There's always a thrill of pride when you figure out how to coax some restaurant-only type dish out of your own humble kitchen. And find out how it's been within reach all along. Blistered loaves of bread, say, or an airy souffle. Or perfectly seared fish.
I have come a bit of a ways from my always-overcooked-all-the-time method of fish preparation (the secret: pull it from the heat just before you think it's done, a method I long heard but only recently followed). But even though my technique improved, I could never get that perfect treatment I found in restaurants, where the fish is butter-soft and just barely flaking, yet the skin is a beautifully crisped omega-filled chip. What sort of kitchen wizardry are they using?
Turns out it's surprisingly user-friendly. All you have to do is get a good piece of fish, glug of oil, and use a ridiculously high heat. I picked up a fillet of steelhead from a local shop, followed the instructions carefully laid out on this blog, paired it with a tangle of salad made from a fennel bulb and dollar bag of arugula, and turned out a meal worthy of any restaurant (and if the blog and my own home's case study are any indication, this restaurant-worthy assessment will be a universal reaction). Who knew that simply turning up the flame (and conquering my fear of fire/oil burns) would yield such an amazing result? It's the sort of kitchen magic that should be trotted out at dinner parties (except for the whole smell-of-hot-oil-and-fish part), but it's also the sort of kitchen magic that you should bust out any time you get a good piece of fish. It's the sort of magic that's going into the regular kitchen rotation.
Perfectly Seared Fish with Fennel Arugula Salad
inspired by Kenji Lopez-Alt, as prepared by The Amateur Gourmet
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon meyer lemon juice, or mild vinegar
salt and pepper
2 handfuls arugula
1 small bulb fennel, or 1/2 large bulb fennel, shaved into thin slivers
1 orange, supremed into sections
1 handful olives, pulled into pieces
3/4 pound skin-on fish fillets, all pin bones removed, cut into two pieces
2-3 tablespoons high heat oil, such as grapeseed or canola
salt and pepper
Take the fish out of the refrigerator, and let sit at room temperature for a few minutes to take the chill off. Mix together the dressing ingredients until combined. Toss the salad with the dressing, and divide onto two plates.
Blot the fish dry with paper towels or brown paper bags, and season each side with salt. Heat a large skillet or two small ones over a high heat. Add the oil, and let get really hot, almost to the point of smoking (handy tip: when the oil's hot, if you stick a wooden spoon in it should bubble vigorously around the edges). Add the fish, skin side down, and turn down the heat just slightly. Cook until the skin detaches from the skillet, and the fillet slides around a bit when you shake the pan (~2 minutes). If it's a thick fillet, wait another minute past this point, then flip the fillets with a spatula (in order to avoid dramatic fires that can result from hot oil splashes, I pull the pan away from the burner for the few seconds it takes to execute this maneuver). Cook on the other side until the fillets are cooked through, another two minutes or so, depending upon thickness (Lopez-Alt recommends cooking to 120 degree internal temperature, but I just went by sight and then tested them).