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Pick bouquets of spring herbs for butter-sauced fish

Spring’s vibrant herbs have played the most significant role in my recent meal planning.

Scoring a bouquet of fresh dill at one of the locally owned grocery stores, I set about incorporating it into a half-dozen dishes to make sure none went to waste. And the list is still lengthening.

It started with an Israeli couscous salad with cucumber and spinach, which also called for fresh mint and scallions in a yogurt dressing, accompanied by seared salmon. Fresh dill also is a key flavor in an Egyptian split-pea stew I love over rice (Who knew?) I sprinkled the fronds over chicken thighs roasted with fennel and orange. And the following morning’s leftover mashed potato latkes wouldn’t be complete without more fresh dill over sour cream and smoked albacore.

When herbs are starting to sprout in pots, planters and garden beds, shoppers also can expect them to come out of their plastic clamshell containers and drop dramatically in price. So buy all the herbs you can while they’re freshest and most affordable and incorporate them into your menus.

The following recipe evokes my dish of Israeli couscous, which could be substituted here for the whole grain farro. And recipe testers for the Chicago Tribune acknowledge that cooks can reach for any fresh herbs on hand — new spring chives, parsley, cilantro and dill or simply the tops from scallions. Always use a very sharp, thin-bladed knife to slice (rather than chop) fresh herbs; this prevents bruising which causes the leaves to turn brown quickly.

And the gamut of flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed fish is acceptable, too. Wild Alaskan sockeye, halibut or cod, Pacific rockfish or lingcod, even flounder or farmed tilapia all benefit from this herb-spiked butter sauce.

Choose 3/4-inch-thick fillets. And always check for bones by running your finger over the fillet; use tweezers to remove bones. Remove fish skin if you wish. To enjoy crispy skin, start the cooking skin side up to brown the flesh, then flip the fillet skin side down to finish cooking. Start the reduction for this butter sauce before cooking the fish, then finish the sauce by whisking in butter after the fish is cooked.

Sauteed Fish With Fresh Herb Butter and Farro

1 cup loosely packed tiny sprigs and leaves from fresh cilantro

1/4 cup each: flat-leaf parsley leaves, fresh chives

Salt, as needed

1 1/2 cups farro grande (spelt) or pearled farro

3 to 4 scallions, trimmed and very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little for sauteing fish

3 medium shallots (or 1 small white onion), peeled, halved and very thinly sliced (about 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth

3 garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds frozen fish fillets, about 3/4 to 1 inch thick, thawed

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Expeller pressed canola oil, sunflower or safflower oil for high-heat cooking

7 to 8 tablespoons softened unsalted butter

Use a very sharp knife to thinly slice all the fresh herbs. Mix them in a bowl. Refrigerate, covered with a damp towel, until needed or up to 2 days.

Heat 4 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan; add 1 teaspoon salt and the farro. Cook uncovered, stirring often, for 4 minutes. Reduce heat to very low. Cover pan and simmer, stirring once or twice, until tender but still a bit toothsome, for about 30 minutes. Drain off excess liquid. Return farro to pan; stir in the sliced scallions and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Cover and set aside to stay warm.

While farro cooks, put the shallots and wine in a large nonstick skillet and heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring often, until wine is reduced to about 2 tablespoons, for about 3 minutes. Add the chicken broth and garlic; simmer until reduced again to 3 tablespoons, for about 3 minutes. Set aside.

Season the fish on all sides with salt and pepper. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.

Heat a large nonstick griddle or well-seasoned cast-iron griddle or skillet over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Brush lightly with canola oil, then add the fish, skin side up in a single, uncrowded layer. Cook until fish starts to brown and releases easily from pan, for 3 to 4 minutes. Use a silicone spatula or a very thin metal spatula to gently flip fish skin side down. Cook until nearly firm when pressed, for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off heat; let fish rest on griddle while you finish sauce.

Set skillet with shallots back over medium heat. When hot, whisk in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, just until butter softens and melts. When all butter has been added, remove from heat. Do not let sauce boil. Stir in half of sliced herbs. If sauce is very thick, gently whisk in a tablespoon or two of hot water or broth. Season with salt and pepper.

Stir remaining herbs into farro. Arrange fish fillets on plates, top with sauce and serve with farro.

Makes 4 servings.

Tribune News Service photo