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Posted at 03:30 PM ET, 08/19/2011

Cooking Off the Cuff: Get the lard out


Hungarian improv: This light swordfish dish grew out of an Eastern European recipe featuring tomatoes and peppers stewed in lard. (Edward Schneider for The Washington Post)
When you’re devising market-basket dinners, you must always be ready to change course. Here’s an example of a recent meal that took an unexpected turn not long before it was time to eat:

Apart from strawberry jam, my favorite byproducts of summer are tomato-related: a simple tomato sauce made with olive oil, salt and (only sometimes) a little garlic or perhaps onion; and lecso, a Hungarian dish of onions, peppers and tomatoes stewed in lard (obligatory) and flavored with lots of paprika. Both form the basis of many dishes, and I try to end the summer with some of each in the freezer.

Typically, lecso (pronounced LETCH-oh, more or less) is eaten with Hungarian-type sausage or with eggs. But I sometimes use it as a sauce for fish or pork and braise the flesh in the vivid red stew — instant flavor if you’ve made a big batch in advance.

At the moment, our local tomatoes are amazingly good, and the peppers are getting there. So when I surveyed the farmers market, I began to think of lecso, though I wasn’t quite ready to make a potful for freezing. What I was ready for was those flavors, and I needed to figure out a nice way of getting them into a fish dish without actually deploying my lecso pan. (Don’t worry; I don’t have a special pan, just a favorite: an ordinary straight-sided saute pan).

On the way home from the market, I decided that — if the tomatoes were as good as they looked, felt and smelled — I’d peel them and arrange slices on our plates, alternating with sheets of flame-roasted and peeled sweet red peppers, then put the plates in a hot oven for a couple of minutes to warm the “salad” and start to intensify the flavors.

Then I ran into trouble. If this was going to be lecsolike, there would have to be paprika and lard (and ideally onion, though this was falling by the wayside as I contemplated). I thought for a moment of seasoning the fish with paprika, then giving it a breadcrumb crust to protect the paprika from burning, but that would have moved the dish further away from height-of-summer tomato perfection.

When I got home, I experimented with paprika infusions that could be drizzled over the finished dish, using melted duck fat (amazingly, I was out of lard), but when Jackie tasted them she politely opted out: Could she have her paprika infusion on the side? Not an endorsement. She was right, of course. The infusion smelled good, but the flavor was fragile and the duck fat would muddy the dish — not at all what I wanted.

So I changed course and ditched the Hungarian angle altogether. I opted for a dish of greater simplicity, lightness and clarity of flavor. (Yes, the tomatoes lived up to their looks – best we’ve had in years, in fact.) It was also beautiful to look at.

On the way to the market, I’d been assuming we’d buy some bluefish or mackerel, or perhaps sea bass, but our fish guy had the nicest, freshest swordfish, and one piece was just the right size for Jackie and me (just over 11 ounces and about an inch thick).

A few days earlier, I had charred two small but ripe red peppers over an open gas flame and scraped/rubbed/pulled off the carbonized skin (leaving a few specks of black for flavor and visual authenticity); these I’d trimmed, salted and olive-oiled before refrigerating. I removed them from the fridge an hour before dinner.

A half hour before I was ready to cook, I peeled two gorgeous tomatoes by submerging them in boiling water for less than 10 seconds and then slipping the skin off (well worth the effort). I cut the tomatoes into generous 1/4-inch slices and arranged them on two dinner plates, alternating with pieces of roasted pepper. I’d previously drizzled the plates with good olive oil and sprinkled the oil lightly with salt and pepper — to season the underside of the tomatoes.

I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and then cut the swordfish into two 5 1/2-ounce portions (plenty for anybody who has dessert in mind), which I simply seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in a skillet just slicked with olive oil and heated over a medium flame. For my particular portions of fish, it took three minutes on one side and three on the other, then a minute more on each side over lower heat, followed by a rest on a plate. Perfect, juicy fish with a golden surface that was not in the least desiccated.

While the fish was resting, I sprinkled the tomatoes and peppers with salt, pepper and herbs (thyme and parsley) and slipped the plates into the hot oven for something more than three minutes. Remembering to use a towel to protect my fingers, I removed the plates and set a piece of fish on each, topped with herbs and a scant teaspoon of the juice that had collected during the resting time.

Those few minutes in the oven did a lot for the tomatoes: Their flavor had intensified, but they did not lose their integrity; they were unimaginably juicy but not sloppy-wet. This, with or without the peppers, is a useful technique: You could serve these as the underpinning for other fish or shellfish, as a pasta sauce or as a warm salad or side dish.

And if you can figure out a way to get the lard, paprika and onion flavors into it without ruining the clear flavor, you’ll have deconstructed lecso and your contentment will be perfect.

By Edward Schneider  |  03:30 PM ET, 08/19/2011

Categories:  Recipes | Tags:  Edward Schneider, Cooking Off the Cuff

 
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