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Crispy Pan-Seared Fish with Piquillo Pepper Sauce

Why This Recipe Works

by Tim Chin

For a lot of cooks, it can feel like the difference between succulent, moist fish and dry, flaky pucks is a matter of seconds in the frying pan. At that point, why even try to do it yourself? But cooking a restaurant-worthy piece of seared fish at home doesn’t have to be hard. There are two secrets that make it a cinch.

The first? Salt your fish before you cook it. As with most other meats, pretreating the fish with salt accomplishes two things. One, salt seasons the flesh by diffusion, as it moves from an area of greater salt concentration to an area of lower concentration. Salt dissolves in the water in the flesh and moves inward, seasoning the fish deeply. Two, salt actually dissolves some of the proteins in the fish and forms a gel that can hold on to more moisture. In this short salting time, the effect is mostly contained to the exterior portions of the flesh—the very regions most likely to be overcooked. (Salting also drastically reduces the dreaded white band of coagulated albumin that appears when fish is seared). All that science lingo comes down to a simple process: Season sturdy whitefish filets with a mixture of salt and sugar (for balanced seasoning), let it hang out for a little less than an hour, and cook it.

The second secret is going low and slow. Instead of searing the fish hard and flipping it or even finishing it in the oven, opt for a gentler cooking method: Start in a hot pan and drop the flame to maintain an even, steady sear. Cooking the fish most of the way on the skin side—an old-school, fancy French technique dubbed “unilateral” cooking—ensures that the skin gets incredibly crispy while the flesh stays moist. After that, a gentle kiss of heat on the flesh side is all the fish needs to finish cooking. With a quick, tangy tomato-pepper sauce, this is a versatile dish you can whip up any night of the week to impress even the pickiest pescatarian.

Photography by Steve Klise

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds fresh sweet cherries, pitted and halved
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour, plus 1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces)
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 large eggs
2/3 cup (4 2/3 ounces) plus 2 teaspoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Instructions

Serves 4

We prefer whole milk in this recipe, but 1 or 2 percent low-fat milk may be substituted. Do not substitute frozen cherries for the fresh cherries.

1. Adjust oven racks to lowest and upper-middle positions; place 12-inch skillet on lower rack and heat oven to 425 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place cherries, cut side up, on sheet. Roast cherries on upper rack until just tender and cut sides look dry, about 15 minutes. Transfer cherries to medium bowl, toss with lemon juice, and let cool for 5 minutes. Combine 2 teaspoons flour and cinnamon in small bowl; dust flour mixture evenly over cherries and toss to coat thoroughly.

2. Meanwhile, whisk eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, vanilla, and salt in large bowl until smooth and pale, about 1 minute. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup flour until smooth. Whisk in cream and milk until incorporated.

3. Remove skillet (skillet handle will be hot) from oven and set on wire rack. Add butter and swirl to coat bottom and sides of skillet (butter will melt and brown quickly). Pour batter into skillet and arrange cherries evenly on top (some will sink). Transfer skillet to lower rack and bake until clafouti puffs and turns golden brown (edges will be dark brown) and center registers 195 degrees, 18 to 22 minutes, rotating skillet halfway through baking. Transfer skillet to wire rack and let cool for 25 minutes. Sprinkle clafouti evenly with remaining 2 teaspoons sugar. Slice into wedges and serve.

4. Adjust oven racks to lowest and upper-middle positions; place 12-inch skillet on lower rack and heat oven to 425 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place cherries, cut side up, on sheet. Roast cherries on upper rack until just tender and cut sides look dry, about 15 minutes. Transfer cherries to medium bowl, toss with lemon juice, and let cool for 5 minutes. Combine 2 teaspoons flour and cinnamon in small bowl; dust flour mixture evenly over cherries and toss to coat thoroughly.

5. Meanwhile, whisk eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, vanilla, and salt in large bowl until smooth and pale, about 1 minute. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup flour until smooth. Whisk in cream and milk until incorporated.

6. Remove skillet (skillet handle will be hot) from oven and set on wire rack. Add butter and swirl to coat bottom and sides of skillet (butter will melt and brown quickly). Pour batter into skillet and arrange cherries evenly on top (some will sink). Transfer skillet to lower rack and bake until clafouti puffs and turns golden brown (edges will be dark brown) and center registers 195 degrees, 18 to 22 minutes, rotating skillet halfway through baking. Transfer skillet to wire rack and let cool for 25 minutes. Sprinkle clafouti evenly with remaining 2 teaspoons sugar. Slice into wedges and serve.

7. Adjust oven racks to lowest and upper-middle positions; place 12-inch skillet on lower rack and heat oven to 425 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place cherries, cut side up, on sheet. Roast cherries on upper rack until just tender and cut sides look dry, about 15 minutes. Transfer cherries to medium bowl, toss with lemon juice, and let cool for 5 minutes. Combine 2 teaspoons flour and cinnamon in small bowl; dust flour mixture evenly over cherries and toss to coat thoroughly.

8. Meanwhile, whisk eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, vanilla, and salt in large bowl until smooth and pale, about 1 minute. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup flour until smooth. Whisk in cream and milk until incorporated.

9. Remove skillet (skillet handle will be hot) from oven and set on wire rack. Add butter and swirl to coat bottom and sides of skillet (butter will melt and brown quickly). Pour batter into skillet and arrange cherries evenly on top (some will sink). Transfer skillet to lower rack and bake until clafouti puffs and turns golden brown (edges will be dark brown) and center registers 195 degrees, 18 to 22 minutes, rotating skillet halfway through baking. Transfer skillet to wire rack and let cool for 25 minutes. Sprinkle clafouti evenly with remaining 2 teaspoons sugar. Slice into wedges and serve.

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