remove excess flour. Dip piece in eggs. Last, dip fish in nuts to coat it, pressing lightly so nuts adhere; handle fish lightly. Repeat with remaining pieces. Set them side by side on a large plate. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add enough fish to make one layer. Saute 1 minute per side. Turn carefully using two slotted spatulas. Transfer fish to a baking dish in 1 layer. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes or until fish is cooked through; when checked with point of a knife, the flesh should be opaque. Serve hot. Serve nut butter separately. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).