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I don't like fish, but I loved this "foolproof" tomato-poached fish

Tomato-poached fish. [MICHELLE STARK | Times]
Published Aug. 5

What's your most embarrassing food opinion?

I'll go first: I almost never voluntarily eat fish.

I know, it's weird. If someone cooks it, I'll eat it. If it's on a tasting menu, I'll eat it. It's fine. But you won't catch me ordering it on a menu over something else. Or cooking it at home.

Growing up in suburban Orlando in the 1990s, my family didn't partake in lots of fresh fish, and I never really developed a taste for it. I've long wanted to ease myself into the waters. I know enough to know what I don't know, and it's a hole in my culinary knowledge.

But I've never really known where to start. Literally. Which fish do I buy? How much? What will it taste like?

One of my colleagues has offered to teach me how to cook the fresh fish she catches off her dock in St. Petersburg. I'll make it there one of these days, and I'm excited to see the process from start to finish.

But I'm easing in with this week's dish.

Some recipes are so undeniable you can't not make them, even if it's something you're not naturally drawn to. I generally file all of Alison Roman's recipes under that umbrella.

The cookbook author published a recipe in the New York Times recently for a "foolproof fish dish."

Roman uses just a few ingredients — tomatoes, garlic, shallots, olive oil — to poach a piece of white fish, promising the simple dish will be suitable for fish beginners. At this point, I would trust Roman with my life in the kitchen; her recipes burst with flavor and creativity, even when they only contain four ingredients.

So I went for it. With the recipe in hand, I stopped by Whole Foods on my way home. I figured the employees at the fish counter would be able to answer any questions I had.

Roman suggests fluke, halibut or cod for this recipe; a co-worker wondered if something like grouper would work, too. I scanned the fish case. Halibut was the only mild-tasting white fish on display. I learned the fish is firm and meaty yet mild in flavor, and when cooked it has a flaky texture. This particular halibut was from Alaska.

At home, I unwrapped the 1-pound piece from brown paper and got to work.

After the first step, I could tell things were heading in a foolproof direction. Roman has you cook shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes in a pool of olive oil, a concoction so aromatic and irresistible I could have slathered it on my shoe and it would have tasted good.

Tomatoes go in next; the more you can let them cook directly on the surface of the pan, allowing them to get slightly blistered, the better.

The fish is poached in those tomatoes, just for a few minutes. I was surprised how quickly it cooked, a refreshing change of pace from monitoring chicken breasts in the skillet.

I removed the fish to a shallow bowl, placing it on a bed of those sauteed tomatoes and drizzling it with that shallot-garlic oil. Lots of herbs helped to cut all the oil and savory flavors.

I took a bite. It tasted like fish.

But it also tasted like soft tomatoes and spicy red pepper flakes and cooling mint, the poaching liquid just slightly fishy in a pleasing way, the shallots and garlic offering crunch to balance the flaky fish. Yeah, I'll definitely be making this again.

Tomato-Poached Fish

¼ cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 small shallot, thinly sliced into rings

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 pound small, sweet tomatoes, halved

Kosher salt and black pepper

1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)

1 ¼ pounds fluke, halibut or cod, cut into 4 equal pieces

1 cup cilantro, tender leaves and stems

½ cup mint, tender leaves and stems

Limes, halved, for serving

Tortillas, toast or rice, for serving (optional)

Heat olive oil in a large skillet (use one with a lid) over medium-high heat. Add garlic and shallots and cook, swirling the skillet constantly until they are starting to toast and turn light golden brown, 2 minutes or so. Add red pepper flakes and swirl to toast for a few seconds. Remove from heat and transfer all but 1 tablespoon of the oil mixture to a small bowl.

Add tomatoes to the skillet and season with salt and pepper. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the tomatoes burst and start to become saucy and jammy, 5 to 8 minutes. Add fish sauce (if using) and 1 ½ cups water, swirling to release any of the bits stuck on the bottom of the skillet.

Cook until the sauce is slightly thickened but still nice and brothy, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Season the fish with salt and pepper and gently lay the pieces in the brothy tomatoes. Cover the skillet and cook until the fish is opaque and just cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes (slightly longer for a thicker piece of fish, like halibut).

To serve, transfer fish and brothy tomatoes to a large shallow bowl (or divide among four bowls). Drizzle with reserved bowl of chile oil, more olive oil and the crispy shallots and garlic. Top with cilantro and mint and serve with limes for squeezing over the top. Serve with tortillas, toast or rice, if you like.

Source: Alison Roman

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