26 February 2008
Date and Almond Stuffed Fish
Middle Eastern cuisine prizes two things: tiny foods and stuffed/layered foods. Like many cuisines, the tiniest baby fruits and vegetables are coveted, from lady apples the size of your thumb to the littlest eggplants and squash. Stuffed grape leaves should be as thin as a woman’s little pinky, and the smallest meatballs are a symbol of a woman’s dexterity, commitment, and potential marriageability. Similarly, stuffed foods are representative of the time invested to make them, and the complex flavors that come from filling one ingredient with another. Little zucchinis, hollowed out and filled with a rice or meat mixture, stuffed grape leaves and cabbage rolls, intricate kibbe meatballs with an outer meat shell and an inner meat stuffing, artichoke bottoms hollowed out and filled with meat, tiny flaky turnovers with oozy cheese inside.
The emphasis on stuffed foods is so great that a needle and thread are often employed in the Arab kitchen: oh, how I loathed this practice. Once, I sewed orange peels into intricate coils, another time it was beef rolls stuffed with herbs. Teeny tiny fish were stuffed, sewed, deep-fried, then de-threaded. I like to sew, but fabric does not squirt juices at you when you pierce it. Anyway, if one thing can be stuffed, than a doubly-stuffed dish is even more special. Such is the case with this fish dish from Iraq: whole fish are stuffed with dates which are stuffed with almonds.
The practice of stuffing dates with almonds is a very common one in the Middle East, as the almond imitates the date pit but is edible. The first time I had one of these was when one of my colleagues went to Mecca on hajj, she brought back dates for the office and specifically instructed us not to discard the pits. I thought that, being from the holy city, the date pit must have some sort of mythic significance, so I carefully nibbled around it only to find it was an almond. Since almond-stuffed dates are common in the area, and since Iraqis use dates in everything, it would be obvious to stuff them inside fish.
In the most complex form of this dish, the dates are stuffed with almonds and rice, certainly an exercise in patience, but I prefer to simply put the rice inside the fish along with the dates. This way the rice balances the sweetness of the dates and the warm spices with the fish. Traditionally, this might be made with shad or trout from the Shatt al-Arab, but I’ve used small whole branzino, and you could use rainbow trout as well. Roast fish is one of our all time favorite meals, and this is a great way to serve it, the stuffing adds a new twist to the fish, and makes it practically a meal-in-one. And consider yourself lucky you don’t have to get out the needle and thread to enjoy it.
Date and Almond Stuffed Fish
At the fish market the vendor asked if I wanted the heads cut off my whole fish and I looked at him in horror. But that's where all the flavor is! Even if the idea of whole fish weirds you at, for goodness sakes at least cook the fish whole, then remove the heads before serving, trust me it makes a difference. This dish can be increased to serve as many as necessary. Serves two.
1 whole fish (a scant 1 lb), such as rainbow trout or bronzino, boned and gutted but left whole
fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup cooked basmati rice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
6 dates, pitted
6 whole almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a baking dish with some olive oil.
2. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Open the fish and squeeze some lemon juice on the inner flesh and sprinkle with some salt. In a small bowl, toss the cooked rice with the spices, then stuff inside the fish. Slip each almond inside of a date. Place the almond-stuffed dates inside the fish.
3. Close up the fish, secure with a toothpick if necessary. Place in the prepared dish and bake 20 minutes. To serve, open up the fish and spread the stuffing equally over each side of the fish. Use a wide spatula to transfer fillets and stuffing to serving plates. Serve immediately, with a green salad.
See also: Rice-Stuffed Dates Wrapped in Sole with Sweet and Sour Sauce