Perhaps the pandemic’s blurring of time, Passover seemed to creep up on us unexpectedly on Saturday afternoon. As a result, I hadn’t planned anything for our first Seder. Almost all of our meat was in the freezer and wouldn’t defrost in time for dinner. That’s when my calmer better half suggested fish as an alternative. We had plenty of salmon on hand, and although that too was in the freezer, it only required a couple of hours to defrost.
Fortunately, I remembered a recipe from the New York Times by Joan Nathan, a leading authority on Jewish cooking: “Saffron Fish with Red Peppers and Preserved Lemons.” She notes that this version of the dish, with preserved lemons and olives, is popular among Moroccan Jews who emigrated from France. I also thought that its use of saffron elevated it to Seder-level fare.
I had all of the required ingredients on hand, and even though the dish is traditionally made with white fish, Nathan gave the OK to use salmon as a substitute. We even had her suggested accompaniment, couscous, in the pantry. Also, the recipe’s stated time, 30 minutes, clinched the deal. Our Seder menu was set.
When we eventually sat down to dinner and hour and a half after starting to cook (the recipe’s 30 minutes didn’t cover prep time), we were faced with a truly celebratory dish that compensated for our lack of many a Seder’s traditional elements. It was vividly aromatic from the saffron and fresh cilantro. The salmon was perfectly cooked and its natural flavors were enhanced by the light, yet rich and briny, sauce. My husband likened the dish to a bouillabaisse with subtle spice that teased the palate. The flavors lingered, leaving us wanting more.
As I was cooking for two, I halved the amount of fish and used 2 rather than 3 peppers. Except for that, I followed the recipe pretty closely. Next time, however, I might cook the peppers, onions, and tomatoes a little longer before adding the fish. And although the salmon was delicious, I look forward to preparing this dish with white fish.
Saffron Fish with Red Peppers and Preserved Lemons (adapted from a New York Times recipe by Joan Nathan)
1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 red bell peppers, trimmed, quartered, seeded, then halved crosswise
1 large red onion, diced
2 tomatoes, diced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1 bunch cilantro, leaves and delicate stems separated and chopped
Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
4 skinless salmon fillets (about 6 ounces each)
1 teaspoon ground sweet paprika
½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes (optional)
¼ cup pitted kalamata or green Moroccan olives
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, chopped (peel and flesh) and seeded (or the juice of 1 fresh lemon)
1. Pour 2 cups of boiling water into a bowl and sprinkle with the saffron strands. Use a spoon to Press the saffron strands against the side of the bowl with a spoon to release the flavor. Cover the bowl with a plate and set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over low. Add the bell peppers, onion, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro stems, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is transparent. (I would recommend cooking the vegetables a little longer until the peppers have begun to soften. As I failed to separate the leaves from the stems, I added about a third of the chopped cilantro.)
3. Nestle the fish into the vegetables, sprinkle with the paprika, red-pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
4. Pour the saffron water over everything.
5. Add the olives and, if using, the preserved lemon. (If substituting fresh lemon juice, add that right before serving.)
6. Bring the mixture to a boil over high, reduce to low, cover the pan, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, basting the fish every 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the cilantro leaves during the last few minutes of cooking.
7. Taste for seasoning and serve on heated plates, with the fish on top of the vegetables. If not using the preserved lemon, sprinkle with fresh lemon juice
Note: The dish can also be served at room temperature.
Wine Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc