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Breaking the Rules: Fish with Red Wine

tilapia fillets Veracruz-style, with smoky salsa, onions, garlic, alfonso olives, red wine and fresh za'atar or "wild thyme"

One way to cook fish well using red wine

Wine is something I drink mostly for taste, not volume–I can’t really hack a lot of alcohol at once, blame my ancestors–but I do like wine tastings, even though I have to limit myself to about three small sips per glass if I don’t want to wobble out the winery door. Focusing on the flavors in a wine, and comparing several side by side, sharpens your palate and makes you think very specifically about what you’re experiencing. It’s rewarding even for someone with my drinking limits.

I also like to cook with wine, maybe more often than I like to drink much of it. Decent wine has such a complex combination of flavors that when you figure out how to do it well, cooking with wine can make even rapidly cooked dishes come off like serious Slow Food.

We hear a lot about long-cooking stews and coq au vin and so on, but many simpler and less time-consuming dishes benefit from smaller amounts of wine. Adding a couple of spoonfuls of dry white wine to mustard vinaigrette tempers the sourness, the garlic and the mustard sharpness a little and gives the sauce a quiet depth. And if my experiment with giant favas marinated in rosé and rosemary was any indication, we should be thinking about wine a lot more often and a lot more creatively as a cooking ingredient.

So I’ve been on the lookout lately for clear and simple techniques for cooking with wine without wasting it, and for doing it in less than a three-hour stew, because to me that’s slow-food-slow in large crowd-feeding quantities, to be attempted a maximum of once a year. I want better, more sophisticated-tasting food fast, using at most half a cup to a cup of wine, not a whole bottle, and preferably without huge cleanup.

But these days, when so much of the cookbook aisle in your local independent bookstore is taken over by Food Network Channel collateral, cooking with wine is almost a lost art. Most of the popular TV chefs aren’t even doing it anymore. Everyone’s gone sorta-Asian (but without Martin Yan’s shaoxing wine-wielding expertise or sense of humor) or sorta-Middle Eastern or bacon-filled-Tex/Mex or wishful-thinking-Indian-or-Moroccan wannabe (if I hear the words “ras el hanout” mispronounced one more time by any TV chef, anywhere…)

Most of those cuisines don’t include wine as a regular ingredient because of religious restrictions against alcohol, which I fully respect, or, in the Tex/Mex case, because wine doesn’t go with football (the true religion of Texas, although if you see the documentary Somm, you might be surprised at how many American master sommeliers and exam candidates are former football players.)

The new vegan and vegetarian cookbooks don’t consider wine at all, as far as I can tell, even though there are plenty of  vegan-approved wines and organic wines touted throughout Whole Foods (and even a few at Trader Joe’s). And a number of seitan and bean or lentil dishes (and certainly Roman-style lentil soup) would probably do all the better for a tinge of red, white, or rosé, either in the sauce or as a marinade ingredient.

Even the French- and Italian-trained chefs don’t use wine on TV very much, and if they do they don’t really explain it–why they chose that particular type of wine, how much to use and why, how to get the best flavor out of it in the dish, what else you could make using the same technique. Or else they’re kind of wasteful about it, using a whole bottle of wine for a single dish. Most people cooking for themselves would balk at that. Should balk at that.

It bothers me that I don’t actually see a lot of solid advice about cooking with wine, or at least not specific techniques that make sense in a home kitchen with a standard family budget.

Where am I going to get this advice? Not from the churn-a-minute Food Network chefs, clearly. Not from Harold McGee, either. To my great surprise, he devotes a total of about three paragraphs to “cooking with alcohol” in his food science books. The most interesting thing he says, other than to make sure and boil out the alcohol (duh) is that tannins will concentrate unpleasantly if you boil down a tannic red wine, but adding a protein to pick them up will tame them.

But since most of my uses for wine so far are to do with fish, I guess I’m already doing that…

As you might expect from some of my odd microwave-centric ideas, I tend to cook fish with wine in ways that probably seem unorthodox to anyone professional. For one thing, I cook several kinds of fish with red wine (sound of Francophile traditionalists screaming, then fainting in shock).

