Mediterranean baked fish with tomato and fennel – Ottolenghi calling

Yotam Ottolenghi is my current passion – well, his cooking is. I want to travel to all the places he went to in his Mediterranean Feast cooking shows and make all the wonderful food he made. His passion is middle eastern food, he is from Israel, and has an Italian father and a German mother. What a guy!

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A few months back, my good friend Nicole and her husband came over for dinner. Last time I saw Nicole was in Turkey in September. We had such a wonderful time there – at a conference for some of the time – but for the rest of the time exploring wonderful Istanbul. I wrote a few posts about foodie things in Istanbul (Spice Market and Culinary secrets food tour) and described the trip more fully on a travel blog called Italy on the road that I created for last year’s trip to Europe. It made sense to make a dish that was reminiscent of our time in Turkey, so I got inspiration from Ottolenghi’s “baked fish with Turkish cheese” recipe.

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram would have seen me post many photos of this dish over the last few months. It is on high rotation in our household as I have been making this meal at least once per fortnight, with variations to suit what I have in the pantry (with eggs making an alternative when I have no fish). It is a one pot meal (so fantastic mid week, after work) and quite simple, pretty much like a shakshuka (eggs baked in a tomato based sauce) – though on Instagram a lady from Israel suggested that it was a bit like hrayme, a spicy fish dish which is originally from Tunisia. If you love the aniseed flavour of fennel, this dish is for you as has loads of fennel, fennel seeds and a good glug of ouzo. The fish is baked in the oven in the tomato fennel sauce, with feta scattered around it and finished off with some chilli lemon butter. Not really Italian, but a sensory and visual feast, made by a chef with Italian origins. Nicole and her husband loved it. Make sure you have loads of bread to mop up the delicious sauce. The loaf above is made at home using the no knead bread recipe described in the New York Times a few years ago.

Mediterranean baked fish with tomato and fennel
serves 4
2 large fennel bulbs, thinly sliced (500g) plus the fronds for garnish
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
2 tsp fennel seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
1 tbsp tomato paste
150ml ouzo
600g peeled and chopped Italian plum tomatoes (fresh or tinned)
1 tsp caster sugar
2 tbsp thyme leaves, picked, plus extra for garnish
2 strips of shaved lemon peel
600g fish cut into 4cm chunks (I use monkfish, flathead tails, peeled prawns or a combination)
200g sheep’s milk feta, broken into 2cm chunks
60g unsalted butter
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 tsp lemon juice
Salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 220ºC.

In a large frying pan sauté the fennel and garlic in the olive oil on a medium heat for about 10 minutes or until softened. Add the cumin and fennel seeds and cook for another minute. Stir in the tomato paste and then add the raki or ouzo. Allow this to bubble away for a couple of minutes. Mix in the tomatoes, sugar, half of the thyme, the lemon skin, 1 teaspoon of salt and some black pepper and stir well. Simmer gently until the sauce thickens, 15-20 minutes, adding a little extra water if it goes much thicker than your typical pasta sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper accordingly. Remove from the heat and discard the lemon peel.
Divide the hot sauce evenly between four individual casserole dishes or small pans. Alternatively, use one large dish. Season the sea bass pieces with salt and pepper and dot them inside, skin side down. Arrange over the squid followed by the prawns. Press the feta pieces around the fish so that they are also slightly submerged in the sauce. Finish with the remaining tablespoon of thyme leaves. Place on the top shelf in the oven 8-12 minutes, depending on the size of your dishes, or until the seafood is just cooked, the sauce bubbles nicely and the cheese turns golden.

Just before the casseroles are done, melt the butter in a small frying pan until it starts to foam. Add the chilli and cook until the butter just begins to brown. Pour in the lemon juice, stir and remove from the heat. Spoon this over the hot casseroles as soon as they come out of the oven. Sprinkle with the fennel fronds and serve hot with bread on the side.

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This is a photo of Nic and me on the steps of the Dolmabache Palace, on the shore of the Bosphorus River – what wonderful memories we have of the trip!

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