Friday, July 19, 2013

Crispy Red Snapper & a Cool Orzo Salad with Summer Vegetables for a Hot Summer Day

Today's post is a bit of a departure for least in the sense that it includes fish.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have posted a recipe that included fish.  (The pasta part will come as no surprise to regular readers.)  As it happens, I really like fish.  I just don't cook it that often.  It's expensive.  And, it requires a trip to the store the day you plan to serve it....which requires thinking about dinner before late afternoon.  Yesterday, I was thinking about dinner before late afternoon.  I was in fact thinking about it early in the morning....mostly because we are nearing the end of the week and my produce supply from Saturday's market is at the "odds and ends" point.  At this stage dinner requires a bit more thought than earlier in the week when the variety...and the quantities...of produce are abundant.  As I thought about dinner, I was also thinking about the fact that it was going to be an excessively hot day.  This made me think about fish...which I find to be appealing during the hotter months of summer.  It pairs well with the light and fresh fare of summer (salads in particular) and is the perfect thing at the end of a hot day when the last thing you want or need is something that is rich and heavy.  So, early in the day I settled on fish accompanied by a cool orzo salad (perfect for using up those odds and ends).  
Before I talk about the pasta salad, I should probably say a little bit about the fish.  There are really only two important things to say about fish:  Buy fresh fish...and don't overcook it.  It doesn't matter how well you know how to cook fish, if your raw materials are inferior, your final dish will not be so great.  And it is of course possible to ruin really nice fresh fish by overcooking it.  Fish is delicate.  Its short little muscle fibers dry out quickly.  Take it off the heat before you think it's done.    
The number one way to tell if fish is fresh is smell—the freshest fish will be fairly odorless (or smell of the ocean).  If whole fish are available to you, the skin and bones should be firmly attached to the flesh, the flesh firm to the touch, the eyes plump and bright with dark pupils (they become cloudy as the fish decays), the gills red and moist (not brown and sticky).  Likewise, filets should be shiny (not dry), firm and free of blood spots (a sign of rough handling).  Finally, the muscle fibers (flakes) should be tightly connected, not gaping.  Store your fish in the coldest spot in your refrigerator and if possible, cook it the day you purchase it.
To keep from overcooking your nice fresh fish, you will need to engage your senses.  To test for doneness, prod it a bit with your finger.  It should feel springy.  It should not fall apart into flakes without quite a bit of encouragement.  If you insert a metal skewer into the flesh, it should feel warm (not hot) to the touch.   If you have to, insert a knife into the thickest part of the filet...the flesh should still be slightly translucent in the very center.  It will continue to cook from residual heat after you have removed it from the heat source.  The "fisherman's rule of thumb" is to cook it for 10 minutes per inch of thickness.  I would start checking it at 8 minutes (if your filet is an inch thick...proportionately sooner for thinner filets).  
When I finally went to the market yesterday, I was hoping to purchase snapper.  The salad I wanted to make would be fine with salmon (or some other medium-textured, flaky fish)...but for some reason I was in the mood for snapper.  I love it pan-fried until its skin is golden and crisp and I love its mild, flaky, moist flesh.  As luck would have it, they had whole fresh snapper.  I purchased a 1 1/4 lb (gutted) fish that produced two 4 1/2 to 5 oz. filets...perfect.  I let them scale the fish for me, but chose to filet it myself.  You could of course have them filet it for you.  When you get it home, use a sharp knife to cut three or four shallow slashes through the skin on a slight diagonal.  This will help prevent the flesh from curling as it cooks.
To pan fry the fish I like to use a cast-iron or French steel sauté pan...but if you don't have either of these, a non-stick pan will do.  Choose a pan that is large enough to hold all the filets you are cooking without crowding.  You may need to cook the fish in batches or use two pans.  Get the pan nice and hot over moderately high  to high heat.  Dry the fish filets with a paper towel if they seem wet and season on both sides with salt & pepper.  Add a thin film of oil to the pan.  It should shimmer and disperse quickly.  A thin wisp of smoke should just begin to form.  Add the filets to the pan service side down (the "service side" is the side that will face the diner).  For a fish to be served with the skin on, this is the skin side.  For a fish to be served without the skin, this is the side that was cut away from the backbone and ribs (the skinned-side is not very attractive without the skin attached).  If the skin is on, you will need to press down lightly on the filet
to prevent it from curling (you are basically forcing the entire surface to be in contact with the pan).  As the fish cooks, regulate the heat to maintain a brisk, active sizzle.  If the pan looks dry, add a bit more oil.  After about three minutes, give the pan a gentle shake...the fish should be beginning to release itself from the pan.  Using a thin, flexible, slotted metal spatula, take a peek under the fish to check to make sure the skin is beautifully golden and crispy.  If it is, carefully turn the fish over and continue to cook to the desired doneness. 
The salad I served with my snapper is one I have adapted slightly from Frank Stitt's cookbook Bottega Favorita.  I think this is an exceptional orzo salad.  Whereas most pasta salads made with orzo tend to be flavorless and bland, this one is loaded with lively summer flavors.  This is due in part to the fact that the orzo isn't rinsed after it has been cooked.  Most recipes for orzo salad direct you to rinse the cooked pasta...which really waters down the flavor of the final dish.  The orzo seems to hang on to the water which then dilutes the flavor of the salad...much in the way a vinaigrette is diluted when added to a bowl of insufficiently dried salad greens.  
You might think that not rinsing the orzo (which stops the cooking process) would result in a dish of overcooked, glue-y pasta.  But this doesn't have to be the case.  If you cook the pasta until it is just barely done....and then toss it with a small amount of olive oil (so it won't stick to itself)...and then spread it out a bit so it will cool more will end up with a pasta salad with perfectly cooked orzo  For the amount of pasta in this recipe (1 1/2 cups), cooling is easily accomplished in a wide bowl.  Simply toss the orzo with a little olive oil and spread it out a bit in the bowl (rather than leaving it in a big mound in the center of the bowl).  If you don't have a wide bowl...or are making a larger amount...spread the orzo on a sheet pan to cool after you have tossed it with some olive oil.  
The other benefit of not rinsing the pasta has to do with the fact that pasta tends to continue to absorb whatever liquid it is sitting in.  If the noodles have been rinsed, they absorb unsalted water...making the pasta bland.  If they have not been rinsed and are then allowed to sit in a delicious dressing, they will absorb the flavors of the dressing.
Stitt's original recipe used a simple vinaigrette to dress the salad.  I have bumped up the flavor even more by dressing the pasta (and vegetables) with a salsa verde of basil, mint and parsley.  Salsa verde is delicious on fish, and since I like to serve this salad with fish, amending the salad in this way seemed like a no brainer.  I like to make extra salsa verde so that I will have some left to drizzle over the fish itself (you may need to add a little bit more oil to the "extra" amount to give it more of a "drizzling" consistency).  If you have any leftover, I guarantee it won't go to waste.  It is wonderful spooned over sliced tomatoes....roasted root vegetables....grilled steak or lamb...or anything that would be good with olive oil, fresh herbs, lemon zest, garlic and capers.
Mint, Italian Parsley and Basil..

