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Recipes and Stories

11 February 2016: Lenten Restraint in the Kitchen—Baked Fish with Lemon and Crumbs

Baked Fish simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon, and topped with nothing more than a little parsley and breadcrumbs tossed in olive oil. When the cooking is simple, it exposes every element and makes it important.

For most people, Lent, the ancient Christian season of penitence and atonement that began yesterday, is a time for giving up things – a bad habit or indulgence of some kind – most commonly, something that we love to eat or drink. It is also a time for curbing richness, which means giving up butter, cream, pastries, and desserts, and cutting back, if not altogether eliminating, the consumption of red meat.

This would not, therefore, seem to be a season for cooks.

And yet, it remains my favorite season for cooking. While abstinence and restraint are certainly part of the discipline, the real purpose of Lent is more about refocusing one’s attention than it is about fixating on what one isn’t doing or eating. After all, focusing on what you aren’t doing is just another kind of self-indulgence.

Well, I’m no theologian, and will leave what this discipline does for the soul to them. What it does for the cook is simply make us more conscious of what we do cook and eat. When, for example, my mother drastically cut salt from her diet, she discovered the innate sweetness that most vegetables contained, and noticed even more how much of a difference freshness made. Salt, whose job in the pot is to draw out flavor, had actually been covering some of it up for her.

Of course, the flip side of simplicity is that it exposes inferior ingredients and indifferent technique. As Italian cooking maven Marcella Hazan, once observed, “People think because a recipe is simple means it’s easy. This is not true: if you have a recipe with only two ingredients and you make one mistake, you are in trouble, no?”

In other words, the fewer ingredients, the more important each one of them becomes, and the more care we have to take with it. Consider, for example, a simple little thing like breadcrumbs. Most of us have a box of store-bought crumbs in our pantry, taking for granted that something so innocuous and simple is not very important.

And yet, when we go to the trouble of making our own, there’s a marked improvement in flavor, reminding us that even the simplest ingredient is important. And when they’re really exposed, as they are in the recipe that follows, they’re no longer insignificant, but can make or break the finished dish.

Baked Fish with Lemon and Crumbs

One of the great staples of Lent’s table is fish. These crumb-topped fillets are a good example of how good simple cooking can be, but only if the fish is impeccably fresh and good to begin with and the crumbs are of the best quality.

Serves 4

Extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs, preferably homemade (see method)
4 fresh fish fillets (preferably locally caught flounder, snapper, grouper, or shad)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
2 lemons, 1 cut in half and one cut in wedges
1 tablespoon chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450° F. Put 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When the oil is warm, sprinkle in the crumbs and toss until they’re coated evenly. Turn off the heat.

2. Rub the bottom of a baking dish that will snugly hold the fish in one layer with olive oil. Pat the fish dry, put them into baking dish, skin-side down, and season well with salt, pepper, and few drops lemon juice. Sprinkle the parsley and oiled crumbs evenly over fish.

3. Bake until the fish is cooked through and the crumbs are toasted, about 8-15 minutes, depending on thickness of fillets. Serve at once with lemon wedges.

Homemade Dry Breadcrumbs

Even if the ready-made boxed crumbs were from good bread (they aren’t), their texture and flavor is never as good as those that are homemade, and making your own is not enough trouble to justify taking the short cut. Here is my method.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Trim the crust from stale, unflavored (without sugar, herbs, garlic, cheese, olives, etc.) European-style bread and cut into 1-inch cubes. Spread the cubes on a rimmed baking sheet in one layer. Bake, stirring occasionally, until dry and crisp and just barely golden. Let them cool completely. In batches, transfer to a sealed freezer bag and crush to crumbs with a rolling pin. You may also process in a food processor fitted with a steel blade until evenly ground. Keep in mind that the dry, crisp bread is likely to scratch the sides of the plastic work bowl over time. If you want to keep that from happening, go to the trouble of crushing them by hand. Dry crumbs keep indefinitely when stored in airtight tins.

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