Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Halibut in Indian-Spiced Tomato Sauce: Judith Finlayson's "Delicious and Dependable Slow Cooker Recipes"

So I got in another fight with a fishmonger...

Rarely do I take a slow cooker recipe and turn it into a stove-top recipe. Usually I go the other way, preferring stewed foods to simmer for longer at a lower temperature, not to mention the no-stirring, fuss-less, set-it-and-leave-it advantages of the slow cooker.

But sometimes a recipe looks so good and so tasty even though I just don't have the time to cook in the morning or early afternoon, that I have to make it anyway. Judith Finlayson really only puts good recipes in her slow cooker books, so when I wanted to make a spicy fish dish I even vetoed Madhur Jaffrey's bible, "Indian Cooking" in favour of a generically-named halibut in "Indian-spiced" tomato sauce. As if there are only a handful of Indian spices...Still, the recipe was not oversimplified, and because it was a slow cooker recipe originally, it called for whole spices instead of ground, which makes it more authentic in my books.

onion, diced
garlic, minced
gingerroot, minced
1 long red chili pepper, seeded and diced
2 whole cloves
2 pods of green cardamom (you can apparently also use white but I've never even seen white cardamom before)
1 2-inch cinnamon stick (mmm...delicious when it unfurls and you can suck the sweetness out like a lollipop)
1/2 - 3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 can tomatoes
potatoes, peeled and diced (a few medium-sized)
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 1/2 lbs halibut cut into 1-inch pieces

The deal with the fishmonger food fight was this:

Basically the halibut was too expensive so I bought lotte instead. Lotte is the French word for bellyfish. I would never have bought it if I'd known it was bellyfish, also known as monkfish. Very, very unsustainable, says Seachoice.org. Still, I'd specifically heard it was a good substitute for halibut in Indian recipes and here I was looking for just that. It was less expensive, and I knew the halibut wasn't exactly sustainable either, so I figured either way would be a bad choice, and this was maybe the lesser of two evils. In the end it was just my naiveté that resulted in a fight.

I said I wanted a pound and a half. The woman slaps a big bone-in fillet on the scale. It's a good 2 pounds. "No," I say, "Less, please." The woman gets noticeably angry. What did I do? I point to a smaller fillet. She says, "That won't give you enough. Do you want the bone removed?" I think about it..."Yes." I'd just have to remove it for the recipe anyway to chop the fish into cubes. "Well if you remove the bone it won't be enough," she stated bluntly. I insisted on the smaller fillet. "But you asked for a pound and a half." Yes, I know, but isn't it my right to change my mind? The customer is always right, remember? I really don't have a good idea of how much a pound and ahalf of fish is until I see it, and upon seeing it, I knew it was too much. She gives me this dirty look and says, "How many people is it for?" I say, "Four," and she gets exasperated and repeats, "IT's not enough!" I say it's going to be stewed so it's not going to be a standard portion per person. You don't need as much. She demands I tell her the whole recipe. Just give me the gosh-darn (edit...) smaller fish, and take the gosh-darn bone out. "Have you ever made this before?" she asked. "Yes!" I lied. "Do you want the bone?" "Yes! I will make stock!" There were no "thank-you"s or "have a nice day"s involved in this transaction. I took my bag of fish and got the heck out of there. I have no problem being resentful since their store is over-priced and snobbish anyway. They just have a monopoly in the area. Poissonnerie Atwater is a horrible place where lobster is $9.99 a pound even in lobster season when it should be $6.99, the staff are opinionated, often wrong, and rude. Most importantly, rude. I'm tempted to walk up the hill to the grocery store 5 Saisons where the fish is not as good but there's a chance I'll be treated with a little more respect.

Okay, I'm done.

