Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fish and Chips Summer-style

Sometimes I have a hankering for fish and chips. Tonight was such a time. However, I did not crave puddles of grease, nor did I want to stink up my house with my deep fryer. The sun was shining and the sound of the leaves rustling in the lake breeze was enough to make me want to cook entirely en plein air. I opted to grill a whole sea bass and make skillet fries in the barbecue. I was quite pleased with the results.

There are plenty of fish in the sea that are referred to as 'bass'. It's not terribly clear to me what makes a 'bass' a 'bass'. Nevertheless, the fish I grilled is sometimes called European sea bass or Mediterranean sea bass or even branzino. It is a clean and aerodynamic silver torpedo with beautiful, flakey white flesh. I have been eating so much trout and other oily fish as of late that I have forgotten the pleasure of uncluttered white fish; naturally salty from the brine of the sea with skin that crisps up and crackles pleasantly on the tooth. When it comes to fish skin, I usually turn up my nose. I’m sorry, I personally don’t find salmon skin edible. It is one of the fishier-tasting parts of the animal. On the other hand, the skin of the sea bass, with the help of plenty of Maldon salt, crisps up to something on par with duck crackling. Absolutely delicious. Another thing I like about this species of fish is that the other bits such as the tongue, the eyes and so on are actually pretty good. They are gelatinous and salty not unlike the coagulated jelly that gathers around a cold left-over roast chicken. Yes, it’s a bit off-putting if you dedicate too much thought into it, but if you are going for pure sensual pleasure just slurp that eye right out of the socket (my daughter and I got one eye each).

To prepare your sea bass, you must scale it and gut it. It’s best to have your fish monger do this. Then, it’s simply a matter of putting some of your favourite aromatics into the belly cavity (I used bay leaf, lemon, salt and pepper), then a thin coating of olive oil over the whole fish and plenty of flaky salt and pepper. Make sure your grill is well oiled and very hot and then get it on there. Don’t fiddle too much with it; the skin is delicate and can tear. I managed a 45 degree re-position on both sides to attempt a bit of a cross hash grill mark. From the photo you can see this didn’t really become apparent. Nevertheless, the fish really only needs about seven minutes per side for optimal doneness. I accompanied the fish with some barbecue skillet fries and a quick vegetable sauté. Take a few russet potatoes, give them a really good scrub and then cut them into wedges. Toss with plenty of olive oil, salt and pepper and line the bottom of a cast iron pan with the potatoes skin-side down. This is important because the skin will not stick but the cut flesh is moist and starchy and will stick immediately. Once the potatoes have had a chance to cook and dry a bit in the barbecue, they can then be turned with confidence. Anyway, preheat your barbecue till it’s very hot and then place the cast iron pan right into the barbecue and close the lid. Kill the burner directly under the skillet, but leave the others at full whack. It will need an initial 15 minutes or so of this super hot baking. Then you can actually open the lid and continue the cooking in a more sauté-style by moving the potatoes about without fear of losing your crispy bits to stickage. I also threw in a few tiny cloves of organic purple garlic with the skins still on. The incredible heat will melt them down to pure perfume without burning them (the skins protect them), and they add an amazing garlicky note. If you time everything correctly, you can have your fish sizzling next to the cast iron pan with the potatoes with your vegetables sautéing in the side burner (summer squash, zucchini and tomatoes) – all cooking done outdoors - just the way I like it.

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