All of my favorite restaurants in the land serve some version of tender, moist, flaky fish over a bed of greens. As the people in my household are not fans of fish, I never tire of ordering it when dining out. In fact, it tickles me that certain friends accuse me of trying to go low-cal or of being, after all is said and done, a “borderline vegetarian,” but nothing could be further from the truth. I plain and simply love a perfectly prepared fish entrée.
On a recent trip to Cleveland, which may be at the moment even more of a food mecca than Louisville, I had a version of the recipe that follows: a pecan-encrusted tilapia. This, in turn, was similar to various editions of a fish entrée I’ve had at 211 Clover Lane, still my favorite dining spot in the region. All of these have been served over a bed of gently wilted greens — sometimes baby spinach, sometimes arugula. Other baby greens work just as well.
You’ll notice that my recipe uses red snapper. For years there has been an ongoing brouhaha over the notion of whether red snapper is really red snapper. In this column I have written before about how the demand for this fish has led in some places to over-fishing and in others to fraudulence. Many grocery stores will give the name red snapper to any white fish carrying just a hint of pinkness. Often it is labeled “ruby snapper.” The rule, as ever, is to buy your fish from people who actually know what they’re selling. Trust the locally owned and operated seafood markets around town rather than the chain supermarkets.
Although any fresh, firm-fleshed white fish will work wonderfully well in this recipe, it is particularly suited to snapper because of its natural sweet, nutty taste. Its texture holds up well both to grilling and frying. But what makes it even easier to handle is if you allow the nut breading to adhere for a while to the fish before frying it. Mind you, this is not a deep fry, but you do want the oil at exactly the right temperature, and it is essential that you not crowd the fish in the frying pan, as you want it to be crispy and crackling, not steamed.
The greens over which this fish will be served I have to attribute to my friend Alan. One day last fall we were having a chat about how addicted we both are to arugula and how sometimes I go get a big handful of it out of the fridge to have for a snack. He one-upped me by telling me that his very favorite way to dress the greens is to sauté them for just the minimal amount of time (i.e., until the very second the arugula begins to wilt) in a miniscule amount of olive oil with just a dot of garlic, then drizzle it with lemon juice. Most days of the week this is now part of my lunch or dinner, and if I’m eating alone, it’s the entire meal. I never get bored with it. It’s always refreshing. And it looks even prettier than spinach as a pillow for the fish to rest on.
One final reason to have this dish is that it is the best excuse ever to delve into the thing that makes summertime sing: white wine. And my current favorite white wine is Pinot Gris from Alsace. Too many casual quaffers believe that Pinot Gris is just the French version of the Italian Pinot Grigio. Wrong! Even though they’re made from the same grapes, they are grown in such different kinds of soil in completely different climates that they are about as similar as red snapper is to swordfish. Try it; you’ll see. Specifically, I want to recommend, if you can get your mitts on it, Jean Albrecht Pinot Gris Reserve 2008.
For the breading:
1 cup breadcrumbs
2 cups pistachios
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pulse all of the ingredients in a food processor until they are medium fine. Put the mixture on a flat platter, and set it aside. ½•
For the fish:
4 red snapper fillets
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
½ cup each olive oil and canola oil
In a shallow dish, combine the eggs and milk and whisk them together until slightly foamy. Put the flour into a separate dish. Dredge each snapper fillet in the flour until it is well-dusted. Pat off the excess flour. Dip each floured fillet into the egg wash, wetting the entire fillet, then place in the pistachio breading mixture. Lightly press the mixture onto both sides of the fillet with the palm of your hand. Remove and shake off the excess. Set each one aside on a dry plate or cookie sheet (lined with wax paper) until all the fillets are breaded. If you have time, it works best at this point to refrigerate the fish for about an hour before bringing it back out to fry.
Heat the oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Sauté the fillets until golden brown. Sauté only two at a time so that the oil does not cool down.
For the bedding:
1 large bunch arugula
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small garlic clove, minced
The juice of one lemon
In a separate pan (preferably copper), heat the olive oil over medium heat. It should be hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and stir once. Gently stir in the arugula and drizzle it with the lemon juice. Remove the pan from the heat immediately and divide the arugula among four plates. Serve each snapper fillet over its own little bed of arugula. Serves four.
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