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A recurring rite of adulthood, for the harried and haggard and sad, is feeling ugh so terrible all the time, I'm like a sweaty, gross walrus, it hurts when I do things and my chest makes sounds like a dehumidifier, bluhhhhhh, and making a half-assed resolution to start doin' the right things, dammit, start takin' care of myself, I take care of everybody else around here, I gotta do what's right for me for once. And then, like, going to the gym twice, drinking a bottle of kombucha, and then forgetting the whole thing ever happened, and then doing it again next month.

When that day comes—if today is not it—you will feel an impulse to "eat right." No one knows what in the damn hell it means to "eat right," but we have a vague notion that it involves, like, chicken breasts and kale or some shit, and misery, and forbearance, and the solemn Puritanical satisfaction that comes with suffering for one's own betterment. One of the things that people like to eat "right" is fish. I am gonna swap some of this dang red meat for some nice healthy fish. This is how the thinking goes. The nice thing about this is that fish—particularly the flaky, white, not-as-nutritionally-upstanding-as-salmon-but-hey-it's-still-fish-dammit-it-still-represents-a-renewed-commitment-to-wellness-and-self-respect-who-are-you-to-judge-me-anyway varieties of fish—actually tastes good, in addition to whatever caloric or nutritional benefit you get by eating it instead of a large bucket of ground chuck braised in nacho-cheese sauce.


Conveniently, flaky white fish also is easy as hell to prepare, when you're not breading and frying it, which you're not doing, because that would negate its healthfulness entirely, so don't even think about it. Basically, you cook it just like you'd cook the delicious steak you're denying yourself. You sear it in a super-hot pan, and then (if you need to) you stick it in a hot oven for a few minutes, and voila, a genuinely delicious dinner you only resent before you taste it.

Seriously, though: Seared white fish is stupefyingly tasty. Let's make some. No, not after you do three halfhearted jumping jacks and spend a half-hour trying to find your pulse. Now!

To begin, acquire some fish. We're talking about the flaky, white varieties, here; if you have a favorite, go for it. Unless your favorite is tilapia, which is a lovely fish, but tends to come in thinner, flatter cuts than what we're looking for, here, which is a nice thick hunk of white fish. So, like, sea bass, haddock, halibut, Patagonian toothfish, whatever—these are good flaky white or white-ish fish, and if you like 'em, use 'em.


Or: Get some cod! A big fat cod loin is great for this: it's mild and agreeably flavored; it's moderately hearty, as fish goes; it's easily sectionable into nice little fillet shapes; and it's generally cheaper than a lot of other varieties of flaky white fish. A nice big cod-wad, say a pound-and-a-half worth, ought to yield reasonably sized portions for four people, no sweat.

Also: acquire baby arugula. But, like, actual baby arugula, if you can get it, and not the grown-ass arugula shady supermarkets sometimes label "baby" arugula, counting on saucer-eyed shoppers going oooh, baby arugula! I saw that in the Martha Stewart magazine! and grabbing a bag of it, even though the leaves are the size of goddamn palm fronds and couldn't more obviously not be babies if they were smoking cigarettes on their lunch break at the pipe-welding plant. Grown-ass arugula is a perfectly pleasant leafy green thing to eat, but it's bulkier and spicier (and darker-colored, for your identification edification) than the baby stuff, and not what we want, here.


Now, take your stuff home, preheat your oven to 450 degrees, and prep your fish for cooking. If you got a big lump of fish (like, say, the cod loin you were all but explicitly instructed to get) with the intention of serving it to multiple people, this'll first entail carving it into individual portions. You'll want these to be flat on their two biggest sides; if they happen to have a neat all-around cuboid shape when you're done, that's fine and lovely, but don't go trimming these things with a scalpel like a jerk.

Once you've got your fish-brick cut into individual pieces, season your fish. Sprinkle the two big flat sides of each piece with a modest pinch of salt, and also some freshly ground black pepper. About that.


Perhaps you have heard a certain variety of food-weenie mewling in recent times, to the effect that ooooh mew mew pew putting pepper on stuff before you grill or sear or brown it is wrong, mew p'pew mew it burns and tastes acrid and bad pew mew! Who knows where this idea came from—I had a thought that maybe it's Alton Brown's fault, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna research it—but wherever it originated, it's pretty self-evidently a buncha bullshit.

