I was recently introduced to a man who lives and breathes seafood. He was born on a small island 70 years ago, and he was fishing before he could walk. Saltwater courses through his veins. I’ll soon introduce him to you more fully, but first, a look at what I did with a snapper I picked up from his shop: It’s your recipe of the week.
It was a beautiful fresh red snapper, from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Its eyes were clear, and its skin firm and unblemished. (When buying whole fish, make sure to check the eyes — they should be clear, with minimal cloudiness — and the skin should bounce back when you press it. And, of course, don’t be shy about smelling the fish — you want fresh ocean, not beginning-to-decay seafood.) Above all, do business with a store or merchant you trust.
My plan was to fillet the snapper and make a Mediterranean-style dish — olives, capers, a few roasted peppers, parsley, lemon juice. I went with two large fillets, and made sure to remove all of the bones. I dried them and put them between two paper towels, then refrigerated them. Next, I prepared the sauce/topping, which was simple and intuitive and delicious.
Feel free to improvise, but here is what I used: Kalamata olives (pitted and roughly chopped), a handful of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half, 12 fresh basil leaves (chopped), three cloves of garlic (minced), a red onion (finely chopped), a few tablespoons of capers, a handful of parsley (chopped), a few tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper. Mix all of this in a large bowl and let it sit and mingle for an hour or so. (Taste for seasoning and tweak as you see fit.)
To the fillets: First, warm serving plates in your oven. Next, heat some vegetable oil in a large skillet on high temperature. Using a sharp knife — you should not have a dull knife — make two diagonal cuts in the skin of each fillet; don’t go too deep at all — this helps keep the fillets from curling in the heat. Season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper, and when the oil is hot, lower the heat to medium and put the fish in the pan, skin side down.
Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then carefully flip the fillets and add a tablespoon or two of unsalted butter to the mix. Tilt the pan to allow the butter to pool at one end, then, using a spoon, baste the fish with the pan sauces until they are browned and cook through, a minute to 90 seconds longer. Remove the fillets from the pan and let rest on a warm plate.
Give the vegetable mixture one final stir, then plate the fish, skin side up. Spoon the basil and olive mixture over the top of each fish, and you are done. Squirt a bit of lemon juice over the dish if desired. Serve with a dry Riesling.