Friday, 26 December 2008

Bar en Sel (Sea Bass in Salt)

The prospect of fish for dinner tends to make me feel either bored or hungry. I would exclude from this generalization oily, meaty fish like sardines, herring and mackerel, spice-laden curries and stews and, during the odd appearance of summer in northern Europe, poached salmon with mayonnaise. But to me, white, flaky fishes—halibut, cod, sole, sea bass and the like—usually taste abstemiously plain or only of the sauce in which they are swimming. Add to this high prices and few of the health benefits of less-glamorous fish, and it’s not surprising that months can go by without any appearing on my table.

It was only an accident of the calendar that changed things yesterday. At even the most modest fish stalls in the market, displays of oysters, clams and prawns—if not also lobster and crab—have claimed most of the square footage. Recession or no recession, the French are celebrating Christmas and New Years in the usual style: with huge platters of seafood (and champagne, geese and foie gras, but that’s material for another post.)

Oily fish has been banished entirely, so too more cost-conscious choices like mullet and bream. If not for the fact that I am generally a non-seafood eater, and that I had already purchased a good bottle of sauvignon blanc, I surely would have followed the crowds in another direction.

The best choice seemed to be the sea bass, which though expensive was very fresh and more wine-friendly than the salmon. As I walked home, fretting about the cost of that night’s protein source, I tried to think about a marinade or sauce which would inject flavour without totally overwhelming a much-anticipated side dish of a Central Asian rice pilau with herbs, pine nuts and raisins.

The answer came, as it so often does, from a recipe in one my much-beloved Moro cookbooks: fish baked in salt. I stuffed the cleaned bellies with lemon slices, fresh dill and fennel fronds and placed them on a bed of coarse sea salt studded with citrus zest and fennel seeds. The fish were covered entirely, leaving only their heads and tails protruding, and placed into a hot oven. After about 20 minutes, the crust was ready to be split, revealing moist, aromatic and—to my surprise—deeply flavourful flesh.

Adding to this a taut, mineral-laden wine, some moreish rice, and, to finish, goats cheese, and we had a meal that satisfied, impressed even. On reflection, I suppose it was regime (diet) friendly. Not a bad thing at this time of year, but hardly the point.

Salt-Baked Whole Fish

I adapted this principally from Moro 2, adding in Jamie Oliver’s suggestion to infuse the salt with citrus zest and fennel seeds. Depending on the aromatics used, I think it could easily be adapted as the centrepiece of an Indian, Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern meal. The recipe could also be doubled, or the smaller fish swapped for a larger one, with some small adjustment in baking time. And while the flesh has more than enough flavour to be served as is, it can be garnished with olive oil and lemon, or even some garlicky mayonnaise (aioli).

Serves 2
Active time: 5-10 minutes
Total time: Just under 30 minutes, not including preheating the oven

2 whole sea bass (or bream), 600-700 grams in total weight, scaled and gutted with heads on
1 kg coarse sea salt (anything cheap is fine)
Handful herb sprigs (fennel and dill work particularly well)
1 lemon
1 small orange
Small handful fennel seeds

Preheat the oven to 200C. Rinse the fish, pat dry and set aside. Pour the salt into a bowl and grate in the zest of the lemon and orange. Add the fennel seeds and mix through. On a platter or ovenproof dish which fits the fish snugly, pour in about half the salt. Place the fish on top and fill the bellies with herb sprigs and citrus slices cut from the lemon and/or orange. Cover the fish with the remainder of the salt, packing in closely but leaving the heads and tails exposed. Pour a few tablespoons of water over the dish and place in oven.

After 15 minutes, check to see whether the salt has formed a hard, dry crust. If not, leave for a few minutes longer. If you’re unsure, poke a thin knife into the flesh, holding for 10 seconds. If the knife comes out warm, the fish is done.

Remove the fish from the oven and leave to rest for a few minutes. Break the crust with a knife and scrape off any extra salt. The skin will not be very tasty, but the flesh inside should be moist and flaky. Serve immediately with olive oil or lemon, if desired.

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