This recipe is part of Crispianity: a column devoted to all foods crispy and crunchy, two of the most underappreciated attributes of a great dish. Author Adeena Sussman is a food writer and recipe developer, pairing here with her friend, photographer Evan Sung. Sussman’s most recent cookbook, co-authored with Lee Brian Schrager, is Fried and True: More Than 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides.
I’ve sacrificed many an innocent fish in the interest of achieving a restaurant-worthy layer of crisped-up skin contrasted with a snowy, perfectly cooked fillet. All of the expected steps – making sure the skin was bone-dry, scoring it to prevent curling, using a panini press to keep the fish flat, trying nonstick pans and stainless – failed me. The skin would burn, stick to the pan, or crisp in parts, the flesh a victim of wanton culinary carnage.
Wondra flour to the rescue! Originally devised by food scientists to avoid clumpy gravies, it’s a marvel of food innovation that also happens to be a cook’s kitchen darling. Low in protein and granulated into tiny particles, it dusts anything it touches with a perfectly even snowshower that creates the ideal seal for pan-searing. It doesn’t burn like regular flour, and helps coax maximum crisp out of even the most recalcitrant specimen. The accompanying romesco sauce has just the right combination of richness and acidity, transforming an already elevated fillet of fish from a prosaic weeknight offering into something entirely special.
Romesco Sauce (2 cups)
- 1 red bell pepper, halved and seeded
- 4 vine-ripened tomatoes (1 pound), halved
- 1 large onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
- 8 large cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 cup extra virgin Spanish olive oil, plus more for coating vegetables or loosening sauce
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup chopped almonds or hazelnuts, lightly toasted
- 1 slice day-old white bread, crusts removed
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, or more to taste
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 4 really high-quality fish fillets (if you're going to make this happen, don't skimp here), such as striped bass, branzino or salmon
- canola or grapeseed oil (no olive oil here, it'll smoke and burn)
- sea salt
- Wondra flour
For the Romesco Sauce:
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Place the peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic on a large roasting pan lined with aluminum foil.
- Brush generously with olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper.
- Roast until softened, 25-30 minutes.
- Turn on the broiler and broil until vegetables are slightly charred, 3-4 minutes.
- Remove from oven and cool (you can peel the tomatoes if you want, but you don’t have to).
- Place vegetables, nuts, bread, vinegar and paprika in the bowl of a food processor.
- Turn on processor and drizzle in the 1/2 cup olive oil until a thick, emulsified mixture is formed.
- Season with salt and pepper, add more vinegar of you like things tangy, and loosen with a bit of olive oil to your liking.
- Serve with fish. Romesco sauce will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for 3-4 days.
For the fish:
- Get the fish ready by making sure it’s been properly scaled (you’re eating the skin, after all). Check this by taking a sharp knife and running it along the surface of the skin, applying pressure at an angle while dragging the knife along the surface of the skin. Also make sure any pin bones have been removed by running your finger along the flesh side of the fish. If you feel any, yank the out using a pair of pin-bone pliers (or a pair of tweezers or straight-up pliers you’ve washed in really hot soapy water).
- Heat a little bit of oil in a clean skillet over medium-high heat until the oil is glossy and seems thinner, but isn’t smoking. (anything stuck to the pan may burn, so really make it clean).
- Have a fish spatula or 2 regular spatulas at the ready.
- Season the fish with salt (don’t skimp, people, this is your dinner we’re talking about) and then sprinkle with Wondra flour. It’s best if you dust it on using a fine-mesh strainer, but holding it high atop the fish and sprinkling it like fairy dust works, too.
- Hold the fish fillet by the narrow end and shake off any excess.
- Place the fish skin-side down in the skillet and quickly press down on the fish with the spatula or spatulas. This really important; it prevents the fish from curling up, so don’t skip this step.
- Cook the fish applying steady pressure but not moving it, until the skin is crisped, 3-4 minutes.
- Flip the fish and cook until flesh is perfectly cooked, 1-2 minutes.
- Serve immediately with romesco.
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