You really can’t go wrong here: great fish, deep roasty-toasty mushrooms, rich polenta. Still, I was happy with how this one turned out. Polenta takes on a wonderful smoky flavor when cooked in the oven. I think the walleye pike works well for this dish, but if you can’t find that where you are, substitute barramundi (Asian sea bass) or even halibut.
Pan-Roasted Pike With Sherry-Glazed Mushrooms and Polenta
Start by making the polenta. In a 4-quart saucepot, bring the water to a boil. Pour in the polenta, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a rack inside a medium-hot wood oven. Allow the polenta to cook, stirring frequently, until soft and creamy. Depending on the polenta you are using, this can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour – just keep an eye on it and stir often. You may need to add more water during the cooking process if you are getting too much evaporation due to a hotter oven. Just stir in more in quarter-cup increments until the polenta is back to the consistency you want. Once the polenta is cooked, remove from the oven, stir in the parmesan and butter, cover and set aside.
While the polenta is cooking, get your mushroom prep ready. If your oyster mushrooms are really big, you can tear them into smaller pieces. Otherwise, leave them whole. For the peppers, cut into thin rings. For more heat, use the rings from the stem end; for less, cut from the opposite end.
Preheat a large, shallow roasting pan or saute pan in your wood oven. Add the oil. You want your pan to be very hot for this maneuver – the oil should look like water moving around in the pan, not viscous. If it starts to smoke, that’s great; don’t worry about it. Add the mushrooms to the hot pan, season with salt and pepper, stir once quickly to distribute the oil and return to the hot wood oven.
Now leave your mushrooms alone for at least 2 minutes. People’s tendency is to want to stir in situations like this, but you want your shrooms to get a nice sear on them, and moving them around is only going to cause them to slowly heat up and begin leaching out their liquid. Then you’ve got steamed mushrooms, which will still taste good, but it’s not what we’re going for here. Examine your mushrooms – if they are starting to get brown and crispy around the edges, you’re safe to stir. Stir them up and return to the oven for another round of movement-less roasting. Your mushrooms should be nice and golden-brown and roasty after about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chiles to the pan and allow to cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds. Add the thyme and cook for another 20 seconds. Add the sherry and butter and return to the oven, stirring frequently. Let the sherry reduce completely, about 1 minute, until you’re left with beautifully glazed mushrooms. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Finally, cook the fish. Preheat a large saute pan in a hot wood oven. You want your pan very hot for this. I actually cheated and preheated my pan on the stovetop, but if you have your oven cranking it should be plenty hot. Season your fish with salt. Add the oil to the pan. When you start to see wisps of smoke coming off the oil, add the fish to the pan presentation side down. For pike, this is going to be the side opposite of where the skin was. Put the fish in the oven and allow to cook for 3-5 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of your pieces. Check your fish: The flesh around the outside of the fillets and creeping up to the top should have turned from translucent to white. At this point it is about 75 percent done. Add a knob of butter to the pan and allow it to foam. Turn over your fillets and use a spoon to pour the butter over the fish, cooking for another 30-45 seconds. To check for doneness, insert a metal skewer or thin knife into the center of the fillet. You should feel no resistance, and when you place the metal that was inside the fish against your lower lip, it should feel warm. Remove from the pan and blot dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel.
To plate, place a mound of polenta in the middle of your serving vessel. Place the fish on top of the polenta, and some of the mushrooms on top of that. Get ready to live!