Growing up Catholic, I ate fish before it was cool to eat fish.
On Fridays, I ate Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, tuna noodle casserole mortared with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, or fish patties made from those cans of salmon with the big bone down the center. And during Lent (which begins this year on Ash Wednesday, March 6), I had fish for 40 days and 40 nights.
I first realized that pain is the name of the game for Catholics when, one Friday night, I saw my mother making her famous halibut “steaks.” She flung slices of frozen halibut onto a baking sheet as though they were horseshoes. Then she’d dab some mayonnaise on each and top that with a squirt of ketchup. A half hour in the oven and, um, dinner.
Over time, my mother taught herself to be a fabulous cook, but in those days she was just shoveling food into the mouths of nine kids, a husband and a Great Dane. Her oven was like Noah’s Ark: everything entered in pairs. Two hams. Two pans of scalloped potatoes. Two peach pies. Our family would go through two loaves of bread, two gallons of milk and a jar of peanut butter a day.
When I was young, it was a mortal sin to eat meat during Lent. A mortal sin was serious business. If you committed one and, say, crossed the street and got run over by a truck before you went to confession, you went straight to hell.
Then, around 1964, the pope decided that it was OK to eat meat during Lent (except for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and that it wasn’t a sin anymore. You tell me.
It’s no surprise to me that so many Catholics (or, better said, recovering Catholics) are in the food business as chefs, restaurateurs, purveyors and cookbook authors. We are trying to make amends for a childhood of apple brown betty, lime Jell-O with dabs of Miracle Whip, Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts, Rice Krispie and marshmallow squares, Chex party mix, lima beans and carrot and raisin salad.
I don’t believe Catholic eating habits changed because of the openness of the pope. I think everyone — pope to pauper — just got tired of eating awful food.
And today, the fish is different. Canned tuna tops a salade nicoise nowadays and rarely makes for a casserole. We eat crab cakes instead of fish sticks, or a whole, fresh salmon off the grill. We never eat salmon out of cans — unless we want to.
You have heard of the “10 minutes an inch” rule for cooking fish, that whatever the method, cook it for 10 minutes for every inch of thickness of the flesh.
But it’s better to learn to cook especially flaky and firm-fleshed fish such as halibut or tuna by touch rather than by time or temperature. Fat content, firmness of the flesh (or how delicate or lean the flesh is), how direct the heat, whether the skin is left on, and other factors all matter to how properly the fish is done.
Push down with your fingertip on a piece of fish as it cooks and gauge its resistance. It’s a difficult rule to learn, but fish that is cooked to medium-rare — the preferred doneness, as far as chefs think — will feel like pressing the inside base of your thumb when your palm is nearly stretched out.
Salmon and Orzo With Oranges and Olives
From Renee Enna, Chicago Tribune; makes 6 servings
- 2 salmon fillets
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup pitted black olives, chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh basil, minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon each: honey, orange juice
- 1 orange or tangerine, peeled, seeded, divided into segments
- 1 cup orzo, cooked according to package directions
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, optional, see note
Heat broiler to high; place rack 6 inches from heat. Season salmon with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and pepper to taste. Place salmon on foil-lined broiler pan; broil until almost done, about 8 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, mix olives, basil, oil, honey, juice, remaining 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Add orzo; toss to coat. Transfer to a platter. Break salmon into large chunks; place over orzo. Sprinkle sesame seeds over all, if desired.
Note: To toast sesame seeds, place in a dry skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring, until light brown, 1-2 minutes. Watch carefully to avoid burning.
Reach Bill St John at firstname.lastname@example.org