I first met chef Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans more than 10 years ago at a lecture/demonstration he was giving on his unique style of Cajun cooking.
The audience was mesmerized by this great chef’s passion and understanding of the interaction of ingredients and flavors. And I was also moved by the eloquence with which he expressed his cooking philosophy, which clearly seemed to reflect his values regarding people and life.
It was at this demonstration that I tasted, for the first time, what was to become such a major national craze that it seriously threatened the survival of an entire fish species: blackened redfish. This technique of searing a butter- and herb-coated fish fillet in a cast-iron pan produces an exceptionally flavorful and moist fish.
It also produces billows of smoke and, therefore, can only be performed safely outdoors or with a cooktop graced by an industrial-strength hood. It has been my goal ever since to possess a hood of this variety.
So it is because of Chef Paul that my recent kitchen renovation evolved around the hood. I chose a 42-inch Ventahood 900 CFM fan (6 inches wider than my cooktop to ensure collection of all potential smoke) and had the motor mounted on the roof to diminish its powerful roar.
When the renovation was complete, my contractor, Andrew Badding, took off for a much-deserved vacation. On his return, I found a package of frozen mahi mahi fillets, from a large fish he had caught, tucked into my freezer.
Along with the fillets came a warning that the fish had a strong flavor and firm texture similar to swordfish and a recommendation for the Paul Prudhomme blackening technique, which Badding had perfected on his outdoor grill.
I saw this, however, as the perfect opportunity to test my new hood. I defrosted the fish and soaked it in milk for several hours to tame the flavor.
When cooking time came, I preheated my favorite seasoned cast-iron skillet for 10 minutes until I saw a white cast in the bottom of the pan, and then I dropped in the first herbed fillet.
Instantly smoke rose and curled around the left side of the hood. I quickly moved the pan to the center burner of my six-burner cooktop and watched as all the smoke was collected by the hood.
The fish cooked in 4 minutes - and when it was done, no smoke or burned, fishy odor remained in the kitchen.
With the fish, I served steamed (15 minutes) fresh baby Brussels sprouts, lightly seasoned with salt, and buttered couscous (10 minutes). The slightly sweet-nutty flavor of the couscous nicely complemented the assertive flavor of the fish, and the bright cabbagey crunch of the Brussels sprouts added further balance.
It was probably the simplest and quickest dinner I’ve ever cooked and one of the most pleasing.
Now I’ll have to re-season the skillet, but it was worth it.
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
Blackened Redfish Magic, available at most supermarkets (or use seasoning below)
4 firm-fleshed fish fillets (redfish, red snapper, pompano, mahi mahi, salmon, tile fish, grouper, etc.), about 1/2 but not more than 3/4-inch thick (8 to 10 ounces total)
Preheat cast-iron pan at least 10 minutes on high heat or until white haze forms in bottom. Heat serving plates in 250-degree oven.
Place some butter in pan at least the length of longest fillet. Pat fillets dry with paper towels. Dip fillets in melted butter to coat both sides. Sprinkle evenly on both sides with Blackened Redfish Magic, patting in well with hands.
Place 1 fillet in hot skillet and pour 1 teaspoon melted butter on top. Cook, uncovered, over high heat about 2 minutes or until underside looks charred. Turn fish over and pour on another 1 teaspoon melted butter. Cook 2 minutes more or until underside is charred. Cook no more than 2 fillets at a time. Repeat process. Place on heated plates and serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.
Note: A cast-iron pan must be used for this cooking method. Also, it is essential to have an industrialstrength hood directly above your cooktop.
Alternatively you may use an outdoor grill. Have a lid to a large pot ready as a precaution against flareups. Should they occur, clamp the lid on top of the pan for a few seconds until the flames subside.
If using mahi mahi, be sure to soak it in milk (covered tightly and refrigerated) 2 to 4 hours.
Be sure to use dry herbs, as fresh herbs would burn and taste bitter.
To make your own “magic,” here’s the recipe from “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” (William Morrow).
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne)
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Mix well paprika, salt, onion and garlic powders, red pepper, white and black peppers, thyme and oregano. Store leftovers in jar with tight-fitting lid.