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Tradition in the Kitchen : A Splashy Fish

April 04, 1993|NATHALIE DUPREE

I associate freshly caught fish with my first adventure on a pier, when my brother, then a toddler, fell into the river. This occasion also marked the first time I saw a man cook anywhere other than in a restaurant.

At that time, fish were caught and eaten off the pier from the Potomac River, which was then considered clean water. My father's friend Jacques, who lived on a houseboat, fitted out a fishing line for each of us, including my little brother, who was strapped into a contraption my mother had worked out with suspenders and a belt hitched to a life vest. I've always wondered whether Jacques "seeded" each of our lines with a fish as well, since we started catching them so fast. We shrieked with glee and pulled up our lines, entranced with the idea of catching a fish.

As time went by, my brother's interest waned a bit; he became dazzled instead with the shimmers of the water. There was a great splash and a wail, followed by alarm and consternation, until my father fished him out, dripping and crying, his ego wounded as much as anything else.

While my brother was changed, dried and cosseted, Jacques finished cleaning the fish we'd caught and started cooking. He was a huge man, and his galley was the size of a postage stamp. But in no time, the fish were cooked, and we famished fishermen were eating happily, tears dried. And we'd seen a man cook.

I still love serving a whole fish--it's an enormously impressive dinner showpiece and one of the easiest dishes to prepare. But I find baking it--as part of an all-in-one casserole, with everything prepared in advance--more my style than a lot of last-minute cooking. I usually use the standard rule of thumb, cooking the fish 10 minutes per inch of thickness, adding a bit of time for the heat to penetrate the foil, and adding a bit more time if there are other ingredients to be cooked--as with the recipe that follows, a richly flavorful combination of fish, spinach, tomatoes and Moroccan-inspired herbs and spices.

BAKED FISH WITH MOROCCAN SPICES AND SPINACH

1 (3- to 5-pound) whole sea bass, sea trout or small salmon, cleaned, scaled, with head on

Dry Marinade

3 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

3 medium onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 pounds fresh spinach, blanched, squeezed lightly, or 4 (10-ounce) packages frozen spinach, thawed

3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

4 to 5 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme

4 to 5 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Grated zest and juice 1 lemon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Rub fish with Dry Marinade and set aside 2 hours or more, covered, in refrigerator.

Grease large baking and serving pan.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet. Add onions and garlic and saute until tender, about 5 minutes, adding more oil if needed.

Place spinach on bottom of baking pan, then add onion-garlic mixture. Top with tomatoes. Sprinkle with cilantro, thyme and parsley to taste, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Dish may be prepared several hours in advance to this point.

Remove fish from marinade, reserving marinade. Measure thickness of fish. Place on top of layered vegetables and cover fish with reserved marinade. Cover with foil. Bake at 400 degrees about 12 minutes per inch of thickness, plus 5 minutes more, about 30 minutes total. (Recipe takes longer to cook than most fish dishes because of layered vegetables.) Serve in baking pan or transfer to large platter. Cut down to spine of fish to serve. Pull up bone and discard to serve underside of fish. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Dry Marinade

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons finely chopped sweet red pepper

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh or dried hot chile

1/2 teaspoon ground saffron

6 to 7 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

6 to 7 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Mix onion, garlic, turmeric, cumin, sweet red pepper, chile, saffron, cilantro, parsley, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste in bowl.

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