My time spent on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia was meant to be a relaxing respite from a hectic and extensive travel schedule for work. As I arrived in Vodice, I envisioned days spent on the beach, relaxing morning coffees watching the sun play on the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea and evenings curled up sipping wine while indulging myself in the latest trashy novels. Then I met Luka.
My first day, I stopped at a seaside café to enjoy a simple lunch along the water front. By the end of my meal, I found myself in a conversation with Luka, the restaurant owner and resident chef. Broad shouldered with an open face and ready smile for his guests, I judged him to be in his mid 60s. I was a bit off. He was 78 years old. Life on the coast suited him well.
Luka’s menu was a plenitude of traditional Croatian dishes; an anomaly given at the time the majority of restaurants in the country simply featured their region’s dishes. However, it was the simply grilled fish that caught my eye. Grilled whole with sprigs of rosemary, there was no indication as to the type of fish. Assuming it was simply an omission on the menu, I questioned Luka as to what fish we used and was a bit surprised with the response being a shrug of the shoulders.
Luka went on to explain the type of fish was dependent on what the fishermen brought into his restaurant from the morning’s catch. True to a seaside village, the tradition of grilling the “catch of the day” went back through generations of fishermen.
The summer’s of Luka’s childhood were spent with his Teta (aunt) Ella and Tetak (uncle) Alojz in the village of Sepurine on the island of Prvic off the coast from Vodice. Alojz was a generational fisherman who left home early in the morning and returned early in the afternoon with a catch of fish and seafood. Luka remembered days spent outside with his uncle cleaning the catch and then watching as Ella dressed and grilled the fish over an open flame. Simply prepared with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper plus sprigs of fresh rosemary from the garden, it provided the perfect Riba sa Žara (grilled fish).
For Luka’s restaurant, he preferred sardines or brancine (sea bass) but would occasionally serve little tunny (tuna) if the others were not available. The preference was based on size rather than taste given he was taught to never serve Riba sa Žara that was larger than the serving plate.
My days in Vodice were spent in Luka’s kitchen or on his marketing trips learning how to use all of the incredible local ingredients. I worked every day and went to sleep exhausted every night. It was heaven. Needless to say, I indulged in a daily serving of Riba sa Žara.
Traditionally, the fish is prepared whole. In this version, grouper fillets provide a solid, firm fish for ease in preparation and in presentation. Grouper, a sweet, deep-water white fish, is available from online sources such as Move Butter if not found at your local seafood store. Its firm flesh easily withstands the heat and process of grilling.
Dressing the fish is traditional to the Dalmatian Coast with a simple olive oil brush, fresh rosemary sprigs and sea salt. Rather than lay the fish directly on the grill, the fish is loosely wrapped inside a sheet of foil with the rosemary. Then numerous holes are punched through the bottom to allow the flames to heat the foil and produce the desired browning.
A non-traditional addition is the Orange Fig Chutney. Created by combining the sweetness of mandarin oranges and mission fig preserves, such as Turkish Fig Jam, with the savoriness of sautéed shallots. It adds an incredible flavor tier burst to the simple fish. The chutney may be prepared ahead and easily serves as a relish to other dishes.
Four 6 – 7 ounce firm white fish fillets such as Move Butter’s Wild Strawberry Grouper
2 T extra virgin olive oil
24 – 30 sprigs fresh rosemary, about 2-3 inches long
½ T sea salt
1 t extra virgin olive oil
1 T butter, unsalted
1 mandarin orange
3 T fig jam or preserves such as Move Butter’s Turkish Fig Jam
¼ t kosher salt
Peel orange and separate into segments. Slice orange peel into think strips. Reserve 4 segments. Rough chop remaining segments.
Add olive oil and butter to a medium sauce pan over medium high heat. Add shallots and orange peel. Sauté until shallots soften, about 5 minutes.
Add chopped orange segments. Sauté to release juices, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat. Stir in jam and salt. Stir to combine. Place in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat grill to medium high heat. Using 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, brush both sides of the fish fillets. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper.
Tear 4 sheets foil large enough to cover the fillets. Evenly divide the remaining 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil between the 4 sheets. Evenly divide half of the rosemary sprigs between the 4 sheets.
Lay fillet atop the rosemary sprigs. Evenly divide the remaining rosemary sprigs between the fillets.
Wrap the foil sides up around the fillets, but do not seal.
Turn packets over and using a sharp knife, poke numerous over the entire bottom of the packet.
Place fish packets on grill with holes downward. Grill over medium high heat for 7-10 minutes until bottom rosemary sprigs begin to blacken. Open packet completely and turn fish. Grill an additional 5-7 minutes until fish flakes easily and is browned.
Place one fillet on each of 4 serving plates. Evenly divide the Orange Fig Chutney between the plates and place one reserved orange segment atop the chutney on each plate.