From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

Samak Maa Osfour wa al riz (Sea Bass with Safflower on a bed of rice and nuts)

Samak Maa Al Asfour, Fish with OUsfour

I was lucky enough to grow up with a wonderful view out to sea.  Indiscriminate building in Beirut means that view now barely exists.  But I have always felt happiest by the sea, although the Mediterranean can rage and storm in winter in Beirut in ways that used to frighten me.   One of the best things living by the sea brings is the freshness of the fish.  That is not always helped by some of the techniques used by our local fishermen, such as planting explosives in the sea and blowing them up to get an easy catch.

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Beneath the Casino to the east of Beirut, there’s a series of wooden jetties, with fish restaurants perched on the end.  It was always a big event when my father took us there.  Sadly,that only happened when I was a small child.  The war intervened, cutting Beirut in half.  We were on the other side in West Beirut.  The seaside fish shacks became such a distant, unreachable memory that it seemed like something I had just imagined.  But still each month my father went off early in the morning to the fish market to come back hours later with  a huge haul that he’d plump down before my mother — who was always a little daunted by the task.

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Although I love Lebanese food and cooking, I don’t think we always do our fish justice — often over grilling them to a core of half-burnt gristle that’s almost a crime.  I like to keep that wonderful juiciness of the best fish.  This recipe accomplishes this wonderfully, I think.  Even people who usually shy away from fish will be seduced.

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( Another quick note on one of the ingredients: safflower is a spice that few people know outside Lebanon and Syria.  It’s made from the dried petals of the safflower.  Similar to saffron in its look and subtle taste, it adds an indefinable quality to chicken and other dishes.  But unlike saffron, it doesn’t colour food.  Recently, I discovered almost by accident that it is even better with fish.)

Fish with Ousfour

Ingredients

4 Sea bass, scaled and cleaned

1 large spoon of olive oil

1 teaspoon of salt

1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamon

1 large spoon of safflower (if you don’t have it don’t worry) try half spoon of Saffron

2 lemons sliced

 

For the rice

500g of rice washed and soaked in fresh water for half an hour

3 glasses of water

1 large spoon of vegetable oil

1 large onion finely chopped

1/2 tea spoon of salt

1/2 tea spoon of black pepper

1 tea spoon of cinnamon

1/2 spoon of ground cardamon

1 fish stock cube

150g of mixed nuts: pistachio, almond and pine kernels

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  • Wash the sea bass and put on a baking tray lined with foil.
  • Sprinkle all the spices on top including the ousfour, then stuff the sea bass with 2 slices of lemon each.
  • Drizzle with olive oil and cover with foil.
  • Leave to marinate for a couple of hours.
  • Just 15 minutes before serving, put the tray in a preheated oven, 220 degrees and bake for 15 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and serve hot on a bed of rice and nuts.

For the Rice

  • In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil and fry the nuts separately until golden.
  • Make sure you start with the pine nuts, then almonds followed by pistachio nuts and leave aside for the garnish.
  • With the same oil, fry the onion until golden brown.
  • Drain the rice and add to the fried onion, then add water to cover the rice, around 5mm on top of the rice.
  • Add the salt and all the spices, and leave on a high temperature until the water starts to boil.
  • Now, cover the pan with the lid and reduce temperature to minimum.
  • Leave to cook for 15 minutes.
  • Once ready, stir the rice then serve hot in a large platter, putting the sea bass on top and garnish with the mixed nuts.
  • Best eaten with tahini and garlic sauce.

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