Lent is a time when less can mean more, especially in the kitchen. Going without need not be faced with a frown. Let dietary restrictions spur creativity and boost flavor, however modest the meal.
Fish, for those whose faith traditions permit it, can come to the rescue during Lent. Lucy Waverman, co-author of "The Flavour Principle" (Harper Collins, $35), soon to be published in the United States, and Susanna Hoffman, co-author of the new "Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors" (Workman, $19.95), have plenty of ideas about fish and how to punch up both flavor and presentation during Lent -- and year-round.
"People get stuck with fish. If all they know is to bread and fry it, that's all they'll do," says Waverman, a Toronto-based author and food columnist for The Globe and Mail newspaper. "Fish is so easy to cook, there (are) just a few basic rules."
Waverman says the easiest way to cook thicker pieces of fish, like halibut, Alaskan black cod, salmon or wahoo (ono), is to place them on an oiled baking sheet and bake in a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes per inch of thickness. You can alter the flavor by brushing on various sauces and pastes, she adds, from a green Thai curry paste to a basil pesto to a barbecue sauce.
"Or you can get more sophisticated and use fresh herbs chopped up and some garlic and brush that on," Waverman says. "You can turn it into a one-dish meal. Slice some potatoes and onions, put them in a baking dish and cook for 15 min
utes, then put the fish on top and cook."
Thinner fish need lower heat for best cooking, she notes, adding that subtler seasoning accents also seem to work better with these types of fish.
"Asian flavors are often too strong," Waverman says. "But a pesto, anything herbal, or frying them works well."
One of Hoffman's favorite tricks is combining fish in a dish, such as fresh salmon garnished with smoked salmon and a watercress cream sauce.
"Don't be afraid of cream sauce," she says, adding that it depends, of course, on whether you can eat dairy products during Lent. As for cheese, Hoffman says the general rule is not to use it with fish, but she believes the saltiness of Parmigiano-Reggiano works.
Think, too, beyond serving just fillets and pieces of fish that have been baked, grilled or fried. Hoffman says there are seafood chowders, casseroles, patties and even tacos (there are lobster tacos in her book) you can experiment with.
Living in Telluride, Colo., Hoffman prepares a lot of trout. She prefers to serve it whole and finds the body cavity makes a wonderful pocket for various stuffings, such as crab with shaved fennel and arugula. Another favorite trick: wrapping seafood in nori or grape leaves when cooking.
Whatever you do, don't overcook seafood. Waverman says fish should look opaque. "A little bit of a shiny center is fine," she adds.
SPICY FISH CAKES WITH ZESTY CITRUS SAUCE
This Thai-inspired recipe is adapted from "The Flavour Principle" by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol. Use haddock, whiting, cod or any white firm-flesh fish (shrimp is another option) for these cakes, which may be deep-fried instead of pan-fried, if desired. The authors use this dish as a first course to an all-fish, all-Asian dinner menu, but you could serve it with a watercress salad for a light Lenten meal.
Prep: 30 minutes
Chill: 1 hour
Cook: 4-6 minutes per batch
Makes: 8 cakes, 4 first-course servings
1 pound skinless haddock fillets
1/4 cup chopped green onions
2 tablespoons each, chopped: lemon grass, cilantro
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon each: fish sauce, Thai red curry paste
1- 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 cup thinly sliced long beans or green beans
2 tablespoons oil
Zesty citrus sauce, see recipe
1. Cut fish into cubes. Place in a food processor or mini-chopper with green onions, lemon grass, cilantro, cornstarch, fish sauce, curry paste, lime zest and juice, sugar and egg. Pulse in short bursts until mixture is a smooth paste. Stir in long beans. Cover; refrigerate, 1 hour.
2. Roll mixture into 8 balls, a little more than 1/4 cup per ball. Press each ball flat to form a cake.
3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry cakes in batches until brown, 2-3 minutes per side. Add more oil to pan as needed. Drain cakes on paper towels.
Nutrition information per serving: 192 calories, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 20 g protein, 815 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
ZESTY CITRUS SAUCE
Sambal oelek chili paste may be found in Asian markets, specialty stores and some supermarkets.
Combine in a bowl: 1/4 cup water; 2 tablespoons each: chopped fresh mint, lime juice and lemon juice; 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon brown sugar; 1 tablespoon fish sauce; 1 teaspoon each: grated lime zest, grated fresh ginger and sambal oelek chili paste. Let sit for 1 hour before serving.
Makes: 1/2 cup
WHITEFISH FILLETS WITH LEEK, KUMQUATS AND SWEET WINE
A recipe from "Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors" by Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise. Substitute blood or naval oranges if you can't find kumquats or a Seville orange.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
4 whitefish fillets (6 to 8 ounces each), such as halibut or sea bass, 3/4 to 1 inch thick
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Kosher or fine sea salt
1- 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, white and light green parts, cut into 2-inch-long shreds, rinsed, drained
6 to 8 kumquats or 1 Seville orange, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sweet muscat wine
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the fillets in a baking dish large enough to hold them in 1 layer; sprinkle them on both sides with the lemon juice and salt. Set aside in the refrigerator until ready to cook, up to 2 hours.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the leek and kumquats; cook until barely wilted, 1 minute. Stir in the wine, orange juice and bay leaf; heat to a boil, still over medium heat. Cook until the leek and kumquats are well wilted, 2 minutes. Pour over the fish, spreading the leeks and kumquats out evenly. Place the baking dish in a 450-degree oven; bake until the liquid is bubbling and the fish flakes easily when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.
3. Remove the bay leaf and serve right away, garnished with the chives and a sprinkle of black pepper.
Nutrition information per serving: 319 calories, 16 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 34 g protein, 96 mg sodium, 2 g fiber