Italy is water-bound, with thousands of miles of beaches, bays, and inlets. Almost everything that lives in the sea, from swordfish, which the fishermen still harpoon from the bows of their boats in the Straights of Messina, to arselle, little clams that live in the sand just beyond the shore and gathered with strainers, finds its way to the table.
The role of fish in the Italian diet was, in the past, even more important than it is now. Up until the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church required that their followers eat fish on Fridays and days of penitence. All large cities had fishmongers to meet the demand, as well as, traveling fishmongers who made the rounds of the towns too small to support a specialized store.
Each of Italy’s main regions are known for specific types of fish and the ways of preparing it. When Italians emigrated to America, they first settled along the coastal areas and brought with them their style of preparing fish. Vegetables are often used to create sauces in fish dishes in traditional Italian cooking. The following recipes are examples of this cuisine.
Tuna Steaks Simmered With Fennel
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 leek, white and light green parts only, cut in half lengthwise, cleaned, and thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, quartered, cored and cut across the grain into thin slices
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 1/2 pounds tuna steaks
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the leek and cook, stirring, until leeks are limp, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the mixture is fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Add the fennel and a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low, cover and cook slowly for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the lemon juice, taste and adjust seasonings. The mixture should be very soft. Remove to a bowl and keep warm.
2. Meanwhile, season the tuna steaks with salt and pepper and heat the remaining olive oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the tuna steaks for 1 minute on each side and remove to a plate.
3. Return the fennel mixture to the skillet and place the tuna on top of the mixture. Cover the pan, turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked through or cooked the way you like it.
4. Sprinkle on the parsley and serve, laying the fish on top of the fennel, with lemon wedges on the side.
Yield: 4 servings.
Advance preparation: You can cook the fennel up to 2 days ahead and refrigerate. Bring back to a simmer in the skillet, add the tuna fillets and proceed with the recipe.
Fast Italian Fish
- 4 small zucchini
- 4 slices prosciutto
- 4 skinless white fish fillets (5-6 ounces each)
- 4 tablespoons fresh basil pesto, see post: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/04/21/two-sauces-for-everyday-meals/
- olive oil
- Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Basil Leaves for garnish
Heat oven to 425°F. Trim ends off the zucchini and cut lengthwise into quarters.
Put on nonstick baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, wrap 1 slice prosciutto around each fish fillet.
Remove pan from oven, turn zucchini over and push to one side, and put fish on pan. Roast until fish is cooked and flakes easily and zucchini are tender, about 8 minutes. Top each fillet with 1 tablespoon pesto and garnish with basil leaves.
Pasta With Sardines, Bread Crumbs and Capers
Nutritionist and author, Jonny Bowden of “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth,” has created a list of healthy foods people should be eating but aren’t. Sardines is one of them. They are high in omega-3’s, contain virtually no mercury and are loaded with calcium. They also contain iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese as well as a full complement of B vitamins. Choose sardines packed in olive oil.
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs, ideally made from stale bread
- 1 onion, chopped and garlic
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound long pasta with a hole through the center, like perciatelli
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons drained capers
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 cans sardines packed in extra virgin olive oil (about 1/2 pound)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish.
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put half the oil (2 tablespoons) in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until golden and fragrant, less than 5 minutes, and then remove. Add the remaining oil and the onion to the pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until just tender; drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Turn the heat under the onions to medium-high and add the lemon zest, capers, crushed red pepper and sardines; cook, stirring occasionally, until just heated through, about 2 minutes.
3. Add the pasta to the sardine mixture and toss well to combine. Add the parsley, most of the bread crumbs and some reserved water, if necessary, to moisten. Taste and adjust seasoning, garnishing with more parsley and bread crumbs.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Swordfish – a staple in Italian cuisine.
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t swordfish endangered? No. Or at least it’s not endangered anywhere around the United States. The various fish watchdog organizations all give consumers the green light to eat as much swordfish as they want, provided it was caught in North American or Hawaiian waters. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch gives American swordfish either a “best choice” or “good alternative” rating, depending on how it’s caught.
If you’ve never worked with swordfish, it is dense and meaty. It also has an inedible rubbery skin around the outside that must be removed. When shopping for swordfish, pay attention to the bloodline, that red patch of meat in the steak. It should be red. If it is brown, the fish is old.
Good alternatives to swordfish, if you can’t find it, are yellowfin tuna or mahi mahi.
Yield: Serves 4
Use a light hand when pounding the fish; it should be thin enough to roll around the simple bread-crumb-and-cheese filling, but not so thin that it rips.
- Juice of 2 lemons, strained of seeds
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon drained, chopped capers
- 6 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Four 6-ounce pieces swordfish, cut long and thin so each is 4 or 5 inches long
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup minced yellow onion
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ cup fresh or dried bread crumbs
- ½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon drained capers, minced
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 ounces provolone, thinly sliced or grated
1. To make the sauce: Put the lemon juice in a small nonreactive bowl. Add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking until emulsified. Stir in the parsley, basil, capers, and rosemary and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to use.
2. To make the fish: Lay the swordfish between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Using a meat mallet or the bottom of a small, heavy skillet, lightly pound the fish until it is about ¼ inch thick. Transfer the fish to a plate, season with salt and black pepper.
3. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
4. In a sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute the onion and garlic for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Add the bread crumbs and sun-dried tomatoes. Cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove pan from the heat and stir in the parsley, thyme, capers, and red pepper. Season with salt and black pepper and set aside.
5. Spread the bread crumb mixture over the fish. Cover with the provolone and roll each piece of fish into a cylinder. Hold the rolls closed with toothpicks.
6. In an ovenproof sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and saute the swordfish rolls until golden brown on all sides. Turn them carefully with tongs or a wooden spoon. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 4 to 6 minutes, just until they are still moist in the center. Do not overcook.
7. Put each swordfish roll on a plate. Whisk the vinaigrette and spoon a little over each roll.
- Eat Like an Italian (jovinacooksitalian.com)