“The idea that farm to table is revolutionary is funny to me because it is something I grew up with,” says Michael Psilakis. “I remember my mom pulling up tomatoes from our garden and slicing them and serving them with sliced onions that she had chilled in ice water. She’d serve me this as a snack so I could go and cut the grass or play baseball,” he says. With an upbringing full of such offerings, it is easy to understand why Psilakis, a first generation Greek-American who was raised in Queens, New York, has distinguished himself as an early proponent of the Mediterranean diet.
“Today,” says the chef who owns five restaurants in and around New York City, including Kefi and Fishtag, “I’m transferring the memories from childhood into the kitchen.” Given the nature of Greek cuisine, making such translations nutritious comes easily to the chef. “The Mediterranean diet lends itself to simple preparations that are focused on vegetables,” he says.
With this recipe, in which whole grilled branzino comes with a warm potato salad studded with such Greek staples as olives, tomatoes, peppers, feta, herbs and dried oregano, Psilakis is conjuring up the fishing trips he took as a kid with his father and the colorful vegetable salads his mother regularly whipped up.
The fish is simply grilled and served with a lemon wedge. As for the potato salad, it warms through in a bit of oil and garlic and then gets tossed with the herbs and extra veggies, olives and feta. The potatoes will disintegrate slightly when tossed and their crumbs and the starch will serve as a creamy binder. The combination, bright, comforting and rustic, adds heft without weighing the final preparation down. “The beauty of this dish,” Psilakis explains, “is that the flavors you generate by adding these ingredients into the salad make it healthy and eliminate the need for lots of fat.”
With such dishes as these, Psilakis pays homage to his Greek ancestry and happy childhood. There is no dogma attached to the light dishes he makes because there doesn’t need to be. Cooking wholesome goodness is in the chef’s DNA.
Grilled Branzino with Greek Potato Salad
This dish can also be made with sea bass or red snapper in place of the branzino.
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper, for seasoning
2 small sweet onions sliced into ½-inch rings
4 whole branzino, 1 to 2 pounds each, scaled and gutted
3 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
10 fingerling potatoes, boiled until just tender and halved lengthwise
24 cherry tomatoes, halved
24 Kalamata olives, pitted
24 green olives, pitted
1 tablespoon dry oregano
½ cup feta cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped dill
Preheat a grill or grill pan to medium-high. Lightly brush onion rings and fish with olive oil and season both with salt and pepper. Lay onions on grill and cook, on both sides, until charred, about 1 to 2 minutes. Next, lay fish on grill and cook until charred and cooked through, about 8 minutes per side.
For potato salad, set a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Swirl in 2 tablespoons oil and, once hot, add garlic and potatoes. Cook until garlic is aromatic and potatoes are lightly seared, about 4 minutes. In a salad bowl, toss warm potatoes and garlic with tomatoes, olives, grilled onion rings, oregano and feta cheese. Transfer to a serving platter and place the fish on top of the warm salad. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on top and sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs.
Kitty Greenwald is a Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer. She eats a lot for work and pleasure. Her column Slow Food Fast appears in the Wall Street Journal.
Photo by Daniel Krieger
Portrait by Andre Baranowski