Monday, February 06, 2012

Sephardic Fish with Olives

My genetic roots may be in Eastern Europe, but my culinary heart belongs to North Africa -- I have yet to find a saffron-lemon-parsley dish that I don't like. These bright flavors are welcome any time, but especially during the rainy slog of winter. And so I present to you this Sephardic fish with olives.

I recently spent a lovely afternoon with a couple of Sephardic women from the Isle of Rhodes, learning about their traditional cuisine (and snacking on sweet biscochos de huevo and savory boyikos -- more on that sometime soon, I hope). I went home with a full stomach, and a craving for lemony tomato sauce, for saffron and garlic and olive oil. I pulled out a Sephardic Israeli cookbook I hadn't used in a while, and remembered a dish it had once inspired. And it was perfect.

This olivey fish is bright and sunny, with a short list of ingredients creating a surprisingly complex sauce. And, best of all, these exotic flavors come together in a one-pot easy recipe -- just add some couscous, rice or crusty bread to sop up the sauce (I also cooked up my favorite Moroccan carrot and chard salad, but that's entirely optional). You start with olive oil and garlic (of course), warmed up with a pinch of saffron and turmeric. This comes together into a sauce with a bit of tomato puree and water, then gets a briny hit of green olives. The fish simmers in this lovely mixture, absorbing the flavors of the sauce. Then the whole dish is finished with a bit of chopped cilantro and fresh lemon juice. The result is deep and savory, but also light and bright. I had to stop myself from licking the bowl.

Sephardic Fish with Olives

inspired by a chicken dish in Sheilah Kaufman's Sephardic Israeli Cuisine 
serves 3-4

2 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup tomato puree
1/2 tsp turmeric
big pinch saffron
1/2 cup water
handful green olives (olives with pits tend to soften into the sauce better, but feel free to go with pitted if you don't want the hassle)
1 lb white fish fillets or steaks (I used swai)
1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon
few dashes hot sauce
salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over a medium heat, then add the garlic and sautee for a few minutes, until it just begins to brown. Add the tomato puree (careful of spatters!), turmeric, saffron, stir for a minute, and then add the water and olives. Bring the mixture up to a simmer, and simmer for a couple of minutes, until it comes together and thickens slightly. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then add the fish fillets/steaks, nestling them in the sauce. Cover, and simmer gently until the fish is almost done (the exact time will vary, depending upon the type and size of the fish). When it's a few minutes shy of done, add the cilantro, lemon juice, and hot sauce, stirring gently to combine. Taste and season as needed. Re-cover and cook until done. Serve with crusty bread or couscous.

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