Save your sauté, and no deep frying, thank you—when I'm cooking fish at home, I like to do it in a hot oven. It is a purely nostalgic impulse. My mother's kitchen churned out a fish dinner on every meatless Friday of my childhood, and yes, they were meatless all year round just in case God really does prefer it that way. After getting over my disappointment at being deprived of the same Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks that my friends were being served, I grew to love her simple recipe of baked fish fillets with well-seasoned breadcrumbs and some good olive oil.
Pairing this method with the bright, vibrant flavors of Sicily is the winning combination in this version of the Friday night special. There's sweetness from the red onion complimented by plenty of fresh mint and basil, a sour note from a shot of vinegar, and a squirt of anchovy paste to add the salty intensity of the sea. Olives bring a final touch of richness to the plate.
This recipe is for firm, meaty, white fish. I used cod, but you can sub a variety of your favorites. Look for anything with the texture needed to stand up to those big flavors, such as scrod, haddock, hake, or halibut; sea bass, or snapper work well too.
Season carefully at each stage of preparation; both the anchovy and olives will add salt to the flavor of the finished dish. Remember the rule for cooking fish: no more than 10 minutes per inch. To handle the thinner, flat ends of the fillet, I trim and then pile them on top of each other to create a complete portion that matches the thickness of the center.
This is exactly the kind of dish you will find at the seaside trattorie that dot the Sicilian coastline—simple, satisfying, and big on flavor. It is quickly becoming one of my go-to favorites for an easy weeknight supper. I love the way that all the ingredients add their bright notes to the liquid in the pan to make a bready, flavor-packed sauce. Most recently I paired it with julienned zucchini, sautéed with garlic and fresh thyme and buttered red bliss potatoes.
Sicilian-Style Baked Cod
- 1 medium or 1/2 of a large red onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 12 to 16 ounces firm white fish fillet, cut in 3 to 4-ounce portions
- 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
- 3 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs
- 3 or 4 sprigs fresh, flat-leaf parsley
- 8 to 10 fresh mint leaves
- 3 or 4 large fresh basil leaves
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup dry white wine or water
- 10 to 12 oil-cured black olives, cracked and pitted
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Cut the onion into quarters, then cut the quarters crosswise and separate the layers to create wide, square slices. In a sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive and add the onion. Season with salt and pepper, and sauté over low heat until the onion has wilted and started to turn translucent; be careful not to let it brown. Add the red wine vinegar to the pan and shake it briefly, then transfer everything to the bottom of a medium-sized baking dish.
Wipe the pan with a paper towel to clean it, then place it back over low heat and add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Add the anchovy paste and stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve the paste into the oil. Dump the breadcrumbs into the pan and stir to completely coat them with the oil. Transfer the breadcrumbs to a small bowl to cool slightly.
Wash the herbs, pat them dry, and finely chop them. Add them to the bowl with breadcrumbs, and season everything with a small pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
Lay the portioned fish on top of the onions and season with a bit more salt and pepper. Distribute the breadcrumb-herb mixture evenly on top of the fish. Add the white wine or water to the pan and scatter the olives around the dish.
Bake the fish for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish; it should be cooked through but still moist; check the pan after 10 minutes and add a bit more water or wine if necessary.
Serve immediately, with the some of the onions, olives and pan juices spooned alongside the fish.