Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Striped Bass with Orange Gremolata

I always found makeovers funny. The "before" pictures always look extra terrible (as if the person just rolled out of bed), and the "after" pictures look like a mask -- with all that make up and hair it's hard to tell if this is even the same person. But looks are everything whether I like it or not, even with food. Somehow I know way before I publish a post whether it will get many comments or not. If the picture is gorgeous, it really doesn't matter what I write -- I am guaranteed comments. And if the picture sucks, it doesn't matter that I have just discovered a better way to cook skate or learned how halibut's size effects its texture -- no comments for me.

Sometimes I don't care and post the recipe with a bad picture. But sometimes I love the dish so much that I just can't stand it being discriminated against because of my terrible food styling and photography skills. Striped Bass with Orange Gremolata is one of those dishes. It's so yummy and so simple that it often ends up being my students' favorite in the fish class. But it seems to be jinxed when it comes to pictures. Each time I tried to take them, something would go wrong. To start with, striped bass is a difficult fish to photograph. Most of the pieces have very dark skin. It gets even darker after searing. Add to that poor lighting if you are having dinner after sunset and you got yourself a picture of a burnt looking piece of fish even though it tastes perfectly fine. Couldn't I just serve it skin side down? Absolutely not! The yummiest part of striped bass is its crispy skin and serving it skin side down would make it soggy.

This was my third try taking pictures of this dish in the last few months and I was determined to get it right. To do that I had to think like a food stylist and a photographer, which requires nothing short of a brain surgery for me. When I bought my piece of bass, I asked the fishmonger for the part near the belly where the skin is lighter in color. I seared fish for a shorter period of time on the skin side to make sure the skin was still light enough for a good picture. I cooked dinner earlier than usual to catch the remainder of day light. I garnished bass with long strips of zest from a regular zester even through the zest from a Microplane grater tastes better. Finally, I took the pictures and even remembered to rotate the plate and get in from different angles. Phew!

Did it work? It sure did! Here are before and after pictures.



Now guess which one tasted better... The ugly one on top. The skin was crisper :)

You probably think that I have to be psychotic to go through all this for a blog post. I can't say I disagree. Let's face it, we food bloggers are all a little nuts. But normally, we don't like sharing what goes on behind the scenes. We like our pictures and stories to look effortless and natural. As if we snapped those gorgeous pictures while entertaining friends and jotted down our stories while waiting for the train during our morning commute.

I actually find it fun to read what's under the hood of other people's blogs, so I thought I'll share what's under the hood of mine.

By the way, you might be wondering what is gremolata. It's an Italian garnish made with lemon zest, parsley, and garlic that is normally served on top of osso buco. It is also wonderful with fish, and I like the orange-cilantro variation even better than the classic one.

Striped Bass with Orange Gremolata

Fish substitutions: salmon (with skin), red snapper (with skin), halibut (without skin), mahi (without skin), sable (without skin) or any other white, cream colored, or pink fleshed fish.

Serves 4

3 oranges
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro or parsley
1/2 medium garlic clove, mashed to a paste
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
4 striped bass fillets with skin (6 oz each)
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Zest and section the oranges.
  3. To make gremolata, combine orange zest with cilantro and garlic in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste and set aside.
  4. In another bowl, combine orange sections with balsamic vinegar and set aside.
  5. Dry fish fillets well with paper towels. If using striped bass or snapper, score the skin with a sharp knife on a diagonal at 3/4 inch intervals being careful not to cut much into the flesh. This helps fillets stay flat during searing. Season with salt and pepper on both sides.
  6. Set a large non-stick or well seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add 2 Tbsp oil and wait until oil is hot. Add fish fillets skin side down and sear without disturbing until browned, 3-4 minutes.
  7. Flip the fish, and place the skillet in the oven. If your skillet is not oven safe, move the fish skin side up to a shallow baking dish before moving to the oven. The total cooking time (searing + baking) should equal 8 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, bend the fillet with a fork as if to fold it in half. If the fillet breaks, it's done (don't worry -- the skin will keep it together so it will still look good). Since the fish will continue to cook once it's off the heat, it should still be a little translucent in the center when you take it off the heat.
  8. Rub the fish all over with gremolata and garnish with oranges.


Anonymous said...

What is underneath the fish in the 'before' picture?
I can't believe the difference in the pictures!
Thanks for all your hard work. I am a fan of the pretty pictures even though I am well aware that delish food isn't always pretty.

Helen said...

Hi Julie,

That's avocado with some red onions, cilantro and lime juice (kind of like guacamole without tomatoes).


Anonymous said...

A beautiful "after" shot! Interesting that the non-beauty queen had the better personality, of course. I totally understand your behavior photographywise, Helen. I obsess too. The price I tend to pay is eating lukewarm food because I have to photograph it first. I always serve my wife and anyone else first, though, while the food is still hot.

Last night I had to photograph a side dish for this week's post and a tuna steak for a future post--plated separately, of course. By then my meal wasn't even lukewarm. Still tasted good, though.

Toni said...

You definitely perfected the shot and it was interesting to read how you had to think about the photo while you were cooking and adjust accordingly. I really want to try that recipe. I hope my fish market has striped bass.

Unknown said...

Hi Helen,

I'm still just learning my way around the kitchen, but i tried this recipe tonight using branzino and it was wonderful (despite my flawed execution). Can't wait to try it again! Thanks!!

Bill Berry

Helen said...

Hi Bbebop,

I know it takes a lot of bravery to start substituting one fish for the other. So I just wanted to say how proud I am of you! Branzino would be a fabulous fish for this preparation. Did you use fillets or a whole fish?


Anonymous said...

This looks and sounds absolutely lovely, but sadly, I am allergic to oranges! I might give this a go with a traditional lemony gremolata, though.

Helen said...

Hi Jennifer,

Give it a shot with a traditional gremolata -- it will be just as wonderful. If you want to add some citrus sections to your dish, you can try Meyer lemons or grapefruits if you are not allergic to them. But it will be great with just gremolata.


Gaile said...

That looks fantastic! I know what you mean about staging the pictures to get a good one. We rarely eat a "new" meal without going through all of that ourselves ;-) This looks like something i have to try, as I've never tried striped bass before, but have seen it here at our local fishmonger.

BipolarLawyerCook said...

Helen, thanks for the gremolata inspiration. I've never tried it before, but I made one last weekend to finish a spring veal stew and it was just the perfect hit of fresh flavor to contrast with the rich stew.

Anonymous said...

Oh you are so right! I used to just rely on chance (cooking outcome, weather, lighting) and now I've learned to take my photos at a specific time of day and at this one nice little spot in my family room where the light is perfect!

The Mom Down the Block said...

awesome recipe!

janelle said...

So fun to find you! I was hunting down recipes for gremolata;). AND I am so into learning all I can about fish! Grazie!!!