Today we’re introducing our new cooking advice column, Dear Liza, penned by Liza Queen, who, though she might humbly deny it, is one of the pioneers of the New Brooklyn food scene. In 2005, she opened her first restaurant in Greenpoint called Queen’s Hideaway, which quickly attracted a cult-like following and transcended easy categorizing, save for its reliance upon Greenmarket fresh foods. A rent hike sent her packing, and she landed for two years in Vietnam before boomeranging back to Brooklyn to open Potlikker, where she fused the Vietnamese techniques she’d learned with her already unique, Southern-tinged style of cooking. Now she is between restaurants–and fortunately for us, answering questions from inquisitive home cooks. Send her your questions here.
What are some of your favorite ways to prepare fish?
I’ve put more thought into this than a lot of other ingredients, as the sad truth is that I rarely crave fish in the way that I crave crustaceans. Give me a perfectly cooked Diver scallop and I will love you forever. Set a mountain of crab or lobster in front of me and I become Paul Prudhomme on the cover of The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, a couple hundred pounds heavier, and ready to take on all comers, nuthin’ but a fat man in overalls and a blur of spittle, fingers and mouth.
The thing you notice, when you go about trying to educate yourself about seafood and cooking by reading cookbooks, is that so many fish recipes are preceded by rapturous prose followed by a dead simple recipe, with maybe four ingredients besides the fish, and two of them are salt and pepper. So you see, what they are really saying is, be lucky enough to live next to a very bountiful and unpolluted body of water and then eat only seafood that has been caught that morning.
Short of this, if you do have beautiful fresh, flakey white fish like flounder or trout, that’s just maybe slightly shy of not alive-this-morning fresh, then I am a big fan of just pan-frying the thing in a light dredge of either flour, cornmeal, cornflakes, rice flour, corn starch, or some combination thereof. You can fry them whole or as filets, but filets are, for obvious reasons, simpler to deal with for the less experienced.
Like most seemingly simple cooking techniques, pan-frying a fish well is actually pretty damn difficult to do if you haven’t spent at least some time at the burners. Your initial high heat must be perfect, and you must be able to tell when to adjust this heat so that it doesn’t burn before it cooks. This requires a certain degree of confidence, as well as experiential knowledge. Despite this lengthy disclaimer, I truly believe that pan-frying a fish is something that should rightfully be in everyone’s personal repertoire. Though this feeling may well just be a result of reading too much Americana flotsam. Regardless, here’s what you need to know.
First off, and this is true for any technique you have not yet mastered, do not be timid. Do not be afraid of getting burned or fucking it up. You may well do both, but you will definitely not make the same mistakes twice. And in this painstaking way, creating a backlog of mistakes you plan to not make again, you will become skilled.
With that in mind, prep your fish. Bring it up to room temp-ish, dredge in the coating of your choice, and season with kosher salt and black pepper. You can, of course, use any dry spice mix that you like, such as a Cajun mix, but since you started with a nice fresh fish, I tend to try to keep from using any spice mix that would overwhelm the flavor of your fish. Of course, if you kind of hate fish, but you are trying to eat more of it, a heavy spice mix may be beneficial! Just beware of dried chili dropped into hot oil, as you can end up accidentally pepper-spraying the hell out of yourself.
Have butter and vegetable oil or grapeseed oil at the ready, and pick a fry pan big enough to fit your fish comfortably. If you crowd the pan, the fish will steam and the outside of your fish will not get all golden brown and crispy. Let your pan heat up on a burner on med-low for at least 5 minutes, then crank that sucker all the way up (if you are working on a home burner).
First off, and this is true for any technique you have not yet mastered, do not be timid. Do not be afraid of getting burned or fucking it up. You may well do both, but you will definitely not make the same mistakes twice.
Here is the tricky part: You are going to want to turn your heat down a little bit at some point fairly soon after your fish has gone in. How do you judge this? Well, the best indicator is the smoke, but by then it is usually too late. Once you have done this enough times, you will know; by the sound, the smell, and how fast the bubbles are going around the sides, but in the beginning, let it fry for maybe 30-45 seconds and then take a peek at the bottom. If it is starting to get golden and your fish is still quite raw, then turn it down a bit. When it is cooked almost halfway through (fish is very friendly in that you can easily see, on the sides, how much it is cooked by looking at the line of cooked vs. raw), flip it, away from you.
Remember, when you turn it over, that this fat is incredibly hot, and even a small splash will hurt more than you’d like, and even worse if you happen to be the kind of moron that flips a hot trout towards you and you end up burning your left boob. Or you know, something less specific. Also, you may need to add more butter and oil.
Remove from the pan when it is aaalllmost done, onto a paper towel to drain.