Cook fish like an Italian

The fennel-fish connection: In contrast to many chefs who pay lip service to simplicity and give recipes for elaborate dishes, Jonathan Waxman is true to his word.

Fish dish 311 (photo credit: Erin Lubin/Bloomberg News)
Fish dish 311
(photo credit: Erin Lubin/Bloomberg News)
I enjoy hearing about the successes of my classmates from La Varenne cooking school in Paris, and so I was pleased to see Jonathan Waxman’s new book, Italian, My Way. Back in 1976, we were together at the cooking school, which Waxman attended after retiring from his career as a professional trombonist. He has become a well-known New York chef and owner of the Italian restaurant Barbuto.
Waxman writes of his fondness for simplicity in cuisine, especially when it comes to fish. “Italians like their fish simple. Roasted, poached or, best of all, grilled. Served with little more than lemon and olive oil, the true flavor of the particular fish stands out.”
In contrast to many chefs who pay lip service to simplicity and give recipes for elaborate dishes, Waxman is true to his word. His fish recipes are indeed simple, many with seven ingredients or fewer.
His favorite way to enjoy fish is “to catch a fish at the beach, build a fire and roast it whole on an open grill.” He also likes “the paper bag treatment or ‘a cartoccio.’ This cooking method is easy and entertaining.
You can use whole or fileted fish... The results are spectacular: The fish is moist and tender.”
To cook a fish in a paper bag, Waxman stuffs it with tarragon branches and lemon slices and bakes it simply with sea salt and olive oil, and then serves it drizzled with more olive oil. Another roasted fish is stuffed with chopped green olives mixed with lemon juice and olive oil. For his grilled swordfish, he rubs the fish steaks with olive oil and lemon juice, tops them with seasoned, juicy tomato halves midway through grilling, and serves the fish with more olive oil and lemon juice. His striped bass with new potatoes and Picholine olives, which he tried repeatedly to duplicate before he succeeded, was inspired by an outstanding fish he had on the Ligurian coast. The fish is baked whole with olive oil, black olives and bay leaves on a bed of seasoned roasted potato slices and served with lemon.
Preserved lemons and spinach cooked in olive oil with sweet onion slices and garlic enhance another Waxman seafood dish; his Sicilian preserved lemons are made with a little sugar added to the salt. He also pairs spinach with broiled sardines and sauteed pine nuts in a baby spinach salad.
Waxman doesn’t shy away from butter. To make salmon with seared fennel, he accompanies grilled fish steaks with a buttery fennel sauce with tarragon leaves and lemon juice.
Another Italophile, the Israeli Beth Elon, was so taken with Italy that she has been spending part of every year there since 1972, dividing her year between Jerusalem and Tuscany, where she lives and farms on the edge of a small rural village. The recipes in her book, A Mediterranean Farm Kitchen, reflect many years of inspiration from friends and neighbors in the village.
Elon is fond of preparing fish with olives, olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon juice, and noted that she likes fennel with fish, “something the French Provençals and Silicians discovered long ago.” She uses fresh fennel as well as fennel seeds in her Italian fish stew, along with sauteed onion and green pepper, tomatoes and fish stock. Elon bakes halibut on a puree of roasted tomatoes and garlic with a topping of mustard, chopped black olives, fresh tarragon and bread crumbs. To top her steamed bass, she prepares a quick sauce of pine nuts, fresh basil, oregano and thyme sauteed in olive oil and flavored with lemon juice.
Whether you consider a dish Italian, French or North African can depend on where you personally experienced it. Waxman wrote about an outstanding fish feast in Italy, where he dined on Pantelleria, an Italian island that is closer to Tunisia than to Italy. He loved the local fish stew with its trademark seven vegetables – zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, French-fried potatoes, peppers and fennel. “The rustic fish stew (kind of a pulverized bouillabaisse) was served first as two soups, one spicy with tomato, the second brothlike, then came the various fish in a mass surrounded by couscous, and finally the vegetables.
It was divine. It epitomized the way Italians like to eat fish – with bold strokes, no holds barred.”
Tunisians might have described such a stew as their own because couscous with fish is popular in their country and was adopted in nearby Sicily.
The writer is the co-author, with Fernand Chambrette, of La Cuisine du Poisson (fish cookery), published in France by Flammarion.
This recipe is from Jonathan Waxman’s book Italian, My Way. He calls this dish “the essence of simplicity; trout, butter, hazelnuts, chives and lemon. It is a terrific crowd pleaser.” He recommends serving a bit of warm polenta on the side and a bottle of white wine from Liguria.
“Fish is a delicate, extremely perishable commodity and the best advice I can impart is to buy only the freshest possible,” he writes.
4 small 280-gr. trout with heads on 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 lemons 2 cups raw hazelnuts 85 gr. (6 Tbsp.) butter 1 small bunch chives, minced
Preheat oven to 175ºC. Wash the trout and pat dry with paper towels. Coat the trout with 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper.
Cut 1 lemon into slices and juice the second lemon. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and roast for 6 to 8 minutes in the oven until golden brown. Remove them, then transfer to a clean kitchen towel and rub to remove the skins. Crush the hazelnuts lightly with a rolling pin or wine bottle so the pieces are crumbly.
In a large saute pan, heat the remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil and 4 Tbsp. of the butter. Add the trout and cook for 3 minutes, then turn them over and cook 3 minutes more. Add the lemon slices to the pan so they absorb the fat and flavor the butter.
When the trout are done, transfer them to a platter. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the hazelnuts and lemon juice to the pan. Stir in the chives, spoon the sauce over the trout and serve.
You can prepare this dish with a delicate white fish, such as halibut, sea bass or tilapia, or with salmon. Fresh basil gives the sauce a lively flavor, but you can replace it with chopped tarragon or parsley. You can add a pinch of saffron to the sauce along with the wine. If you like, add 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup flavorful black olives to the sauce at the last minute.
3 or 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 6 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 fennel bulb 1 large onion, chopped 4 large garlic cloves, chopped 1⁄4 cup dry white wine 1⁄3 cup fish stock, vegetable broth or water 6 large basil leaves, chopped 575 to 675 gr. halibut, sea bass or sole fillets, in 4 to 8 pieces
In a sauté pan heat 1⁄2 Tbsp. olive oil. Add tomatoes and a little salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 15 minutes or until almost all the liquid evaporates.
Remove fennel stalks and outer layers, which are slightly fibrous. Cut fennel in very thin strips. Rinse and dry them. In another sauté pan, heat 11⁄2 Tbsp. olive oil and add fennel, onion and garlic. Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until fennel is tender but not brown; cover pan during cooking if it becomes dry.
Add wine, stock, salt and pepper to fennel mixture and simmer for 5 minutes. Add cooked tomatoes and most of the basil and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Preheat oven to 220ºC. Brush a large baking dish with olive oil. Arrange fish pieces in it side by side. Spoon hot tomato sauce over fish. Bake uncovered for 10 minutes or until fish can barely be flaked and has changed color in its thickest part; check with a small sharp knife. If serving cold, refrigerate until ready to serve, or up to 24 hours.
Just before serving, drizzle fish with remaining olive oil and shake the pan gently to blend it with the juices. Sprinkle with remaining basil. Serve hot, at room temperature or cold.
Makes 4 or 5 main-course or 6 or 7 appetizer servings.