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Cooking Off the Cuff: A Bed Of Summer Vegetables For an Unexpected Fish

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In so far as Jackie and I had a plan when we trudged down to the farmers' market last week, it was to buy a piece of fish - something along the lines of cod or bass - and serve it nestled into a prettily arranged Provençal-style "tian" of onions, tomatoes and zucchini (courgettes). We've been doing this for years, and it is one of the best summer dinners imaginable.

But we got diverted by a little heap of sea robins - our local variety of gurnard - whose firm flesh lends it to many treatments from breaded, fried schnitzels to soups and stews (its Mediterranean analogue is an ingredient in traditional bouillabaisse). It tastes good too: nothing startling, but a pleasure to eat. That Mediterranean connection reinforced the tian idea, but the dish I envisioned seemed to want more brazen flavor, so I incorporated extra garlic and - this is the key - a few oil-packed anchovies. All very South of France - or Sicily, come to that. I also jettisoned my usual neat rows of squash slices and opted for a more haphazard arrangement.

I started by filleting the fish (two of them - one per portion). They'd come without their enormous heads, so removing the bones was a cinch: running the knife down either side of the central bones, first from the top then from the bottom, freed the fillets, and the few remaining pin bones were easily yanked out with pincers or needle-nose pliers. I also skinned the fillets: the skin is rather coarse and not particularly appetizing in the way that the skin of, say, striped bass is. (I made a small amount of stock from the bones and skin and the day's vegetable trimmings and tomato skins.)

To make the vegetable mixture in which the fish would complete its cooking, I washed the white parts of a small bunch of young spring onions (a regular onion, medium size, would do) and sliced them thin, along with a clove of garlic; using the oval pan I was going to serve the dish in, I softened them in olive oil with salt, pepper and thyme. As this cooked over low heat, I blanched and skinned the best tomatoes that I found in the market: At the turn of July, these were cherry tomatoes with a good balance of sweetness and acidity, and plenty of meaty savoriness. Later in the summer, ripe full-size tomatoes will be peeled and diced for dishes like this. Quantity? Once skinned and cut in half or thirds, the tomatoes amounted to a scant two cups' worth (450 ml by volume); use more or use less, as you like.

I also cut a medium-sized summer squash (courgette) into quarter-inch (6-mm) dice and briefly sautéed it in olive oil, again with salt, pepper and thyme; this was just to bring out the flavor, not to cook it through, so it took about 30 seconds. I used a green-skinned squash for its color, but yellow would be just as nice.

When the onions and garlic were soft, I stirred in three or four fillets of anchovy (oil-packed in this case, or you could rinse, soak and bone salt-packed anchovies - but what a yawn that would be), and when these had disintegrated added the tomatoes and even more seasoning and thyme. When the tomatoes had begun to collapse, the par-cooked squash went in and the pan was kept at a bare simmer over very low heat.

Next, the fish came out of the fridge, and I salted and peppered it, then sparingly dusted the flesh side (not the side from which the skin had been removed) with flour; in a skillet over medium-high heat (the same skillet in which I'd sautéed the squash), I lightly browned it, floured-side down, in olive oil for just a minute or 90 seconds - as it was cooking, I seasoned the other side - then turned it over and cooked it for another 15 seconds.

I set the fillets into the vegetable mixture - partly submerged, with the lightly browned flesh side above the water-line - raised the heat a notch, to medium-low, and simmered for four minutes, until the fish was easily pierced with a thin-bladed paring knife but still firmly intact. If you make this dish with other, bigger, fish fillets or with whole fish, adjust the timing accordingly, and consider finishing the cooking in a 350º F (175º C) oven. If the liquid had threatened to boil away, I'd have added a little of that fish stock - or plain water - but the tomatoes were juicy enough to keep everything moist.

The anchovies and abundant garlic and thyme made this vegetable mixture - a combination of sauce and side dish - particularly delicious and savory; the fish added flavor to the mixture too, and the play of textures - firm fish, super-moist tomatoes, not-overcooked squash and melting, slightly viscous onions that give body to the sauce - meant that every bite was interesting.

You could eat this with steamed new-season potatoes, but the best accompaniment is grilled (and preferably buttered) sourdough bread: yet one more texture, plus you can top it with some of the vegetable mixture and let the juices soak in. Some would say that's the best part.

A Bed Of Summer Vegetables For an Unexpected Fish