Last Saturday, lovely Bea from La Tartine Gourmande joined me for what’s become a tradition in my house – a Saturday morning trip to New Deal. It was so much fun to go food shopping with someone who enjoys it as much as I do. Since Bea hasn’t been to the New Deal before, Sal greeted her with his usual “Where are you from?” When she said France, he gave her a little tour of the fish counter in French. This was a fun experience for me too since my French is incredibly rusty. I can’t say my grammar improved much from this little trip to the fish market, but I did learn the name of the fish I bought for dinner: loup de mer. Literally, it means “wolf of the sea,” which makes sense since this fish is silver-gray. You’ve probably seen this popular fish on restaurant menus under its Italian name of “branzino” or the English name of “Mediterranean Sea Bass”. This little fish weights about 1 Lb -- a perfect size for individual servings. Its white flesh is fatty and packs lots of flavor and the skin is delicate and yummy when browned.
After the endless experiments of last week, I wanted a tried and true dinner. Something that I knew was going to work. I decided to dress my little sea wolves with fennel, preserved lemons, and olives and cook under the broiler. I don’t understand why cooking whole fish in foil, parchment, or on the grill is so much trendier that broiling. When you broil you get the best of both worlds – the fish browns like it would on the grill, but the juices stay in the pan making a wonderful sauce. After taking the first bite, Jason said, “You know what your problem is?” “What?” I asked. “Sometimes you get tired of cooking fish.” I must admit that with Jason’s baguette this was a perfect dinner and that’s hard to get tired of.
Mediterranean Bass with Fennel, Preserved Lemons, and Olives
Fish substitutions: sea bream (dorado), red snapper or any 1-2 Lb whole fish
Note: This technique only works for gas broilers. If you have an electric stove, it’s better to roast fennel with lemons in 450F oven until brown (about 15 minutes) and grill the fish separately (or brown it in a non-stick or cast iron skillet) and then combine the fish with fennel and olives before serving.
2 whole Mediterranean bass, about 1 Lb each, scaled, gutted, gills and fins removed
(tip: see how to cook a whole fish)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 fennel bulb, white parts sliced 1/8” thick
1/4 preserved lemon (or zest or 1 lemon)
6-8 kalamata or black olives, pitted and halved
1 Tbsp minced fennel fronds (the green parts of the bulb that look like dill)
Salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 450F. Wrap a broiling pan with foil.
- Rinse preserved lemon under cold water, dry with paper towels, and discard the inside of the lemon. Slice the remaining peel crosswise as thinly as possible.
- In a broiler pan, toss sliced fennel with 1 Tbsp olive oil, preserved lemon, and salt to taste. Cook in the middle of the oven until fennel just starts to soften and brown, about 5 minutes.
- Rinse the fish and thoroughly dry with paper towels in and out. Season with salt and pepper in and out and place in the broiler pan with the fennel. Pile fennel on top of the fish and drizzle with remaining tablespoon of oil.
- Turn the oven to broil. Set the fish under the broiler for 5 minutes. Flip using a spoon and a spatula; rearrange the fennel slices on top of fish to give them all a chance to brown, and broil fish 5 more minutes. Watch the fennel carefully. If it starts to burn, rearrange fennel slices so that they brown on the other side.
- A 1 Lb fish (about 1 inch thick) will be done at this point. For fish substitutions thicker than 1 inch, turn the oven down to 425F, and finish cooking in the oven so that the total cooking time (broiling plus baking) is 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Check if the fish is done by inserting a knife between the top fillet and the back bone. If you meet no resistance, the fish is done.
- Add the olives to the broiling pan and let the fish rest for 5 minutes.
- Place the fish on serving plates, top with fennel and olives, and pour the juices from the broiling pan over fish. Sprinkle with fennel fronds and serve with good bread.