Greek Psari Saganaki

Tina Wasserman
Recipe by
Tina Wasserman

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 Greece this dish is most often made with shrimp. This version takes the bright colors and flavors of this dish and incorporates fish indigenous to Greece.

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.

1 pound branzino fillets (about 2 fish) or tuna steaks
Juice of 1/2 lemon
4 tablespoons extra virgin Greek olive oil, divided use
1 medium onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1–2 tablespoons ouzo or other licorice liqueur (amount depends on your taste)
2 tablespoons Metaxa or other brandy
1 cup feta cheese, cubed
  1. Place the fish fillets in a 7 × 11-inch glass dish. Add the lemon juice and coat the fish well. Set aside.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add the onion and halved garlic, and cook until lightly golden.
  3. Add the crushed tomatoes, sugar, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste, and cook uncovered over moderate heat for 20 minutes or until thickened. Remove the pieces of garlic.
  4. Heat a cast-iron skillet or heavy, uncoated sauté pan for 15 seconds. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and heat for another 15 seconds. Drain the fish. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and place in the hot skillet. Cook over moderately high heat for 2 minutes or until the fish is lightly golden on one side.
  5. Turn the fish over, and add the ouzo and the brandy to the frying pan. Heat for 10 seconds and then ignite the liquids. When the flames die out, place the fish in a 2-quart ovenproof serving dish.
  6. Cover the fish with the warm tomato sauce, and top with the cheese.
  7. Place the dish in a preheated 400°F oven and bake until the cheese is melted but not browned. Serve with pasta or rice as desired.
Additional Notes
  • Soaking fish in lemon juice imparts a subtle flavor to the meat, which will remain even after baking with a strongly flavored sauce. However, do not let the fish sit in the juice more than 15–30 minutes or the acid will start to “cook” the fish and make it tough.
  • Brandy and liqueurs must be warm in order for them to ignite. However, if the liquid is heated too long, the alcohol content will burn off and no flame will be produced.
  • If finishing a sautéed fish dish in the oven, make sure the initial cooking of the fish isn’t too long or your completed dish will be tough and dry.