Monday, October 17, 2011

Psari Savori: Greek Fish Fillets with Tomato and Wine Vinegar Sauce

Golden Fish Topped with Bright Red Sauce
Psari Savori, both Flavorful and Colorful

Recipe adapted from Middle Eastern Cooking

Back in the 1970s, I discovered the first all-ethnic-cookbook I’d ever seen on my sister’s in-laws’ bookshelf. The Cooking of Scandinavia was one of a Time-Life book series called Foods of the World. Each book consisted of two volumes, a large picture book and a small spiral bound recipe book, featuring cuisine of various countries and ethnic groups. The beautiful (pre-Photoshop) photos and the descriptions of foods and customs of other nations inspired my young mind and opened up a whole new world of cooking and travel ideas for my future. You can still find these books at flea markets and used book vendors, and they are fun forays into the pre-globalized world of the late 1960s.

Picture of Two Part Middle Eastern Cookbook
Interesting Reading
The Middle Eastern Cooking picture book is particularly interesting because it was written at a time before largescale American intervention in this area. Each nation is presented with some naivete, without political comment. Chapters feature recipes and early 20th century cultural history of Greece, Turkey, the Arab States, Iraq, Israel, Iran, and Egypt—as seen by mid-century Americans. How-to photos include how to stuff and shape a grape leaf, bone a fish, and braid challah. This is a Greek recipe from the Middle Eastern Cooking spiral-bound recipe volume.

Plate of Fish with Proper Coating of Flour
Coat Fish Lightly with Flour
First of all, I changed the amount of olive oil used to fry the fish from 1 cup to about 3 tbsp. I also cut the salt in half. Because our tomatoes were small, we used 12 instead of the recommended 4. As long as you have at least 1 ½ cups when they’re skinned, seeded, and chopped, the recipe will work. Also, because our tomatoes were seedy (and seeds are flavorful) we didn’t completely seed them. You could substitute drained, seeded, chopped canned tomatoes, though fresh tomatoes will taste much better and have a more brilliant color.

Tomatoes and Wine Vinegar Mixture Added to Frying Pan
Sauce at Beginning of Cooking
It’s good to use tomato paste in a tube for this recipe, since it only requires 1 tsp., yet it’s an important ingredient flavor-wise. Original recipe, like many from the 1960s, calls for crumbled bay leaf. Bay leaves do not cook and become soft, and they aren’t pleasant to eat. Crumbled bay leaves will be sharp fragments in the sauce. Cook the whole (not crumbled) leaf so it’s easier NOT to eat! I also employed my trusty electric frying pan to cook the fish perfectly by keeping the temperature consistent.

Perfectly Fried Golden Brown Fish
Electric Frying Pan Ensures Golden-cooked Fish
I substituted sustainable tilapia for porgy, which is not available in our area. Fresh tilapia from Central and South America is sustainably farmed, but avoid frozen tilapia, which is farmed in a manner destructive to native environments. According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, porgy is also a good alternative for sustainable seafood consumers. The  recipe was written to make four 8 oz. servings, but six 6 oz. servings seems more correct these days.

How Sauce Looks When it is Cooked Enough
Sauce at End of Cooking
Psari Savori, Fish Fillets with Tomato and Wine Vinegar Sauce
serves 6

Six 6 oz. tilapia fillets, or other lean white fish
~ ½ tsp. salt
½ c. flour
3 – 4 tbsp. olive oil
~4 large or 12 small tomatoes
1 tsp. tomato paste
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
½ tsp. minced garlic
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
½ tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper

Skin tomatoes for sauce by dropping tomatoes into boiling water for 15 – 30 seconds, then plunging in cold water to loosen skins. If skin is too thick to split the first time, make 2 – 4 short cuts in the tomato skin with a knife and repeat the boiling and chilling steps. Peel tomatoes with sharp knife and remove stem end. Slice tomatoes in half crosswise and squeeze to remove seeds and liquid. Chop tomatoes into ½ inch chunks. Be sure that you have 1 ½ cups, or a little more.

Mix together tomato paste, wine vinegar, minced garlic, ½ tsp. salt and bay leaves, and add a few grinds of black pepper. This will be added to the tomatoes to make the sauce after fish is cooked.

Spread flour in a layer on a dinner plate. Pat fish fillets dry with towel. Sprinkle lightly on both sides with salt. Dredge both sides of fillets in flour and shake off excess. Heat an electric frying pan to 400 degrees. Add 1 ½ tbsp. oil and swish around to coat bottom of pan. Add 3 fish fillets. Lower heat to 375 degrees, and cook until fillets start to look opaque, about 6 minutes for tilapia. Check underneath a fillet to see that it’s golden brown, and flip it when it is. Cook until fish is completely opaque and fish will flake, about 5 minutes for tilapia. Remove three fillets to plate and blot off excess oil with paper towel. Raise heat to 400 degrees, add another 1 ½ tbsp. oil and swish it around, then repeat the cooking process for the other three fillets.

When all fish is cooked and plated, add tomatoes and premixed sauce ingredients to frying pan. Cook at 375 - 400 degrees, a lively boil. Stir constantly as mixture and cooks down, smashing down large pieces of tomato with back of stirring spoon—using a big wooden spoon helps. Cook down until mixture is thick enough to hold its shape almost solidly in the spoon, about 5 minutes.

Serve fish topped with sauce. Traditionally, psari savori is served at room temperature, but it’s great warm too. Its traditional accompaniments are crusty loaves of fresh bread and green salad.

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