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I remember paddling a dinghy off the beaches of my mother's native Sardinia when I was a girl, looking for sea urchins in the transparent blue-lavender of the Bay of Cagliari. Aside from diving equipment, the only things my cousins and I took with us on these forays were lemons, which we squeezed over the delicious briny flesh of the spiny creatures we caught and ate on the spot. And the fish we caught were so fresh, tender, and startlingly flavorful when dressed simply with good olive oil and perhaps a scrap of parsley, a slice of lemon.
Many such memories of Italy's seafood are tucked away in the happy reaches of my mind, and I often call upon them when I crave a satisfying fish dish. It is not that Italy's fish dishes are more complex or unusual than other dishes. On the contrary, they are generally cooked more simply and with less preparation than other courses.
If ever the principle of "fresh" in cooking applies, it is here. Except for peas, even a vegetable can wait a few days before it is cooked and it will not disappoint. Not so with fish. Ideally, seafood should be eaten on the same day it is caught. Otherwise, certainly no more than three days under refrigeration should pass between the time it is caught and cooked, and the sooner the better.
Like the Italians, I like fish best when it is cooked simply. My friend’s brother, Luciano Erenbourg, discovered this quick and elegant recipe during a summer in his Otranto home in Puglia, on the Adriatic. There, gilt-head bream or other firm-fleshed fish is sautéed in this manner, but you can successfully substitute branzino or other firm-fleshed fish.
Pan-Fried Fish Filets with Crispy Sage Leaves in the Manner of Otranto
• 2 pounds fresh branzino filets
• sea salt and freshly ground black or white pepper
• 20 medium-sized fresh sage leaves
• 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Season the fish with salt and pepper on both sides
2. Warm a wide, shallow cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When a drop of water skitters on the surface, after about 3 minutes, add the olive oil. Tilt the pan to coat the bottom evenly and place the sage leaves on the bottom of the pan. Heat until the oil is almost smoking, about 30 seconds.
3. Lay the fish filets on top of the sage leaves. If the pan is not large enough to accommodate all the filets, cook them in two batches. Sear until lightly browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip each piece over. Reduce the heat to medium and sear until done but still moist, about 2 minutes. Transfer the cooked filets to a warm plate and repeat the whole process for the second batch, placing fresh sage leaves under each as before. Serve at once.
Julia della Croce is a food writer and James Beard award-winning cookbook author and recipe developer based in New York. She is presently incubating a book about her family's ancestral region, Sardegna. Visit her website, www.juliadellacroce.com and blog, http://juliadellacroce.com/forktales1/, connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce - chef & foodwriter, Twitter: @juliadellacroce and Instagram: juliadellacroce.