Spice blend is the secret to successful blackened fish


Today's lesson: Enrobing sweet, succulent white-fleshed fish fillets with blackened spicy flavors is a popular standard of Cajun cooking. This flavor combination has gone beyond being a regional food to become a regularly requested preparation of fish in many restaurants.

Blackened fish uses a spice mixture to create what is almost a breading for the fish. This mixture, when cooked over very high heat, seals the fish to hold in moisture and flavor while toasting the spices to release their wonderful fragrances.

* Advantages: Although the technique traditionally calls for the sweetness of butter to bind the spices, this recipe allows the dish to be made with olive oil.

* Tricks of the trade: Deep chill fish before coating them with the spice. The very cold fish helps attract the butter or olive oil and the spices.

* The traditional fish for this dish had been the redfish or red drum, native to the Gulf of Mexico, but with growing numbers of Cajun restaurants in the mid- to late '80s, the fish became almost impossible for restaurants to procure. So choose pompano, mahi-mahi, swordfish or even salmon.

Prepare the fish by cutting it into fillets no more than 1/2 inch thick. This way the fish cooks quickly, finishing before the spice mixture is burnt and bitter. Cut thicker fillets into scallops by slicing them on a 30-degree angle for an even thickness. Remove all skin, fat and bones.

* The best and easiest blackened fish spice mix comes from Chef Paul Prudhomme. It's found at your local supermarket under the name Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Cajun Magic. Look for his Blackened Redfish Magic. You can also make your own blend. The primary spices are paprika, onion and garlic powders, hot red pepper, white and black pepper, thyme, and oregano, all balanced with a pinch of salt. Experiment with a small batch and taste it on a fish before committing expensive spices to your formula. Mix the spice blend in a bowl, then store in a sealable bottle.

* Heat a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it turns almost white hot. The pan can't be too hot, but be careful when handling it.

* Butter used sparingly offers a rich, sweet flavor but adds more saturated fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, which is very viscous at cold temperatures, is the best alternative. Standard cooking oils are too thin to adhere to the cold fish, resulting in an irregular spice crust.

* Dredge the deep-chilled fillets in the melted butter or olive oil, pausing for 30 seconds or so for the excess to fall back into the dish. Place on a plate of the spice blend and pack the surface well to secure the spice. Turn the fish over to coat the remaining surfaces. Lift the fillets and allow the excess spices to fall onto the plate. Repeat with the remaining fish.

Carefully place the fish in the hot skillet, making sure not to crowd. The pan will smoke immediately, so make sure the hood fan is on full blast. Cook the fish for 2 minutes, then turn it over to finish cooking, about 2 additional minutes, depending on thickness.

* Simple blackened fish is a treat by itself, but a pat of butter is the traditional moistener for the top of the fillet. A wedge of lemon will offer a clean, tart counterpoint.

Blackened mahi-mahi with papaya-citrus salsa will warm your taste buds. This is not the traditional flavor, but it's fun to try.

Blackened mahi-mahi with papaya-citrus salsa

Serves 4

8 scallops of mahi-mahi, about 2 1/2 to 3 ounces each, trimmed of all skin, fat and bones

1 ripe papaya, peeled, halved, seeded and diced

2 large oranges, trimmed of all rind, segments cleanly removed

1 lime, juiced

1 small red onion, diced fine (about 1/2 cup)

2 tablespoons of diced green onions, green part only

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

Paul Prudhomme's Blackened Redfish Magic spice (or see the following recipe for a blackened spice mix)

4 sprigs of cilantro for garnish

Deep-chill the mahi-mahi in the freezer for about 30 to 60 %J minutes before cooking, but do not freeze it.

In a medium bowl combine the papaya, orange segments, lime juice, red onion (to your taste), green onions and cilantro. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Refrigerate.

Place a large, heavy, cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and allow to warm until white hot, at least 15 minutes. Turn on the exhaust fan to high.

Pour the olive oil into a shallow medium-size pan or plate. Pour the spice mixture into another shallow pan or plate. Remove the fish from the freezer. Dredge each scallop through the olive oil on both sides to evenly coat, holding it above the oil for a few seconds to allow the excess to drop back into the pan. The oil coating should be very thin. Lay the scallop onto the spices and apply light pressure so spices stick to the fish. Turn to completely coat both sides. Continue with remaining fish.

Carefully lay the scallop into the hot skillet without overlapping or crowding. Cook the fish until the spice mixture browns, about 2 minutes. Turn over and finish cooking, about 2 to 3 more minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Remove to hot serving plates with a spatula, placing two slightly overlapping scallops of fish on the center of each plate. Divide salsa in a band across the fish or serve on the side. Garnish with the cilantro sprigs and serve immediately.

Blackened spice mix

4 tablespoons mild paprika

4 teaspoons sea salt, or substitute granulated table salt

2 teaspoons garlic powder

4 teaspoons onion powder

1/2 teaspoon ground hot red pepper

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

In a food processor combine paprika, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, red pepper, black pepper, coriander, thyme leaves and oregano leaves. Pulse to combine well. Stove in a clean air-tight glass jar. Keeps for about 3 months if it is moisture-free and cool.

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