Fishing for Extra-Virgin

All about fish, in this article by Nancy, where she recommends a generous and proliferating alliance between sea and olive oil.

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins for Women In Olive Oil

FISH, my mother said, is brain food. You have to have fish at least once a week. We were not Catholics but Friday was fish day at my mother’s table.

To that I had no objection. Fish, especially as my mother prepared it, was such a favorite that it was the requested first-night meal when I came home from school on holidays. I’m not certain I was any brainier for it but I was happier for sure.

And now the docs and nutritionists and scientists all agree although they’ve upped the ante—twice a week, is the current recommendation from the American Heart Association. At the very least.

Why is that?

Fish is just about the healthiest food on the planet (even healthier than olive oil!), a great source of protein, vitamin D, lots of other hard-to-find nutrients, and those essential Omega 3 fatty acids that are such an important defense against all kinds of conditions, from heart disease to brain function. (My mother was right: fish is indeed food for the brain.)

Fortunately, fish and olive oil go very well together, balancing each other on the nutrition scale as well as on the gustatory one. Olive oil also does a lot for our health, of course, we all know that, but olive oil is lacking in those very Omega 3 fatty acids that are so prevalent in fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, sturgeon, and the like--herring and sardines too. So putting fish and oil together in the cooking pot or on the plate boosts the healthfulness at the same time that it almost miraculously boosts the flavor. It’s no wonder that the Mediterranean, olive oil’s ancestral home, is also home to a rich abundance of seafood dishes. That’s why when we talk about the Mediterranean diet, we talk a lot about fish.

Searing scallops in evoo. (Nancy Harmon Jenkins)

Many cooks are nervous about preparing fish at home but quite honestly, the trickiest part of cooking any kind of seafood is to find a fish monger you can trust—and that may well be in your local supermarket. When I’m not tending my mini olive farm in Tuscany, I’m fortunate to live on the coast of Maine, in the midst of an abundance of good seafood and good fishy knowledge too. But even in Tuscany, not notable for great fish, I find lots of good choices in the supermercato where the fish is carefully labeled as to its origin, as European laws require, and when, where, and sometimes even by whom it was caught. Freshness is obviously at the top of the list of criteria—bright eyes, pink gills, flesh that is tight, not gaping apart, and of course an aroma of briny salt water, not of rank, old fish.

Having selected your fish—whole fish, filets, steaks, or roasting chunks—the best thing to do with it is: Cook it in extra-virgin olive oil. (Did you really expect me to say margarine?) Whole fish—bream (daurade) or sea bass (branzino, lubina, bar), for example--degutted and scaled by the fish monger, or chunks (middle cuts) of a large fish such as swordfish or yellowfin tuna, should be coated with oil and set aside to marinate for an hour or so, then roasted in a hot oven until done. To the marinade you could add finely chopped aromatics (shallots, parsley, basil, tarragon, chervil, etc., garlic if you wish), or grated lemon zest and a little lemon juice (or try orange zest and juice for a different flavor) And if you’re doing a whole fish, make sure some of that herby citrusy marinade coats the inside, the body cavity.

Fish filets offer a range of possibilities and the same sort of oil-based marinade is useful. Lean fish especially (sole, flounder, halibut, turbot, John Dory) will benefit from olive oil to add flavor and texture to the fish and keep it from drying out during the cooking process. A

quick sauté in a hot skillet is often all that’s needed with fillets of flat fish but make sure there’s a skiff of good oil in the skillet before you add the fish.

Grilling over charcoal is another possibility and here olive oil really helps out. Grilling is a bit trickier than oven roasting since controlling the heat is critical. Keep a small jar of olive oil (possibly like the marinade, with herbs, garlic and citrus added) next to the grill station and brush the fish liberally and frequently with fragrant oil until it’s done to your taste.

Finally there is deep-fat frying and this is where olive oil really comes into its own. Nothing in my experience beats olive oil for frying, especially chunks or fingers of a meaty white-fleshed fish. Dip them in batter or a simple coating of egg and breadcrumbs, let the oil heat to 360ºF (180ºC) and maintain that temperature for perfectly fried fish, a moist, dense interior covered by a crisp, crunchy coating. No chippie anywhere in the British Isles could equal it—and that’s mostly because the Brits don’t fry fish in extra-virgin. Time for a change perhaps?

The season for Maine diver-caught scallops has just opened (*this post was originally written in December) so I had a first helping last week and seared them in a skillet with, of course, plenty of olive oil until they were golden on both sides, then transferred them to an oven dish, deglazed the skillet with white wine, added to it some fresh olive oil plus chopped herbs, capers and—a last minute addition because we should never forget what our precious oil comes from—chopped green olives. That sauce got poured over the scallops and then they went into a hot oven for just about 8 minutes and were served with the unctuous, olive-y sauce to accompany them.

It was terrific, a heart-healthy combination of fresh seafood and fine extra-virgin that couldn’t be beat!

About the author: Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food writer and journalist with a long list of publications to her credit, including books, magazines, and journalism. She divides her time between a home on the coast of Maine and an olive farm in the hills of eastern Tuscany. Nancy is the author of eight books about food, mostly about Italy and the Mediterranean, including Virgin Territory, recounting her experiences in the world of olive oil. She has been a staff writer for the New York Times food section, publications director of the American Institute of Wine & Food, and a founding director of Oldways Preservation Trust. Semi-retired, she is sitting out the pandemic in a small town in Maine and hoping to get back to Italy for this year’s olive harvest.

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