14 March 2007

Samak bi Tahini (Fish in Tahini Sauce with Roast Lemons)

I’ll admit that I can be a bit cantankerous when it comes to food choices. It’s not so much that I’m terribly picky, I can usually find something I like on any sort of menu. It’s just that sometimes I get it in my head that I want a certain thing, and nothing else will do. If the store is out of my favorite round loaf of bread, I’ll stand at the bread counter forever, trying to figure out what to get instead. I am easily baffled by the myriad of canned tomato options, reading every single label, and if they are out of the Asian pears I had been looking forward to, I might be seen moping dejectedly by the produce.

So the other night when I walked into the grocery with a mind to make samkeh harra, a famous Lebanese fish dish with spicy stuffing, things could have ended badly. It was late, I was hungry and I had already picked up two big bunches of herbs when I discovered the store was out of whole fish. I was puzzling over whether I could gently place the herbs back in the produce section (what's the etiquette on this, I mean, I hadn't actually used them, but I still feel weird putting them back). Anyway, while the fish situation could have flummoxed me or sent me home can-of-soup in hand, I cheerfully rolled with the punches, picked up a fillet, and decided to try my hand at another Lebanese dish, samak bi tahine, fish with tahini sauce. Surely, there would be other days for whole fish.

The tahini sauce in question does not remain distinct but melts creamily into the fish, leaving a flavorfully tender dish. I slipped some lemon slices underneath purely for aesthetic value, but to my surprise, they roasted into the perfect nutty soft accompaniements to the fish, and I’m already dreaming up some sort of roast lemon salad or relish. This is best served at room temperature or cold, which accentuates the tahini flavor and makes it the perfect do-ahead entree.

Fish in Tahini Sauce with Roast Lemons
I think this is best made with a medium thick white fish, but it is equally adaptable to thicker or thinner fillets, if you do so you’ll want to adjust to baking time and amount of sauce accordingly. This is best served at room temperature or cold.

2 lbs white fish fillets
salt, olive oil
3 lemons
1 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 cup water
2 large onions, thinly sliced
cilantro for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. Rub the fish with salt. Juice 2 of the lemons and slice the 3rd lemon.
2. Combine the tahini with the lemon juice and stir until the mixture is thick and lightened in color. Stir in the water to form a thin sauce.
3. Lightly oil a baking dish and place the lemon slices in it. Place the fish over the lemon slices and rub with a little oil. Place the fish in the oven and roast for 20 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, saute the onions in some oil until softened. Add the onions to the tahini sauce.
5. After the twenty minutes, remove the fish from the oven, it should be thick and opaque. Pour the tahini sauce over the fish, scattering the onions on top (I like to reserve a little extra tahini to drizzle on before serving). Return the fish to the oven and bake another 30-35 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and is bubbling all over. Let cool before serving, with cilantro as garnish.

*I have also made this substituting a mild nut butter, such as almond or cashew butter, with good results.

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