Thursday, May 31, 2007

Roasted Bluefish with Fennel and Peppers

What do you get when you combine a very special occasion (my brother's rehearsal dinner), 36 hungry guests, and an 8 month pregnant cook (me)?

You get flying fish!

I only do catering for family and friends. And when I do, I try to keep it simple and stick to things I am good at: meat braises in cold weather, fish dishes in hot. There was only one little problem. I am not familiar with fishmongers in Baltimore/DC area. When I cook for my family during our visits, I get fish at Whole Foods, but I couldn't trust them on this one. They let me down before when I placed an order. Last minute they couldn't get the right product and didn't let me know until I showed up to pick it up. I am sure there are plenty of wonderful Mom & Pop fish markets somewhere in Maryland, but I had no time to investigate and didn't trust the on-line food newsgroups with the decision this big.

"Why don't we just have it shipped from Boston?" I thought. Sure, I'll have to pay for shipping, but I'll be able to buy from a fishmonger I am comfortable with. After placing a few calls, I decided to go with Captain Marden's. I knew their products well because I used to be a regular in their retail location when I worked at the MathWorks. I also know that most of my favorite restaurants get their fish from their wholesale operation, and when Boston chefs do events in other cities, Marden's is happy to ship their order anywhere in the country.

Everyone in Baltimore thought I was nuts. "Won't the fish spoil?" they said. "Nope -- it's shipped in Styrofoam boxes with industrial strength ice-packs," I replied. "What if it doesn't get here on time?" they continued. "Marden's assured me that they ship with FedEx priority overnight and the box will be in my hands at 10:30am the day of the event," I promised. "Shouldn't we have a main course contingency plan in case the fish doesn't arrive?" they pleaded. "Well," I thought, "If, for whatever reason, the fish doesn't make it, we'll eat appetizers and side dishes and call it a tapas party." Everyone finally gave up. I think they just didn't want to upset me because I was pregnant. It's funny -- people are generally nicer to you when you are expecting. I'll miss this part in another month.

The second dilemma was which fish to cook and how. I thought I had this all figured out when I did a dry run of marking swordfish on the grill in advance and then finishing it in the oven right before serving. The problem was that my parents' friends who graciously volunteered to host this even did not have a grill and the broiler was an electric type that wouldn't brown fast enough. Oh bummer -- this put an end to my swordfish idea.

Since searing fish in a home kitchen for 36 people is simply insane, I started looking for baking ideas. Baking ain't my cup of tea. It's somewhat boring and doesn't do much for most fish. One exception is bluefish with crispy potatoes dish based on Marcella Hazan's recipe. Since bluefish is so fatty and flavorful, it tastes good even when simply baked. The crispy potatoes (my favorite part of the dish) unfortunately had to go -- I just didn't have enough cast iron pans or other heavy bake ware to pull this off for 36 people. Instead, I roasted fennel and peppers and spread them on top of bluefish before serving. The fennel and peppers were roasted the day before and just reheated. So the day of the event, my life couldn't be easier.

"Did the fish arrive?" I asked anxiously as my Mom and I unloaded boxes of fig and blue cheese tarts, cured meats, cheeses, ceviche marinade, and grilled asparagus salad at our friends' house. "10:30 on the dot," they replied. Phew! I breathed a sigh of relief. Although I didn't tell anyone, I was a tiny bit nervous about it too. After all, I've never had 20 pounds of seafood shipped before. I unpacked the box to find 5 Lb of scallops (I sliced them and threw into ceviche marinade) and 15 Lb of perfectly fresh bluefish fillets. They were skinned and deboned exactly as I asked, and I couldn't have hoped for a better product.

How much did this crazy operation cost? Since I was paying whole sale prices ($5/Lb for blue and $10/Lb for scallops), even with the shipping (which added $3/Lb), I ended up paying less than Baltimore Whole Foods prices. Besides, I saved myself another shopping trip and room in the fridge.

Who knew that fish could fly so well?

Roasted Bluefish with Fennel and Peppers

Fish substitutions: Any fish fillets can be cooked this way except for really dense ones like mahi, tuna, and swordfish. Fish that work particularly well for this dish besides bluefish are sable, spanish mackerel, and halibut.

Serves 4

For the topping:
1 red, yellow, or orange pepper, sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, cored, and thinly sliced
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 whole, unpeeled garlic cloves
Chopped fennel fronds or an herb of your choice for garnish
Salt and pepper

For the fish:
1.5 Lb skinless bluefish fillet
2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

Make the topping (can be done in advance):
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F and set the rack in the bottom third.
  2. Spread the peppers in one half of a large cookie sheet and fennel in the other half. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with oil and mix to coat vegetables with oil, but keep peppers on their half and fennel on its half. Place one garlic clove in the middle of peppers and another one in the middle of fennel.
  3. Roast in the bottom third of the oven until tender and browned on the bottom, 20-25 minutes. Stir and roast until other sides develop a little browning, 5-10 minutes. Peppers and fennel might cook at a different speed. If one of them is done, remove it from the pan and continue roasting the other. This roasted veggie topping can be made up to 2 days in advance and stored in the fridge in an airtight container. Reheat in the oven for 5-10 minutes while the fish is cooking.
Cook the fish:
  1. Preheat the oven to 475F (or as hot as it will go). Set the rack in the middle of the oven.
  2. Dry bluefish well on paper towels and lay it out in a baking dish in one layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides, then drizzle the top with lime juice and olive oil. Bake just until the flakes of the thickest part separate, but a tad of translucency still remains in the center, 10-12 minutes per inch of thickness.
  3. Top with roasted veggies, sprinkle with herbs, and serve.


tammy said...

Wow. I love bluefish and that preparation sounds fabulous. I thought you were crazy to cater while being 8 mo. pregnant, and I still think you're crazy. But, it sounds like you and Cptn. Marden's pulled it off with aplomb.

Helen said...

Hi Tammy,

If it wasn't for all my helpers, I could never pull something like this off. Jason helped with shopping and carrying groceries in and out of the car. My Mom helped tremendously with cooking, and the family friend who hosted the dinner did all the table setting, flowers and desserts. And they wouldn't let me anywhere near the dishes :) If only all catering jobs were this nice...


Anonymous said...

Am I seeing olives on this fish as well? Kalamata?

Helen said...

Yup, when I made this dish at home I garnished it with kalamata olives. It's really very flexible, so you can let your imagination be your guide.

Anonymous said...

Helen, I remember when you first announced you were going to do this. I can't tell you how much vicarious fear it struck in my heart, even though I knew you would pull it off. Brava! If this doesn't get you sainthood, there is no justice.

Helen said...

First I was awarded major Yankee points from Pyewacket and now I am being promoted to sainthood by Terry -- ah, you guys are too sweet :)

But really, it wasn't so bad at all. There is really not much difference between cooking for 12 vs. 36. You just need more fridge space.