I have always made this salad with just the other additions used in the original recipe—corn, black olives, red onion and cherry tomatoes.  But this time when I made it I added some diced cooked zucchini.  Zucchini is a perfect flavor match for all of these ingredients, plus I wanted to try Tom Colicchio's method for cooking zucchini that I had just read about in the August issue of Food &Wine.  
I think zucchini can be difficult to cook.  When boiled it becomes soggy and over-cooked in a flash.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of one thing I make where I boil the zucchini.  In general when I cook zucchini I prefer to sauté, roast, grill or broil.  All of these methods add nice flavor via caramelization.  Additionally, none of these methods introduce water—which encourages sogginess and a watered down flavor.  
Colicchio's method uses water...but just the tiniest amount...producing (he says) the "essence of zucchini".  I don't know why I never thought to treat zucchini this way—I'm a big fan of cooking vegetables in a minimal amount of water that is then encouraged to evaporate during the cooking process.  Almost always the result is tender vegetables with concentrated vegetable flavor.  Which, as it turns out, is just what I wanted for this pasta salad.  (But I can't wait to try this method in other dishes...Colicchio's simple side dish of zucchini published in Food & Wine looks delicious, too.)
The zucchini ready to cook...with just a small amount of water, a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt.
The cooked zucchini....spread out to cool

