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The Front Burner: Stuff your fish for Friday Fish Night

Many of us grew up in the Friday night is Fish Night tradition. At our house on the North Shore of Boston, Fish Night could include cod fish cakes, creamed salmon on toast (aka Salmon Wiggle) or, most often, simply fried fish fillets. Not batter involved. Just a dunk in some sunny yellow cornmeal and a saute (in lard and later, vegetable shortening) in the skillet. Mashed potatoes and canned vegetables usually went with.

The Friday Fish Night tradition continues, although there really is no longer a reason for it. And cornmeal-fried (in vegetable oil) fillets appear frequently. But as a lily gilder par excellence, other preparations appealed. To tempt family appetites, and sometimes even those of guests, baked stuffed fish became something of a habit.

Our exercise du jour is to explore this method for perking up plain old fish fillets with preparations that are well suited to virtually every season, except in the extreme heat of summer when you don't really want to have the oven on at dinner time.

We begin.

Rock

Among the most memorable meals that ever came out of our kitchen was the preparation of a whole, nine-pound, fresh-caught rockfish. How big was it? It was so big that I didn't have a large enough roasting pan for it. Instead, I had to place the stuffed fish on several layers of foil and place it diagonally in the center of the oven.

The fish was magnificent, by the way. And it didn't hurt that a "side" dish with the fish was a couple dozen steamed blue crabs. (And other goodies, of course.) There were a baker's dozen of us that night. And we all feasted well. What fun!

But I digress. This preparation allows you to choose a smaller whole fish, if you like. The rule of thumb for whole fish is to allow a pound of fish per serving, and that (weight) includes the head, tail, bones, etc. You can probably figure on one or two more servings than the "rule of thumb" suggests, depending on the size of the fish.

The stuffing recipe makes roughly 4-plus cups total. The (stuffing) rule of thumb is to allow 1/2 cup of it per pound of fish.

Stuffing

2 large stalks celery, finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 ounces baby bella mushrooms, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon finely chopped, fresh dill

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 to 2 pints shucked oysters with liquor

8 to 10 slices day-old white bread, cubed (you can leave crusts on)

The fish

1 large (6-8-pound) cleaned, whole fish (choose rock, salmon, snapper or lake trout)

Pepper (and salt, if you must)

About 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, clarified

2 lemons, seeded and cut into thin slices

1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed, drained

Fresh dill sprigs, garnish

For the stuffing, in a large, non-stick skillet, over medium, heat butter. Add celery, onion, mushrooms and garlic and saute until tender, about 6 minutes. Add dill, pepper and lemon juice and cook 1 minute. Add oysters and their liquor; simmer just until edges of oysters begin to curl. Remove from heat and cool 5 minutes. Gently mix in bread. If more moistness is needed, add a little water.

For the fish, rub its cavity with pepper (and salt). Spoon in the oyster stuffing. Close cavity with turkey skewers or use bamboo skewers. (If there's extra stuffing, bake it in a casserole dish for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees.) Serve separately.

Combine melted butter

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large roasting pan with foil. (Or make a triple-ply foil envelope for baking the fish.) Brush fish with some of the melted butter. Arrange lemon slices over top of fish, overlapping lemon. Top some of the slices with capers. Add some dill sprigs. Bring foil up around fish, but don't enclose it completely. Bake 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until fish flakes fairly easily with a fork. Drizzle some of the melted butter over fish every half hour or so. Remove to a serving platter and allow fish to stand about 10 minutes, then carve and serve.

To carve, remove lemon slices and place them around edges of platter. Use a very sharp knife to cut the top side of the fish into serving-size slices, cutting just down to the bone. Carefully remove pieces from the bone. Remove any stuffing and serve separately.

Slip the knife under the rib bones, running it lengthwise down the fish. Remove bones, and cut serving-size slices from the bottom of the fish.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

And roll

Of course, more people than not (especially in America) are somewhat squeamish about seeing eyes on what they're about to eat. So, we proffer a preparation for stuffed fish fillets. This one features spinach and orange peel in the stuffing, along with more traditional ingredients.

Talk about gilding the lily for this company-worthy main dish! We have a stuffing, a sauce, a crumb topping and garnishes. They'll never even know they're eating fish.

We like to use rockfish fillets if we can get them. The texture is just right and rock has a bit more personality than other fin fish. If you like, though, choose snapper, flounder or what looks good at the fish counter the day you shop.

Fish

6 to 8 good-size boneless, skinless fin-fish fillets (2 or so pounds)

Stuffing

8 ounces sliced baby bella mushrooms, chopped

1 medium Vidalia onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, sliced paper thin

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 (10-ounce) packages frozen, chopped spinach, thawed, drained very dry

2 cups herb-seasoned stuffing mix, divided

1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

Sauce

1 cup whipping cream

1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel

2 tablespoons coarse (country style) Dijon mustard

1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions (green part only)

1 tablespoon melted, unsalted butter

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray-coat the bottom of a 13x9-inch baking dish.

For the stuffing, in a large, non-stick skillet over medium, heat the 2 tablespoons butter. Add mushrooms, onion and garlic and saute until tender, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Set aside one half of the mushroom mixture (about 1/2 cup). Then, into the mushroom mixture, stir the spinach, the 11/2 cups stuffing mix and orange juice. Return to heat and cook about 3 minutes to heat everything through. Remove from heat and let cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes.

For the fish, wash fillets and pat dry. Spread on a work surface and spoon some of the stuffing lengthwise down the center of each fillet, leaving borders at the ends. Gently roll each fillet so it covers the stuffing. Arrange in baking dish, seam side down. Tent with foil, place in oven and bake 12 minutes, while you make the sauce.

For the sauce, in the same skillet, over medium heat, combine the reserved mushroom mixture, whipping cream and orange peel. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, about 3 minutes, until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in Dijon mustard and scallions.

For the topping, use a meat mallet or the processor to crush remaining 1/2 -cup of stuffing mix. Place in a small bowl. Add the 1 tablespoon melted butter.

To finish, remove fish from oven. Spoon sauce over fish. Sprinkle with the stuffing mix/butter topping. Sprinkle on the Parmesan. Return to oven and bake about 20 minutes longer, until fish flakes fairly easily with a fork. Makes 6 to 8 servings, depending on how many fillets you buy.

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