An ocean of ink has been spilled about cooking meals quickly. Frankly, I have to scratch my head over this so-called dilemma. If you’re in a hurry, fish is the natural choice. It’s the ultimate fast food. As I explain to students in my cooking classes, if you take longer than ten minutes to cook fish fillets, you’re probably doing something wrong. Sautéed, broiled, or baked (a slight exception to the ten-minute rule), fish is endlessly versatile.
Lean, white-fleshed fish, such as flounder, sole, striped bass, snapper, and farm-raised tilapia, are readily available at markets. The fillets of these delicately flavored fish are usually quite thin, so they cook rapidly. In recipes, it’s fine to substitute one variety for another that has the same basic shape. But don’t substitute oily-fleshed fish, such as salmon, char, tuna, and bluefish. Their assertive flavors require balancing with different ingredients.
Versatile flavor-packed ingredients can make simple fish dishes taste deceptively complex. I consider these items essential:
Clam juice: It adds substance to quick fish stews.
Dry vermouth: Use it instead of dry white wine in sauces for fish; it keeps much longer.
Lemons: Bright, acidic lemon zest and juice pair well with fish.
Mayonnaise: Use it in creamy glazes.
Good-quality olives: Chop them to make a stuffing or topping.
Mustard: Its pungency is the perfect foil to mild fish.
Capers: They add zing to sauces.
Extra-virgin olive oil: Sometimes a drizzle of good, fragrant olive oil is all fish needs.
Parmigiano Reggiano: Sprinkle it, freshly grated, on broiled fish.
Anchovies: Wrap a mild fillet around a salty little anchovy for a taste of the sea.
Whether you sauté, broil, or bake them, thin white-fleshed fillets cook very quickly. The tender flesh is naturally moist, but because it’s so low in fat, it can dry out if overcooked. If you figure about 8 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness, a thin fillet will be done in 3 or 4 minutes. Folding or rolling fillets is one of my favorite techniques for enclosing flavor and avoiding overcooking.