You can serve this salad right away, but I think it gets better as it sits since the orzo continues to absorb the flavors.  As Frank Stitt suggests, it would be ideal for a buffet.  It was the perfect choice for our dinner last night since I had no idea when my dinner companion was going to be home.  I was able to make the salad, push it to the side while I did other things and then cook the fish when we were ready to eat.  This, coupled with the fact that the recipe makes a massive quantity of salad, would also make it a great dish to make on a night when you are expecting out of town guests.  There is no worry that the food will suffer if the travelers are delayed.  The leftovers too, are great to have on hand....making a nice lunch...maybe topped with some crumbled feta....and followed by some fruit—or cookies—for dessert.
Pan-Seared Snapper with a Salad of Orzo,
Sweet Corn, Cherry Tomatoes and Fresh Herbs
3 T. chopped fresh basil
3 T. chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
2 T. chopped fresh mint
6 T. olive oil
zest of 1 lemon
1 heaped T. capers, rinsed, drained and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/2 t. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 large or 3 medium ears of corn (in the husk)
3 small or 2 medium zucchini (about 10 oz. total), ends trimmed and cut into a 1/3-inch dice (you should have 2 cups)
1 1/2 c. orzo pasta (about 9 oz.)
1 1/2 c. cherry tomatoes, washed, stemmed and quartered
1/3 c. pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
2 T. red wine vinegar (to taste)
Olive oil, as needed
6 4- to 6-oz. snapper filets, skin-on, scaled and scored three or four times
Make a salsa verde (Italian green sauce) with the first 8 ingredients:  Chop the herbs, immediately submerging them in the olive oil and then adding the lemon zest, capers, garlic, salt and pepper.  Set aside to allow the flavors to blend.  (This sauce will be used to dress the orzo.  If you like, prepare double the amount.  The extra sauce can be used to drizzle over the fish.  Salsa verde is a classic accompaniment to fish.)
Place the corn directly onto the oven rack of a preheated 375° to 400° oven.  Roast for 20 minutes.  As soon as the corn is cool enough to handle, remove the husks and silks (the corn continues to cook as long as it is enclosed in the hot husk).  Cut the kernels away from the cob.  Use the backside of the knife to scrape the cobs in order to get all of the corn.  You should have about 2 cups corn and scrapings.
While the corn roasts, place the zucchini in a wide sauté pan that is large enough to hold the zucchini in a tight single layer.  Add enough water to come about 1/2 way up the sides of the zucchini (1/4 cup?)  and drizzle in some olive oil (1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons).  Season with salt and place the pan over moderately high heat.  Briskly simmer the squash, tossing or gently stirring occasionally until just tender (it should not be mushy!), all of the water has evaporated and the squash is beginning to sizzle in the oil—about 5 minutes.  If the squash begins to color before it is done, add a drizzle of water and continue to cook.  Scrape the squash onto a baking sheet and let cool.  
In a large saucepan of generously salted water boil the orzo until al dente—about 5 to 7 minutes.  Drain and transfer to a large, wide bowl.  Toss with a splash of olive oil.  Let cool, stirring occasionally (if you prefer, you may transfer it to a baking sheet to cool—return it to the bowl before proceeding with the recipe).
When the orzo is no longer hot, stir in the corn, salsa verde, zucchini, tomatoes, olives, vinegar and salt & pepper to taste.  If you like, drizzle in more olive oil. 

Set aside while you cook the fish.  The orzo salad can be made ahead (earlier in the day, for example).  If making more than an hour ahead, refrigerate. It is in fact better when the flavors have some time to blend and be absorbed by the orzo.  Taste again before serving and correct the flavor balance as necessary with salt, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil.
Cook the fish: Heat a cast-iron skillet or heavy sauté pan (non-stick is a good idea) over medium high heat—the pan should be just large enough to hold the fish.  If the pan is not large enough o cook all of the fish at once, either use two pans, or cook the fish in batches.  While the pan heats, dry the filets with paper towels and season both sides with salt and pepper.  Add enough oil to the pan to coat the bottom—when the pan is hot enough, the oil will slide easily across the pan—a wisp or two of smoke should be just barely forming.  If the oil smokes profusely, the pan is too hot.  Add the filets to the pan, skin-side down.  The fish will want to curl up, so press down lightly with a spatula to force all of the skin into contact with the pan.  Cook until the skin is golden brown and crisped—about 3 minutes.  Carefully turn and cook the other side until just done...a knife inserted in the thickest part of the filet should reveal a pearly opaqueness...another 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.  (If you choose a fish that is very thick, you may need to transfer it the pan to a 375° to 400º oven to finish the cooking.)  
To serve, place a large spoonful of the orzo salad on each plate and top with the fish (placed crispy, skin-side up).  Garnish with a sprig of basil or parsley, if you like.  If you have made extra sauce, drizzle some of the sauce over the fish.  Serves 6 generously.
·        Any medium textured, flaky fish may be substituted for the snapper in this recipe...barramundi, salmon, bass, etc.  You could also substitute skinless filets of cod, halibut or grouper.
·        In my original version of this recipe, I did not include the zucchini.  I also added about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of finely diced and rinsed red onion.  You may add neither or you prefer.

(Recipe adapted from Bottega Favorita by Frank Stitt)

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