It was hot, unbearably so. The idea of slaving over a hot stove was unthinkable. I had some thick slices of swordfish and little else apart from the Sicilian essentials I always have lying around – lemons, tomatoes, capers and herbs. And so I did something that I really shouldn’t have: I invented something.
This, of course, is when Sicilians’ hackles start to rise. There are certain things that can be done. Some foodstuffs, such as ice cream or pizza, can be fiddled with in all sorts of disturbing ways, it seems, but start mucking around with their fish and things get nasty. Seafood brings out the purist in them. They want it simply grilled or baked. A squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil is tolerated, just about. More elaborate recipes exist, but they are so rare that they have become iconic. If you don’t believe how fussy they are about the way to treat seafood, just try asking for some parmesan to sprinkle over your spaghetti with fish sauce. And have your camera ready – the waiter’s face will be worth capturing on film. So, I realize I’m taking a risk here, that any respect the locals still have for me may be lost in one fell swoop. But I’m just going to have to risk it; this is too good not to share.
I would also, in my defence, like to add that although this is not a traditional Sicilian recipe, with these ingredients, it could be. But what really makes the difference here is the cooked lemon. And ironically, it is also this which is most likely to raise Mediterranean eyebrows. While the islanders love their lemons, they hardly ever cook them, unless we count the odd slice in a baked fish’s belly, or between skewers of swordfish rolls. You definitely don’t find them in chunks like I use here.
But, and I realize I’m beginning to sound like a man with a mission, the lemon is what makes this. With cooking, it semi-caramelizes, and turns into a kind of sugarless fruit compote, as its flavour deepens to become an essence of all that is lemon. Take the cooked chunks and squeeze their scant, lip-puckering juices over the fish for a citrus hit that will soon have you addicted. Even the purists might be converted…
- 1kg swordfish steaks, sliced thick (about 1 inch)
- 1 large unwaxed lemon, cut into six segments and then halved
- 4 cloves of garlic, squashed, peeled and cut in half lengthways
- 8 cherry or piccadilly tomatoes, sliced in quarters lengthways
- 1 tablespoon of salted capers, well rinsed
- A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
- A generous sprinkle of oregano
- A handful of breadcrumbs
- Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C should be hot enough if you’re using a fan oven).
- Remove any skin and bones from the swordfish and cut into chunks about an inch square.
- Mix together all the ingredients, except the breadcrumbs, with enough olive oil to coat everything well, and spread out evenly in a non-stick roasting pan.
- Sprinkle over a generous amount of breadcrumbs and drizzle over some more olive oil.
- Bake in the oven until the breadcrumbs are golden and the fish cooked (20 minutes should be enough, but check).
A simple green salad or some simply dressed new potatoes would go well with this. As for the wine, take your lead from the lemon, and serve with an ice-chilled zesty white.