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Kitchen Mailbox Countdown to Dinner Dining
Countdown to Dinner: Milk-poached fish a quickie

Thursday, March 16, 2000

Lent is here, which means many menus turn to fish for protein for the days of fasting leading up to Easter. If fish sticks aren't your pleasure, there are myriad pisces to be found at the supermarket these days -- and at affordable prices.

Larry and Nancy Peel used to be big fans of fried fish, he tells us, but "as we grew older, we found it more difficult to digest. We tried several non-frying recipes, but didn't like the 'fishy' taste of most of the baking/poaching methods. I saw Jeff Smith [of 'Frugal Gourmet' fame] use milk to ease the taste of salt cod and thought that poaching fish in milk might be the answer."

After some experimenting, Larry came up with this recipe for Ocean Perch With Saltines and Milk.

Perch fillets are placed in a casserole and all but covered with milk, then sprinkled generously with crushed saltines. As it cooks, the crackers absorb the milk, creating a sauce-like coating. Rice makes a good side dish.

The dish can be spiced up with a sprinkle of paprika or tarragon.

The Finleyville couple has experimented with other kinds of fish, but perch suits their tastes just fine.

While the dish bakes, there's plenty of time to boil rice and steam a vegetable for accompaniment.

Empty-nesters, the Peels alternate cooking duties because of their work schedules. Larry works for Sabre, a software firm, where he does outsourcing for US Airways; Nancy is a supervisor at EBARA Solar Inc.

Larry also offers this quick-thaw tip: "We try to buy the perch when it's on sale. We separate it into the proper size packages and freeze it. Naturally, I always forget to take it out the day before. I've found that putting the frozen fish in a bowl and filling the bowl with hot tap water will defrost the fish in 15 to 20 minutes with no apparent loss of texture or flavor." -- Tested by Betsy Kline

Ocean Perch With Saltines and Milk

12 ounces fresh ocean perch (3 to 6 fillets)

1 cup milk -- more or less to almost cover fish

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons butter or margarine -- melted

1/2 sleeve saltines -- crushed

Black pepper to taste

Tarragon or paprika, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Arrange the perch fillets in one layer in a 6-by-10-inch baking dish. Pour milk over the fillets until almost, but not quite, covered. Sprinkle pepper on fillets and drizzle with lemon juice. Completely cover each fillet with the crushed saltines. Drizzle melted butter over the saltines.

Place in oven for 12 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness of fillets. (Fully thawed, ours took a little over 20 minutes; partially thawed fish will take longer.) Fish is done when a knife slides into them easily. Makes 2 servings.

Serve with some form of rice -- long-grain white with butter, risotto with mushrooms, or Rice-a-Roni fried rice to which we add broccoli or cauliflower.

Do you have an entree, salad or vegetable side dish recipe (no desserts, please!) that can be made in 30 minutes or less from six ingredients or fewer (not counting water, salt and pepper)? Share it with Countdown to Dinner.

The PG tests all recipes and if we select your recipe for publication, you'll receive a free selection from our cookbook grab bag of current releases.

Send your recipe to Countdown to Dinner, Post-Gazette Food, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222, or fax to 412-263-1313. Please include your name, neighborhood and daytime phone number. Or e-mail to: nanderson@post-gazette.com Questions? Call 412-263-1760.

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