When you grow up in a mixed religion (Jewish-Christian) household, with grandmothers from both sides in close proximity, you can develop with some strange ideas. For example, my Jewish grandmother used a lot of Yiddish terms. Some, like oy and schmuck, I figured out pretty easily. Then there were words I thought were Yiddish because my Jewish grandmother used them, but my Christian grandmother did not. I was almost 20 before I discovered that the word “spatula” and the term “far-fetched” were not Yiddish. They certainly sound like they should be.
Then there were the traditions. My family eats kreplach (a sort of Jewish raviolo) on Christmas Eve. Most folks have them in soup, we have them pan-fried like pot-stickers. And, they’re served alongside my mother’s signature crab and bacon dip…made with Velveeta! As my Jewish grandmother would say, “It’s a shonde!”
Another skewed perspective happened around this time of year. Since Passover and Easter coincide (the Last Supper was a bunch of Jews at a holiday seder after all) the traditions of the two holidays melded in my mind. Christians forgo red meat during Lent, the period leading up to Easter. We seldom ate fish growing up; my mother had had her fill during the depression.
But, during Lent, my mother cooked a lot of fish (mostly canned tuna, but still, technically fish). Meanwhile my Jewish grandmother would bring home gefilte fish from the deli for Passover (she didn’t make it herself, that much of a cook she wasn’t). So, with all that seafood showing up at the same time, for the longest time I though Passover meant a sale on fish.
During college I worked as a sous chef at one of Chicago’s top seafood restaurants and that’s when I learned to love seafood and how to make gefilte fish. Whether you’re focusing on fish for Lent, health reasons (the form of protein that’s best for your body) or just because it tastes good, here are a few recipes that quick, easy and delicious. So, nu, grandma, who’s the fish maven now?
Grilled Harissa-Crusted Swordfish
This spicy Middle Eastern paste is bold enough to match the meaty swordfish and it helps keep the flesh moist. You can buy it prepared, but it’s easy to make in a food processor and will keep for a couple of weeks if refrigerated.
2 red Fresno chiles
2 red peppers
2 Tbs. coriander seeds
2 Tbs. cumin seeds
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup olive oil
2 Tbs. tomato paste
Peel if one preserved lemon
4 swordfish steaks, 6-8 ounces each
To make harissa:
Broil chiles and peppers on all sides over a grill until blackened.
Place in a covered bowl and allow to sit in their own steam for at least 15 minutes. When cooled, the peels will slide right off if you rub them with a paper towel.
Over medium heat, in a small dry skillet, toast the coriander and cumin seeds.
Place seeds, peppers, preserved lemon peel, garlic, olive oil and tomato paste, in a food processor and blend until smooth.
Transfer to a small bowl; season with salt and pepper.
To grill the fish:
Pat four swordfish steaks with a paper towel until dry, season with salt and pepper.
Place in a large dish and generously spread two tablespoons of the harissa over one side of the fish.
Place in a dish harissa side up, cover and chill at least 1 hour (can be done 24 hours in advance).
Heat grill to medium high heat.
Pat bottom side of swordfish dry and place dry side down onto a pan or plate coated with a little oil.
Place fish on hot grill.
Cook about three minutes.
Flip and cook the side with the harissa, about three more minutes.
When cooked correctly, the flesh should be about as firm as the flesh at the base of your thumb.
Transfer to a platter and serve with additional harissa.
Olive Oil–Poached Trout
Poaching ensures a moist piece of fish. All you’ll need for a sauce is the leftover olive oil and the juice of a couple of lemons. Add some crusty bread and a tossed salad and you’ve got a complete meal. If you’re unsure about removing the bones from the trout, this recipe also works wonderfully with skinned halibut, cod or monk fish.
3 cups quality olive oil
4 6–7-ounce skin-on trout fillets
Lemon wedges (for serving)
Flaky sea salt
Pour oil into a large skillet to come the side of the pan about half an inch up (enough so that at least half the fish will be beneath the surface of the oil).
Heat slowly until an instant-read thermometer registers 160°.
While doing this, let the fish come to room temperature. This is an important step, if the fish is too cold it will drop the temperature of the oil too much.
Carefully slip fish into oil, skin side down if using trout.
Maintain temperature at 160°, you might need to adjust the heat for a few seconds after you add the fish.
Cook until just opaque on surface, about 3-5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.
If using a thick fish, carefully turn over using two spatulas and cook an additional 3-4 minutes.
Using a fish spatula, transfer fish to a baking sheet, placing skin side up.
Blot away excess oil with paper towels.
Squeeze lemon juice over both sides of each fillet, season with a pinch of sea salt. Serve with additional lemon wedges and some of the olive oil for dipping bread.
Curry in a Hurry
Red curry gives this dish subtle heat and makes it feel like you’ve been cooking for hours.
2 lbs. skinless halibut or cod filets
¼ cup corn starch
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large shallot, minced
5 garlic cloves, minced or crushed
2 tsps. minced ginger
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
3 Tbs. red curry paste
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 lb. cauliflower, separated into 1-inch pieces
1 16 oz. can of chopped tomatoes
1 cup tomato juice or V8
1 16 oz. can unsweetened coconut milk
cilantro & lime
Cut fish into 2 inch-cubes, season with a pinch of Kosher salt.
Place in a plastic bag with the corn starch and toss until the fish is lightly coated.
Heat oil in a large skillet.
Place cubes of fish in individually, turning until lightly browned on all sides.
Remove from pan and set aside.
Add shallot, garlic and ginger, stirring often, until golden brown, about three minutes.
Add curry paste and turmeric; cook, stirring, until paste is darkened in color and mixture starts to stick to pan, about three minutes.
Add the cauliflower and stir until it is coated and begins to soften a bit.
Add tomatoes and half the juice.
Cook, stirring often and scraping up browned bits, until cauliflower softens and tomatoes start to break down.
Stir in coconut milk.
Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until mixture is slightly thickened and flavors meld, for about five minutes.
Add fish and pour in additional juice to cover the fish, if necessary.
Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, five to ten minutes.
Serve over cooked rice or rice noodles, garnish with chopped cilantro leaves, and lime wedges (for serving).
Mama Karlin’s Tuna Burgers
My mom wasn’t a fancy cook, but these burgers still are a favorite of mine. Don’t use the fancy whole tuna, you just flake it for this recipe anyway.
4 cans tuna, drained
2 cups bread crumbs
chopped green onion, red bell peppers and celery if you’re feeling fancy
Beat four eggs in a large bowl.
Remove top of tuna can and use it to squeeze out all the excess water from the tuna. Remove the bottom from the tuna can, rinse and set the can aside.
Add tuna to eggs (and vegetables if you’re feeling fancy) and mix thoroughly.
Sprinkle bread crumbs on top of tuna and fold in gently.
Heat a cast iron skillet.
When the skillet’s hot, add a heaping serving spoon of Crisco.
Place tuna cans in pan of melted Crisco.
Spoon tuna mixture into tuna can to come even with edge of can.
Cook 2-3 minutes, until surface against pan is crispy and lightly browned.
Place spatula under can, turn entire mixture over and cook 3-5 minutes more.
Remove can allow juice to run out and cook until firm to touch.
Place the patty on a toasted hamburger bun, serve with cocktail or tartar sauce.