Curry Snapper & Red Lentils

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Two posts in one week?! Yes, this is really happening folks, and there's more to come. Today marks my one year anniversary as a food blogger, so I figured why not celebrate with some extra special new recipes this week!  I thought this Curry Snapper & Red Lentils dish was particularly fun and festive. Besides the vivid colors, curry spices are literally a party going on in your mouth...which seemed completely appropriate for this occasion! When I set out to start The Kitchenista Diaries, my goal was to create flavorful, healthy, gourmet style dishes on a budget. Sunday dinners are my favorite way to branch out with recipes that are a bit more special than regular weekday meals. This dish is a great example of how I often make a small splurge on a nice piece of fish or meat and visit my farmer's market for organic fresh produce. The rest of the dish is supplemented with everyday pantry items. In doing that, it's really easy to make an affordable, restaurant quality at home. With snapper on sale for $9/lb, leftover veggies in the fridge, and a portion of red lentils at a measly $1, this dish easily came in well under $20 for four servings.

Y'all know I love my curries and I'm continuing to find new ways to work these intoxicating flavors into new dishes.  My experiment for Sunday Dinner this weekend utilized red lentils. Lentils and I have a love/hate relationship. I love that they're relatively good for you, but hate when I have a pot simmering for what seems like forever and end up with boring brown mush or worse, undercooked lentils.  Last time I went to the farmer's market, I stopped by one of the organic shops and the owner recommended trying split red (or orange) lentils. He said they cook much faster, are easy to digest, and take on seasonings really well. This sounded intriguing enough that I decided it was worth giving lentils another chance. As soon as I got home that day I tweeted about my farmer's market finds. My followers recommended making an Indian curry lentil dish, otherwise known as "dal." That was the first thing that came to mind as I brainstormed all weekend how to stretch the food I had on hand.  I did have some fresh snapper but knew the rest of the dish was going to have to come from pantry items and leftover veggies to stay within my budget, and that ended up being really easy to do. I was even able to work in a small pot of coconut Jasmine rice on the side. While my version of dal isn't traditional, I figured out a way to make things my own and I have to say I'm quite happy with the way this one turned out! Consider me lentils are an inexpensive and nutritious add to your pantry and I'm sure there are a ton of ways I'll be able to make use of them.

Searing fish fillets is always a fun endeavor, and the other reason why I enjoyed cooking this dish so much. There are few things more satisfying than properly searing your own piece of fish. It's truly one of those moments that you'll feel like you've brought the gourmet dining experience to your home. Just like most other cooks, I fumbled through this process when I first started preparing fish, but over time I'm proud to say I've been pretty consistently successful  Here are some tips I've learned along the way:

  • You need a good, heavy bottomed skillet. I prefer cast iron or enameled cast iron, but stainless steel works well too.
  • Pat your fish dry prior to seasoning and searing. Wet fish dropped in a hot skillet just leads to steamed fish (for this reason, thawed frozen fish can be tricky.) Not to mention, water coming into contact with hot oil is a bad idea.
  • The skillet needs to be hot. Use the right size burner for the diameter of your pan. Because cast iron retains heat so well, you will likely just need to set your stove to medium to reach a high searing temperature. For other skillets, use the appropriate heat setting that works for your cookware.
  • Use an oil with a high smoke point. Grape seed oil and coconut oil can be great, healthy choices. Extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, and isn't recommended for the high heat needed in this application. 
  • Don't move the fish after you put it down in the skillet. It will stick to the pan and create a mess. Let it be! After a few minutes the surface of the fish will crisp and sear, and it will naturally release contact w/ the skillet. Then you can easily flip or remove it.
  • Watch for changes in color and texture to monitor doneness. You can watch as the color along the sides of the fish turn opaque as it cooks; the fish may also become visibly flaky. When in doubt, a thermometer can be a great tool to measure internal temperature. For especially thick fillets, it may be appropriate to sear each side and finish roasting in the oven to avoid overcooking the exterior. Some fish, like salmon and tuna, are best when seared briefly for a rare to medium finish, while other types of fish should be cooked all the way through. Most recipes will indicate these specifics, and with practice and observation, you'll get to know what to expect with your favorite types of fish.

  • Without further ado, let's get into this dish...Happy Birthday to The Kitchenista Diaries!

     Curry Snapper & Red Lentils

    1 lb fresh red snapper fillet, skin on
    4 c. water
    1 1/2 c. red or orange split lentils
    2 c. chopped tomatoes
    1 c. chopped sweet white onion
    4 cloves garlic, chopped
    3" knob ginger, sliced
    2 tbsp pureed lemongrass
    1 red or yellow bell pepper, diced
    1 lime
    1/2 c. chopped cilantro
    1 tsp cumin seeds
    1 tsp fennel seeds
    1/2 tsp ground cumin
    1 tsp turmeric
    1 tsp smoked paprika
    1/2 tsp coriander
    1/2 tsp cinnamon
    1/2 tsp mustard powder
    1/4 tsp black pepper
    Grape seed oil or coconut oil
    Kosher salt, to taste

    Additional lime slices, for garnish
    Quartered cherry tomatoes, for garnish
    Jasmine rice, cooked per package instructions substituting coconut milk for half the water

    Servings: 2 (8 oz. fish portions) or 4 (4 oz. fish portions); Lentils serve 4.
    Prep Time: 10 min
    Cook Time: 45 min
    Equipment needed: Medium pot, large heavy pot or deep dish skillet, cast iron or stainless steel skillet

    The prep work is pretty basic for this one. Chop up some garlic and cilantro, slice your ginger (leave that skin on), dice the onion and bell pepper, prepare your spice blend. You know what you'll never find in my recipes? A generic mention of store-bought "curry powder" in the list of ingredients. Step up your pantry game and keep real spices in stock. Seriously, it takes 5 minutes to make your own curry powder so why rely on mystery spice blends in the back of your cupboard that are probably a couple years old?

