The second of chef Matteo Temperini’s recipes for Sirenuse Journal is a dish that distils the double nature of the Amalfi Coast, which has always looked equally to the land and sea for sustenance.
Its focus is one of the Mediterranean’s more bizarre denizens, the John Dory, known in Italian as pesce San Pietro, or ‘St Peter’s fish’. According to legend, the dark spot midway down each flank of this primitive, spiny-finned beast corresponds to the mark left by the fingers of Saint Peter when he picked up a specimen and, taking pity on it, threw it back into the sea. Though the head and gut account for two-thirds of the weight – making it an expensive buy at the fishmongers – its firm white flesh, which separates neatly into four fillets, is so highly prized among chefs and gourmets that demand remains high. Found in waters from northern Europe to New Zealand, the John Dory is generally available at better fishmongers and specialized supermarket fish counters. In the Americas, try substituting monkfish (Lophius americanus), though any firm-fleshed and relatively bone-free white fish should work – even cod or haddock.
In this recipe, Matteo pairs the John Dory (whose shimmering yellow markings may account for its English name, a possible corruption of the French jaune dorée, ‘gilded yellow’) with Positano lemons and their leaves, new potatoes (once a staple of Amalfi Coast smallholdings) and marsh samphire, a salty tidal plant that is known as asparagi di mare (‘sea asparagus’) in parts of Italy and sold as ‘sea beans’ in North America.
John Dory with lemon leaves, marsh samphire and potato purée
2 John Dory fillets, unskinned
1 unwaxed lemon (preferably Amalfi)
4 lemon leaves
10g/2½ teaspoons sugar
20ml/4 teaspoons limoncello
200g/7 ounces potatoes
2 garlic cloves, skin left on
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
25ml/2 tablespoons fish stock
2 bay leaves
5 whole black pepper grains
A sprinkle of parsley and thyme
Salt and black pepper to taste
Begin by making two sets of short parallel incisions in the skin of each John Dory fillet, just big enough to thread two lemon leaves through (see photo ). Also cut two 1cm (just under half an inch) lemon rounds and set them aside; grate the rest of the lemon and keep the zest aside, then squeeze it and keep the juice.
Wash and peel the potatoes, put them in a pan of water with the two unpeeled garlic cloves and a sprig of thyme, and bring to the boil. When they’re soft, drain off the water, add a little olive oil and purée them with a fork with the lemon zest and parsley, salt and pepper to taste.
Blanch the samphire for a few seconds in boiling water; try to time this to coincide with the fish being cooked.
Pour half of the oil into a pre-warmed frying pan and sear the fillets skin side down (our photos show just one fillet cooking, but a capacious pan can easily hold two). Pop the two lemon slices into the pan with the fillets and let them take colour. When both the fish slices are golden brown, take them out and set them aside.
Sprinkle the sugar into the same frying pan and let it caramelize very slightly (it should start spotting, but shouldn’t smell burnt). Ten seconds later, take out the lemon slices.
Pour on the limoncello and let most of it evaporate before adding the lemon juice and the fish stock. Reduce the sauce until it’s creamy but not too thick. Return the John Dory fillets to the pan and finish cooking it on both sides.
Arrange each fillet on a plate flanked by little heaps of puréed potatoes and garnished with sprigs of samphire. Serve drizzled with the rest of the olive oil, with parsley, thyme and black pepper to taste. See the opening photo for how it should all look. Buon appetito!