Italian-Jewish Marinated Fried Fish (Pesce in Saor)

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Yield:

    6–8

    servings

Appears in

Above the night music, the Venetian skies boom and burst into explosive color, sending showers of rainbow meteors skittering across the heavens, their shimmering reflections dancing in the inky canals.

It is the Festa del Redentore, Feast of the Redeemer, celebrated every July 19 since 1576 to commemorate the end of a plague that devastated the city. Among the traditional ritual foods eaten before the blaze of spectacular fireworks is an ancient Venetian-Jewish dish, sole in a sweet-and-sour sauce of onions, raisins, and pine nuts, served cold.

Unlike some Italian-Jewish foods whose names betray their provenance—artichokes alla giudea and several others with a “Sara” or “Rebecca” appended to the title come readily to mind—the Jewish origins of pesce in saor are not always acknowledged. But culinary historians, both those with an Italian focus and those with a Jewish one, trace the dish to the traditional methods Jews devised to preserve fish for the Sabbath. In Italy, Jewish cooks doused fried fish with hot vinegar, then to counteract the acidic taste, added sweet fried onions, raisins, and sugar. (This pattern—using vinegar or lemon as a preservative, then sweetening to eradicate the resulting sour taste—may explain why so many vastly different Jewish communities throughout the world developed their own sweet-and-sour fish dishes.) A fondness for raisins and pine nuts was acquired in Sicily, where Jews had dwelled from ancient times until they were expelled at the end of the fifteenth century.

The result is a well-flavored, make-ahead fish excellent for holidays and company buffets. I round out the flavors by caramelizing the onions and bedding the fried fish on fresh sliced oranges—their sweetness, and the concentrated sugars in the soaked raisins, obviate the need for any added sugar. This dish is especially good accompanied by a salad of marinated roasted red peppers.

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Ingredients

  • 2 pounds lemon sole, grouper, red snapper, perch, or similar nonoily, fairly firm fleshed fish fillets (choose fillets no more than ½ inch thick)
  • About 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour Salt and freshly ground black pepper Olive oil, for frying, plus 2 tablespoons additional
  • 1 large, juicy orange, preferably thin-skinned, very thinly sliced
  • pounds onions, very thinly sliced (6 cups)
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • ½ cup balsamic or red wine vinegar
  • 2 anchovies, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Bright green leaves of parsley, curly endive, frisée, or other greens, for garnish (optional)

Method

  1. Cut the fillets in half lengthwise and, if necessary, remove the thin bony strip that runs through the middle of many fillets. Now cut the fillets into 4-inch pieces. If time permits, soak the fish in a pan of cold, lightly salted water for about 20 minutes. (This centuries-old technique not only seasons the fish, but also helps it to stay firm when fried.)
  2. Pat the fish dry with paper towels. Spread the flour on a sheet of wax paper or a platter and season with salt and pepper. Dredge the fish pieces thoroughly in the seasoned flour, then shake lightly to remove all excess. Heat ¼ inch of oil in a large heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Fry the fish in batches until nicely golden on both sides. Drain well on paper towels.
  3. Choose a casserole or nonreactive baking dish just large enough to accommodate the fish in one layer and line it with the orange slices. Place the fish on top, overlapping the pieces slightly if necessary.
  4. Wipe out all the oil in the skillet, then warm the 2 tablespoons of fresh oil in it. Add the onions and toss until completely coated with the oil. Salt and pepper lightly, cover the pan, and cook slowly over very low heat for 35–40 minutes, until the onions are meltingly tender. Stir from time to time to make sure the onions don’t burn.
  5. While the onions are simmering, toast the pine nuts on a baking sheet in a preheated 350°F oven for 7–10 minutes, until fragrant and lightly golden. Shake the baking sheet from time to time to ensure even toasting. Set the toasted nuts aside to cool. Soak the raisins in the vinegar.
  6. When the onions are very tender, stir in the optional anchovies (they add an elusive, subtle depth), and cook for 2 minutes, stirring to dissolve them. Add the vinegar with the raisins, the orange juice, and bay leaf. Turn the heat up to high and cook, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by half and the onions are caramelized and richly colored, 15–20 minutes. Be sure to stir frequently to redistribute the syrupy juices and, if necessary, turn the heat down a bit to prevent the onions from sticking and burning. Season generously with salt and pepper and remove the bay leaf.
  7. Spread the caramelized onion mixture evenly over the fish. Scatter the toasted pine nuts on top. Wrap well with plastic and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight (even better when served after 48 hours). It will keep very well for at least 4 days.
  8. The fish is best at room temperature, so remove it from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before serving. Brighten the dish with a garnish of parsley, curly endive, frisée, or other greens, if desired.

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