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The wild Atlantic porgy (a.k.a. scup) is a pet of mine—a pet because it’s a prolific and abundant fish at a time when we don’t have a lot abundant fish left.
Strangely, porgy gets a really bad rap. Yet there's no reason to disdain it, and I bet that one day, everyone will be singing its praises.
It's in the same family as the adored and widely-consumed Mediterranean gilt-head bream (otherwise known as dorade or orata), but unlike its popular cousin, it's wild and local (gilt-head bream is farm-raised, then air-freighted to North America—you just know that’s not very environmentally-friendly).
Porgy, which teems in our North Atlantic waters, is a meaty fish with delicate white flesh that's just as delicious raw as it is cooked. It’s also a nice small size that's perfect for cooking whole, which is really the best way to cook fish.
Everyone always seem squeamish about dealing with a whole fish, but not only does it taste better roasted on the bone, it's also incredibly easy once cooked to peel the filets off, place them on a plate, and serve. Voilà! No heads, tail, or creepy eye. It’s much easier to pull the filets off the fish after it’s been cooked than to filet a whole fish raw, which takes sharp specialized knives, practice, and skill.
I like to grill or roast whole porgy in the summer and serve them with this classic Lebanese sauce, a simple mixture of onions, walnuts, chopped cilantro, and a little chile. It’s the sort of dish that is equally tasty hot, fresh off the grill, as it is left to steep in the sauce for a few hours, then eaten at room temperature on a stifling summer night.
I learned to make this dish from my mother who learned it from a Sunni Muslim women who worked for our family when we lived in Beirut. But, when it came time to write down the recipe myself, I discovered many of the samke harra recipes I came across in my research included tahini, an ingredient my mother did not remember being in her dish. So I consulted my two favorite Lebanese culinary authorities—Kamal Mouzawak, founder of the Souk El Tayeb farmers market in Beirut, and Anissa Helou, a London- and Trapani-based Lebanese food writer—and they both avowed that tahini was a common regional modification but that the original did not include it.
In the Mediterranean, where the food culture tends to be based in home-cooking practices, you find this over and over again: Food changes from village to village and from house to house and it has never been codified into "right" and "wrong" the way French food has been. You can think you have a definitive recipe, but if you start nosing around you will find ten more definitive recipes, each one different.
So find what you like and don’t be afraid to modify!
- Two 2-pound whole porgy, scaled and gutted
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed with the flat side of a knife
- 4 bunches cilantro
- 2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup walnut halves, roughly chopped
- 2 small Spanish onions, chopped (should have 2 cups)
- 1 jalapeño
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- Juice of 3 lemons
- 1 lemon, halved sliced into thin slices for garnish (optional)
Photos by James Ransom