The fish lady at my uncle’s local market instructed him to let the bass rest for 10 minutes after cooking to let the last remaining fight in it go. Black sea bass, according to her, is a real fighter. Indeed it must be – the fish recently fought its way off the endangered species list and is now once again open to commercial fishing.
Sea bass was one of the four fish examined in Paul Greenberg’s book of the same name, in part because the effort to successfully farm these fish writes like a near epic. In Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food, Greenberg summarizes the 2,000-year process of learning to farm sea bass as “one that involved the efforts of ancient Roman fisherman, modern Italian poachers, French and Dutch nutritionists, a Greek marine biologist turned entrepreneur, and an Israeli endocrinologist.” Though, in retrospect, sea bass proved not the most suitable fish for aquaculture, 10 times as many sea bass are grown on farms as are caught in the wild.
I felt lucky to be eating wild fish given the lack of abundance in its natural habitat, but all too aware of what a fleeting privilege it might be after recently reading Greenberg’s book.
So we made the most of it. We were visiting my Aunt Katy and Uncle Dave at their house with its amazing kitchen in Orange County. They have an upside-down house; the kitchen and dining area are on the second floor with great big windows that afford ocean views and open up all the way, cooling the kitchen with gentle sea breezes. It all makes for a very lovely evening.
With just four of us, we opted for fillets instead of a whole fish, but followed the preparation as closely as we could. Instead of stuffing the fish with the fennel mixture, we laid it on top of the fillets as they simmered and adjusted the cooking time to suit the smaller pieces of fish. Dave has been perfecting a grilled cauliflower concoction, the inspiration for which came while dining at the A1 restaurant in Newport Beach. Among his many talents, he is well-known for his reverse engineering of favorite bites enjoyed while out and about. On this occasion he topped the steaks with pesto and a layer of lightly melted cheese.
The fish and cauliflower were good, but I don’t hesitate to say the shining star of the meal was a dessert Dave had recently added to his repertoire. The Steamed Lemon Puddings were the most extraordinary things I had seen in a while. Cooked in ramekins, each pudding had two completely different textures, both equally delicious. Fascinating. I’ve included the recipe here as well because I couldn’t very well leave you all hanging after such a ringing endorsement!
Baked Striped Bass with Fennel
1 large fennel bulb, including stems and feathery leaves
1/4 cup best-quality olive oil
2 garlic gloves, peeled and minced
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 stripped bass, 5 to 7 pounds before dressing, backbone removed,* scaled, head and tail intact (Don’t the fillets sound easier now?… Also with sea bass so fresh, we thought it would be okay to swap out stripped for sea bass this time around.)
juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth
1 or 2 bunches of fresh watercress (garnish)
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. Cut fennel bulb into slices and the slices into thin strips. Reserve stems and feathery leaves.
3. Heat olive oil in a small skillet and sauté fennel slices and half the garlic, covered, until just tender, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer fennel to a bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste and add the parsley. Reserve the oil.
4. Arrange the bass in an oiled shallow baking dish and spread it open. Lay the cooked fennel mixture down the center of the bass and arrange a few of the reserved ferny sprigs on top of the mixture. Sprinkle with lemon juice, close the fish, and tie it together in two or three places with kitchen twine.
5. Season the outside of the fish with salt and pepper and rub it with the remaining garlic. Pour reserved oil over the fish and lay reserved fennel stems on top. Pour white wine or vermouth into the pan.
6. Bake fish in the middle rack if the oven for 10 minutes per inch of thickness, measured at the thickest part. Baste often with accumulated juices from the pan. Bass is done when flesh is opaque and flakes slightly when probed with a fork. Remove strings.
7. Carefully transfer bass to a large serving platter and surround it with fresh watercress. Serve at once.
*Your fishmonger will do this for you.
Steamed Lemon Pudding with Treacle Sauce
1 tablespoon butter, at room-temperature, for greasing
4 tablespoons golden syrup (Treacle)
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons), plus 2 teaspoons zest
2/3 cup sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup milk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Lightly sweetened whipped cream, for serving
Fresh berries, such as blackberries or raspberries, for serving
Special equipment: Six 6-ounce ramekins
1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
2. Grease the ramekins with the butter and place in a roasting pan. Whisk together golden syrup and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice in a small bowl and then divide evenly among the ramekins.
3. Whisk together the lemon zest, sugar and egg yolks in a large bowl. Stir in the milk and flour, alternating 3 times, and then stir in the remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice (the batter will have a very liquid consistency).
4. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks in a separate bowl, and then gently fold the egg whites into the batter using a rubber spatula.
5. Pour the batter into the ramekins, filling them up to about 1/4 inch from the top.
6. Pour hot water into the roasting pan until about halfway up the sides of the ramekins and bake until the cakes have puffed and turned light brown on top, about 45 minutes. Allow the ramekins to sit in the water for about 10 minutes before carefully removing them.
7. Place a dessert plate on top of a ramekin and invert. If the cake does not naturally release, run a paring knife along the sides of the ramekin and try again. You should see a glossy lemon curd layer on top of the cake, with the treacle sauce running down the sides. Repeat with the remaining ramekins. Serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream and some fresh berries on the side.
The recipe was taken from the Cooking Channel TV website. To see the recipe there, click here.