Most American Jews love to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast with a spread of smoked fish, lox, whitefish, herring, and of course bagels and coffee.
In this spirit, last year I had posted a recipe for a simple fish with raisins, which is served in several Italian communities on the same occasion. However, this year I couldn’t resist sharing with you a more elaborate option, one of my favorites: Fish “in Saor”.
“Saor” means “flavor”, in our dialect, and indeed this sweet-and-sour preparation bursts with such flavor that over the centuries it has become THE signature dish of Venice: it’s served as “cicheti’ (tapas) in the many osterias, and as hoers d’oeuvres in the finest restaurants, or passed from boat to boat under the fireworks at the traditional Redentore festival in July.
Many Italians believe that the raisins and pine nuts in savory dishes (as in our stewed carrots, or our spinach frittata for Passover, and dishes with salt cod) always betray Jewish origins. However, Saor was known in Venice long before the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy, as witnessed by a recipe in the Libro per Cuoco, compiled by an anonymous Venetian at the end of the 14th century. Obviously it’s still possible that the recipe was introduced by some Jews who passed through venice before the expulsion, but it’s not the only explanation.
Venice after the Crusades (1069-1270) had become the most prosperous city in Europe thanks to international commerce. At the peak of its power, it had more than 3,300 ships: the merchants would bring spices from India and China, olive oil from Southern Italy and Greece, sugar from Sicily, unusual fruit from North Africa, and Venetians in general were experimenting with culinary “fusion” like nobody else in Italy or Europe!
The fact that it made fish last for weeks without refrigeration made the Saor a huge hit with the Venetian merchants/mariners, who spent months at a time at sea. As to the Jews, they might have known it from the countries they had to leave, and may have contributed to its increasing popularity in Venice. Besides featuring some of their favorite ingredients, Saor could be made in advance and eaten cold for Shabbat and the holidays!
HERE IS A STEP-BY-STEP:
- 2 lb. large sardines, OR small soles; scaled, cleaned, gutted (heads off!
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 3/4 cup olive oil for the marinade
- more olive oil for frying
- 2 lb. white onion, sliced thin
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/3 cup raisins
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
Ask your fishmonger to wash the sardines (or soles) accurately, gut them, scale them, take the heads off. At home, rinse them in fresh water and lay them well on paper towel.
Soak the raisins in the wine for at least 30 minutes. Heat oil in a 4-qt. pan over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook until browned, 10–12 minutes. Add vinegar, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until soft, 6–8 minutes. Stir in raisins, nuts, and salt and pepper; let cool.
Drench the sardines in flour (I do this by placing flour in a plastic bag. I add the fillets and shake the bag), and fry them in hot oil for about 3 minutes or until slightly golden. Drain them well on paper towel and salt them.
When both the fish fillets and the onion marinade have cooled off, start layering them in a serving pan: start with a layer of onions, then a layer of fish), then again onions, fish, etc to end with the onions.
Seal with plastic wrap or foil, and refrigerate for al least 1 or 2 days before eating. It actually tastes even better before 4 or 5 days, and I’m told that with this preparation you could even forgo the refrigeration……