Growing up in an Irish Catholic family meant that we ate fish on Friday. Every Friday. Without fail. The only exception we ever saw was when my older brother had rheumatic fever and the doctors wanted him to eat beef every day to strengthen his heart. Heh. I know. But it was the best medical wisdom at that time. My grandfather had the same advice after his heart attack, and he lived to be 87.
Actually, as Catholics, we weren’t obliged to eat fish. We just couldn’t eat meat. Except my brother. At our house, though, “no meat” meant fish. So we ate fish every Friday. We didn’t live especially close to the sea (Atlanta), and the selection of fresh fish at that time wasn’t great. We were also a large family (Irish Catholic, remember?). All of this meant that we ate a lot of the dreaded Tuna Noodle Casserole. With potato chips on top. No peas. We also ate a lot of salmon patties made from canned salmon. I still like these. I haven’t made them in a long time, though. Hmmm….
Because we didn’t live near the sea, the fish we ate was most often canned. Tuna and salmon. Sometimes frozen, from the kitchen of our friend Mrs. Paul. She always made her specialty for us, fingerfish, a species that must be extinct now. At least I hope so.
In the summer, it was different, because we could go to the beach (St. Simons Island). At the beach we ate fish. Crabs. Shrimp. Lobster. All of it. We loved it. Somehow, though, we didn’t eat fresh fish at home. In later years, my parents used to bring home frozen shrimp and crabs. But they waited till I had left home to do that. I’m not bitter, though.
All this meant that I didn’t have a big taste for fresh fish. Shrimp, yes, but not fish. I didn’t know anything about them either. I liked to order trout in restaurants because I loved eating the flesh on one side and then unzipping the backbone to get at the other side. I still like to do that.
It was only when we moved to Belgium that I began to seriously cook and love fresh fish. Here, we are close enough to the sea to have fresh fish readily available. Everyone has their favorite fish market. For some, it’s in nearby Soumagne. For others, it’s in Herve. Or even the supermarket. My friend Françoise swears by the fish monger who’s in the town of Ensival for its weekly market. Me, I shop around.
I’ve developed a taste for fish. We still associate it with Fridays, but we eat it other days of the week as well. I find myself in the strange position of knowing the names of my favorite fish in French but not necessarily in English. Some of them have names that are not so pretty in English — rouget, for example, is mullet in English. Makes me think of a bad hair style…
Where was I? Oh, yes. We try to buy fish that’s sustainable and relatively local. This usually means tilapia or plaice or pollack or cod from Iceland. My favorite fish is the trout caught by one of our friends. He doesn’t really like to eat it, so he and his wife freeze it and sometimes they give it to us. YUM!
This dish is one that I first made one night when we were going out of town and we had some leeks and tomatoes in the fridge. And some fish. You can use any firm-fleshed white fish for this. It’s very very easy, and the flavors are delicate and healthy and clean — tomatoes, leeks and of course the fish. I serve it to company. On Fridays, of course!
4-5 large leeks
10-12 small tomatoes (golf ball size)
400 g / 1 pound white fish
2 Tablespoons + 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 160 C / 350 F.
- Cut the root ends off the leeks, and the hard green part. Cut them in half lengthwise, and wash them thoroughly under running water to remove all the sand and dirt between the layers. I just hold them near the base in one hand and with the other separate the layers and wash between them.
- Slice the leeks into pieces about 2 cm / 1 inch long.
- Heat 2 T olive oil in a large pan and add the leeks. Cook over medium-low heat till the leeks have released their liquid and are soft. This should take about 10 minutes.
- Put the leeks in a baking dish.
- Cut the fish into pieces about half the size of the palm of your hand. They should be roughly the same size so that they cook at the same rate. If there are some that are thinner than others, double them up. Nestle the fish pieces down into the leeks.
- Cut the tomatoes in quarters. Put the tomato pieces down into the leeks between the fish pieces.
- Drizzle 2 T of olive oil over the fish.
- Bake till the fish is opaque and flakes easily–about 20 minutes.
Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.
- I often serve this with new potatoes, steamed and then crisped in a non-stick pan in a little olive oil. The crunch goes well with this dish.
- Good crusty rolls go well too. I think you need some crunch.
- Sometimes I just steam the potatoes and add them to the dish with the fish. Then I need crunch from rolls or something else.
- You can use flavored oil to drizzle over the fish — sometimes I use lemon flavored oil. Pepper oil wouldn’t really work here — it would kill these delicate flavors.