- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Many of my friends are talented on more than one level. Take for example, my pal Elinor Lipman, a successful novelist as well as a gifted cook and hostess. She infuses her cooking with the same creativity and crispness that she pours into her witty fiction.

Whenever I’ve eaten at her house, I’ve not only loved the food, but marveled in how she invents or adapts her recipes. Lately, she and I have engaged in recipe swaps, e-mailing one another new dishes with personal comments and notes attached. That’s how I came upon the directions for the delectable baked fish that follows.

Tired after the tour-de-force effort required for December’s holiday meals and anxious to help my husband with his latest diet, I asked Ellie for a simple entree that would be gentle on the waistline, yet have enough panache to be the centerpiece of a small dinner party.

She responded with a well-tested baked fish recipe that has pleased her family and guests and that definitely falls into the category of easy entertaining. She based this recipe on one found in an Indian cookbook, then reworked it with her own touches.

Using her directions, I made the dish three times in one week and found it simple and delicious. Fresh fish fillets (I used cod) are arranged in a buttered baking dish, then salted and peppered.

I sauteed minced red onion in a small amount of butter until soft, then whisked in a hint of mustard, some plain yogurt and just a touch more butter. I spread this sauce over the fillets, then coated them with panko bread crumbs and chopped scallion.

After about 10 minutes in the oven, the fillets were opaque and flaked easily. To finish, I popped the fish under the broiler to add extra crispness and color to the breaded topping.

For my party, I served the fillets with roasted, cumin-seasoned butternut squash and steamed sugar snap peas. Honey glazed carrots and tender little green beans would have been equally good sides.

The guests and my dieting husband liked the enticing taste, and especially the baked fish’s contrast of tender and crunchy textures. I was pleased with the simple preparation and the absence of guilt as I relished each bite.

Ellie’s easy (but healthy and delectable) baked fish

5 teaspoons unsalted butter, divided, plus extra for greasing baking sheet or pan and for dotting the fillets

4 6- to 7-ounce cod fillets, about 3/4-inch thick

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon canola oil

cup finely minced red onion

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (smooth, not grainy)

6 tablespoons regular or reduced-fat plain yogurt, chilled (see note)

1/4 cup panko crumbs or regular dry, unflavored bread crumbs (see note)

2 scallions, including 3 inches of green stems, thinly sliced

2 to 3 teaspoons chopped flat leaf parsley for garnish, optional

Butter a shallow baking dish or line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with foil and butter the foil. Place fillets in pan or on the sheet and salt and pepper them. Set aside.

Heat canola oil and 1 tablespoon — 3 teaspoons — butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When hot, saute red onion, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let onions cool 2 minutes.

Whisk in 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 2 teaspoons remaining butter. Then whisk in yogurt, 1 tablespoon at a time. (Whisking in the yogurt slowly helps prevent it from separating. But it can still be used if it separates just slightly. The sauce consistency will be like slightly thickened cream, not solid like yogurt.) Taste and season with a pinch of salt.

Divide yogurt mixture evenly and spread on top of fillets. Sprinkle each fillet with 1 tablespoon of bread crumbs and dot each with about to 1 teaspoon of butter. Sprinkle scallion on top of fillets.

Bake on center rack of preheated 450-degree oven until fish is opaque and flakes easily, about 10 to 11 minutes per inch of thickness of the fish. If bread crumbs are not golden when fish is done, turn on oven broiler and place fish under it for a minute or until bread crumbs color.

Watch constantly. Remove and transfer fish to dinner plates. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Reduced-fat (but not fat-free) and regular yogurt can be used. The latter is less likely to separate.

Note: Panko is a coarse, thick type of bread crumbs used for coating fried foods in Japanese cooking. You can find panko at some groceries such as Whole Foods and in Asian markets.


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