Sauce Your Fish

"The art of curry cooking lies not in hot spicing, but in the blending of the flavors," says Kusuma Cooray, author and chef.

Kusuma Cooray's creamy mustard fish stew. (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII PRESS)
Kusuma Cooray's creamy mustard fish stew.
When we prepare fish for company, we like to cook it in sauce. Served this way, the fish looks festive, and the sauce helps keep the fish moist. It’s also a practical way to prepare fish. You just make a tasty sauce, add fish fillets to it and cook them for a few minutes.
We found tempting sauces for fish in a new book, Ocean to Plate – Cooking Fish with Hawaii’s Kusuma Cooray.
We met Kusuma Cooray in Paris when we were studying French cooking, and she introduced us to the delicious cuisine of her native Sri Lanka, where cooking fish in sauce is popular.
Cooray’s rich and flavorful sea bass and pineapple curry, for example, is quick and simple to prepare. First you sauté chopped onion, ginger and garlic. Then you add hot curry powder, followed by the fish pieces, pineapple chunks, coconut milk, water, salt and cashew nuts, and simmer the fish until it is tender. (See recipe.)
“The art of curry cooking lies not in hot spicing but in the blending of the flavors,” wrote Cooray when we chatted by email about the fish cookery of her birthplace. Cooray, who is a professor at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at the University of Hawaii, mentioned her creamy mustard wahoo stew as a subtly flavored curry. The fish is seasoned with turmeric and stewed with tomatoes, onions, garlic, green onions, white wine and lime juice, which become a sauce as the fish cooks; potato slices and green beans simmer along with the fish. To finish the sauce, Cooray stirs in mustard mixed with cream or coconut milk. (See recipe.)
For another curried fish dish, Cooray seasons fish fillets with salt and lemon juice and cooks them with sliced tomatoes, curry powder, paprika, turmeric and a mixture of onions and hot pepper slices sautéed in olive oil. To make the sauce creamy, she adds yogurt whisked with a little water when the fish is half cooked. If you’d like to stew vegetables along with fish, greens are a good choice. To make pan-cooked snapper fillets with greens, Cooray briefly toasts fenugreek seeds in olive oil in a skillet and adds white wine, turmeric, spinach and shredded mizuna or kale leaves. She then cooks the fish fillets and lime slices in the mixture. To finish, she tops each portion with a dollop of sour cream, which blends into the sauce.
Fish stewed with tomatoes and greens makes a tasty pasta sauce. For her rich entrée of fish, spinach and pasta, Cooray sears fish cubes and then adds garlic, hot pepper flakes, chopped anchovies, sweet peppers, chopped tomato and white wine to the pan. She finishes the dish with spinach, cream and cooked penne pasta. (See recipe.)
You can cook fish whole or in large pieces by braising them in liquid. First you sear the fish in a small amount of oil in a deep skillet or heavy baking pan, then add a flavorful liquid to come halfway up the fish, and simmer the fish in it, either on the stovetop or in the oven.
To make braised red snapper, Cooray sears the fish in olive oil over high heat and removes it from the pan. Next she sautés onions and leeks in the pan, adds sweet peppers, garlic, tomatoes, wine, vinegar, fish stock, bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper, and brings the mixture to a simmer. She cooks the fish with quartered mushrooms in this sauce.
For a pomegranate-braised fish, Cooray makes a sauce of pomegranate juice, white wine, fish stock, chopped ginger, cinnamon stick, crushed red pepper and butter-sautéed onions.
The beauty of this method is that by the time the fish is done, the cooking liquid has cooked down to a flavorful sauce.
Kusuma Cooray recommends serving this dish with fresh mint chutney and with yellow rice cooked with coconut milk and water and flavored with turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. If you like, garnish the platter with chives.
Makes 6 servings
■ 900 gr. (2 pounds) sea bass fillet
■ 2 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 1 onion, finely chopped
■ 1 tsp. finely chopped ginger
■ 1 tsp. finely chopped garlic
■ 1 Tbsp. hot curry powder
■ 1 cup pineapple chunks
■ 1 cup coconut milk
■ ½ cup water
■ Salt
■ ½ cup coarsely chopped roasted cashew nuts
Slice fish into 5-cm. (2-inch) thick pieces and refrigerate until ready to cook. Heat oil in a sauté pan; add onion, ginger and garlic and cook over medium heat until onions are soft. Turn heat to low; add curry powder and stir over heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Place fish in the pan, add pineapple, coconut milk and water, with salt to taste; sprinkle with cashew nuts. Simmer over low heat, shaking pan occasionally, for 8 minutes or until color of fish is opaque inside.
