The secret ingredient of my cooking classes are smiling faces. I’m not just talking about the beaming smiles of my students – newlyweds on their honeymoon, families, friends or elder couples enjoying their lives together and traveling through Europe. I’m thinking about the big smiles of those producers and market vendors that I had the good luck to meet over the years.
Thanks to my classes, my students and my frequent visits to the Colle Val d’Elsa market I got to know them better. Each visit unveils new potential. We begin the day with a coffee, a cappuccino and croissant at the bar, then we move to a firm step towards the market.
The market in Colle Val d’Elsa is one of the best in the area for fruit and vegetables, with numerous stalls which have a good selection of local and seasonal produce. At the market we are spoiled: you can also find a food truck with Sicilian specialties, this is where I buy olives, capers and provolone, and one with products from Campania, a must for bread, buffalo mozzarella and fior di latte.
You can meet the smiling faces of La latteria di Carlotta, my favourite cheese vendor – the aged goat is my favourite cheese among their wide range of local and Italian cheeses -, and of Andrea and Jessica, who now know my taste, show me the seasonal products from local producers and bring me herbs and borage from their garden.
When we reach their stalls we are always greeted by a sincere smile, a joke and a tasting of bread, olive oil or cheese. My students also appreciate their open-hearted welcome: tension melts away, you choose the ingredients for the cooking class and draw up menus which are enriched as you go through the market stalls.
Then you reach the fish food truck and you meet the Ganugi brothers. Thanks to them now I can offer during my cooking classes not only the excellent local meat of my butcher but also fresh fish caught in our sea. It is reassuring to choose fish at their stall, they can tell you where it was caught, how to cook it in order to respect the freshness and flavour and, above all, they know how to identify the tastes of your customers, helping you juggle in between preferences and indecisions.
I am like a child in a candy shop when it comes to choose fish, I am tempted by their incredible offer of fresh and local seafood and reassured by their advise. So now I added improving my skills in cooking fish to the list of my resolutions for this year, a resolution which goes along with learning French, learning to taste olive oil and mastering the art of chocolate.
That’s why I was sure that this year the highlight of my Easter menu would have been fish.
Roasted croaker fish with lemon and pine nuts
It took me some time to identify the kind of fish I roasted. It is known in Italian as ombrina, and I’ve found that it’s very similar, if not the same, to the croaker fish or shi drum fish. That’s a problem that happens often when you try to translate the name of a local species, trying to identify also the equivalent fish in another culture and geographical area.
Ombrina is in fact a fairly common fish in our sea, it prefers shallow water and sandy shores. It has a high-quality meat, rich in omega 3 and proteins, with a low fat content. If you have no chance to find the ombrina (or croaker) you can replace it with a white fish of similar size, such as sea bream or sea bass. You can also substitute the croaker with a mullet, one of the cheaper fishes, at least here in Italy, but be careful and ask where it was caught, as it often eats what it finds on the seabed, and sometimes it can have a slightly muddy taste.
But let’s get back the recipe. The roasted croaker fish is stuffed with lemon zest, parsley, garlic and pine nuts, a combination that I often use for fish. It is roasted with potatoes and carrots, which then must be cut into small cubes, so that they’ll have the same cooking time as the fish. Cut them into too big chunks and they will remain raw inside, a real shame. Fresh onion is important as well, as it will melt while roasting, embracing potatoes and carrots in a hug.
Roasted croaker fish
- 600 g 1,3 lb of croaker fish
- Zest of 1/2 organic lemon
- 2 heaping tablespoons of pine nuts
- 1 bunch of parsley
- 1 clove of garlic
- 3 slices of lemon
- 3 sprigs of thyme
- 4 medium potatoes
- 2 medium carrots
- 1 spring onion
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 of a glass of white wine
- Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F - gas mark 6) and clean the croaker: remove scales with a knife and open it to remove the entrails. Rinse well under running water.
- Toast te pine nuts for two minutes in a skillet, then chop them with parsley, lemon zest and garlic. Add a teaspoon of salt and use this mixture to stuff the croaker.
- Line a bakign tray with parchment paper and arrange the croaker in the middle, them lay the slices of lemon and thyme on the fish and secure them with some kitchen twine.
- Peel the potatoes and cut into cubes. Do the same with the carrots. Finely chop the spring onion, add it to carrots and potatoes and stir. Arrange the vegetables all around the fish and drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil.
- Roast for about 40 minutes. After 20 minutes mix the vegetables with a wooden spoon and pour white wine over the fish.
- Serve the clean and filleted fish with the roasted vegetables and some of the stuffing of parsley, lemon and pine nuts.
The roasted croaker fish complements the potato gnocchi with asparagus for my Easter menu. Within the end of the week I’ll share the third course, dessert. Remember to leave room for dessert, always! Have you already started to think about your Easter meal? What’s on the menu?
- Check the Slow Fish website for news and info on local sustainable fish. The best advise you can get from it is: know your fisherman!
- If you are interested in fish, you don’t want to miss Fish on friday, a sustainable seafood guide, with seasonal recipes, news, features and events every week. Subscribe to their free newsletter, it’s one of my favourite read, not just because my friend Miss Foodwise is a regular contributor.