Oceans of flavor to hook diners

Seafood: The versatility and variety of fish offer an atrractive lure for barbecuers at Labor Day weekend celebrations.

September 01, 1999|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

It's a tradition. Labor Day weekend caps off grilling season. A big, backyard picnic with burgers, beefsteaks and chicken breasts on the grill certainly suits a big casual gathering. But this is an equal-opportunity holiday, and any number can play.

For the smaller adult household, a classy menu for just four people turns picnic day into a dinner party, where grilled fish fillets and steaks play a starring role in the center of the plate.

Cooking fish steaks and fillets is a lot like cooking beefsteaks and boneless chicken breasts. It's just as quick, often quicker, and just as convenient.

But fish has something going for it in its favor that beef and chicken can't deliver. Beef is more or less mono-flavored and chicken breasts will always taste "just like chicken." But when you cook steaks and chickens of the sea -- salmon, tuna, snapper, bass and their other finny friends -- you're talking multiple personalities.

Chef Leslie Revsin's first cookbook, "Great Fish, Quick" (Doubleday, 1997), is devoted to that very proposition: versatility and variety of fish fillets and steaks. All of the dishes in the book, and their sauces, can be completed within the magic window of 30 minutes or less.

Revsin may be a new author, but she's no new-comer in the kitchen. She went to work in the kitchens of the Waldorf-Astoria in the early 1970s.

"At my interview, I told the chef I wanted to be a saucier," Revsin said during a phone call to her New York home. "He was shocked. Women in those days toiled in the pantry, not on the line. But he was a forward-thinking person and hired me as a kitchen man."

Revsin, who was quick, strong and determined, was promoted after six months. Her promotion to poissoniere, head of the fish station, made international headlines. Eventually, Revsin left the Waldorf and moved on to other kitchens in and around New York, finally settling in her own place.

In 1977, she opened Restaurant Leslie, a Greenwich Village bistro. After more than 20 years as a chef, she got restless. "Is this all there is?" she asked herself. "What am I ignoring in my life? Maybe I should get out from behind the stove."

After she took stock of her interests, she found that she enjoyed writing. And, along with having a wealth of cooking information, she could write in a style that was helpful for home cooks interested in heightening the dinner experience for family and friends.

When buying fish, Revsin says it's best to buy fish on the day it will be cooked. For the Labor Day holiday, that may not be possible, though.

So Revsin offers a rule of thumb: "Fillets and steaks that are good today will still be good tomorrow, if not as perfect," she says. "So if your fish showed all the good signs of freshness when you bought it, you can feel comfortable refrigerating it -- out of any store packaging and on a clean plate covered with plastic wrap -- for two days."

Some fillets naturally hold better than others; salmon and swordfish are two excellent examples.

Suppose you want to impress yourself (and your family and friends) with restaurant-style grill marks. Making those lines that crisscross in a diamond pattern is easy to do. Revsin does it this way: Begin by placing the fillet on the grill as you normally would. But halfway through its cooking time on the first side, lift the fillet with your metal spatula, turn it about 45 degrees and place it back down on the grill on the same side.

Continue grilling it until the first side is done. Then turn the fillet over. What you should see are diamond markings covering the top of the fillet. Don't bother double-marking the underside; it won't show anyway.

What about grill heat? Every grill, whether it's charcoal, electric or gas, performs differently. The instructions are often inadequate and can contain poor cooking directions. Revsin offers another rule of thumb.

"In general, I prefer grilling over a medium-hot charcoal fire with a good bed of glowing, ashen coals to get deep flavor and browning. Some instruction manuals say to grill all fish at a low temperature. But thin fillets cooked that way are likely to be cooked through and on the way to drying out before they have crisped and browned. Your best bet is to experiment a little with your own grill."

Grilled Tuna With Ginger-Oyster Sauce

Serves 4

2 1/2 tablespoons bottled Chinese oyster sauce (available from grocery Asian-foods section)

1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced onion

2 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger

2 1/2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar

2 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

oil for grill

4 (7-ounce) tuna steaks, each 3/4 to 1 inch thick

salt, pepper

Place oyster sauce in small mixing bowl along with onion and ginger. Whisk in rice-wine vinegar, then gradually whisk in sesame oil. Set aside. Sauce can be made in advance. Cover and refrigerate up to 2 weeks.

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