Observe Lent with meatless meals

Red snapper fillet on spring greens with vegetable vinaigrette garnish makes an elegant Lenten dish. BY JACK CLEMONS
February 27, 2012

Earlier this week, people around the world celebrated Mardi Gras, the eve of the Lenten season. In Rio, the wild revelry of Carnival (derived from the Latin for “removing meat”) is in stark contrast to the weeks that follow. For many, the tradition of Lent is observed with prayer, sacrifice and service, including the practice of abstaining from meat.

When we were growing up, meatless meals were served every Friday during Lent. Some of my most vivid childhood dining memories include such culinary delights as frozen fish sticks and tuna noodle casserole. Eating fish wasn’t a pleasure when we were younger, except for the rare opportunity at a birthday dinner to order lobster from the crowded restaurant aquarium - it must have been the bibs and butter.

Times have changed and there’s ample availability of high-quality fresh seafood. Here in southern Delaware, sources range from the roadside stand selling just-caught fish to the local fishmongers. When I started thinking about cooking a special menu featuring fish, I turned to Big Fish Market in Rehoboth Beach.

In this narrow retail space adjacent to the Big Fish Grill, customers line up to buy sauces, salami, sandwiches and seafood. Gorgeous slabs of tuna steak, gleaming salmon fillets and huge shrimp filled the showcase, but I was looking for a whole fish. The young man behind the counter made a quick phone call and asked me to wait while he went next door to raid the restaurant’s supply.

He returned with two beautiful red snapper, so fresh their translucent scales still glistened. We were ready for the grand experiment: salt-crusted roasted snapper. Instead of the traditional seafood dishes that rely on precut fillets or steaks, we thought it would be an interesting change to work with the entire fish (providing, of course, I wouldn’t be required to eat all the parts).

You may have seen this dish served as we did at Esca in New York City. A tray holding a golden mound is brought to the table.

Knife handles, mallets or other heavy objects crack open the crusty shell to reveal a steaming whole fish.

The next step requires skill; it’s tricky to find the exact location where the ribs will separate from the flesh, but if the cooking time is accurate, the flakey fish fillets lift away from the bones. Typically served on a bed of greens, the moist fish is infused with herbal notes and just a hint of salinity.

I consulted various sources to develop an approach that would work for the home cook, finding advice that ranged from building a thick salt sarcophagus to creating a sturdy shell thin enough to let the heat penetrate. The work of the salt is to form a crust that performs like parchment paper to steam the fish within. If the crust is too thick, the fish remains raw.

Aromatic herbs - in this case parsley and thyme - and a few lemon slices are tucked into the cavity before the salt covering is added.

If I’d thought the hammer and screwdriver approach to breaking the shell was restaurant theater, I now know otherwise. The egg white mixed with salt bakes into an almost brick-like hardness.  I found success using the pointed end of a paring knife to poke a fissure in the crust, which I then widened by hitting the knife handle with a meat mallet. Once we had a nice fracture, I grabbed chunks of the crust with tongs. To reach the fillet, I slid a boning knife along the backbone and down between the ribs and flesh. I was a little sloppy with the spatula trying to lift off the fillet, which is why the pieces look a bit random (see photo). A simple vinaigrette of tomato, capers and cucumber added just the right texture contrast to the succulent snapper.

I’ve included the recipes we used for this dish, along with another menu idea for a meatless meal: potato-crusted fish fillets prepared two different ways. Enjoy!

Salt-Crusted Snapper
2-lb whole red snapper
3 sprigs parsley
3 sprigs thyme
3 lemon slices
3 1/2 C kosher salt
3 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Gut and scale the fish; rinse and set aside. Sprinkle 1/2 C of salt on a baking pan and cover with a strip of parchment paper about the same width as the fish. Place the fish on its side on top of the paper. Tuck the herbs and lemon slices into the cavity. In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining 3 C of salt with the egg whites until mixture is like damp sand. Using your hands, completely cover the fish with the salt, pressing down to tightly pack; make sure the coating is no thicker than 1/2 inch. Bake until the crust is hard and golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. When ready to serve, crack the crust and remove. Using a fish knife or spoon, separate the fillet from the backbone and ribs to serve. Yield: 2 to 3 servings.

Vegetable Vinaigrette
1 diced tomato
1/3 C peeled and diced cucumber
1 T capers, drained
1 t olive oil
1 t lemon juice
1 t chopped parsley
salt & pepper, to taste

Whisk ingredients together in a small bowl; serve over grilled fish or chicken.

Potato-Crusted Salmon
1 russet potato
1 lb salmon fillets
2 T olive oil
2 T Dijon mustard
1 T snipped chives
salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 450 F. Peel and grate the potato onto a clean kitchen towel. Pull together the edges the towel and squeeze to remove excess moisture; set aside. Rinse and dry the salmon. Place the fillets, skin side down, on a piece of waxed paper. Spread the fillets with mustard; sprinkle with chives. Arrange grated potato on each fillet, spreading to cover; press  potatoes onto the fillet to help adhere to the mustard. Sprinkle sparingly with salt and pepper, to taste. Heat oil in an ovenproof skillet over medium. Add the salmon, potato side down, and cook for about 5 minutes. When crust begins to firm up, use a spatula to turn over the fillets. Place the skillet in the oven until the salmon is cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes. Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

Potato-Crusted Tilapia
1 or 2 red potatoes
1/2 t basil
1/4 t paprika
1/4 t garlic powder
1 lb tilapia fillets
1 egg
1 T butter
1 T olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 F. Using a mandoline, slice the potatoes into 1/8-inch-thick rounds; set aside in a bowl of water (to keep potato slices from browning). Combine basil, paprika and garlic; sprinkle half the seasoning mixture over fillets. Gently beat the egg in a small bowl and brush seasoned fillets with egg wash. Arrange 6 to 8 potato slices over the top of each fillet to cover. Heat oil and butter in an ovenproof skillet over medium. Place the fillets in the skillet, potato side down. Repeat the seasoning, egg wash and potato on the other side of the fillets. Cook about 5 minutes, or until the potatoes are beginning to brown. Carefully turn over the fillets and place skillet in the oven until fish is cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes. Serve with lemon slices.

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