“It’s OK to eat fish ’cause they don’t have feelings” – Kurt Cobain (Something in the Way, 1991)
I always thought I was pretty cool about eating fish. I didn’t much like whelks, anchovies or sardines but I ate most shellfish, lots of smoked haddock (i.e. kedgeree), cod, tuna and tons of sushi. But was I one of those people who could just swing into the fishmonger, ask what was good that day and take it home and cook it? Absolutely not. Beyond the 4 or 5 things I actually knew how to cook I was really pretty terrified of cooking fish. Particularly when it still had eyes.
This, of course, had to change. I didn’t dislike fish, I wanted to eat less meat and I live approximately 3 feet from a brilliant fishmonger. And, from a low maintenance childcare perspective, a trip to the fishmonger is a field trip to rival the Science Museum for a two year old boy. So I had a dig in my books and found something that fitted my beginner’s criteria – it looked simple, used a fish that was fairly sustainable (on which more another time), wasn’t vastly expensive (experimenting with my limited skills on Dover sole or turbot would have been fiscally irresponsible to say the least) – and lo and behold it quickly became something we ate most weeks during the spring and summer, tinkering from time to time with what we ate with it and switching it for other fish once I had the basic method down. And that something is this:
BALEARIC BAKED SEA BREAM
Crazy Ingredient Rating: Low (unless fish particularly freak you out)
This is adapted from recipes in Mitch Tonk’s excellent Fresh (which I don’t think is in print anymore?) and Sam & Sam Clark’s Casa Moro. For 2 people you will need:
- one bream (approximately 500g), scaled and gutted
- handful of parsley – leaves and stalks separated
- one lemon – slice a few thin slices off and cut rest into wedges for serving
- few slices of fennel or 1/4 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
- some potatoes (Cyprus are brilliant for this if you can get them but anything will do. Use as many as you want to eat but 2 large or 5/6 small seems to do us)
- Some tomatoes (Again, quantity is really up to you but we usually go for 3 regular ones or a big handful of cherry tomatoes)
- olive oil
- extra virgin olive oil
- handful of breadcrumbs (optional)
- Preheat your oven to its hottest setting.
- Season the fish inside and out. Put two thin slices of lemon, some parsley stalks and the fennel slices or seeds (if using) into the cavity of the fish.
- Peel and slice the potatoes into 1cm thick rounds – no thicker otherwise they won’t cook in the time the fish takes to cook. Cook these in boiling water for 3-4 minutes and then drain.
- If you are using ‘normal’ tomatoes, slice into quarters. Leave cherry tomatoes whole.
- Put the par-boiled potatoes, tomatoes and garlic cloves into a bowl and toss with a few glugs of regular olive oil. Season and and add a pinch of sugar (unless you’re making this in August and your tomatoes are fabulous). Tip the vegetable mix into a large roasting tray, leaving a space in the middle to put the fish.
- Stick the fish on the tray. Try not to trap the tomatoes and potatoes underneath the fish as they don’t brown very well if you do.
- Throw the breadcrumbs over the fish now if you are using them.
- Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes and then whip off the foil and return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes.
- Divide the potatoes and tomatoes between serving bowls and divide up the fish the best you can (I sort of hack chunks off the top side and the centre bone usually comes out quite cleanly after that allowing you to get to the other fillet. It isn’t very elegant but it’s not really a fancy dish and you’re not in the final 3 on Masterchef anyway). Spoon over the juices from the tray. Scatter with chopped parsley leaves and a good slug of extra virgin olive oil to finish. Serve with lemon wedges.
Confession time! Although this is fundamentally very simple, from time to time, depending on your potatoes, their parboiling and whether Mars is in retrograde, the fish may cook before your potatoes are as brown as you would like them. If this happens, I just take the fish off the tray onto a plate and keep it warm under foil while the potatoes finish and it is perfectly fine. Better that than overcooked fish, I can tell you.
EAT WITH/TWEAK: You don’t really need anything with this except maybe a salad. Bread would obviously be good too to mop up the juices, particularly if toasted and rubbed with some garlic and oil, but you’d probably want fewer potatoes in that case.
The tweaks are pretty endless – you can throw some capers or salted anchovies around the fish (as Mitch Tonks suggests), the guys from Moro throw in some fresh bay leaves and/or you can alter the vegetable mix – some finely sliced yellow or red peppers would be good, as would a handful of olives. I have also done this with some sliced red onion as well, but in that case I tend to let the potato and onion mixture cook in the oven for 5-1o mins before putting the fish on top to make the onions cook down in time. This way of cooking bream is very common across Spain and Portugal so there is lots of inspiration around the internet. It also works very well with sea bass and red or grey mullet.
As the photo for this post is not particularly exciting, it seemed like a fine opportunity to throw in some entirely gratuitous (but at least vaguely relevant) photos of Ibiza taken at a friend’s wonderful wedding there a few years ago.
Kitchen song of the day: Bulletproof – La Roux (La Roux)