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Fish

 

When I spent a summer on a Greek island almost fifty years ago, there was a great deal of excitement one day when one of the locals caught a big fish. It wasn’t seriously large like a swordfish or marlin, more like a 5 pound Mediterranean sea bass.  But it was still cause for celebration because in those days there weren’t many fish in that part of the Med that weighed more than a few ounces, except of course for octopus.

A party was planned to cook the fish and fortunately I was invited. It was there that I first heard the melodious term “Psari Plaki” (SAR-ee PLA-kee) – psari being Greek for fish and plaki meaning something like “laid flat.” A fire was lit, and a large pan produced. The fish, after being cleaned and scaled, was laid flat in the pan on a bed of tomatoes and onions and herbs and garlic, decorated with lemon and tomato slices and annointed with olive oil. It was then covered and baked on the fire for about an hour: The marvellous aroma of tomatoes and garlic and baking fish filled the air as we stoked our appetites on meze and retsina. Finally it was uncovered and served, and it was the best fish I had ever tasted.

Since then I have cooked psari plaki whenever a suitable fish presents itself. I sometimes do it with two smaller ones, and I usually add potatoes to the pan to make a complete meal.

Psari Plaki

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 2-3 lb. whole fish such as sea bass, daurade, or snapper or two weighing about a pound each

1/2 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced thin

2 garlic cloves, chopped fine

3 large ripe tomatoes

1 lemon, sliced thin

2 tablespoons chopped parsley and/or fresh oregano

4 medium potatoes, peeled and parboiled 10 minutes

Salt and pepper

Scale, gut and clean the fish, leaving the head/s on. Salt and pepper well inside and out. Set it/them aside. Cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over gentle heat for 5 minutes. Meanwhile plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for a minute to loosen the skins and then peel them. Chop two of them coarsely and add them to the onions along with the garlic and herbs. Cook the mixture gently for 5 minutes, then pour it into a pan large enough to hold the fish. Place the fish on top. Cut the remaining tomato into slices and lay them on top of the fish, alternating with slices of lemon. Cut the cooled, parboiled potatoes into fairly thin slices and lay them down each side of the pan. You’ll find the assembling of the dish easy to follow if you look at the picture. Finally sprinkle the remaining olive oil over the fish, tomatoes and potatoes.

Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake it in a 350 degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes depending on the size of the fish. You should check it regularly after 30 minutes so you don’t overcook it. Insert a knife close to the bone to make sure the flesh is firm and the juices run clear. 

The thought of pickling fish is hardly something to make you salivate, but please don’t be put off by the name. It should be called Absoutely Delicious Cold Curried Fish. It’s perfect summer fare, keeps in the refrigerator for a week and is delightfully different. There are many South African dishes of Malay origin. Malays, mainly Javanese, were first brought to the Cape as slaves in the 17th century and were in time valued for their cooking skills. Cape Malay curries tend to be sweet-sour and are less spicy than their Indian cousins. You can serve pickled fish as a first course or as a main course with a salad such as the herbed potato salad in the previous blog and a plate of sliced tomatoes.

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a first course

 Ingredients:

1 lb. firm thick fish filets, such as cod

1 tablespoon seasoned flour

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 medium onions, sliced fairly thinly

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 tablespoon mild curry powder

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed

1/3 cup white wine vinegar (you can use red if it’s all you have)

1 tablespoon sugar

1/3 cup water

salt

3 bay or lemon leaves 

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (optional)

Cut the fish into approximately 2″ x 2″ chunks. Pat it dry and coat it lightly with the seasoned flour (I shake it gently in a plastic bag). Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a pan large enough to hold the fish in one layer. Fry the fish in the hot oil for 2-3 minutes a side, depending on its thickness. Do not overcook. Drain the fish on paper towels and allow to cool.

