To try Aglaia's recipe for ouzo-battered fried fish, click here.
I am not the first one to observe that TV food has long ago stopped being about taste, cooking, talent, or tradition, becoming one more excuse for a sensational voyeuristic show, not unlike the uncovering of yet one more Egyptian mummy. In that context, I started receiving phone calls and e-mails from various U.S. and Australian TV producers who wanted to pick my brain about the most extreme and "dangerous" foods of Greece, and more precisely the poisonous fish that they have heard about. Some mentioned the "scorpion fish."
Because there was not one but at least three similar inquiries last year alone, I understood that after the Asian rats and the South American insects, of which the American public has probably had enough, our turn had come. I haven't been able to verify whether the producers who contacted me had been invited or lured by the Greek National Tourism Organization offices abroad in a quest to boost the influx of visitors in order to help our gravely ill economy. I seriously doubt that a rat-eating TV host would bring tourists to parts of the world where rats are consumed, but I am not an expert in PR matters, and maybe it is better to watch or hear about a fearsome Greek "scorpion fish" than about the unbelievable size of the Greek national debt.
Getting back to the actual scorpion fish, though, I was terribly sorry as I had to disappoint the eager TV producers, explaining that the fish we call skorpina is not an unknown exotic species but merely the equivalent of the Atlantic rockfish—reddish and fierce-looking, but certainly not poisonous. But, I explained to them, we do have a poisonous—although not even remotely lethal—fish in our shores. We call it dràkena (she-dragon), and it has the habit of burying itself viper-fashion in the sand in shallow waters. If you accidentally step on it, the thorns that grow on either side of its head can deliver quite a painful sting. According to Alan Davidson, whose Mediterranean Seafood is an invaluable resource in finding the names and equivalent species of the fish we get in our shores, dràkena is a weever, of the trachinidae family. American TV producers got very excited when I described the thorns that can injure your foot, or your fingers, if you don't know how to gut the fish properly.
One of these "extreme" food programs was shot in Greece, it seems. Months after I had the initial discussion and e-mail exchanges with the producer, introducing her to a friend—a fisherman and tavern owner in Piraeus, eager to help the host and the crew film all these "fierce" sea creatures—I received an urgent e-mail from her. They were editing the footage and they seemed to have missed the scene where the "poison" and the thorns were removed from the fish, she wrote in horror. "Do they cook it with the poison?" she wondered. "It must be very dangerous." I explained that even before the fishermen consider selling the fish they cut off the thorns, and if any of the poison remains in the fish head, I haven't heard anybody complain about it.
In fact now that the caïques bring less of the more familiar and sought-after wild fish to the islands, we really appreciate the firm-fleshed and moderately priced dràkena, part of the most common everyday catch all year round. I have learned to cut off the thorns with a pair of scissors, as some of the fishermen don't bother cleaning the fish, pretending to be allergic. In fact dràkena, apart from its thorns, is one of the easiest fish to clean, because it has no scales.
I heard that in Provence weevers are considered ideal for the bouillabaisse, and we also use them in kakavia, our simple fish soup. In the Greek fish soup all kinds of small fish are cooked together for a long time, until their flesh falls from the bones. The broth is then passed through a sieve and simmered with a couple of quartered potatoes, sliced carrots, and zucchini, along with sprigs of celery or wild fennel, onions, maybe one or two tomatoes, and a fair amount of olive oil. The broth is served in soup plates with the vegetables, and the fish presented on a platter. Hardly any significant meat is left intact, but there are always volunteers eager to dig through the bones, especially the heads, for the tiny morsels they regard as delicious.
I find this kind of fish soup a waste, so I filet the weevers and boil their heads and bones together with other small fish in a mixture of water and white wine, to make a flavorful stock, which I strain, discarding all the solids. Then I add the vegetables, and when they are almost done, I sauté a couple of garlic cloves and add them to the broth together with the fish fillets. My soup is delicious—although not really a bouillabaisse—mainly because the fish I use is almost alive when I get it from the caïque, less than a few hours out of the water.
Sometimes I also fry the weever fillets, dipped in ouzo batter that makes all kinds of fish deliciously crunchy.