Because I cook fish a lot more often than I cook any kind of meat or poultry, I care that it tastes bold and satisfying.  Just because fish (other than bluefish, I guess) is more delicately flavored than meat doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve or can’t stand up to garlic, salsas and other strongly-flavored accompaniments like red wine. If you have doubts–think sushi: wasabi, soy sauce, ginger–all pretty strong, yet they enhance rather than mask the individual flavors and textures of the raw fish and even the rice.

There seem to be only two traditional French restaurant approaches to fish with wine: poaching whole fish in large amounts of water with wine and stock ingredients, or else pan-frying the fish, removing it to a plate, and deglazing the pan residues with wine (and adding in cream or butter) for a quick sauce. So I can see why they wouldn’t reach for reds in either case, but still. Both techniques leave a lot to be desired.

Poached fish is a little too “delicate” for me, certainly too slow, and frankly really boring to eat. Plus–long-boiled fish? Aren’t you boiling out most of the flavor into that huge vat of liquid? You are.

The worst salmon I ever ate was a poached hotel restaurant salmon at Universal Studios during a long, drawn-out conference planning meeting that I couldn’t get out of. Good g-d, that salmon was chalky. And flavorless. And lukewarm. And slow to arrive.  What a waste! Simply grilling it would have taken about two minutes, sealed the juices in, and added some much-needed flavor, even without garlic. It would have been a lot better (unless they overdid it or let it sit around for 45 minutes).

The fry-remove-deglaze thing might work well enough for single-diner amounts of chicken, beef, pork or shellfish at a restaurant with very efficient line cooks, but it’s not something I’d be happy with at home. Regular fins-and-scales fish are often much more temperature-and time-sensitive than chicken or beef. Tuna and other steaky fishes are particularly difficult to deal with; once you get them just-cooked-through you need to serve them right away or they turn to rubber–hence the restaurant popularity of seared ahi tuna that’s still raw or “rare” in the center.

I’ve learned the following small techniques for cooking fish with wine by trial and error. But I like them, they’re easy on time and the pocketbook, don’t require you to mispronounce any fancy French wine names, and they taste good.

Particularly with fish, a little wine goes a long way. I’m not a fan of boiling down a whole bottle of wine for any dish, and I want the alcohol definitely cooked out, fast–within a couple of minutes, not hours–so I don’t dump in large amounts of wine at a time. For my patience level, it would be like sitting around watching a pot of water boil, only redder.

And fish usually does best if you cook it as quickly and lightly as possible, in minimal liquid–fried, grilled or steamed is usually better-tasting and better-textured. Pouring large amounts of wine that take a long time to boil down over fish that should not be boiled at all, much less in large quantities of liquid, is just nuts. So these techniques do the opposite of most of the French-leaning cookbooks and web demos.

But fish with red wine? I don’t feel like there’s a serious barrier to using red wine unless you really care that it’ll stain the fish. It probably will; so what? As long as it tastes good. We can break the unthinking hotel and restaurant rules at home and add red wine–and deeper flavor–to fish if we feel like it.

My idiotically simple prune and wine strategy for pan-cooking red tuna steaks probably makes the most sense to anyone who hasn’t already tried it, and the tuna comes out tasting a little like brisket, only much, much faster.

Red or Yellowfin Tuna Steaks in Red Wine (Prunes Optional)

Heat up a spoonful of olive oil and a grated clove of garlic in a nonstick frying pan. After a few seconds and before the garlic turns golden or starts looking dried out, pour in a bit of red wine–quarter of a cup, maybe–plus (optional) a couple of chopped prunes, (not optional) a handful or so of sliced onions and (essential if you can find it) a sprig of thyme or fresh za’atar. If you’re going with prunes, or even if you aren’t, a couple of cloves stuck into a larger scrap of onion (easier to remove before serving) are really good in this. Let the wine cook down a minute or so until the pan’s nearly but not quite dry. Pour in a couple more spoonfuls of wine and let it go a little further until the onions look like they’re cooking through and are taking on some of the wine color at the edges.

