fish for spring 88.
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After the hearty meat and potato stews of winter, light fish main courses are a welcome change.
For Pessah, the springtime festival, fish often starts the Seder meal - gefilte fish in Ashkenazi homes, spicy fish in Sephardi homes and both in many "Ashkesephard" homes.
But there is another Middle Eastern spring holiday associated with fish. I was reminded of it when I heard the rabbi of my Los Angeles neighborhood Chabad synagogue greeting the congregation with "Happy No Ruz" (the Persian New Year). Fish is customary for this holiday, which occurs at the spring equinox and is celebrated by Persians of all religions, including Orthodox Jews.
In Entertaining the Persian Way (Lennard, 1988), author Shirin Simmons suggests serving grilled fish with vegetables and dill sauce, or fried fish in sweet and sour sauce with toasted almonds. For this holiday celebrating the birth of spring, sprouts, fruits and other special foods are set out on a tray in each home - rather like a Seder plate. There is also a bowl of goldfish.
The importance of fish for this occasion was apparent when we visited a Persian market in Los Angeles a few days before No Ruz. There was an atmosphere of excitement as people rushed to buy the holiday foods. The store's owner passed out holiday sweets and greeted shoppers in Farsi. As we left, he handed us a little bag with a goldfish.
The importance of the goldfish was beautifully depicted in The White Balloon, an award-winning Persian movie focusing on a little girl's persistent attempts to get the finest, biggest goldfish for the holiday. The charming film's portrayal of the hubbub of the New Year preparations in Tehran made me think of Pessah, especially the spring cleaning and the hectic preparations to have the symbolic foods ready the moment the holiday began.
There is another explanation behind the custom of serving fish for spring - maybe it's simply a good time to catch fish. So writes Jimmy Schmidt in Cooking for All Seasons (Macmillan, 1991): "Spring announces the return of the... fish from their winter migrations... Young smelt are never sweeter than the first few days of their mating run. Perch and salmon are firm from winter's cold water."
Fresh tuna is a springtime favorite in Sicily. According to Michelle Scicolone, author of 1,000 Italian Recipes (Wiley, 2004), every spring Sicilian fishermen gather for a fishing marathon in numerous small boats and herd the migrating tuna into nets. She suggests tuna chunks seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and rosemary, skewered with bay leaves, orange pieces and onion, and grilled.
Something similar happens in Provence, wrote Marion Nazet in Mise Lipeto (Creer, 1981). Spring is the best time for fresh anchovies, which are deep fried as crunchy appetizers. It's also the beginning of the trout fishing season; indeed, its opening was featured a couple of weeks ago on the French TV news. Provencal natives fry the fish in olive oil or grill it and serve it with remoulade sauce (mayonnaise with capers and pickles).
Besides symbolism and seasonal bounty, there are other good reasons to eat fish - they are one of the most healthful foods and, when fresh, taste great in both simple and elaborate preparations.
PERSIAN NEW YEAR FISH
For this holiday, fish is often cooked whole and served with springtime rice studded with fresh green fava beans and flavored with dill. Shirin Simmons writes that Persian Jews also serve this dish for Pessah, without the beans. You can cook any whole fish following the method below.
A 1.8-kg. whole salmon or other whole fish, fins and tails trimmed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 fresh tarragon sprigs
6 fresh thyme sprigs
1 kg. fresh fava beans, shelled, or 300-350 gr. frozen fava or lima beans
1 1/2 cups Basmati or other fine long-grain rice, rinsed well
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or butter
1 medium onion, minced
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
Preheat oven to 230C. Oil a large roasting pan. Rinse fish inside and out, removing any scales by scraping lightly with the back of a knife, and pat it dry. Put it on a large tray. Sprinkle it inside with salt and pepper. Put tarragon and thyme sprigs in the cavity of the fish. Slice 1 lemon and put the slices inside the fish. Measure thickest point of fish and calculate the grilling time of 9 or 10 minutes for every 2.5 cm. If the fish is 6.5 cm. thick, it will take about 22 to 25 minutes. Set fish aside.
Cook fresh or frozen beans in a saucepan of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat for 3 to 5 minutes or until just tender. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. If using fava beans, peel off and discard the tough outer skins.
Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a large heavy saucepan. Add rice and cook over high heat for 12 minutes or until nearly tender. Drain, rinse with lukewarm water and drain well.
Put fish in roasting pan. Roast it for about half the calculated time.
Heat oil in saucepan used to cook rice. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat for 7 minutes or until soft. Add beans, salt and pepper, and toss 1 or 2 minutes over heat. Add rice and toss very gently. Cover tightly and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 7 minutes or until rice is tender. Add dill and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand, covered, until ready to serve.
Turn fish over and roast it for the remaining time. Check if fish is done by inserting a skewer into its thickest part - skewer should come out hot; or cut into thickest part of fish and it should be opaque. Remove herb sprigs and lemon slices. Halve or quarter remaining lemons.
Fluff rice gently with a fork and mound it on a platter. Serve fish with lemons and rice.
Makes about 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).