Red mullets as seen by Claude Monet.
Recipe: Pan-Fried Red Mullet with Almond Mint Fregola and Olio Santo
Last night I had another of my torturous dreams where I’m braising some type of meat in the oven, usually lamb or pork, and the thing becomes a whole living creature while cooking, not the shoulder roast or whatever I started out with. And it’s still alive, groggily trying to escape the engulfing heat. I keep trying to push the thing back in, turning up the temperature to try to decrease its suffering, but the animal stays half dead, half alive forever, and my feelings of misery and remorse grow so strong I can’t bear them. Pleasant, isn’t it? Is this the cook’s dilemma?
It’s trendy now in the food world to get to know the meat you cook in an intimate way and to master high-powered butchering. Cookbooks are filled with bloody photos of tattooed chefs burying cleavers into whole hogs, animals the chefs have watched grow up. I could never work on a farm and become friends with goats or lambs and then slaughter them. I’d be terrified of what I’d take back with me to bed at night. Fish, no problem. I’ve gutted and filleted fish that were still wiggling.
Who can sort it all out?
Maybe love of flavor overrides all. I’ve never met a sea creature I didn’t want to eat and wouldn’t mind harpooning, from the shimmering yellow pompano to the hideously appealing octopus. But I have to say that, lately at least, red mullet has been my favorite fish. It’s popular in the South of France, all along the Mediterranean, and down to Greece. The first time I tasted it was not in Europe, but in a Greek restaurant in Astoria, Queens, one of the many places there that serve plain grilled fish, Greek salad, retsina, and that’s about it. I ordered the red mullet because I wanted to be transported to Nice, but mainly because there the fish were, lined up on ice, a beautiful pinkish orange, a color frequently used by the designer Christian Lacroix to accent his amazing gowns. They were too lovely not to devour.
Red mullets for sale at Chelsea Market.
Red mullet looks firm, not floppy, and when you pick one up you’ll see that it doesn’t just look that way. Its texture after cooking is sturdy, not tender, and full of irritating little bones; its taste is shrimp-like and iodiny, a flavor that for me is addictive. After my first experience with red mullet (called rouget in French and triglie in Italian), I thought a lot about the fish. I wanted to taste it again. I wanted to cook it myself, for certain. Years ago I had a hard time finding it in fish shops, but now I see it often, since it’s caught and shipped up from the Gulf Coast of Florida (these fish really get around).
When in Italy I’ve ordered red mullet whenever I could. In Southern Italy it’s usually served simply grilled or fried, with a side of lemon, but I had it once in Venice worked into a pasta sauce. (I’ll see if I can remember that dish more vividly and write up a recipe. It included cherry tomatoes—I remember that distinctly.) In Spain it’s often matched with roasted peppers. For my version, I’ve just done an easy pan fry, pairing the crisp fish with fregola, the Sardinian toasted couscous, and a spiced-up olive oil. I hope you’ll like it.
The oil is not a traditional olio santo, the hot pepper oil used in Southern Italy, where the chilies are steeped in oil and then strained out. Rather I’ve minced everything together to serve more as a spicy relish.
My pan-fried red mullet.
Pan-Fried Red Mullet with Almond Mint Fregola and Olio Santo
For the olio santo:
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 long, red fresh peperoncini, seeded and roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
For the fregola:
1½ cups large fregola (it comes in two sizes, small pellets, more like a traditional couscous, and a larger version; I prefer the texture of the larger kind)
1 bay leaf
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely chopped
A large handful of whole blanched almonds
A generous pinch of ground cumin
A generous pinch of ground cinnamon
Freshly ground black pepper
A splash of white wine
¼ cup chicken broth
A few large mint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped, plus a few extra sprigs, left whole, to garnish the fish.
A few large basil sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
4 whole red mullets (usually 2 per person is about right; if you find bigger ones, 1 may do), cleaned and scaled but with the heads left on
Freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of ground cumin
A pinch of powdered, lightly smoked chili, such as Pimenton de la Vera
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Extra-virgin olive oil
To make the olio santo: Put all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough but uniform chop. Transfer to a small bowl.
Set up a pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt and the bay leaf. Add the fregola, and cook until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes for the bigger type but check the package for specific cooking instructions. Drain well, and place in a large serving bowl. Drizzle on a little olive oil, and give a quick toss.
In a small skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil with the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and the almonds, and season with the cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, and a little salt. Sauté until the almonds are lightly golden. Add the white wine, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and turn off the heat. Pour this over the fregola, and toss gently. Add the mint and the basil, and toss one more time.
To cook the red mullets: Season the fish with salt, black pepper, cumin, and a touch of smoked chili. Then coat them with flour, shaking off any excess. Pour about an inch of olive oil into a large skillet, and get it hot over medium-high heat. Add the mullets, and sauté them on one side until crisp and browned, about 4 minutes. Flip them, and sauté on the other side about 3 or 4 minutes longer. Removed the fish from the skillet, and place on paper towels for a moment to blot excess oil. Transfer to a serving platter, and garnish with mint sprigs. Serve right away with the fregola, drizzling a little olio santo over the fish.