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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. 

Shrimp with Feta and Tomatoes (Garides Saganaki)

This dish is robust and full of flavor – the sweet tomato sauce contrasting nicely with the salty cheese and the bitey shrimp. It’s also very easy to make and festive enough for a dinner party entree. Garides is the Greek word for shrimp and saganaki is the pan in which it is baked. But I simply make the dish in a skillet on top of the stove.

To tell the truth, when I lived on a Greek island for six months in the 60’s, I never once ran into this dish. Greece, like most of Europe, was quite poor at the time and fish were sparse in the Mediterranean – it had been “fished out” people said. Octopus was plentiful, but the arrival of a couple of barbounia (red mullet) in the market was cause for celebration and quick acquisition.

How things have changed. With the farming of fish worldwide, shrimp is readily available in a mutitude of shapes and sizes. I know that fish farming is detrimental to the environment, but I can’t help being glad that at least shrimp and prawns are not priced beyond reach — or that they’re not nearing extinction.

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cup white wine (or 1 tablespoon ouzo if you have it)

1 14-oz. can chopped tomatoes (or use fresh if they’re in season)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

salt and a pinch cayenne pepper

1-1/2 pounds peeled and deveined shrimp (the larger the better)

4 oz. good feta cheese

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped (or dill or parsley)

Saute the onion in the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet until soft.  Add the garlic and white wine or ouzo.  

Ouzo gives a slightly different, licorishy flavor but is more authentically Greek. Let it bubble and reduce, then add the chopped tomatoes, drained of most of their juice, a little salt (the feta is salty), the cayenne and dried oregano and cook over low heat until the sauce is slightly thickened and almost dry. Add the shrimp and cook briefly (3-5 minutes, depending on size).  Do not overcook. Add the feta and give it a minute to melt slightly, then add the chopped mint, or dill if you prefer. I like to serve this dish with simple boiled white rice and buttered spinach, but even on its own it will be sure to satisfy.