For Christians, Lent is a time for quiet reflection. For austerity. For repentance.
But mostly it’s a time for fish.
Catholics and members of some other denominations choose to eat fish instead of meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday until Easter. (For the Orthodox denominations, adherents generally refrain from eating meat or fish on weekdays throughout their Lenten season.)
So the question is: How to make the fish?
Around here, the first choice, obviously, is fried. It is hard to go more than a couple of blocks in the area without running into a church or a VFW hall that is holding a Friday fish fry.
But what if you’ve had all the fried fish you want? What if you want fish — even if you don’t observe Lent — but you crave something a little more ambitious than fried?
That’s where we come in.
I tried making fish four different ways: with a flavorful sauce, lacquered in the Japanese style, marinated in herbs and spices, and baked in an exceptionally simple sauce.
How simple? It’s just mayonnaise mixed with garlic and a minced chipotle pepper from a can.
It doesn’t get easier than that, but it also does not get more flavorful.
According to the book “Food and Life of Oaxaca,” this is how fish is prepared in a tiny village in southern Mexico called Estero. What they discovered there is something I did not know or guess: Mayonnaise is a perfect medium for marinating fish.
As the fish roasts, the mayonnaise keeps it astonishingly moist and flavorful; it essentially self-bastes throughout the cooking process. It is great for smoothing out and softening the spice of the chipotle, or any other spice you’d choose to use, I would imagine. And most of it runs off the fish while it cooks, so it is less fattening than you might think. But no less delectable.
Next, I made the prettiest dish of the four, baked salmon with watercress sauce. The orange salmon sits in a pool of bright green purée, and it tastes every bit as delightful as it looks.
The salmon is salmon — it’s hard to beat. It’s briefly seared on top, and then roasted to perfection. That’s simple enough.
But what makes this dish stand out is the sauce. Though the title calls it a watercress sauce, it actually has more spinach than watercress. That’s a good thing, because watercress has a sharp, peppery flavor, and too much of it would overwhelm even a fillet of salmon.
Oh, and there’s a little bit of cream in it. Everything tastes better with a little bit of cream in it.
For a particularly elegant fish dish, I turned to the late Michel Richard, who had been considered one of the very best chefs in America.
Richard had a dish that started with swordfish, which is always an excellent idea. Slightly sweet for a fish, swordfish also has a pleasing texture that is vaguely reminiscent of meat.
But what makes this dish so startlingly flavorful is what Richard does to it — and you can, too. It’s simple, actually.
Inspired by a Japanese dish of lacquered eel, he applies the same method to the swordfish. You first sear the fish on one side, then pour in soy sauce, cover, and cook until done. The whole thing only takes a few minutes, but the soy sauce forms a glaze on the fish.
Then you just top it with a tempting heap of green onions cooked in ginger, sesame oil and a little more soy sauce. A sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds adds an enchanting final touch.
My last offering is more of a preparation than a specific dish. Chermoula is a spicy marinade used throughout North Africa. You just mix up a batch, marinate any one of a number of relatively bland types of fish for an hour, and roast.
Periodic basting keeps the fish moist.
This is a bold-flavored marinade, mixing several assertive ingredients together into an unexpectedly harmonious whole. On the one hand, you have spices: cumin, paprika, crushed red pepper. On the other hand, you have herbs: parsley and cilantro. Everything is tied together with olive oil and an all-important dose of lemon juice.
This is an all-purpose marinade, especially useful for fish and seafood, but also good with meats and vegetables. You can use it with salmon, shad (if you can find it), swordfish, haddock, halibut or perch.
I used it with catfish, because it was the least expensive option. If you’re ever looking for a way to class up some catfish, this is the way to go.