Classic comfort food gets a sophisticated makeover with fresh ingredients and lively flavors.

By Frank P. Melodia
September 05, 2006
Jean Allsopp

Cooking en casserole is perfectly suited to seafood. Minimal bakingtime (about half an hour) brings out the unique flavor of fish andshellfish while preserving their delicate textures. In our firstrecipe, fresh creamed spinach blankets a cod fillet baked with acheddar-breadcrumb topping. In the Sicilian option, a quickMediterranean sweet-and-savory vegetable sauté is spooned overswordfish steaks and baked to perfection. Craving shellfish? Oursubtly curried crab with mushrooms, bell pepper, and chives isideal for brunch or dinner.

Treat these updated seafood casseroles with care. Becauseseafood overcooks in an instant, the dishes are not greatcandidates for making ahead and freezing. But they are a fresh andsimple dinner solution: Just assemble, pop in the oven, and carryto the table to savor at their peak.

• Glass and ceramic (earthenware) dishes work best forcasserole cooking because they heat up quickly and evenly. If yousubstitute a metal baking pan, the casserole usually cooks moreslowly, so you may have to increase the oven temperature by 25degrees to compensate.

• Always start with the freshest seafood available and patit dry. If you use individual steaks or fillets, select pieces thatare at least 1 inch thick. If a single fillet from a large fishtapers to a thin end, fold the thin end under to help the filletcook uniformly.

• If the fillet in the casserole is thick, let it sit atroom temperature while you prepare the other ingredients for thedish. It will cook more quickly.

• Thick fillets or steaks, especially if covered with asauce or topping, can take from 12 to 15 minutes of baking time perinch. To check for doneness, cut into the fillet at the thickestpart to see if it's opaque inside and pulls apart with littleresistance.

• Casserole recipes calling for fully or partially cookedseafood or fish need only enough time in the oven to get hot, so aninstant-read thermometer comes in handy. If the middle of thecasserole registers 160˚, it's done.

• If you're making a casserole with cooked seafood that'sadded to a sauce, heat the sauce separately, stir in cold, cookedfish, and then assemble the dish. This will speed up the time inthe oven and keep the fish from disintegrating.

• Don't cook fish until it flakes easily―by thatpoint, the fish has given up all of its juices, rendering it dryand leaving a lot of water in the dish. If this occurs, spoon thejuices back over the fish when serving.

• Remember, the casserole will continue cooking once it'spulled from the oven, so it's better to take it out sooner ratherthan later.