Make the sauce: Fry the onions in the remaining tablespoon of oil over low heat for five minutes then add the garlic, curry powder, turmeric and coriander, stirring the spices around for a few minutes to release their aromatic oils. Add the vinegar, sugar and water, bring to the boil and simmer the mixture gently for 10 minutes. Add salt and check that the vinegar-sugar ratio suits your taste. Let cool.  

Assemble the dish: Put half the sauce and the onions on the bottom of a dish that will hold the fish in one layer. Cover it with the fish and the remaining sauce and onions. Tuck the bay leaves in between and sprinkle with the optional cilantro. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two days, turning the fish over after a day. Serve each portion with some of the sauce and the onions. It will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week. 

I remember when salmon was such a luxury.  Forty, or even twenty, years ago there were no farm-raised salmon. Salmon were a springtime indulgence for those with an ample purse. I have mixed feelings about farm-raised salmon.  Yes, I know that it’s bad for the environment and the wild salmon population and that it doesn’t taste as good and isn’t as healthy, and, and…. but I can’t help feeling that it’s better for a whole lot of people to have access to salmon, no matter how inferior, than just a few.  Forgive me if I’m wrong.

It is the most adaptable of fish – you can grill, poach, steam or barbeque it, serve it hot or cold, smoke it, or make it into gravlax or tartare.  In this recipe you brine it overnight, cook it on a ridged grill pan, put it on a bed of spinach and serve it with a tarragon butter.  What could be simpler?

Salmon with Tarragon Butter on a Bed of Spinach

Serves 2

Ingredients:

2 – 6 oz. salmon filets, skin on, preferably wild

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 oz. unsalted butter

1 tablespoon tarragon leaves, finely chopped

A large pinch of lemon rind (optional)

1 teaspoon olive oil

12 oz. fresh spinach, large stems removed

I like to brine salmon because I think it makes it more succulent and tender, but, if time is not on your side, it isn’t esssential. To brine: Spread the salt on the non-skin side of each salmon piece, and put the two salted sides together to form a sandwich. Place in a dish to just fit, cover with plastic wrap and put in the relrigerator overnight or for up to 24 hours. 

Before cooking the salmon and the spinach, make the tarragon butter. Pound the tarragon leaves with a little salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the butter bit by bit until you have an unctuous green mass.  Add the optional lemon rind.

To cook the salmon: Wash the salt off well and pat dry. Brush the skinless sides of the salmon with a smidgeon of olive oil and some pepper (it won’t need salt).

Heat a ridged grill pan until dangerously hot (2-3 minutes), adding a few drops of oil. Cook the salmon, skin side down, for 4 minutes. Turn it over and, depending on its thickness, cook for a further 2-3 minutes.  It should be firm but springy to the touch and rare in the center. The skin can be served or removed easily with a knife or spoon.

In the meantime, wash the spinach, drain most of the water, and cook it over fairly high heat with the lid on, turning it over a few times until reduced and cooked (3-5 minutes). Squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Add a little butter, salt and pepper. When the salmon is just about cooked, reheat the spinach.

To serve:  Put half the spinach on each of two plates. Top with the salmon and a good dolop of the tarragon butter.  Enjoy!  

Variations:  If you don’t have tarragon available, there are a zillion other butters you can make with herbs – basil, dill, chervil, chive and lemon, garlic and parsley, sorrel (especially good with salmon), mixed herbs – the possibilities are endless.  In the case of garlic and parsley, you need to pound the garlic with the parsley before adding the butter and if you’re lucky enough to have fresh sorrel, you should blanch it briefly and pat it dry before adding the butter.

Herb butters are a wonderful addition to steaks, fish, chicken and fresh veggies.  If you have extra herbs available, increase the amount of butter to 2-4 oz. and roll the end product in plastic wrap to form a small cylinder.  Then freeze it and cut off slices as needed.

Sam adds: I am unfamiliar with sorrel, though I hear my mom mention it from time to time–I’m not sure it’s available in the U.S.? (I don’t remember ever coming across it, but maybe that’s just because I”m not looking for it!) In any case, you can find out more about it here, if you’re curious.