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Learn to cook seafood yourself for swimmingly simple Lenten-season dinners

02/05/2013 1:21 PM

03/14/2013 2:39 PM

PARIS -- Living in France has meant that my once passing fancy for all things that swim has exploded into a very big love. From picking out the tiniest of bulots (sea snails) with needlelike tools and cracking open the claws of a fresh-caught homard (lobster) to learning that the best way to enjoy raie (skate) is with a simple lemon, butter and caper sauce, I have fallen hard. I find myself visiting the poissonnieres more often than I do the butcher, because I've learned that fish -- which I once believed was a tricky thing to make -- is one of the easiest and healthiest dinners you can make.

And supersonic fast. Mussels? Just a few minutes, and they're steamed and ready to serve. Salmon, into the oven at high heat, usually takes less than five, depending on the cut. White fishes like flounder, cod, sole and snapper, ditto.

Fish is simple, elegant food.

If you replace meat with fish during Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13) but rely on restaurants to prepare it, try cooking your own this year.

The key is to find great fresh fish, then not overcook it.

Which is easy to do, wherever you are.

For those of you who are timid about fish, fear not. Fish isn't finicky; it just requires you to pay attention. Close attention. If you're one of those people who likes to throw something on the stove and then leave the room (and you know who you are), please don't do this to fish (or to anything, really). You'll end up with fish that's overcooked and dry, and when this happens, there's not much you can do to save it.

Enough of what not to do. Here are few tips on how to make fantastic fish every time.

Before buying any sort of fish, check to see what species are currently in season and plentiful, and not on any watch list as being overfished or harmful in any way. The Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org) post updated lists of sustainable seafood and what to avoid buying.

Buy only fish that have clear eyes and the faint scent of the sea. Never buy fish that smells "fishy," as counterintuitive as that may sound.

Tell your fishmonger what you're planning to make and ask which fish would be best. Lots of the white fishes may be easily swapped out for one another, so he or she may guide you to a suitable choice that's readily available.

If you're not sure about how to cook a particular fish, just ask an expert. Many years ago, I remember buying a piece of fish and wanting to cook it en papillotte ("in paper") to impress a guy I was dating. This was before the Internet, and I didn't have a cookbook that gave me any sort of instruction, so I just picked up the phone and called one of Dallas' top restaurants and asked to speak to the chef. To my surprise, he picked up the phone and was really happy to walk me through the (very easy) steps of steaming fish in parchment paper. I couldn't believe how easy it was, and my date? Totally impressed.

Keep a pair of tweezers in your kitchen drawer to remove pin bones. Although most fishmongers do this for you, it's always good to double-check and pull out any that were missed.

When in doubt, undercook your fish. I know I've said this already, but there's nothing worse than overcooked fish. I like my fish pretty rare and take it out at the first opportunity and I suggest you do the same; if it's not cooked enough for you, pop it back in for just a minute or two. To avoid a mistake, be sure to use your timer. Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of "Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent" (Running Press, $25). www.cowgirlchef.com; @cowgirlchef.

Salmon with cherry tomato salsa

4 (4- to 5-ounce) salmon filets, pin bones removed

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Sea salt and pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

2 green onions, chopped

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered

2 teaspoons capers

Splash of red wine vinegar

2 large leaves of fresh basil, chopped

1. Preheat oven to broil and place a rack to the middle. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2. Lightly coat salmon filets with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place on the cookie sheet. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

3. To start the salsa: Toss the garlic, green onions and red pepper flakes in a medium skillet with another tablespoon of olive oil and turn the heat to medium-low. Let this cook until you can smell the garlic, 3 to 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and capers and let them cook until tomatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes.

4. When the tomatoes are soft, place the salmon in the oven and set the timer for 4 minutes (this should give you a medium-rare filet). While the salmon is cooking, add a splash of red wine vinegar to the skillet and 1/2 of the chopped basil. Remove the salmon and serve with a heaping spoonful of salsa on top; garnish with the rest of the basil.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 211 calories, 11 grams fat, 4 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, 59 milligrams cholesterol, 126 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.

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