One of the oddest questions I get when serving fish is, “Does this fish have bones?” My answer is always, “Assume it does.” I answer that way to encourage people to eat slowly, to eat as if it does have bones, because all fish have bones. Even when you buy a boneless fillet of fish, you can’t be sure it doesn’t have a stray bone.
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For the most part all fish in this country, except fish from ethnic markets, is sold as fillets or steaks. Whole fish are hard to find and when you do find them, the selection often is limited to trout or sea bass. Most people who like fish are hesitant about buying and cooking whole fish because they’re not sure how to cook it and not sure they know how to eat it.
You’ll see evidence of this whenever a host or restaurant serves a fillet of fish with a fish knife. That’s silly because one does not need a fish knife with a fish fillet. One uses a fish knife only with whole fish. The purpose of a fish knife is to remove the flesh from the backbone and to scoop sauce on top of that flesh.
I also have noticed a lack of knowledge about fish species and a tendency for cooks to complicate a preparation. Fish can be cooked quite simply because when it is fresh, very little adornment, if any, is needed.
Here are three fish preparations that novices can make. The first is a baked fish that includes a recipe because it is a bit more involved than the other two, but not hard. The second, a griddled fish, and the third, a fried fish, are so simple they don’t require recipes.
- 2 pounds swordfish, in one piece, 3/4- to 1-inch thick, skin removed
- ¾ cup dry bread crumbs
- 8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley plus more for garnish
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Cut the swordfish into four pieces. Slice each piece horizontally, keeping the pieces matched. The reason you are doing this is because a layer of seasoning will be put between the two halves like frosting in a layer cake.
- In a bowl, prepare the seasoning by mixing together the bread crumbs, anchovies, garlic, oregano and parsley, and moisten with the olive oil. This bread-crumb coating should look like wet sand.
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Lightly oil a 12-by-9-by-inch baking casserole. Arrange the four bottom pieces of the sliced swordfish in the casserole and coat them with half the bread crumb mixture. Lightly salt and pepper. Layer the four top pieces of swordfish over the bread-crumb coating and then lightly salt and pepper. Spread the remaining bread-crumb mixture on top of the top layer of swordfish. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top and put it into the oven until the crust is a golden brown and the fish is springy to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with parsley and serve.
You can make this with cod or red snapper too. Figure on 6 ounces per person. Preheat a cast iron griddle or skillet over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Rub both sides of the fish with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place on the griddle and cook for 10 minutes, turning only once with a spatula, making sure you just leave the fish on the griddle without fiddling with it, touching it or turning it.
A good rule of thumb when cooking fish on the griddle is to cook at this heat for 10 minutes per inch of fish measured at the thickest part. Serve with a wedge of lemon and garnish with parsley.
This can be made with any fish fillet. In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, heat ½ cup extra virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the fish fillets on both sides in fine dry bread crumbs. Carefully place into the skillet (so the oil doesn’t splash) and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 8 minutes in all. Serve with salt, pepper and a wedge of lemon.
Main photo: Baked swordfish with golden crust. Credit: Clifford A. Wright