Until World War II, the largest Jewish fishing fleet in the world was based in Thessaloniki. With more than 250 varieties of kosher fish swimming in the Mediterranean, Jewish cooks were only constrained by the size of the fish as to which cooking technique to employ. Small fish such as sardines and anchovies tended to be deep-fried whole; medium-sized fish such as sea bass and red porgy were baked, sautéed, and grilled; and Mediterranean swordfish and tuna were baked or grilled.
In this recipe, thicker fish such as branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), tuna, or Mediterranean swordfish are recommended so that they can withstand the searing and flaming without drying out. Sole, sea bream, mullet, and orata indigenous to the Mediterranean may also be used, if they are not too thin.
- Place the fish fillets in a 7"x11" glass dish. Add the lemon juice and turn the fish in the dish to lightly coat with the juice (which will help remove any strong fishy taste). Set aside.
- Heat 2 Tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until lightly golden.
- Mix in the crushed tomatoes, sugar, and oregano. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook, uncovered, over moderate heat until the sauce is thickened (approximately 20 minutes). Remove the garlic.
- Drain the fish. Season lightly with salt and pepper and place on a clean plate.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet or heavy, uncoated sauté pan for 15 seconds. Add 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and continue to heat for another 15 seconds. Place the fish smooth-side down in the hot skillet. Cook over moderately high heat until the fish is lightly golden on one side (approximately 2 minutes).
- Turn the fish over. Add the ouzo and the brandy. Heat for 10 seconds and then ignite the liquids with a long match or butane lighter. When the flames die out, place the fish in a 2-quart oven-proof serving dish.
- Cover the fish with the warm tomato sauce and top with feta cheese.
- Place the dish in a preheated 400°F oven and bake for approximately 5 minutes until the feta is softened and slightly melted but not browned.
- When cooking fish, a rule of thumb is to cook 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Thin fillets will cook in fewer than 3 minutes, so be careful!
- Mediterranean cooks add a little bit of sugar to tomato sauce to counteract any bitterness in the seeds.