    To toast cumin and fennel seeds: Place a single layer of seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking frequently, approximately 5 minutes until fragrant.  Watch for the color of the cumin seeds to darken and remove from heat.  Toasted seeds should be used the same day.

    You may be surprised that I didn't add any hot peppers or cayenne in the mix for this dish. To be honest, I totally forgot, and didn't think the finished dish was "missing" anything when I was done. It was actually refreshing not to eat something spicy and just enjoy the fresh flavors. 

    But you better believe I added some jalapenos with my leftovers the next day!

    You'll want to get your lentils going first. Rinse them off well in a fine mesh strainer until the water runs clear and pick out any debris. 

    This is the part I was nervous about. I've had really bland lentils before so I was skeptical about cooking these in water instead of some kind of stock. You really don't need the stock as it turns out, water is just fine and the lentils will soak up all that goodness from the tomatoes and curry spices later on.

    In your medium pot, bring the lentils and 4 c. water to boil, then reduce heat and simmer on low for 20 minutes or until lentils have softened and started to break down.  You'll see some yucky foam rise to the top while the lentils cook - don't be scared, just skim that off. I don't know if it's true that it'll give you gas but who really wants to take chances on that? 

    While the lentils cook, cut your snapper into 4 oz portions if you're feeding 4 people...or bigger pieces if you're greedy. I won't judge you, snapper is pretty damn delicious.

    Pat the snapper dry, season with a good pinch of kosher salt and rub in a little bit of the curry spices. Don't skip the step in making sure the fish is dry, that'll be really important in getting a good sear later on.

    You should get the main pot or skillet going about ten minutes into starting the lentils, if you're multi-tasking. If you're not pressed for time, no harm in doing everything consecutively either. Over medium heat, in your large pot (or as you can see, I used a deep dish skillet) add a couple tablespoons of oil and cook the onions for a few minutes until softened. I let them start to get a little golden brown around the edges to build flavor. Season with a pinch of salt.

    After onions soften, add the ginger, garlic and lemongrass.  I didn't plan to use lemongrass when I started cooking, which you may have noticed in the pics. But once I had that ginger and garlic going it dawned on me that lemongrass would actually work really well with these flavors. At this point it didn't really matter whether I was going for Indian or Thai, all I knew is that it was smelling awesome.  No worries if you don't have any. It adds some excellent citrus notes that aren't replicated exactly by fresh lemon or lime juice, but you could certainly use lemon zest in a pinch.

    Add the toasted cumin and fennel seeds, as well as the other curry spices. Cooking the spices for a minute in the hot oil will help the spices bloom and make a great flavor base for the lentils.

    Stir in the diced bell peppers and saute those for another minute. Season with a pinch of salt.

    Transfer the cooked lentils and any remaining cooking liquid to the skillet and stir to incorporate the onions, peppers, aromatics and seasonings. Allow this to simmer for 10 minutes until slightly reduced. Check and adjust your seasonings if necessary.

    This is a good time to start cooking your snapper so that everything is ready at once. If you skipped over the tips on searing fish above, you might want to scroll back up and review that. Ready? Let's sear some red snapper. To know if your skillet is hot enough, drop a tiny bit of water into the skillet. If it sits in the skillet for a second then evaporates, the skillet isn't hot enough. If the water disperses into droplets that dance across the surface of the skillet, it's ready! Now you can add the oil, just enough to coat the bottom of your skillet.

    When you lay the fish in the hot skillet, place the end of the fish near you into the pan first, letting the fish fall in the direction towards the stove. This helps to prevent hot oil from splashing towards you.

    Allow the snapper to sear 3-4 minutes depending on thickness of the fillet. Once seared, the skin will be extremely crispy and it should be easy to flip the fillet over using your spatula or tongs.  Continue searing the other side for another couple minutes until the fish has cooked through.

    For a larger piece of fish, tilt the skillet and use a spoon in a quick circular motion to baste the fish with hot oil. A pat of butter melted into your skillet at this point is an awesome way to get a little extra flavor in there too. Basting the fish helps it to cook more evenly and allows you to concentrate on browning any spots that didn't quite get seared as well.

    Set the cooked fish aside and add the chopped tomatoes to the cooked curried lentils. Check seasoning for the last time, adjusting with salt and pepper if needed.

    Stir in half of the cilantro and the juice of a lime. Inhale the delicious aromas.

    Ladle a good portion of lentils into your bowl, mound a little coconut rice in the center, and lay a piece of seared fish on top. Garnish as you'd like with extra cilantro, fresh tomatoes and lime slices. You're ready to dive in now. Enjoy!

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    1. This meal looks so decadent. I should go to bed but i'm stalking your blog :)

    2. Hey Angela. I'm actually thinking of making this for xmas since the my whole house is tired of poultry and is specifically asking for snapper. This looks bomb. But we've also maxed out on lentils these past two weeks. Do you think the sauce still works minus the lentils but with more tomatoes to make it a nice curry sauce for the rice?