by Kate Heyhoe
In the legend of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the captain of the thieves, disguised as a silk merchant, dines as a guest of the unsuspecting Ali Baba. Marjanah, Ali Baba's smart and loyal slave, prepares the feast of the evening. The robber, Khoja Hoseyn, is apparently on a special salt-free diet. When Ali Baba tells Marjanah to make the meal that night without salt, she reacts as any gourmet chef would: she's stunned and incredulous. "Your supper will be spoiled!" she says to Ali Baba.
Nonetheless, after reluctantly preparing a no-sodium meal, she sneaks a peek at this strange man who eats no salt with this meat. Realizing he's the same cad who only weeks before attempted assassinating her master (smuggling in his band of thieves, hidden in olive oil urns), she ends the meal with a deadly dance, plunging a dagger into the robber's heart. When Ali Baba finally grasps that this is indeed a courageous act by his trustworthy slave, he releases Marjanah from slavery and she marries his son. (Not a bad deal, considering the son shared his father's secret to the treasures of the "Open, Sesame" command.)
Marjanah's meal isn't fully described, but she likely included at least one dish made with the traditional Arabic spice blend, zaatar. Every Arabic cook seems to have his or her own version of the spice blend (Khoja Hosyn's no doubt being salt-free), but the most essential ingredients are always sesame seed, thyme, and sumac.
In this recipe, red snapper fillets are lightly rubbed with zaatar, then sautéed in olive oil, and served with a light, tangy zaatar-spiced fresh tomato relish. This dish is the perfect meal for unexpected guests. You can easily prepare it in just 10 minutes, allowing a short time for the zaatar flavors to blend with the fish and tomato. It also melds well with simple side dishes—a steamed vegetable, sliced cucumbers or crisp salad, accompanied by bread, rice, couscous or noodles.
Note: The zaatar can be made in larger quantity and stored air tight. This amount makes enough for 1 pound of fish and the tomato relish.
(makes about 3 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground sumac
1/4 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
1/8 teaspoon salt (preferably sea salt)
4 red snapper fillets (about 1 pound), or other firm white fillets
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium-size ripe tomato
1 small shallot
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon zaatar (reserved from mixture above)
Fresh coarsely ground pepper to taste
Make the zaatar: Mix together all zaatar ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Grind until powdery. Reserve 1/2 teaspoon for the Zaatar-Tomato Relish.
Marinate the fish: Rub remaining zaatar evenly on both sides of fish. You should have enough zaatar to just lightly season the fillets. Cover and refrigerate at least 15 minutes, or up to 2 hours.
Prepare the Zaatar-Tomato Relish: About 30 minutes before cooking the fish, chop the tomato. Peel and mince the shallot. Mix the tomato and shallot with olive oil, the reserved 1/2 teaspoon zaatar, and pepper to taste.
Cook the fish: Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add fish, presentation-side down. Sauté 2 minutes, then gently flip and sauté until fish is cooked through and just barely flakes.
Serve: Arrange the fillets on a serving platter. Spoon the tomato relish on top, or pass the relish separately.
Copyright © 2003, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created April 2003
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