For years, I was a culinary libertarian. I’d make dinner, put all the dishes on the table and then let everyone take what they wanted and mix and match it any which way. No mother-knows-best intervention. If they left the slaw off their pulled-pork sandwiches — the slaw I’d made specifically to be sandwiched — I’d let it go (and be only slightly bitter). If they didn’t want the sauce that I knew was fabulous over the steak au poivre, I’d shrug (and grimace, because I’m not as evolved as I pretend to be).
Those days are gone. Now, if there are things I think must go together, they get served together. I’ve become a benevolent dictator, and I’d like to think that everyone around my table is better for it.
I’d hate for anyone to miss any part of this dish, which has three components, each of which I think (decree?) should turn up in every forkful: seared marinated swordfish, sharp and spicy sauce (made from the marinade) and salsa, chockablock with avocado, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Sure, each part is good solo, but put them together and you get the golden T-some: a variety of Taste, Texture and Temperature.
Swordfish, abundant again in American waters and given the green light (depending on how it’s caught) by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, is a favorite of mine because its texture is firm; its flavor is slightly sweet; its personality is accommodating — you can season it with spices from just about anywhere in the world; it’s easy to cook right; and, cooked right, it’s moist and tender.
The key to keeping swordfish moist is to start with a slice that’s between 1/2 – and 3/4 -inch thick. Start with a slab that looks like a porterhouse steak, and you could easily end up with fish that’s dry and cottony. Because swordfish doesn’t show to advantage when it’s “rare,” a thinner slice makes it a cinch to sear the outside and cook the inside to perfection.
I pretty much always marinate swordfish, whether I’m cooking it in a skillet, a grill pan or on a real grill (and you can cook this dish any of those ways), in part because the marinade helps keep the fish moist, but mostly because marinating is an easy way to add a huge flavor boost. For this marinade, I’ve gone heavy on the citrus (I use lemon and orange, but you could add lime, if you’d like or if that’s what you have), scallions and cilantro. If you’re a fan of seviche, fish “cooked” in a citrus marinade, you could use this one.
In a move that’s both thrifty and tasty, after the mix is relieved of marinade duty I heat it and use it as a sauce. It’s a trick I learned from Jacques Pépin one evening when he was having dinner chez us. I was cooking marinated bluefish on the grill, and Jacques rescued the marinade just as I was about to toss it. Horrified that I’d waste something so tasty, he poured it into a saucepan, boiled it and spooned it over the fish. I’ve been doing the same ever since.
The sauced sword is great as is, but the lively salsa pushes the dish into wow territory. It’s a simple avocado-and-tomato salsa spiked with jalapeño, cayenne, onion, mint and cilantro, but it’s got wonderful color and flavor. Make it ahead, chill it if you’d like, but save mixing in the avocado and lemon juice until the last minute, so that the juice keeps its bite and doesn’t soften the vegetables.
I love this combo — as if you couldn’t tell — and think it’s both delicious and picture-worthy.
Photograph by Deb Lindsey. This story appeared originally in my Everyday Dorie column in the Washington Post.