Sfogi in Saor

Fried Sole Fillets Marinated with Onions, Vinegar, Raisins, and Pine Nuts

Imagine a summer night in Venice when fireworks spill out of an indigo sky as though they were fiery strands of gems tumbling from a great, overturned coffer. Imagine the lagoon beneath teeming with boats—gondolas, barges, rowboats, powerboats, ferries, yachts—glowing with thousands of trembling colored lanterns. It is the most glorious night of the year, the night of the Redeemer, il Redentore, when all Venice turns out to recall its deliverance from the plague, as it has always done on the third Saturday of July since the end of the sixteenth century.

Everyone who can get on a boat does. While waiting for the fireworks, which begin just before midnight, they dine on board their craft, no matter how small or crowded. Among the many dishes that will be laid out—some of the traditional ones are cold pasta and beans soup, polenta, roast duck—one that is a must on this night is sfogi in saor.

Sfogi is Venetian for sogliola: the small, firm-fleshed Adriatic sole, the world’s finest flatfish. It is fried, then macerated for many hours in a marinade—saor—of browned, smothered onions, olive oil, vinegar, pine nuts, and raisins. It is one of the most savory inventions of the Venetian cuisine, itself a cause for celebrating.

The sole to choose should be the least flaky, most firm fleshed you have available. (If you have a copy of More Classic Italian Cooking, see the similar recipe for sardines.)

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Ingredients

  • ÂĽ cup seedless raisins
  • 1 pound sole fillets
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 cup flour, spread on a platter or on a sheet of aluminum foil or wax paper
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced very thin, about 1½ cups
  • ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 cup red- or white-wine vinegar, diluted with 1 tablespoon water
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts

Method

  1. Put the raisins to soak in a bowl with enough lukewarm water to cover.
  2. Separate the sole fillets in half lengthwise, then cut them into 2 or 3 shorter pieces so that each piece is approximately 3 inches long.
  3. Put enough vegetable oil into a frying pan to come ½ inch up the side of the pan, and turn on the heat to high.
  4. Dry the fish fillets thoroughly with paper towels, then turn them lightly in the flour, shaking off all excess flour. When the oil is hot, put them in the pan and brown them on both sides to a deep gold color. Using a slotted spatula or spoon transfer them to a platter lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.
  5. Discard the oil from the pan, wiping the pan clean with paper towels.
  6. Put the olive oil in the pan, add the sliced onion, the sugar, and salt, cover, and turn on the heat to low. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the onion is completely limp and fully cooked, but still pale in color. It will probably have thrown off some liquid.
  7. Uncover the pan, raise the heat to medium, and boil off the liquid while cooking the onion further until it becomes a light nut brown.
  8. Add the diluted vinegar, turn the heat up to high, and boil the vinegar for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  9. Drain the raisins and pat them dry with a kitchen towel.
  10. Choose a deep dish in which the fish will fit snugly, even overlapping, and narrow enough so that the vinegar marinade won’t be spread out too thin. Place the fish on the bottom, then, using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer the onion from the pan, spreading it over the fish. Over the onion sprinkle the pine nuts and raisins, then pour over these all the contents of the pan. Cover the dish with plastic wrap.
  11. Allow the fish to marinate for at least 12 hours before serving, but if you wait a full day it will taste even better. If serving within 12 hours, do not refrigerate. If serving the following day (it will keep perfectly for several days), put the dish in the refrigerator, but be sure to take it out 1 to 2 hours ahead of time so that it will be at room temperature when it is served.

Serving Suggestions

Serve as an appetizer in a seafood meal if sole does not appear in other courses. It is a splendid buffet dish. For a light but savory lunch it can be the only dish, followed by salad and fruit.

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