Fish for the memories

In Recipies on April 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

One of my memories, earning a fairly regular revisit, is the memory of a fish dinner we enjoyed in Tiberius, Israel.  It was a sultry Thursday night in mid-August and we were happily exhausted from a day spent poking around at the ancient ruins in Beit Shean.  It was long dark when we made our way to the shore-side fish restaurant in the banks of the Kinneret (Which many people know as, “The Sea of Galilee”.).  We took a patio table alongside the locals and picked our way through plates of olives, figs, and fruit while we enjoyed glasses of wine.


In the distance, lights flickered in the Golan Heights and a ferry picked its way across the water.  The sound of clanking plates competed with the soft voices of others dining in the humid, evening air.


I do my best to recapture that evening by preparing the main course we enjoyed that evening; a spice encrusted, fried, whole tilapia.


It was so delicious that Mrs. Phyne Dyner seemed not to notice that the fish came to table with its head.  Twenty years ago, she had turned an amusing shade of emerald when she was served the trout she ordered at a Canadian resort.  Back then, I gallantly covered the creature’s head with a napkin until a smirking waiter could take it to the kitchen for decapitation.


Back to the tilapia…


The fish had been deep-fried in a very thin and heavily spiced batter that was the specialty of the house.  The spices are so pungent that we could smell the cooking fish when we got out of our rented car two blocks from the restaurant.  And, despite the strong scent generated during the cooking, the fish was not over-spiced.  It had a delicate flavor that made me think of freshly baked cinnamon rolls.


The secret, I learned from our waiter, was “seven-spice” blend.


Seven-spice blends are popular in Lebanon and in Northern Israel.  Its composition varies between towns, and even between families.  Some are sweet and delicate and others are pungent and fiery.  Some are heavily infused with cardamom, others with allspice and nutmeg.


In the years since that memorable dinner, I experimented with numerous combinations before I hit on the right flavor combinations that trigger my limbic system to take me to the peaceful emotions I experienced while watching those flickering lights in the Golan from my table.


In a large jar, mix one teaspoon (each) of the following:  Ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, chili powder, ground cumin, and one teaspoon ground coriander.  Store in a tightly closed container.


Dag ha-Kinneret (Sea of Galilee Fish)


1 whole tilapia per person (obviously cleaned), or 2-3 fillets

1 large egg

½ C white wine

1 TBS flour

1 C olive oil (or use deep fryer)


Pour the seven-spice blend onto a cookie sheet or cutting board (reserve about a tablespoon of the blend if you want to add a bit before serving).  You can divide the spice blend into portions equal to the number of fish, or fillets, you will be cooking.  Whisk the egg, wine, and flour together in a large bowl.  Drench the fish though the mixture, shake off the excess mixture and drag the fish (or fillets) through the seven-spice blend on the cookie sheet or cutting board.


There are two acceptable cooking methods.


METHOD ONE:  If you are preparing whole fish, use a deep fry set to 350 degrees.  Using long tongs, place the spiced whole fish (one at a time) into the hot oil and HOLD IT for several seconds before releasing it.  If you simply drop it into the oil, the egg wash will stick to the fryer and you will be pulling out bits of fish instead of a gorgeous single piece.  Fry for 3-5 minutes.  The fish is done when it is quite fragile and flakes easily.  Cooking times vary, so you will have to pay close attention to the cooking fish.  This method does not work well with fillets.  They are too fragile and tend to fall apart.


METHOD TWO:  Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat (or use an electric skillet set to 375 degrees).  HINT:  You will know when the oil is hot because it will appear to ripple over its entire surface. Place the spiced fillets in the pan.  Fry the fish for 2-3 minutes on the first side, turn (using two spatulas), and fry for an additional 1-2 minutes.  The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.  Tilapia fillets can be very thin, do not overcook them and dry them out.  Remember, when you deep-fry or pan-fry the food continues to cook for a bit after it is removed from the oil.  This method also allows the cook to sprinkle a bit more of the reserved spice blend on each fillet after they are turned.


After cooking the fillets or whole fish, remove them to a bed of white or basmati rice.











Phyllo-wrapped Asparagus with Lemon and Zaatar


Wrapping asparagus in phyllo dough and baking it is hardly new.  This is my variation that will go well with the fish we prepared above.


3-4 stalks of thin asparagus per person (2-3 if thick)

1 lemon

zaatar (zatar or za’atar) for sprinkling

½ package frozen phyllo dough, thawed and at room temperature

½ C melted butter or olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper


Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees


NOTE:  Work fast and smart with phyllo dough.  Do not let it dry out while making each portion.  Keep it soft by covering it with a damp towel, or my LIGHTLY misting it with a bit of water.


If you do not have any zaatar, you can use a light sprinkle of dry thyme.  Making this with zaatar is worth the effort, so try to find some if you can.


Lay a sheet of phyllo on a cookie sheet.  Brush a bit of melted butter on the top using a silicone pastry brush.  Repeat 2-3 times.  Cut the asparagus, if needed, so it is 1-2 inches shorter than the corner-to-corner dimension of the phyllo.  Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over the asparagus, sprinkle with zaatar, salt and pepper.  Fold the sides of the phyllo over the top of the asparagus and fold the ends under each “package”.  Place the packets on a cookie sheet (do not crowd) and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the phyllo is golden brown and flaky.


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