People have been putting black pepper on uncooked steaks and hunks of fish and scallops and so on—and then slapping those things down on hot grills and shriekingly hot pans and in the bottom of hot dutch ovens—for centuries. They do this because it produces a pleasant taste. There is no other reason to do it. If it did not produce a taste that people liked, people would not do it.


When you say "but but but, putting black pepper on meat/fish/whatever before you grill/sear it is wrooooong!!!1!" what you are saying is I don't like it. Which, hey, you're entitled to that stupid preference, but that's all it is. If some know-it-all dingus rappelled through your kitchen window to tell you that actually, it's wrong to put milk on cereal before you eat it, the milk makes it taste unpleasant, you'd rightly identify this person as a weenie with major boundary issues. And so it is with the no-pepper-before-searing/grilling folk. They are weenies. Ignore them. Put some pepper on your fillets of fish.

Now, heat up a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a pan or skillet on your stove. Seasoned cast iron is perfect for this; stainless steel is great, too, although you may have to scrub it with steel wool afterward; technically I guess you're not supposed to use nonstick stuff for searing (it "can't handle the heat" and will "release chemicals into your food" that will "make you grow a second head on the back of your neck" and the head will "be Adolf Hitler" and also "cancerous," ugh, whatever, let me live), but if that's all you got, I mean, it's not like you were gonna live to be 200 anyway.


As for the size of the pan, it depends on how you want to approach this. If you intend to sear more than one piece of fish at a time (ideally you wouldn't, but sometimes you don't want to spend all goddamn evening hunched over a searing-hot pan, cooking food for other people one goddamn fillet at a time), you'll need a pan wide enough to give your fillets genuine separation from each other, so that they've got room to cook and so they won't cool the pan all the way down as soon as they hit it. If that's not an option, then use what you've got, and just resign yourself to the need to cook the fish-hunks one at a time. They cook quickly! I promise.

Get your oil good and hot; it should be shimmering but not quite smoking before you proceed. Is it there? OK. Sear some damn fish. Remember not to overcrowd the pan; if you can't fit multiple pieces in there with some actual open space between them, just cook one at a time. If you're cooking more than a couple pieces, feel free to add a drizzle of oil to the pan between batches if it starts to look dry in there. You'll want to give each of the two big flat opposite sides of each fillet a good 90 seconds to two minutes of committed, uninterrupted, unfucked-with, real-deal by-God searing, to get a nice deep brown seared-looking color into them.


Once you've given each side of a piece of fish a vigorous searing and both sides are brown and attractively cooked-looking, get it out of the skillet and repeat until you've seared all the fish. Don't worry if the fish doesn't seem to be cooked all the way through; that's why you preheated the oven. The important thing, at this point, is searing the outside of the fish. OK?

Eventually you'll be all done searing your pieces of fish. Went by fast, didn't it? Kinda smoky, wasn't it? Lotta firefighters hangin' around, aren't there? Cool. If you're concerned that your fish might not be as cooked as you'd like it, stick all these seared pieces of fish in a roasting pan or baking dish (or back in the skillet, if it's big enough for them all to fit in a single layer) and sock that fucker in the preheated oven for, oh, not more than five minutes, I'd say. This'll help nudge the fish pieces along to doneness, if they weren't done already; if you weren't worried about that, don't bother with the oven, just remember to turn it off.


Hey, also, remember that baby arugula? Whip up a super-quick salad with it. You can do this while the fish is in the oven, if you put your fish in the oven. Baby arugula is peppery and bitter and wonderful, and doesn't need much. Just a squeeze from half a lemon, a glug of extra-virgin olive oil, some salt, and a little bit of freshly ground black pepper. (Also, if you should happen to have a hunk of hard cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, in your fridge, you can use a potato peeler to shave some thin slices of it onto the salad, or, hey, don't do it, it's just an idea.)

Heap some of that salad onto plates. Arrange a piece of your seared fish sorta jauntily on or semi-on the salad on each plate. Serve.


OK, so, yeah, it's not exactly the belt-poppingest meal you ever ate. That's OK! It's simple and straightforward; the flavors are fresh and unobstructed, mild fish coaxed to expression by salt and flattered by pepper, the salad bright-tasting and punchy. Good! Good and enjoyable and nourishing. Best of all, maybe you get to meet your grandkids someday. Probably not, but no one will be able to say you didn't kinda maybe half-try that one time.


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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at Image by Sam Woolley.

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