When it gets down to a spoonful of liquid again in the pan, sear the tuna steaks on both sides in the almost-dry “glaze”. Sometimes I add a couple of drops of low-sodium soy sauce and let the glaze bubble up a second or two just before I put the fish in. Don’t let the fish cook all the way through on heat because dried-out tuna is agony. Instead, microwave the tuna steaks between two plates for 20-30 s at a time to get the middle just opaque but still juicy, and then serve it immediately if not sooner.

Variation (no microwave)–slice the raw tuna steaks into ribbons, following the muscle marks more or less. Heat the wine and garlic and oil and so on with a little low-sodium soy sauce as above, toss the ribbons of tuna in when the sauce is hot and fairly cooked down but not absolutely dry, and stir-fry just until browned on the outside and cooked through.

White Steaky Fishes and Artichoke Hearts Pan-cooked in Wine (Red or White)

If I’m pan-cooking steaky white fishes like albacore or mahi mahi, and the only other things going into the pan are garlic, onion, olive oil and thyme, marinated artichoke hearts, or maybe some chopped fresh tomato, I would probably reach for a drizzle of white wine first if we have some, preferably chardonnay rather than something much lighter. As with the red tuna steaks, start the pan with the olive oil, garlic and/or marinated artichoke heart quarters, some onion slices and thyme, and toss them until the artichoke hearts and onions (and optional tomato pieces) just start to color–a squeeze of lemon will make them brown faster on medium-high or high heat. Add a drizzle of red or white wine, whatever you have, and let it cook down considerably, until almost dry. Add the fish steaks and sear on both sides, leaving them raw in the middle quarter-inch, and either microwave the fish and artichoke mixture between two plates for 20-30 seconds at a time until just done or let the fish sit in the frying pan on the hot but turned-off burner for a couple of minutes, maybe with a lid on, to finish cooking through more gently.

If you use red wine, the artichoke hearts and onions will take on some of the purple from the wine, and the fish will probably crust greyish-to-brown on the outside (but a much better-looking brown if you add a little lemon juice to the pan). But it will taste good as long as it’s not overcooked, and cold leftovers are nice the next day too.

Softer White Fishes with Red Wine

But what about the more delicate fishes, like snapper or tilapia? These fish can also stand up to bold flavors, and they do better with longer cooking on low heat than the tuna-type fishes do. Cod, unfortunately, probably wouldn’t work as well for the following–it loses too much of its moisture too quickly and turns to leather if you’re not watching it, and the cod I can get out here in Pasadena sometimes produces an ammoniac aftertaste.

tilapia fillets Veracruz-style, with smoky salsa, onions, garlic, alfonso olives, red wine and fresh za'atar or "wild thyme"

Tilapia fillets Veracruz-style, with smoky salsa, onions, garlic, alfonso olives, red wine and fresh za’atar or “wild thyme”

 

Veracruz-Style Tilapia or Red Snapper

Heat garlic in olive oil a few seconds. You can add onions and a little red wine  and cook down until the wine’s down to a spoonful and the onions are browning if you want.

Onions, garlic, and red wine cooking down in olive oil before frying fish fillets

Onions, garlic, and red wine cooking down in olive oil before frying fish fillets

Then add the fish fillets skin-side up and brown on both sides on medium-high or high heat.

Tilapia fillets frying, skin side up

Tilapia fillets frying skin side up on top of the onions and garlic. The wine I added to the pan has cooked down to nearly a film before I added the fish.

As soon as you flip the fillets skin-side down in the pan, surround the fillets with a drizzle or so of red wine and a large dollop or two of smoky tomato salsa (and/or chunky tomato sauce if you’re trying to keep the spiciness down). Add a few pitted Greek-type olives and (optional) marinated artichoke hearts yet again and/or a chopped carrot or so. I don’t have any capers in this; you could add a few if you like them. Cover the pan and simmer on very low heat for 10-15 minutes until the fish is cooked through.

Variations (not spicy) Substitute mushrooms and onions for the salsa and olives, but keep in the garlic and thyme or za’atar (or some sage). Chopped tomatoes/carrots/onion/celery/potatoes/zucchini/etc. also works with red wine. Both options give you a quieter winter stew-type dish with depth.

So in any case—I wrap this wine-and-fish diatribe up with my best wishes and “bon appétit.” Try it–I hope you’ll like it.

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