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James Peterson's Baked Fish Fillets with Butter and Sherry

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Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A 5-ingredient, 20-minute technique to make any white fish shine -- in time for Lent, and the dawn of spring cooking.

Eating fish has gotten complicated. So it's up to us to simplify, and -- when we cook fish -- make it the best it can be.

It's tempting to stop cooking fish altogether, simply because we're afraid of not doing it justice. But as Saveur Executive Editor Betsy Andrews points out in the magazine's recent seafood issue, via a quote from science writer Erik Vance: "If everyone who cared about the oceans stopped eating fish, the only people eating fish would be people who don't care about the oceans." And that's almost certainly worse.

So go to your local fishmonger (just watch how Melissa Clark does it), or sign up for a CSF. Don't blindly buy halibut or sea bass or whatever a recipe calls for -- ask your trusty fishperson what's in season near you, what came in fresh that day. Do a little homework: Paul Greenberg recommends Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute (Seafood Watch even has an app so you can easily check the latest recommendations from the market).

Then cook it well, and eat it all. That's all we have to do to honor our fish -- buy the right, plentiful stuff and not muck it up. And it can be easier than we think.

James Peterson  Fish & Shellfish by James Peterson

You'll do well to keep this technique from James Peterson in your mental files (and if you want more for the files, get ahold of his book Fish & Shellfish). As Food52er cookbookchick told me, "This is the perfect recipe for the fish-intimidated. It's also perfect for many types of fish -- I myself have never actually used scrod," which Peterson calls for (but allows for riffing).

More: 9 more fish recipes for Lent and beyond.

Any firm-fleshed, non-oily white fish will work -- sole, cod, bass, rockfish, or any white fish that's not too delicate (so skip scrawny fillets like flounder). 

Your best local whatever white fish will bake quickly in a hot oven, so there's no fussing with splattering pans. Melting, cobbled-on butter will protect the tops from drying out, while hot sherry fumes steam up and perfume the fish from below. Parsley makes it look good. Those are your trifecta, powerful but not as pushy as your average miso-soy glaze. And they are all that you -- and your whatever fish -- need.

Here's how to do fish proud:

Get the oven up to 400° F. Butter (or oil) a big baking dish. Salt and pepper your fish fillets and place them inside, Tetris-style. You can cook them in long, unbroken fillets and slide them apart for serving (like we did here), or cook portion-sized pieces. No matter.


Dot butter all over the top. You could use more oil here instead, or an herby compound butter, if you've got some lying around.

Pour over dry sherry (or wine).

Scatter chopped parsley.

Bake for about 12 minutes per inch of thickness, then peek. If the thickest part looks opaque and big flakes are willing to pull apart, it's done. 

It will have made its own buttery, boozy sauce, which you'll spoon over the top without having to deglaze or reduce or thicken. Peterson warns in his headnote, "This may not be an impressive dinner party dish." I couldn't disagree more.

James Peterson's Baked Fish Fillets with Butter and Sherry

Adapted slightly from Fish & Shellfish (William Morrow, 1996)

Makes 4 main course servings

1 1/2 to 2 pounds scrod fillets (or any firm-fleshed, non-oily white fish in season)
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, herb butter, or extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons dry sherry or dry white wine
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52 community member cookbookchick for this one!

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: Cod, Fish, Sherry, Wine, Spring, Weeknight Cooking, Long Reads, Editors' Picks, Genius Recipes, DIY Food, Everyday Cooking, How-To & Diy