So the recipe is basically a delicious tomato sauce (which I would happily make just for pasta, being way more flavourful than a traditional sauce because of the cinnamon and cloves) with the fun additional of potatoes (omit the potatoes if you just use this as a pasta tomato sauce) topped with pan-fried, breaded fish. The breading is optional, really, and the only reason I did it was because I wanted the spice it's mixed with. The flour soaks up a lot of oil, but you need the oil so the spices don't burn. In the end you don't really taste the spice on the fish anyway, so next time I don't even think I'll use it. Or, instead of frying, I'll grill the fish. That way you skip the flour and the spices won't burn as easily. You could also bake the fish, or steam it. It just needs to be plopped on top of the tomato sauce in the end. Really you could even do fillets of it. I was wrong that it gets stewed with the tomato sauce, so there's no real point to chopping it into smaller pieces except that it browns all around the edges. For a more elegant presentation I would definitely just leave it as serving-sized fillets.

The funny thing about slow cooker fish recipes is that the fish very rarely actually goes in the slow cooker. Fish are a bit tricky because you want to make sure you kill bacteria (not easily assured with low temperature cooking) and not cook very long (kind of counter-intuitive of slow cooking).


heat a little oil over medium in a large skillet or pot with a lid (lid is only necessary if you're using the stove-top method not the slow cooker method). Add some diced onions (as much as you want) and cook them until they're soft. Then add the garlic and gingerroot (again, as much as you want), as well as the hot pepper, cloves, cinnamon stick, cardamom, salt and pepper. Stir for one minute to let the spices absorb some oil and coat the onions, then pour in the 28oz can of tomatoes with their juices. These can be canned whole tomatoes with their juice that you've chopped up roughly, or diced tomatoes, or even crushed tomatoes. I personally think diced or crushed is better because it gives a thicker sauce, but just don't throw in whole canned tomatoes with their juice unless you're going to crush them well with your spatula. Bring the skillet to a boil and either transfer the whole contents to the slow cooker and then add the potatoes (slow cooker version) or add the potatoes to the pot and reduce the heat to medium-low to let it simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. If you're using the slow cooker, set it to low for 8-10 hours or high for 4-5. The difference here is 15 minutes stove-top versus 10 hours slow cooker, but you know the flavours of the whole spices will be much better in the slow-cooker. Even on the stove-top I let the sauce cook longer, maybe an extra 30 minutes or 45 at low heat) adding about a cup of water along with the tomatoes to compensate for their desire to burn.

Now for the fish: In another large skillet heat a little bit more oil on medium-high heat. On a plate combine the flour and spices. Roll the cubed fish in the mixture and then toss the pieces into the hot oil. Throw out the remaining flour later when you're cleaning up. Don't pour it into the oil too. The less you use, the better. It just clumps up. The fish should get nicely browned. The trick is to cut even cubes so all the fish cooks evenly, and you don't end up with some under-cooked and some over-cooked fish. There should be a nice firm exterior because of the browning and a tender interior. The fish is done after just a few minutes and you need to check it by cutting into it. The inside flesh should be delicate, tear apart easily and no longer be translucent. It should not have the chewy texture of chicken, or, god forbid, steak. You've over-cooked it if it's like either of these things. Try again next time. It should almost fall apart in your mouth with minimal chewing. If your fish is fresh, the risk of under-cooking is minimal anyway. When you're chopping it into cubes you want to remove the fish from its package or bag first, wash it, pat it dry with paper towels so the fish juice doesn't run all over your kitchen and contaminate your counters and floor, and then do the chopping as quickly as possible. Then store the fish in a sealed container in the fridge until you're ready to use it. Don't leave it at room temperature. It's okay to take it out of the fridge 5 minutes or so before using it, to let it come to room temperature, but you never want to leave it sitting out while you spend an hour doing something else. Oh, and it's also really important to make sure it's dry before you dredge it in the flour. If it's still wet the flour will clump and not brown properly. You'll end up with fish coated in oily goo. Not so delicious.
So now presumably the fish is cooked and all you do is take a big spoonful of tomato/potato mixture and top it with the beautiful turmeric-coloured fish. Optionally top it with cilantro for garnish and enjoy Indian pasta. You can also make a side dish of my favourite saag, but don't use kale like I tried to this time. It was way too bitter and tough. Swiss chard or spinach is much better. If you forget that the dish has potatoes in it and think you need another starch and make rice because it's an Indian meal, serve it along side so you can eat it with both the saag and fish separately, like a tiffin box or thali plate would keep them separate. You don't want all the sauces mixing until they get INTO your stomach. Then it's a sauce free-for-all.