In the hope that this column is beginning to feel like a series, rather than string of unrelated episodes, I am starting where I left off last week, with breadcrumbs. More specifically, breadcrumbs with almonds, which makes them sound a bit fussy, though they aren’t. Quite the opposite in fact – a handful of crumbs, some chopped almonds and pinch of salt are easy and accommodating. Last week, I suggested toasting crumbs in olive oil, then putting them on pasta with slowly cooked courgettes, or their oversized Sicilian cousins, cucuzze. This week, I am going to return the idea to the place I borrowed it from, and suggest you put them on fish, which you then bake.
Swordfish with breadcrumbs and almonds was one of the first meals I ate during my first visit to Sicily 12 years ago. I was in Catania, at one of the trattoria that seem to appear from nowhere once the fish market closes down for the day and scrubs up well for the night. The appearance of that slice of swordfish, seeming slightly suffocated by its topping, surprised me – especially after the wild excitement of the theatrical fish market that morning. It was like meeting up with your grandma after a night out with friends. But it was delicious pleasing – I still remember the flavour. Lots more breadcrumbs and almonds followed – not always together – on that trip, and those that came after I hooked up with a Sicilian. Sicilians use breadcrumbs all the time; a resourceful habit born of necessity and the idea that you never, ever throw away bread, which is now part of the fabric of their cooking. I have picked up the habit; I always have a big bag of fine, dry breadcrumbs in the kitchen. They’re almost irritatingly good at everything: stuffing, puffing, coating, topping and a tool to stop things sticking.
So, the place I borrowed the idea from was a restaurant in a town calledScoglitti, which is 30 miles along the coast from us here in Gela. The owners’ daughter, who is part French, is absolutely fabulous, with her red lips, denim hotpants and ankle boots. There is not much room for manoeuvre; she tells us in a deep voice that rolls from her lips: “I know what you want.” And you don’t doubt it. The antipasti start arriving, little dish after little dish: an oyster each; peeled, blood-red prawns that are some of the most plump and pure I have ever eaten; slices of raw tuna and swordfish; cubes of octopus and butterflies of anchovy; enormous, yellow mussels stretching like acrobats across their shells; tiny clams called telline,tasting like a liquor made from sea water; sardines rolled up so they look like little fat birds; and spatola with almonds and breadcrumbs served with sweet onions. Spatola is a long, flat fish as silver and shiny as a newly minted coin. At markets and in shops spatola are often coiled, making them look a bit like a neat drawful of glittery belts. Ours were served as long fillets cut into short lengths, topped with breadcrumbs and almonds, then baked until the fish had fallen into delicate, but firm flakes, the crumbs a comfy crust. It was were one of the least showy dishes, but one we appreciated a lot, homely and good. My son stashed clamshells to take home in his pocket; I put the idea in mine.
I like it when a new idea, flung into the kitchen like a rubber ball, bounces around enthusiastically seeing where it fits, or doesn’t. First, there was pasta, then I used breadcrumbs and almonds to stuff aubergines and tomatoes, then came the fish: spatola, bream and mackerel. All three fish worked, but the mackerel was best: its thick, milky flesh is a good, sturdy match for the coarse, nutty crust. Fish and breadcrumbs need a foil, something to offer contrast: sweet, sour, salty, pungent. A salad of tomatoes, red onion and capers is a brilliant and typically Sicilian combination. If you wanted – or three more people turned up – you could bulk out the salad with bread too, or top it with some salted ricotta. Whatever fish you use, it all comes together quickly, but provides slow, good-flavoured food that satisfies but doesn’t sink you, which is what I ask for on these long, and fiercely hot, summer days.
Fish with a breadcrumb and almond crust
60g blanched almonds, chopped
1 unwaxed lemon
150g dry breadcrumbs
Salt and black pepper
A pinch of oregano (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil
4-8 fillets of fish (mackerel, bream, spatola, bass)
1 large red onion or several shallots
4 large ripe tomatoes
A handful of capers
1 Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper or foil and preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.
2 Peel and slice the onion into half moons, then soak for 20 minutes in water acidulated with 3 tbsp vinegar.
3 Mix the almonds, lemon zest and breadcrumbs with a pinch of salt, some pepper and the oregano, if using.
4 Brush the fillets with oil, then press the fillet side into the breadcrumb mix, so it is well coated. Lay the fillets skin-side down on the baking tray. Zig-zag with olive oil. Bake until cooked through and the crumbs are golden – which will take 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets. – yYou need to keep an eye on them, and taste.
5 Chop the tomatoes over a plate to catch the juices. Drain the onion and capers, then mix with the tomatoes. Dress with olive oil and a pinch of salt, add a dash of vinegar if you like.
6 Serve the fish with the tomato salad and wedges of lemon.
- Rachel Roddy is a food blogger based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard, 2015) and winner of the 2015 André Simon food book award. You can find her column in “The Guardian” or at Rachel Eats on wordpress.
If you are running low on spices from Campo dei Fiori, I still have some available. Email me at email@example.com and tell me what you want.