Fish with tomatoes, southern Italian-style

Now is the time to enjoy the vibrant flavors of this season's tomatoes cooked and not just raw.

tomatoes 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tomatoes 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As luscious, garden-fresh tomatoes ripen in my garden, they grace my menus in much more than salads. Whereas canned tomatoes might do for sauces and braised dishes during the rest of the year, now is the time to enjoy the vibrant flavors of this season's tomatoes cooked and not just raw. Fish seems to have a special affinity for tomatoes' natural sweet-tart taste. No wonder tomato-loving Italian cooks have come up with a wealth of fish-with-tomato formulas. Italy is known worldwide for the quality of its tomatoes, and whenever my husband and I traveled in southern Italy, we enjoyed reflecting on how pervasive this New World fruit had become in Mediterranean cuisines. My favorite souvenir of a trip to Naples is a big cookbook on the region's specialties, La cucina della Campania by Anna and Piero Serra. According to the Serras, the region's signature fish dish "alla napoletana" is made by baking the fish in a sauce of diced tomatoes, garlic sautéed in virgin olive oil, oregano, parsley, black olives and capers. For a sweet-and-sour variation, cooks substitute a small amount of raisins and pine nuts for the olives and capers. Italians make an entree of trout with sweet peppers by braising the fish in a sauce of diced fresh tomatoes, olive-oil-sautéed chopped onion, yellow peppers and parsley. For trout pizzaiola, or pizza style, the fish is cooked in a simple sauce of chopped tomatoes, sautéed garlic, oregano and salt. In The Flavors of Southern Italy, author Erica De Mane wrote that fish is cooked with the "southern Italian trilogy" of white wine, tomatoes and garlic. I would make this a quartet by including olive oil as well. To vary these basic ingredients, she suggests adding orange zest and mint, or fennel and saffron. For a dish of braised tuna with artichokes, she cooks the fish with sautéed onions, the sautéed quartered artichokes, chopped tomatoes and white wine, then serves it topped with a basil-mint pesto. There are two basic ways to cook the tomato sauce. When I have fragrant, fresh tomatoes, I often cook them just a few minutes, so they keep their fresh tomato flavor and retain much of their texture as well. This has a practical advantage too - when the tomatoes don't soften much, there is no need to peel them. For a more intense tomato flavor, you can cook the sauce for longer - about 15 minutes before adding the fish, so the tomatoes soften and thicken the sauce. In this case you might prefer to peel the tomatoes, so their skins won't mar the sauce's smooth texture. To combine both effects - concentrated tomato flavor and freshness, cook a 15-minute tomato sauce and add a few diced fresh tomatoes for the last 2 or 3 minutes. FISH WITH FRESH TOMATOES, GARLIC AND HERBS Use cod, tilapia (amnon) or any lean white fish for this simple, easy to prepare dish. Flavor the savory sauce any fresh herb you like - I use dill or thyme most often but fresh coriander (cilantro) or parsley are also good. I like to serve the fish with side dishes of steamed brown rice and green beans cooked with yellow squash. • 450 gr. to 500 gr. fillets of lean fish such as cod or tilapia • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or a little more if needed • salt and freshly ground black pepper • 3 garlic cloves, chopped • 3 Tbsp. dry white wine, vegetable broth or water • 4 medium-size tomatoes, diced small • 1⁄2 tsp. hot or semi-hot red pepper flakes, or to taste • 2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill Check fish carefully and remove any bones. Rinse fish and thoroughly pat dry. Cut it in 8 pieces. Heat about 21⁄2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick. Add fish, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and sauté over medium to medium-high heat 1 minute per side. Remove with a slotted spoon. Added remaining oil to pan, heat it and add garlic. Sauté for about 30 seconds or until fragrant, then add wine and bring to a boil, stirring. Add tomatoes and heat for about 1 minute. Returned fish to pan, cover and cook over medium-low heat for 2 or 3 minutes or until its color has changed from translucent to opaque; cut a piece to check. Add pepper flakes and dill. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve fish in its sauce. Makes about 4 servings. SICILIAN SEA BASS SAUCE FOR PASTA OR RICE A pasta dish I enjoyed at a Sicilian seafood restaurant in Rome inspired this light summery entree. The sea bass cooks directly in an aromatic tomato sauce flavored with basil and oregano. The chef strained the sauce, but you can leave the vegetable chunks in it if you prefer. At the restaurant the sauce was tossed with vermicelli, but it's also very good spooned over steamed brown or white rice. Cooked about 450 grams pasta or 1 to 11⁄2 cups rice. • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil • 1 small onion, finely chopped • 1 small carrot, finely diced • 1 medium celery rib, diced • 4 medium garlic cloves, chopped • 4 ripe medium tomatoes, peeled if desired • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste • 1⁄4 tsp. hot red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper to taste • 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1⁄4 tsp. dried • 1 bay leaf • 500 gr. sea bass or cod fillet • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste • 1⁄4 cup chopped fresh oregano leaves or 2 to 3 tsp. dried • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves • 1 sweet yellow or green pepper, seeds and ribs discarded, cut in 1-cm. squares Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large deep skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Cook until vegetables soften, about 7 minutes; do not let them brown. Cut tomatoes in chunks and add them. Add salt, pepper, red pepper flakes or cayenne and thyme. Add bay leaf and push it into liquid. Bring to a boil. Add fish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat 4 minutes per side, or until a skewer inserted into center of fish in thickest part is hot when touched to underside of your wrist. Transfer fish to a platter, cover and keep it warm. Simmer sauce uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes or until tomatoes are very soft. Add liquid that escapes from fish. Stir tomato paste into sauce until well blended. Remove from heat and stir in oregano and basil. Discard bay leaf. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add bell pepper and sauté about 7 minutes or until just tender. Add to sauce. Cut fish in bite-size chunks and add to sauce. Heat through briefly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the coauthor, with Fernand Chambrette, of the fish cookbook La Cuisine du Poisson (Flammarion, Paris).