In early fall cooks have the best of both worlds - you can still get a respectable selection of summertime vegetables, from tomatoes and peppers to green beans and zucchini, and there are plenty of fresh herbs around. When you combine them with good-quality fall potatoes and fish, you can make delicious entrees.
Stews and casseroles featuring vegetables with meat appear in most cuisines, but in coastal regions, fish-loving cooks also make these types of entrees with fish. It's easy to find examples in our own Mediterranean region.
I have long been fond of Moroccan-style fish stewed slowly with potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers and sometimes hot peppers as well. This type of dish is popular all along the southern Mediterranean coast. In Tunisia, according to Mohamed Kouki, author of Cuisine et Patisserie Tunisiennes, these elements are used in a more elaborate dish, for which the fish is stuffed with diced grilled sweet and hot peppers, onions and tomatoes mixed with garlic, olives, capers and preserved lemons, then baked on a bed of sliced potatoes moistened with olive oil.
When I studied cooking in Paris, I learned to make fish blanquette with a variety of vegetables and a creamy sauce. Modeled on a time-honored French veal entree, the fish dish became a "new classic" during the period of creativity in French cooking in the 1970s known as Nouvelle Cuisine. Jacques Le Divellec, whose celebrated seafood restaurant was just across the wide Esplanade des Invalides from our studio, made his fish blanquette with carrots, leeks and mushrooms. In his book, La Cuisine de la Mer, he made another fish stew, in which he combined fish with sauteed potatoes, steamed snow peas, baby carrots and diced tomatoes in a buttery sauce accented with cider vinegar. His interpretation of a Provencal fish stew calls for wine-poached fish baked with stewed eggplant, zucchini, sweet peppers and onions with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs.
Fish cooked with sweet peppers is also popular in Spain and Italy. Valentina Harris, author of Recipes from an Italian Farmhouse, especially loved a cod stew from Naples, made with green and yellow bell peppers, finished with tomato and with chili pepper for extra punch.
SOUTHERN MEDITERRANEAN FISH AND VEGETABLE CASSEROLE
This colorful entree gains its gusto from a garlicky spice paste with fresh coriander, cumin and hot red pepper that is loved in North Africa for seasoning fish. All you do is spread it on the fish and bake it with sliced potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. Because potatoes take longer to bake than fish, they are cooked before being added to the casserole.
Serve this flavorful main course with a green salad garnished with olives and capers.
Makes 4 servings
8 large garlic cloves, peeled
1â„4 cup fresh coriander (cilantro) sprigs plus 1 additional tablespoon of the chopped leaves for sprinkling
2 tsp. ground cumin
1â„2 tsp. crushed red pepper
450 gr. boiled potatoes, cooked, sliced about 1 cm. thick
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 red, green or yellow bell peppers, cut in thin strips
700 gr. ripe tomatoes, sliced 6 mm. thick
900 gr. fish steaks or fillets, such as halibut, cod or sea bass, 2.5 cm. thick, rinsed, patted dry
1â„2 onion, cut in thin slices
1â„4 cup olive oil
Preheat oven to 190ÂºC. In a small food processor, combine garlic, cilantro, cumin and crushed pepper. Process until blended to a paste. Oil a shallow 8-cup casserole and put in potatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with bell peppers. Top peppers with half the tomatoes in one layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with fish in one layer and spread evenly with the spice paste. Top fish with onions, then with remaining tomatoes and pour oil evenly over them.
Cover and bake 30 minutes or until fish can be flaked with a fork but is not falling apart.
Sprinkle with cilantro and serve from the casserole.
SEPHARDI HALIBUT WITH GREEN AND WHITE BEANS AND ZUCCHINI
This one-pot main course is good for a quick weekday supper. I simmer the halibut with vegetables in a tomato sauce flavored in the Sephardi/Middle Eastern style with cumin, oregano and cilantro. The dish is easy to prepare, as it makes use of fresh, frozen and pantry vegetables. The entree is so flavorful that you can even omit the oil.
Makes 4 servings
225 gr. fresh or frozen green beans
400-gr. can white beans, drained
400-gr. can tomatoes, diced, with their juice
3 zucchini or white squash (kishuim), halved lengthwise and sliced
3 small garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 600-gr. halibut or other fish steak, about 2.5 cm. thick
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
1â„4 cup chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) or parsley
1 tsp. prepared curry sauce, or more to taste (optional)
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (optional)
If using fresh green beans, remove ends and cut beans in 2 or 3 pieces. Heat 1 cup water in a large, deep saute pan. Add green beans and bring to a boil - cook fresh beans for 6 minutes, or frozen beans for 1 minute, or until just tender. Remove with a slotted spoon.
Add white beans and tomatoes to cooking liquid from green beans and bring to a simmer. Add zucchini, cover and return to a simmer. Add garlic.
Put halibut steak in center of pan, pushing vegetables to side. Sprinkle fish with salt, pepper, cumin, oregano and half the fresh coriander. Stir curry sauce into vegetable mixture. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 7 minutes, then over low heat for about 5 minutes. Check near bone - flesh should have turned opaque.
With a slotted spoon, remove fish to a serving dish or divide among four deep plates or shallow bowls.
Return green beans to sauce and heat through. Stir in olive oil. Spoon vegetables in sauce over or around fish. Serve sprinkled with remaining fresh coriander.
Faye Levy is the co-author, with Fernand Chambrette, of a book on fish cookery, La Cuisine du Poisson.