plain fish
February 2, 2008

"I'd just like to eat some plain fish," he says. Like with almonds and mushrooms? In a stew? Salt-baked? Breaded? I'm in charge of the kitchen at the beach condo, and, let's face it, I kind of want to show off for my family. So at first I'm completely thrown by my brother's "plain fish" request.

Dad, Bryan and I find our way Joe Patti's (Mom helpfully leaves us a note explaining that the seafood mogul has mob ties and a prison record, but no driving directions), but I'm still stumped. We comb through some complimentary recipe brochures (the tastes of the South), but we can all agree cream sauces or any kind of Florida Panhandle riff on Thai food don't count as plain. So we buy some flounder and a handful of ruby red shrimp and head out. It's when we're at the grocery store that things start to coalesce. Trying to keep the rental-kitchen ingredients list to a minimum is a Tiny Kitchen principle: What can I make with 5 ingredients or less?

Plain fish means drenched in egg and milk (we can eat those for breakfast later, which validates their purchase), so that the fish fries just a little in olive oil but without too much grease or any batter (pan-seared is probably the more accurate term). Then it's topped with plenty of salt, pepper, parsley and lemon juice (plucked from Libba's yard) and served alongside a salad: those ruby reds marinated in more lemon juice and olive oil and broiled, then tossed with arugula mix, avocado and the clementines Mom packed in the car for on-the-road snacks.

"This is exactly what I meant," says Bryan. That's a triumph in and of itself.

But in fact, it's so good that upon return to Brooklyn, plain fish and citrus salad are all I want to eat. It's exactly the right answer every time: What to eat on a work night when you're craving real dinner, but have limited time and energy for cooking? What to buy when the hood's fancy new grocery store finally opens, and the culinary possibilities are suddenly overwhelmingly limitless? What to plan on the subway coming home from way uptown when a friend is coming for dinner in less than 30 minutes? Plain fish, every time.

I've swapped tilapia for flounder, in theory because it's eco-friendly, but also a little bit because buying flounder too far from the Gulf Coast is a lesson in disappointment. And since deveining shrimp is a little what I imagine purgatory to be like, my salads are strictly avocado-orange. A fuller meal can sub in white rice, wild rice or lentils (but the less intrusive the grain, the better to sop up lemon, salt and vinegar). A trial pairing with the most agreeable of food wines stands up to this this most agreeable of menus.

Bryan's right. All I want ever again is plain fish.