Eight ingredients. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a weeknight feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
Once, in prepping for a backpacking trip on a Canadian island with friends, I made some minor miscalculations in the amount of food we should have brought. One was an error in simple math, planning for four nights away instead of five. The other, and perhaps more grave misstep, was placing a touch too much faith in our abilities to forage for food along the way.
With visions of filling our pockets with wild berries along the trail and trout leaping into our landing nets during rest stops at river banks, we set off, dropped by propeller plane onto a beautiful, wild and very remote island. The weather? Perfect. Crowds? Non-existent. The wine that I filled the extra space in our packs with since we didn’t bring much food? Delicious. Wild berries and trout? Scarce. Very scarce.
To catch enough fish for dinner, it turns out, we needed to devote a significant amount of the day to taking turns manning our one fishing rod. And so the days went, hiking in the morning to the next camping spot, setting up tents and, then, taking turns fishing. And waiting. And fishing and waiting some more—all of which would have seemed way less extreme and Survivor-like had we brought some plan-B type of meals. Thankfully, all ended happily; eventually we’d always catch enough. I don’t know whether it was the hunger or tiredness or relief or the food itself, but the trout—seasoned with only salt, dredged in flour and then seared over the camp stove—was the best trout I’ve ever had.
That best-I’ve-ever-had story is one that I think many people have when it comes to meals—not, of course, one where they nearly starved in the woods, but one where they realize something so simple could be so good. It’s a good reminder, especially going into the grilling and outdoor-entertaining season, to keep things easy when it comes to menu planning.
Take this recipe for cornmeal-crusted halibut. Yes, if you wanted, you could get fancy and do the whole egg-flour-cornmeal breading process to get a fried fish dish. Or you could add some cayenne and paprika to the mix for a kick and some color. But if you keep it simple, with just cornmeal pressed into the fillets, as detailed below, the cornmeal will add a nice crunchy texture and maybe pick up some char from the pan. (It also works well over the grill on high heat, if you’re looking for a Memorial Day dish. Grease the grill pan and cook on high heat for 2 to 3 minutes a side.) Top the fish with a mayonnaise-based sauce, like the one here, which lands somewhere in between a French remoulade and a full-on American-style tartar sauce. Fill out the rest of the plate with simple sides: Some soft Parker House rolls, maybe, for a fish sandwich if you like, and some green spring vegetables. Asparagus makes a nice choice, either grilled or sautéed quickly over high heat.
For the wine, you’ll have plenty of options. A ripe and rich French Chardonnay was fine, if a little lost against the acidic tartar sauce. A pair of rosés fared better. A slightly off-dry rosé from South Africa was fruity and bright, but my preference ran to a Provençal rosé, which easily handled the bold, less wine-friendly elements in the sauce, like the anchovy and capers.
Along with keeping things simple, let’s keep things sustainable, so that there will be fish in the water in the future. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends wild-caught Pacific halibut, also known in the market as “Alaskan halibut.”
Pair with a Provençal rosé, such as Château d’Esclans Côtes de Provence Rosé Whispering Angel 2010 (88 points, $20)
Total time: 20 minutes
Approximate food cost: $28
1. Mix the mayonnaise, capers, anchovy and parsley with the juice from one lemon in a small bowl. Set aside.
2. Pour the cornmeal onto a plate. Season the halibut fillets with salt, then dredge both sides in cornmeal. Pat off the excess cornmeal.
3. Heat two tablespoons of cooking oil in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan (cast iron is ideal), then add the cornmeal-covered fillets. Cook until browned on one side, around 2 to 3 minutes, then flip and continue cooking until the fish is ready, another 2 to 3 minutes. Serve with the mayonnaise sauce and a wedge of lemon. Serves 4.