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How to Cook Crispy-Skinned Fish

Seared White Fish with Crispy Skin and Charred Cauliflower

Look up. You’ll see crispy-skinned fish and blistered cauliflower. I do like my char and I spend a lot of time on this blog cooking with high heat. Mastering a controlled char on all sorts of food is the sign of a good cook. I’m not alone in thinking this, Food52 wisely lists competent use of high heat as number 23 in their list of “30 Qualities of a Good Home Cook”. Daniel Boulud writes “The Chef’s job [is] to employ heat to transform ingredients… Whether it is extracting and reabsorbing juice in roasting, or braising and reducing, or sautéeing then caramelizing – you are working the moisture in the food you are preparing, and then concentrating it… This is the  transformational aspect of cuisine.”

A great place to start a master class on cooking with high heat comes in learning to pan-fry fish that’s not steamed but actually seared. Crispy-skinned fish cooked in a blazing hot pan that won’t stick, rip, or fall apart is definitely a skill all home cooks should learn.

How to Cook Crispy-Skinned Fish That Won’t Stick to the Pan

  1. It vital you start with dry fish. Blotting both sides with clean paper towels is a good place to start. But blotting alone is not enough. Afterward, return the uncovered (and unseasoned) fillets to the refrigerator for at least one hour.
  2. When ready to cook heat a large, dry, cast-iron, or heavy-bottomed non-stick skillet until it’s blazing hot. Notice I said dry. Don’t add oil until after the pan gets very hot.
  3. Once heated carefully add oil and swirl it around the skillet. Once coated dump out most of the oil and return the pan to the heat. Don’t worry too much about the oil, all you need is the barest slick across the entire surface of the skillet.
  4. If you plan on seasoning the fish, the time to do it is just before it hits the pan. Once seasoned place the fish, skin side down, into the hot skillet. It should sizzle. You may also notice that it might want to curl up at the edges (depending on thickness). If this happens apply gentle, even pressure to the fillet with a spatula until it relaxes and lies flat. Resist the temptation to move the fillet around the skillet or peek at the underside. Cook, continuing to apply light pressure with a spatula as needed, until the flesh is nearly opaque and cooked through, with just a small raw area on top (though salmon is an exception and should get flipped when cooked halfway through). At this time the skin should have released itself from the skillet.
  5. Flip the fish, remove the skillet from the heat, and let it finish cooking about 1 more minute.
  6. Lastly, don’t crowd the skillet. Work in batches if necessary.

To get you inspired today I’ve included a crispy-skinned fish recipe that features charred cauliflower. I’ll admit when cooked together this Seared White Fish with Crispy Skin and Charred Cauliflower recipe is a rather complex ordeal. So if you’re goal is to perfect a crispy-skinned fish that doesn’t stick to the pan you don’t have to include the cauliflower in your efforts. That would involve juggling a lot of pans at one time. GREG

How to Cook Crispy-Skinned Fish

Seared White Fish with Crispy Skin and Charred Cauliflower

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Seared White Fish with Crispy Skin and Charred Cauliflower

Ingredients

  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt (divided, plus more for seasoning)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 (4 to 6 oz) skin on white fish fillets (or other firsm fleshed fish with skin attached)
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • ½ cup apple juice
  • 2 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tablespoon anchovy paste
  • 1 clove garlic (peeled and minced)
  • 1 large head cauliflower
  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • freshly ground black pepper (as needed)
  • 2 tablespoon canola oil (or other mild flavored oil with high smoking point)
  • ½ cup toasted breadcrumbs
  • 2–3 pinch crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • watercress leaves (optional, as garnish)

Directions

Make the spice mixture: Place allspice, cardamom, ½ teaspoon salt, cumin, and cayenne in a small bowl. Stir to combine and set aside. This may be made days ahead of time if you like.

Make the charred cauliflower: One hour before cooking pat the fish fillets dry with paper towels and then place them uncovered in the refrigerator to “dry”.

Meanwhile, combine raisins, apple juice, pomegranate molasses, and anchovy paste in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Gently bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 12 minutes. Pour the mixture into a medium bowl. Add the minced garlic and set aside.

Place a clean, rimmed baking sheet about six inches under the broiler. Turn the broiler to high and heat the baking sheet to scalding, at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, use a paring knife to remove and discard most of the cauliflower core in a conical shape then thinly slice the remaining cauliflower. Many of the slices will break apart into variously sized pieces as you work yielding a pile of florets, stems, crumbs, and a few delicate slabs with both florets and stems.

Place the cauliflower in a large bowl and toss with olive oil, fennel seeds, ground turmeric, remaining 1 teaspoon salt and a few big grinds of black pepper.

Using oven mitts carefully remove the hot baking sheet from the broiler. Place the seasoned cauliflower onto the sheet in as close to a single layer as possible. Try not to crowd the cauliflower or it will steam instead of char. If your baking sheet is not large enough work in batches.

Return the baking sheet to the broiler and cook about 15 minutes, tossing and stirring the cauliflower every 5 or 6 minutes to ensure even cooking. The cauliflower is finished when the small pieces are well-charred and the larger pieces are caramelized at the edges.

Once the cauliflower is properly charred add it to the large bowl with the raisin, pomegranate, and garlic mixture. Toss to coat entirely then pour the cauliflower back onto the baking sheet and broil for another 2 or 3 minutes to soften the raw garlic taste. Turn the broiler off, but leave the cauliflower in the oven with the door ajar to stay warm. Watch it while you sear the fish to keep it from burning.

Sear the fish: Remove the fish from the refrigerator and season liberally with the spice mixture on the skin side. Season the flesh side with salt and pepper. Set aside to come to room temperature.

Meanwhile, heat a large, dry cast-iron skillet until it’s blazing hot. Once the skillet is heated carefully add the oil and swirl it around the skillet. Once coated dump out most of the canola oil and return the pan to the heat. All you need is the barest slick across the entire surface of the skillet.

Place the fish, skin-side down, onto the hot skillet. It should sizzle. You may also notice that it might want to curl up at the edges (depending on thickness). If this happens apply firm, even pressure to the fillet with a spatula until it relaxes and lies flat. Resist the temptation to move the fillet around the skillet or peek at the underside. Cook, continuing to apply light pressure with a spatula, until the flesh is nearly opaque and cooked through, with just a small raw area on top. At this time it should also have released itself from the skillet.

Flip the fish, remove the skillet from the heat, a let it finish cooking about 1 more minute then remove the fish from the skillet, setting it aside to rest.

To assemble: Remove the warm cauliflower from the oven and toss it with the toasted breadcrumbs and red pepper flakes. Divide the mixture evenly between plates or shallow bowls. Top with fish fillets, garnish with watercress (if using) and serve immediately.

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