Fish was always a treasured and favored food when I was a little girl.
We didn’t eat it often, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I actually got to taste really good saltwater fish (other than fried cod, mind you–that was always available and eaten with great glee when I was a kid), but what I loved was freshwater fish. Trout was my absolute all-time favorite, and when my Dad and uncles would go fishing in the mountains and bring back a haul of rainbow and brook trout, I would stuff myself with the fillets. Gram would dredge them in lightly seasoned flour, then fry them in oil to which she had added a tiny bit of butter for flavor. Then, she would add a tiny squeeze of lemon after they were hot from the skillet, and on a plate they would go.
I was taught to eat fish in tiny bites in order to carefully feel for bones with my tongue, as their fine, nearly invisible sharp spines could evade even the most experienced fish-cleaner’s knife. Being forced to eat in tiny bites meant that I also had to eat fish slowly, so I learned to savor its sweetness. To me, freshwater fishes seem even sweeter than saltwater fish–they tend to have a more delicate flavor born of cold, clear water.
I also loved lake perch and walleye from the deep waters of Lake Erie, once industry had stopped dumping pollutants into the water. My Dad and Uncle Jerry would go out and fish and bring back hundreds of pounds of the silvery little fish, and clean them and then Aunt Sis would fry them in a batter made with soda water, seasonings and flour, and they would come out with a crispy, light crust enrobing tender, pearly flakes inside. I remember one evening, eating about ten fillets of lake perch myself after one of those fishing trips. (Mom says I was in a growth spurt at the time, and could eat enormous amounts of food wthout ending up fat. Must have been nice!)
And of course, at my Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, we had a pond stocked with bass, bluegill and catfish, all of which I loved to catch and eat. I even learned to clean my own fish, so that by the end of the summer I was ten or so, I could expertly skin and fillet fish without leaving many bones behind in the flesh at all. Surprisingly, the job didn’t bother me at all–I never thought that fish smelled bad in any way, because we were always working with them fresh from the water. They never had a chance to sit around and develop a “fishy” smell.
So, from this background, I grew interested in the ways in which other people in the world cooked fish. So, while I read cookbooks obsessively as a kid, I found that the Greeks had lots of really interesting sounding ways with fish–which makes sense since they are a nation pretty much surrounded with ocean, with many tiny islands scattered around the mainland.
I desperately wanted to try making one dish in particular, which was called “Psari Plaki.” It wasn’t fried, you see–and most of what I had eaten my entire life had been fried fish. Either battered and deep fried, or dredged and pan fried–but fried was definately the way in which my family knew how to cook fish.
But this recipe–it was baked. And the fish wasn’t plain–it was surrounded by delicious sounding flavors. There were onions, garlic, lemons, tomatoes, fresh herbs and olive oil. It sounded so fragrant, so fresh–so different.
But, I didn’t get a chance to make it for years and years.
It wasn’t until I was in college and living in my first apartment, the place where I had my very first kitchen, that I got a chance to make psari plaki.
It was for my mother, who had been recently told by her doctor, that in order to lower her cholesterol levels, she must forgo red meats and only eat chicken and fish, with fish being preferred. But, of course, it could not be fried. No, that would not do. It must be broiled, baked, boiled or steamed.
She told me this, with a slight shudder, which I didn’t understand, so especially for her, I decided to make psari plaki. I thought that the many flavors, colors and textures of the dish would tickle her fancy and she would see that baked fish need not be plain and boring.
So, I made it, using really fresh turbot fillets I bought especially for the purpose.
And–she hated it.
Absolutely hated it.
I tasted it–and it tasted just as divine as I thought it would–the fruity olive oil and tomatoes combined with the tart, citrus tang of the lemon, the heady scent of the garlic and onions and the fresh verdant bite of the herbs to make an explosion of flavors in the mouth, flavors that combined very well with the sweet, lightly flavored white fleshed fish it was meant to enhance.
My Dad ended up eating it and saying it was perfect–exactly like the fish he had eaten in Greece back when he was in the Navy.
So, Mom ate salad that day, and rice pilaf, while Dad and I dined gleefully not only on our portions of psari plaki, but hers as well.
I felt bad for her, but I still loved the fish.
Years later, I remembered that incident when I saw cod loins in our freezer at work. We had all the other ingredients on hand, so I decided to haul off and make psari plaki again as a dinner special.
We sold out of all but one portion of it. People loved it.
I guess that my Mom’s reaction was just an anomaly.
Anyway, this is a perfectly simple way to cook any white fleshed fish, whether it came from fresh or salt water. At Salaam, I prepared each serving in its own stoneware oval gratin, but at home, you can bake all of your fish in the same casserole dish. It will work quite well that way, have no fear.
If it is not fresh tomato season, used good quality canned diced tomatoes. Trust me on this. The pallid fresh tomatoes you get at the grocery store will do nothing more than water down the flavors of the other ingredients, and leave the fish swimming in a soupy pinkish mess. Just use the canned tomatoes, drained of their juices, layered on the bottom of your casserole, and the flavor, color and texture will be much better.
The fresh herbs you use are up to you. I used a combination of parsley and dill this time around, but you could add to that some fresh thyme, which is quite Greek. Or, you could add a tiny bit of rosemary as well–but have a care, as it is very strong in flavor and could overpower all the other components of the dish. Tarragon is not Greek, but its licorice sweetness would go wonderfully with the fish and other seasonings, so if you have it, use it.
Use as good an olive oil as you can find–the fruity, lightly peppery Greek oils are the best, of course, though some Italian ones work well also. We have Greek oil at work, so that is what I used.
As for the onions–you can use white or yellow ones of course, but the red ones look prettiest–their purple coloring deepens in the dry heat of the oven, which looks wonderful with the yellow lemons, red tomatoes and green herbs.
6 4-6 ounce portions of a good white-fleshed fish
2 lemons, zested, then juiced
1/4 cup plus one tablespoon good olive oil, divided
1 clove fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup finely minced fresh herbs
1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained
3-4 lemons, sliced thinly
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced, the slices broken into rings
4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 cup fresh herbs, minced, divided
sliced lemons for garnish
Set aside the lemon zest in a covered bowl to be used as garnish.
Lay fish portions into a shallow container where they can sit in one layer. Whisk together the lemon juice, 1/4 cup of olive oil (leave aside the 1 tablespoon olive oil), the garlic, the first measure of herbs, salt and pepper until combined. Pour over the fish, cover the container tightly and leave in the refrigerator to marinate for around an hour.
Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
Once the marination time is over, use the one tablespoon of olive oil to lightly grease the sides and bottom of a shallow casserole that is big enough to hold the fish in a single layer. Or, grease the sides and bottom of 6 individual oval gratin dishes.
Put the tomatoes into a single layer over the bottom of the baking pan or pans. Cover the tomatoes with a single layer of lemon slices. Sprinkle red onion rings over the lemons, taking care to leave at least six rings aside to put atop the fish.
Then, layer the fish into the pan, reserving any marinade that does not cling to the fish.
Layer the remaining onion rings over the fish, with at least one ring per portion, two or three depending on the size of the fish pieces. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the remaining herbs, and the minced garlic. Drizzle with reserved marinade, and bake for around fifteen minutes, depending on how thick or thin your fish is cut. Thicker portions take longer to cook, while thinner ones cook quite quickly and can overcook in an instant so keep an eye on the progress of the fish.
When the fish is done remove from the oven and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup of herbs and garnish with the lemon zest and lemon slices.
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