This versatile recipe for baking fish calls for snapper, but you can use any other tender, flaky fish like bass, sole, or bream. Once you get comfortable with the baking method, try using different herbs, olives, and spices like ground coriander or even a touch of cumin.
What to buy: Pitted niçoise olives are available at specialty food stores and are worth the hunt. Unpitted will work as well—just remember to tell your guests! Serve with roasted summer squash.
Special equipment: I don’t recommend using aluminum baking pans, since the wine and tomatoes will react unfavorably and become bitter. Glazed ceramic, stainless steel, enameled cast iron, and Spanish cazuelas offer the best heat. Ovenproof glass will work, too.
Game plan: You can bake the fish till about 3/4 done and hold it for up to an hour before serving. Drape plastic wrap over the fish to keep it moist. To serve, remove the plastic, spoon some of the pan juices over the fish, then finish in the oven. By the time you start to hear the ingredients in the baking dish sizzle, the fish will be ready. Continue as directed. To hold the tomatoes, coat them with a little olive oil and do not season until ready to add to the fish. Adding salt too soon will pull water from the tomatoes and make the finished dish too watery.
- Yield: 8 main-course servings
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little oil for drizzling
- 8 (6-ounce) pieces snapper fillet
- Fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon lightly toasted and ground fennel seeds
- 1 cup niçoise olives, pitted
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 3/4 pounds ripe but firm tomatoes, seeded and cut into 3/8-inch dice
- 1/2 cup lightly packed torn fresh basil leaves
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Put 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in each of 2 baking dishes, each large enough to hold 4 pieces of fish with space in between. Put the dishes in the oven to heat the oil, but don’t let it get to the smoking point.
- With a sharp utility or boning knife, make a few shallow slices through the skin of each snapper fillet to keep them from curling in the hot oil. Season each piece on both sides with salt, pepper, and fennel. Place the fish in the hot oil, skin side down, to coat with the oil, then immediately turn with a fish spatula so that the skin side is up. The oil is the correct temperature if you hear a light sizzle when the fish is added. Divide the olives between the dishes, scattering them around the fish, then splash equal amounts of wine into each dish.
- Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, until the fish is slightly firm and starts to flake when the tip of a knife is inserted into the flesh. The cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fillets. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper, then divide them between the baking dishes, making sure they fall between the pieces of fish and into the hot pan juices. The tomatoes just need to get slightly wilted in the hot pans.
- With a fish spatula, transfer the fish to warmed plates or a serving platter. Toss the basil in the olives and tomatoes, and when the leaves are coated with the pan juices, spoon the mixture over the fish. I always like to add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to finish for tradition’s sake. Serve immediately.
Wine recommendation: A Ligurian white Vermentino from Lupi or Tenuta Giuncheo