Tom Bertrand cooks "Skate Two Ways"

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Tom Bertrand didn't let early failures deter him. It took a couple of tries, but he now knows how to cook fish perfectly, as evidenced by this baked skate wing with butter sauce.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Tom Bertrand of Wood Dale at the stove making his dish of skate and beurre blanc sauce.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

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Tom Bertrand cooks "Skate Two Ways"

Fish makes him flounder at first, but not anymore

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print story Published: 1/21/2009 12:02 AM | Updated: 3/11/2009 11:01 AM

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When he was first learning to prepare fish, says Tom Bertrand, "I made bricks."

Instead of testing for doneness as it cooked, he followed the recipe. If it said 20 minutes, he cooked the fillets that long, regardless of thickness.

"I had delicious dog biscuits," the retired Wood Dale resident jokes.

But feeding Timmy the sheltie and Ginger the Maltese was not the goal. Tom was looking for something other than beef, chicken and pork to feed him and wife Patty.

Determined to get it right, Tom's next efforts produced fish "two degrees warmer than sushi." Not bricks, but not quite edible, either.

So he says to himself, "Tom, you're not an idiot, let's tackle this."

He started with field research.

"I would eat fish out a lot and ask the chef what he was doing," says Tom. "Most chefs are really very good about telling the server, or they'll come out if they are not totally swamped."

At the seafood counter in the grocery store, he quizzed a customer about how she would prepare the skate she was buying.

Then he researched seafood cookbooks and went online, punching in "orange roughy recipes" or "tilapia" and learning by trial and error.

Now he marvels that he can deep-fry, pan-fry, bake or grill seafood with a variety of different sauces and seasonings, and it all comes out suitable for human consumption.

"I use the grill 12 months a year to keep the fish smell out of the house," he says.

Among his favorite catches are sea bass and all varieties of shellfish. Mild fish like tilapia, skate and orange roughy are "good starters for people who don't like fish."

Retired from sales, Tom, 67, does nearly all the cooking at home. He started in the late '80s when Patty went back to school to further her nursing education. Tom did as much as he could, in between business trips.

"I got hooked on the Food Channel in its infancy, with (Emeril) Lagasse and Sara Moulton," he says. "I watched it as much as four hours a day."

As he learned, he weaned away from his TV tutors and turned more often to the Internet and cookbooks, especially for his seafood education.

"There were more beef, chicken and pork recipes on the Food Network than fish," he says. "It was easier to go online."

This week he gives us three ways to experiment with fish: fried or baked skate; a more luxurious, simmered seafood medley and steamed fish, Chinese style.

Now that he's conquered seafood, Tom is ready to test the waters with baking some 20 years after a disastrous attempt at bread that "turned out like hockey pucks."

Time to start visiting bakeries, Tom.

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