Marinated Swordfish with Avocado-Tomato Salsa

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.

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Marinated Swordfish with Avocado-Tomato Salsa

Makes 4 servings

Here, a zesty citrus marinade and a creamy-crunchy salsa provide a one-two punch of flavor for swordfish steaks. The fish can be grilled outdoors or indoors on a grill pan, in which case you wouldn’t need the tablespoon or so of canola oil. This is also good served at room temperature.

Make Ahead: The fish needs to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours. The salsa can be assembled (without the avocado), covered and refrigerated a few hours in advance; bring to room temperature before serving.

    • Finely grated zest and juice from 2 lemons (1 1/2 teaspoons zest and 5 teaspoons juice)
    • Finely grated zest and juice from 1 large orange (1 1/3 teaspoons zest and 1/4 cup juice)
    • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
    • 4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced, white and light-green parts only
    • 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro stems (reserve the leaves for the salsa)
    • Sliver of jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
    • 1/8 teaspoon honey (may substitute pinch of sugar)
    • Pinch ground cayenne pepper
    • 4 slices swordfish, each about 5 ounces and 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick
    • 1 tablespoon canola oil, or more as needed
    • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, each cut in half
    • 1/2 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
    • 1/2 cup (not packed) chopped fresh cilantro
    • 1/4 cup chopped red onion, rinsed in cold water and patted dry
    • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
    • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
    • Pinch freshly ground black pepper
    • Pinch ground cayenne pepper
    • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
    • Flesh of 1 large, firm but ripe avocado, cut into small cubes
    • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

For the marinade: Combine the lemon zest and juice, orange zest and juice, extra-virgin olive oil, scallions, cilantro stems (to taste), jalapeño, sea salt, honey and cayenne pepper in a gallon-size zip-top bag (or nonreactive baking dish). Add the swordfish and seal the bag, first pressing out as much air as possible. Gently massage/turn to coat the fish. Let it sit at room temperature for 1 hour, turning the bag over from time to time, or in the refrigerator for up to 4 hours. (If you have refrigerated the fish, let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before cooking.)

Meanwhile, make the salsa: Combine the tomatoes, red bell pepper, cilantro, red onion, mint, sea salt, black and cayenne peppers, and the extra-virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl, tossing gently to incorporate.

To cook the swordfish and finish the salsa: Remove the fish from the marinade. Scrape any ingredients that may have stuck to the fish back into the marinade; transfer the marinade to a small saucepan. Use paper towels to gently pat the fish dry.

Working in a large skillet (nonstick is good here) over medium-high heat, warm the canola oil; once it shimmers, add the swordfish. If your skillet isn’t large enough to hold the 4 pieces, cook the fish in two batches, adding more oil to the pan as needed. Cook for 3 minutes, then carefully turn the fish over and cook for about 2 minutes or until the flesh is opaque to the middle. Transfer the fish to a platter.

Bring the marinade to a boil over high heat; cook for about 3 minutes, then remove from the heat. Spoon some of the marinade over each piece of fish, and pour the rest into a pitcher to be passed at the table.

Add the avocado and lemon juice to the salsa and toss to incorporate. Spoon some salsa on top of each piece of fish and serve. If you have leftover salsa, bring it to the table.