The treatment comes from The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, but it originated at Dar El Jeld, an elegant restaurant in an old palazzo high on a hill overlooking the Tunis medina, where the kitchen is, unusually, run entirely by women. Why? Because, explains Chef-cuisiniere Hanene Chiboub, the cuisine at Dar el Jeld is deeply traditional, home-style food, and “une femme tient toujours aux traditions, a woman always holds to traditions.”
I made this most recently with single portions of swordfish, cut about 1 ½ to 2 inches thick. You could also use equally thick single portions of haddock, cod or snapper, and firm-textured monkfish reacts well to the treatment. Next time I might try it with salmon. Or scallops, adjusting the cooking time accordingly As you can see, it’s easily adaptable.
And it is totally simple with only one or two pans to wash up afterward: Make the sauce, cook the fish in the sauce, arrange the fish on a platter, cook down the sauce until it’s thick, pour over the fish on the platter and serve immediately.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
- 1 ½ pounds boneless fish
- Sea salt and black pepper
- About ½ teaspoon dried crumbled saffron threads
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 canned plum tomatoes, chopped fine
- 1 teaspoon harissa or ½ teaspoon medium-hot dried red chili
- ¼ cup capers, rinsed or drained, coarsely chopped
- 1 salt-preserved lemon, if available, rinsed and coarsely chopped
- ½ cup chopped olives, green or black or mixed
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
Pat the fish pieces dry with paper towels, sprinkle on both sides with salt, pepper and crumbled saffron, and set aside on a rack until you’re ready to cook them.
In a skillet large enough to hold all the fish pieces, gently stew the garlic and onion in the oil over medium low heat until the onion is soft but not brown. Add the chopped tomatoes with all their juices and about ¼ cup boiling water. Stir in the harissa and continue simmering over low heat until the sauce is thickened—if the sauce gets too thick, add more boiling water.
Add the fish to the sauce and cook, spooning the sauce over the top. Very thick pieces may have to be turned once to make sure they cook through. When the fish is just cooked through, remove to a platter and keep warm while you continue with the sauce.
Add the capers, lemon and olives to the sauce, stirring them in well, and continue cooking, simmering gently, for about another 5 minutes. At this point (not before, cautions the Tunisian chef) stir in the cumin and pour the sauce over the fish on the platter.
Serve immediately, with rice or steamed potatoes if you wish.