Sunday, 7 November 2010

Roast sea bass with fennel and tomato

Friday we had fish.  Partly because it was Friday and some regressive Catholic gene in me makes that feel somehow only right and proper, partly because one effect of keeping a food blog is that you have a record of what you’ve been eating, and this month it has very conspicuously been mainly meat.  I did not set out to make this blog quite so red in tooth and claw as it has become, but I think I can reasonably plead seasonality – both in terms of ingredients and mood.  October is the time of year, after all, that your mind turns to hearty stews and roast meats, washed down with robust red wines.  Had I started a month or two earlier then lightly grilled sole and crisp sauvignon blancs would have been much more likely to feature.

We did in fact have lightly grilled sole accompanied by ceps and other meaty fungi that week way back at the beginning, when I wrote about the mushrooms.  I didn’t make a post of  the sole because I didn’t get a nice picture of it, but it did go very well with the mushrooms, with a nice balance of light and delicate and strong and meaty in flavour and texture, proving you don’t always have to mix like with like.

Anyway, that was a month ago now, so we were overdue some fish.  I went up to the fishmongers for a couple of mackerel, and came back with seabass.  They had no mackerel!  Can you believe it?  But that’s okay, because when you’ve decided you want fish, I’m firmly of the opinion that you should stop your planning at that point, and make no specific choice of precisely what fish, or what you plan to do with it until you have visited your fishmonger.  Then you let yourself be guided by a) what’s there, obviously, and b) what looks good on the slab. This week it was seabass.  Nothing wrong with seabass. 

I decided to roast them with fennel and tomatoes, a lighter version of what I’d had in mind for the mackerel, had there been any, and had it looked as good as the bass.  As it turned out, Friday was not only sunny, but unseasonably mild, so the lighter version of what I’d had in mind turned out most appropriately.
2 whole, single portion sized seabass
½ bulb fennel
1 red onion
a dozen cherry tomotoes
bunch of parsley, bunch of dill
a lemon
garlic, thyme, salt & pepper

Cut the fennel and the onion into thick wedges, and cook in a big oven proof pan with some garlic, thyme, salt and pepper till the fennel’s going golden and starting to soften, then add the cherry tomatoes.  Keep the tomatoes whole, but prick them with a fork, otherwise they are liable to come out of the oven at the other end as lethal little steam bombs.

Meanwhile slash the sides of the fish – three or four cuts on each side, deeper towards the head end - season inside and out with salt and pepper, stuff their cavities with dill, parsley and lemon slices and rub the outsides with chopped herbs, lemon juice and olive oil, making sure you work plenty of the herbs and salt and pepper into the slashes in the flesh.

When the tomatoes are starting to sag, and a few skins showing signs of splitting, then push them, and the onion and fennel, to the edges of the pan to create enough free space to add the fish.  Cook the fish on one side for three or four minutes, depending on size, then flip them, give them another minute or so on the new side, then transfer the pan to the oven.  Let them roast at around 180 for about fifteen minutes, pour over a glass of white wine or vermouth and give it another five minutes in the oven.  That should be enough cooking for the averagely proportioned bass (check it by sliding a knife along the backbone at the thickest part just behind the head to see that the flesh is just opaque and white.  If in doubt, best to err on the side of slightly under done, after all you can always put a fish back in to cook it more, you can’t uncook it once it’s gone too far) - but you may (or not, it all depends how much juice oozed out of the tomatoes, and how liberal you were with your wine chucking) want to reduce the wine and juices at the bottom of the pan a little to make a thicker sauce.  If so, then take the fish out of the pan and keep warm on a plate covered with foil while you finish the sauce back on the stove top.  There shouldn't be too much liquid, just a couple of tablespoon's worth to spoon over the fish on the plate is good.

As I had the oven on anyway, I chose to serve the fish with anya potatoes roasted with the rinds of the lemon, a sprinkling of sage leaves and plenty of salt, pepper and olive oil. 

If you don't have an oven proof pan big enough to do it all in one, not to worry.  Just colour the fennel and soften the onion and tomatoes in the biggest frying pan you have then transfer them to a preheated roasting tray in the oven.  If the pan is big enough, then briefly fry the fish in the veg juices, one at a time if need be, then place them in the roasting tray, either amongst or on top of the veg.  Make sure you scrape out all the oil and juices from the pan and get them into the roasting dish though, don't want to lose any of that flavour.  Doing it this way I'd be inclined - and I don't know there's any science to this, just instinct - to fry the fish more briefly, no more than a couple of minutes on the first side, one on the second, and roast longer, maybe twenty minutes, before pouring over the wine.

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