Cooray makes this stew with a Hawaiian fish called wahoo, or with snapper; it’s also good made with halibut or other fish steaks. This dish is a meal in itself, or can be served with rice and additional vegetables. Cooray wrote to me that in Sri Lanka they generally finish the sauce with stone-ground mustard seeds. To make it easier, she substitutes Dijon country mustard.
Makes 4 servings
■ 4 fish steaks, about 225 gr. (8 ounces) each
■ Salt
■ Black pepper
■ ¹⁄8 tsp. turmeric
■ 2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
■ 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
■ 2 cloves crushed garlic
■ 1 russet (baking) potato, peeled and thinly sliced
■ 110 grams (¼ pound) green beans, cut in 5-cm. (2-inch) pieces
■ 1 Tbsp. sliced green onion
■ 1½ cups (375 ml.) water
■ ½ cup (125 ml.) dry white wine
■ 2 Tbsp. lime juice
■ 1 Tbsp. Dijon country mustard
■ 2 Tbsp. cream or coconut milk
Season fish with salt and pepper, rub in the turmeric and refrigerate. Combine the tomatoes, onions, garlic, potato, green beans, green onion, water, wine and lime juice in a straight-sided sauté pan. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes. Lay the fish over the cooked vegetables, cover the pan, and simmer over low heat for 7 minutes more, or until the color of the fish is opaque inside. To enrich the stew, whisk mustard and cream together in a bowl and stir into the stew. Taste and season with more salt if needed.
To make the dish kosher, Cooray suggested I replace the swordfish in her recipe with tuna or halibut. The fish should be cooked briefly, just until it is cooked through; it should not overcooked so it won’t be dry. Instead of penne, you can use any pasta shape you like.
Makes 4 servings
■ 2 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 340 gr. (¾ pound) fish fillets, cut into 2.5-cm. (1-inch) cubes
■ Salt
■ 1 Tbsp. sliced garlic
■ 1 tsp. crushed red pepper (hot pepper flakes)
■ 1 Tbsp. chopped anchovies
■ 1 sweet red pepper, seeded and sliced
■ 1 cup chopped tomato
■ ½ cup dry white wine
■ ½ cup cream
■1 bunch (about 280 to 340 gr. or 10 to 12 ounces) spinach leaves, washed and trimmed
■ 4 portions cooked penne pasta (made from about 225 to 280 gr. or 8 to 10 ounces dried pasta)
Heat oil in a sauté pan. Add fish, season with salt to taste, and sear on high heat for 3 minutes. Turn heat to low, add garlic, red pepper, anchovies, sweet pepper, tomato and wine; stir to deglaze pan, cover and cook for 3 minutes. Add cream and fold in spinach leaves and pasta; cook for 4 minutes or until fish is just done.
For Shabbat meals, fish cooked in tomato-based sauce made with olive oil rather than butter is convenient because it can be served either hot or at room temperature. We like to flavor our tomato sauce with saffron, garlic and fresh coriander, and sometimes with sweet peppers as well. We have made this dish with tilapia, cod, halibut, salmon and sea bass. Serve the fish hot as an entree with rice, or cold as a first course.
Makes 4 servings as a main course or 6 as an appetizer
■ ¼ tsp. saffron threads
■ ¼ cup hot water
■ 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
■ 4 large garlic cloves, chopped
■ 450 gr. (1 pound) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
■ 3 sprigs fresh thyme, or ½ tsp. dried
■ 1½ pounds sea bass steaks or fillets, about 2.5-cm. (1-inch) thick, in 4 or 6 pieces
■ Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
■Pinch of cayenne pepper
■ ¼ cup chopped fresh coriander or parsley
Slightly crush saffron with your fingers. Put in a small cup and add the hot water. Let stand for 15 minutes. Heat oil in a large, deep sauté pan or skillet. Add garlic and sauté over low heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, thyme and saffron mixture. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook the sauce for 10 minutes, or until it thickens slightly. Add the fish to the pan in a single layer; sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Return sauce to a simmer over medium- high heat. Cover and cook the fish over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes or until it is tender; when checked in its thickest part with a small, sharp knife, its color should be opaque. Discard thyme sprigs. Taste sauce, add cayenne, and adjust seasoning. Serve fish hot, warm or cold, sprinkled with coriander or parsley.
Faye Levy is the co-author, with Fernand Chambrette, of La Cuisine du Poisson (Fish Cookery), published in Paris by Flammarion.