This fish dish was an assignment for the Cooking Italy group - a group of food enthusiasts learning to cook regional Italian food through the recipes of Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. (You can visit Angela at Spinach Tiger or view my Cooking Italy page to learn more about the group and see what some of the others have been cooking.) This dish was actually one of our recipes for March and, even though I did manage to make the dish back in March, it has been sitting in "draft" for several weeks now.
I don't know why it has taken me so long to get around to writing up this post. Perhaps I didn't want it to get lonely - after all, it is in good company there in my draft box, along with a whole lot of other posts in various stages of completion that have yet to make it to actual publication. But seriously, even now I am feeling some kind of reticence about this post, trying to find the right words. Certainly I felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm about making the dish - in fact just days before I had said to someone, "I want an interesting fish dish - I'm so over "fish in tomato-based sauces" recipes". So, I wasn't exactly fired up about making this; but, hey, it was on the list and, unlike some other recipes on the list, there wasn't anything unseasonal for me required (most other members of the group are in the northern hemisphere, so I'm sometimes out of step with everyone else) and I had everything on hand that I needed except the actual piece of fish.
Well, I was more than pleasantly surprised by this dish. As I have now come to expect from Marcella's dishes, this totally delivered on flavour, colour, and texture, as well as ease of preparation and cooking - every ingredient is balanced perfectly, achieving a dish which is both elegant and comforting at the same time - another two characteristics that I am discovering arise again and again in Marcella's recipes. (By the way, if you would like to read a bit more about Marcella Hazan, and her husband Victor check out this post by Jaden over at Steamy Kitchen - Jaden writes one of the blogs I follow regularly, and she had the extraordinary privilege a few days ago of cooking with Marcella in her home - I am so envious!)
Back to the fish - I did make a couple of small changes to the recipe. Firstly, the day I choose to make this I couldn't get any fresh sole, but instead found a beautiful piece of brill that was just the right size for two people. As Marcella suggests, any flat fish will do for this.
I had never eaten brill before, but I loved its firm, yet succulent texture and flavour which easily stood up to the sauce. I cut this fillet in half down the middle, lengthwise, and each portion was the perfect size for one person.
The other big change I made, and I frankly think this was an improvement, was replacing the onion in the sauce with fennel. As we "don't do onions" in our house - actually I can take them or leave them, but my "significant other" absolutely won't have a bar of them - I used a thinly sliced fennel bulb instead.
Now I may be "bastardising" some very classical and traditional Italian recipe here, but to my palate the fennel was infinitely better in both taste and texture than the onion would have been.
Marcella also suggests optionally including a hot, red chilli, which I didn't, but I can imagine that if you wanted something to fire-up your taste buds a little more that would be a good addition.
Baked Brill with Tomato & Fennel Sauce
Adapted from Marcella Hazan's
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (page 309)
Click here for a printable copy of this recipe
1 large bulb of fennel, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
400g tinned tomatoes in their juice, crushed
flaky sea salt
2 tablespoons capers (I prefer salted)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
freshly ground black pepper, or
1 hot, red chilli, chopped
brill or other flatfish fillets
Preheat your oven to 225 degrees C (450 degrees F).
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, then add the sliced fennel and cook until it softens and begins to colour slightly. Add the garlic, and once the garlic is ever so slightly browned, add the crushed tomatoes and a couple of generous pinches of salt. Give everything a good stir to combine well, and then simmer for about 15-20 minutes. By this stage the sauce will have thickened (you may need to add a little bit of water during this time). Add the capers, herbs, pepper or chilli; stir to combine and simmer for just another minute or so longer. Remove from the heat.
Wash and dry the fish fillets. The fillets will be folded in half, and then put into an ovenproof dish, slightly overlapping, so choose a baking dish which is just large enough to accommodate all your fillets in a single layer.
Spread a thin layer of the sauce over the base of your baking dish. Dip the fillets in the sauce, coating them well on both sides. Fold the fillets in half, arrange in the dish, and pour the remaining sauce over the top of the fillets - you want to end up with fish fillets which are more or less "smothered" inside and out with the sauce.
Bake in the preheated oven for 5 to 10 minutes depending on the thickness of your fish - mine took closer to 10 minutes, but you want to be careful not to overcook the fillets, so maybe check them after 5 minutes.
I served this just with some crusty sourdough bread (perfect for dunking into that luscious sauce) and a simple rocket and parmesan salad. Oh, and did I mention a lovely, crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc is just the thing to wash it down with!!
So, even though I said I was soooooo over tomato-based fish dishes, this one has hit my list of ones that is destined to be repeated in my house many times over.