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Dive into spring with 3 delicious fish dishes

Sauteed scallops with spring spinach with brown butter-lemon sauce.  (Kathy Gunst)
Sauteed scallops with spring spinach with brown butter-lemon sauce. (Kathy Gunst)

The days are longer. The sun is brighter and — despite some lingering cold days and nights — the calendar tells us that spring is officially here. This is the time of year when we start to think about changing the way we eat, segueing from soups and stews to a lighter, healthier diet.

Fish is an ideal choice for spring. I recently spoke with fish and seafood expert Barton Seaver, author of American Seafood, about spring fish and what to look for.

“The ocean isn’t like the land in its cycle of abundance,” Seaver says. “But there are some analogies. In summer, when water is warm and there’s plenty of sunlight, the nutrients are all there; life is exploding. Plankton really comes into full production for all species that feast upon them. Fish fatten up in summer.”

But in spring, Seaver tells me, there are certain species that taste best.

Seaver says to look for crab and scallops during this early season. On the West Coast, Dungeness Crab are still in season, and Stone Crab, found in the South, is still going strong. The New England scallop season will end fairly soon but, according to Seaver, this is the moment of “peak quality.” Seaver also points to crawfish, which have been going all winter, but “now is when they get really flavorful.” And look for the spring run of King salmon and Alaskan salmon.

Other season fish to look for in the coming weeks: softshell crabs (during the spring blue crab molt their shells and become fully edible and tender), shad (a member of the herring family that spawns in freshwater at the beginning of spring), and shad roe (the egg sac of the female American shad that is considered a seasonal delicacy.)

What follows are three new recipes that rely on fresh scallops, salmon, and crabmeat. They showcase some of the season’s first greens — asparagus, spinach, chives, and scallions — in three light but satisfying spring dishes.

To learn more about finding sustainable seafood and fish species, click here and here.

Spring crab cakes

What’s the difference between light, fluffy crab cakes and hockey pucks? A light touch. Lots of fresh crab meat. And not a whole lot of other ingredients.

Serve these crab cakes as a first course as part of a spring meal or a main course. You can serve them with lemon wedges or a simple sauce.

Here are two ideas:

  • For a caper-mayonnaise sauce: Mix about ½ cup mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons drained capers, ¼ cup chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon chopped chives, and freshly ground pepper and a touch of hot pepper sauce.
  • Or you can make a quick brown butter-caper sauce: Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter to the hot skillet as soon as the crab cakes are done, and once the butter just begins to turn brown, add a few tablespoons of drained capers, and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Spoon the sauce on top of the crab cakes.


The key to great crab cakes is a light touch. Don’t mix this vigorously; crab meat is very delicate.

Serves 4 as an appetizer and 2 as a main course.

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces fresh or frozen crab meat (if frozen, thaw before mixing)
  • ¼ cup finely chopped scallions, white and green sections
  • ⅓ cup sweet red pepper, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dash of hot pepper sauce
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 small egg (or ½ a large egg), beaten
  • ⅓ cup Panko breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil, or 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges


Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, very gently mix the crab, scallions, red pepper, salt, pepper, hot sauce and mayonnaise. Add the beaten egg, followed by the Panko breadcrumbs.
  2. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie sheet or baking tray. Using a gentle touch, divide the crab cake mixture into 4 fat burger shapes. Place the crab cakes on the parchment paper, loosely cover with parchment or plastic wrap or an alternative, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to several hours. This will firm the crab cakes up and make them easier to cook.
  3. To cook the crab cakes: In a large skillet or two smaller skillets, heat the butter and oil over moderately high heat until hot. Add the crab cakes without crowding the skillet, and cook for 6 minutes. Carefully flip the crab cake over and cook for another 5 to 6 minutes, or until the crab cakes are golden brown. Serve hot with lemon wedges.

Salmon with asparagus and a pistachio-arugula pesto

The pale pink flesh of salmon set against green asparagus spears topped with a crunchy pistachio-arugula pesto makes for a satisfying weeknight dinner. You can also grill the salmon (get outdoors — it’s spring!). The pesto, which is made without cheese, can be made up to 3 days ahead of time and is also great with grilled shrimp, scallops, grilled fish, or tossed with pasta, or served as a dip for crackers and raw vegetables.

Serves 2 to 4.

Ingredients 

The pistachio-arugula pesto:

  • ½ cup shelled salted pistachios
  • ¼ cup scallions or chives, finely chopped
  • ½ cup arugula leaves
  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


The asparagus and salmon:

  • 1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed
  • 1 pound salmon filet, cut lengthwise into two long pieces
  • ⅓ cup chopped scallions or chives, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, plus more for covering, if making ahead
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Instructions

  1. Make the pesto: In a food processor or blender, whirl up the pistachios, scallions or chives, and arugula until finely chopped. Add the oil, bit by bit, and whirl until the pesto is a thick, chunky mixture. Season with salt (taste first and go lightly since the pistachios are salty) and pepper. The pesto can be made up to 3 days ahead of time; store in a small jar with a thin layer of olive oil on top.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  3. Fill a large skillet with about 2 to 3 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus and cook for about 5 to 8 minutes, or until just tender, depending on the thickness. The asparagus will also be roasted to finish cooking. Drain under cold running water, drain again, and set aside.
  4. Place the pre-cooked asparagus in a small baking dish or gratin dish with shallow sides. Place the salmon on top and drizzle with the scallions, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for about 10 minutes. The fish should appear just cooked through; the color will change from pink to a paler color and when gently prodded with a small fork or sharp knife should flake fairly easily. The internal temperature should be around 125 to 130 degrees.
  5. If you want to grill the salmon, brush with the scallions, oil, salt and pepper and grill for about 10 minutes. Cook the asparagus about 2 minutes more and serve the grilled salmon on top of the cooked asparagus.
  6. Spoon a dollop of pesto on top of each filet. Remove and serve with lemon wedges and the remaining pesto.

Sauteed scallops with spring spinach with brown butter-lemon sauce

Scallop season lasts for just a few more weeks and they’ve never been plumper and sweeter than they are in early spring. Here, they are lightly coated in seasoned flour and sauteed over high heat and served on a bed of sauteed spring spinach, topped with butter melted over high heat until it turns brown and then finished with a splash of lemon or Meyer lemon juice.

Serves 2 for main course and 4 for first course.

Ingredients 

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, very finely chopped or thinly sliced
  • 1 pound baby spinach, washed and dried
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ⅓ cup flour
  • 1 pound sea scallops
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 ½ tablespoon lemon or Meyer lemon juice
  • Lemon wedges for serving


Instructions

  1. In a large skillet, heat one tablespoon of the olive oil over low heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the spinach and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring for about 5 minutes or until just wilted. Keep warm over very low heat.
  2. Place the flour on a small plate and season liberally with salt and pepper. Dredge the scallops in the seasoned flour on all sides. In another large skillet, heat the remaining tablespoon of the oil over high heat. Add the scallops, working in batches if need be so you don’t crowd the skillet, and saute about 2 to 4 minutes per side, depending on the size, until golden brown; remove and set aside. Place the skillet you cooked the scallops in over high heat. Add the butter and melt until it begins to turn a rich brown. Add the lemon juice.
  3. Place the scallops on top of the warm spinach. Pour the hot lemon butter on top and serve with lemon wedges.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.