What’s for dinner? Crispy Fish With Tomato and Leek Saute

“So, what exactly is a leek?” Mr. Brooks asks in the relative darkness as I stand and stir by the light of the stove.

“Sort of like a green onion,” I say. “But a green onion on steroids — it devotes so much energy growing huge and oversize that it hardly has any taste left. Like the Muscle Marys at the gym.”

“Ah,” he says, and wanders off.

Crispy Fish With Tomato and Leek Saute, from Real Simple, May 2009

Crispy Fish With Tomato and Leek Saute, from Real Simple, May 2009

Partly because of successive extreme heat warning days, I’ve been vigilant about closing the plantation shutters on the kitchen window to block out harsh afternoon sunlight and the accompanying heat. However, because they decided it was a good idea to install recessed lamps when they redid the lighting in here a few years ago, switching on “the kitchen light” means actually switching on nine halogen bulbs, which all emit their own extreme heat. (Sure, they’re on a dimmer switch — almost every damn light in the house is on a dimmer switch, just in case you want soft romantic lighting in, say, your laundry room. The gays love their dimmer switches.)

So tonight I am cooking using only the lights on the stovetop vent and the pot rack over our rolling kitchen island. (In case the nine halogen lamps weren’t enough, there are two more in the pot rack, another two above the main kitchen sink, and one “accent light” on its own switch. If you turn them on all at once, it’s like you’ve walked onto the surface of the sun.)

I am also trying the stove’s Convection Roast option tonight; my hope is that it will heat up quicker and cool down faster once cooking is done, since it’s the air swirling around that’s heated to 400 degrees, not the whole oven. If I were braver I might even try tonight’s recipe on the gas grill outside, but I’ve never cooked tilapia before and don’t want to mess it up.

Truthfully, I am sort of dreading tonight’s meal. Last night’s disaster has me second-guessing my culinary skill level, for starters, and for some reason the first words that always come into my mind when I think tilapia are “trash fish.” In my head they’re on the same bottom-feeding level as catfish, and apparently not incredibly healthy on the fish scale. (Get it?) However, this guy disagrees. So do these doctors.

Tonight also involves cherry tomatoes, one of my least favorite items in the produce department. I have tried to like them — and their allegedly sweeter, smaller brethren, grape tomatoes. But when tomatoes are just-heated, as in this saute … think back to the last time you realized, “Oh, God, I’m going to throw up now.” Chances are it was prefaced — just barely — by an awful, warm, slightly acidic taste flooding your mouth. That is exactly what tomatoes cooked in this manner taste like, to me.

So, between issues with what’s going into my stomach, and what already tastes like it might come out of it, I’m not really looking forward to this one.

Cost of ingredients: $11.17 plus tax. Deceptive pricing alert: I already had the Dijon mustard (remember?), bread, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. And I planted a rosemary bush out back with the grapevines, so I could use fresh herbs in recipes like this. It grows like a weed here.

Substitutions: Man, that gluten-free bread is getting a workout. Tonight it’s in place of the white bread. And because it turns out I only had taken one big leek (my God, I can’t believe I waited that long to use that) at the farmers market, I supplemented it with — what else? — green onions.

As easy as they said? Many of the dishes lately have been taken from the “easy” category, but this one really nails it (except for dirtying a food processor to mix the bread, rosemary and olive oil). It’s another one-foil-lined-pan, one-pot night, but seriously, it’s “sprinkle bread crumbs on fish and bake.”

How’d THAT go over? Well, the convection oven was a big hit — the heatup and cooldown were indeed quicker, and I would like to say that the rush of air made the fish a bit crispier. But it didn’t — instead the fish was extraordinarily soft, with little flaking at all. It almost had the texture of a silken tofu. The breadcrumbs made it delicious. The vegetables? Well, eating the tomatoes was a grim duty, and I am at a loss to explain what leeks bring to the table that green onions don’t, except for bulk. Maybe a lack of bite/bitterness?

Would I make it again? The fish, yes. I was surprised how much I liked tilapia, but I think to ease my worries I might at least once try a different white fish — one I am less hesitant about — and see if the taste turns out similar. The vegetables? Eh, probably not.


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