My friend Paola has a long-standing love affair with Lebanon. She lived there for a year, studied at the American University of Beirut, and was there visiting with her partner Rafael last summer when Israel attacked. This recipe is from a cookbook she gave me when she returned.
The book is Lebanese Cuisine by Annisa Helou, and I do recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of Levantine treats. (I’ve been addicted ever since I spent a summer waiting tables at a Lebanese restaurant in Pittsburgh.)
This baked fish dish is very satisfying– it really sticks to your ribs. I don’t know many fish dishes that would be warming and satisfying in the winter, but I think this will be a standby when the cold weather hits. It’s also quite simple and doesn’t take many ingredients. And, as a bonus, it’s gluten- and dairy-free.
First, you rub the fish with salt and let it sit for half an hour. This is the only salt that goes into the dish, so don’t hold back. You can do this with whole fish or fillets, but we used fillets. We got our red snapper frozen at Trader Joe’s– I’m not a fan of frozen in general, but TJ’s is careful to do a good job, and we have yet to get a bad piece of fish there. Keep up the good work there, Trader Joe.
Use a big bowl and a whisk for the tahini sauce. Your tahini goes into the bowl first, about 3/4 cup. Add small amounts of water and lemon juice, in turn. There’s a chemical reaction happening here, between the lemon juice and the tahini, and it takes a few minutes to ‘bind’. So your tahini’s going to get really thick and crumbly as you start adding the liquids, and it’ll clump on your whisk and you’ll hate it. But as you keep adding the water and lemon juice, it’ll suddenly thin out and become almost liquid. That’s how you want it. Whisk out the lumps and set it aside.
Now you want to put about half an inch of vegetable oil in your cast iron pan. Get it nice and hot, and then take the fish for a spin, about a minute and a half on each side. This isn’t meant to brown fully or cook through or anything– it’s just to seal the juices into the fish, so they don’t all come seeping out when you bake it later. That way the fish will stay moist. Take it out and set it in a casserole dish.
Now take one large onion’s worth of sliced (not chopped) onions. Dump them into the same oil in which you cooked the fish, and cook them down until they are limp and golden yellow. (It’ll take a while.) Then scoop them out with a slotted spoon and stir them into the tahini sauce. [UPDATE: Be sure not to dump the oil into the tahini, or the whole thing will separate. Learned that the hard way.] Pour the mixture over the fish evenly, and put the dish (uncovered) into a preheated 425-degree oven.
The recipe says to do this for 30 minutes, but it’s also meant for two pounds of fish, and I was only doing a pound. I checked on it at 20 minutes and it was done perfectly, with the tahini bubbling and a few onions getting just a bit brown on top of the fillets.
We served this with plain couscous with a few toasted almond slivers mixed in. I really think the red snapper was a good choice for this dish. (The recipe only calls for ‘white fish’). It’s a robust fish with a steak-y texture that holds up well to the heavy sauce, but it’s not so flavorful or oily that the fish takes over. Nope, red snapper it is. (Or as our favorite corner restaurant in Queens used to spell it, “resnapel fish”. Took us weeks to figure that one out.)
Verdict: easy and delicious. It took a while– there’s baking time, you have to wait for the salt to seep into the fish– but a lot of that was downtime. I’ve been doing so many prep-intensive Indian dishes lately that this felt like a breeze to me. It was very filling and surprisingly healthy. Filing this one away for future reference.
[UPDATE: We’ve since made this dish with grouper, tilapia and mahi-mahi and have been happy every time. My stomach seems to handle it really well when I’m having Crohn’s related misery, also. This is my new favorite standby dish!]