Recipe: Roasted Sea Bass with Tomato, Orange, and Chervil
When I travel to any place in Italy that’s near the sea, I want my first stop to be the fish market. Gotta go. The blend of beauty and carnage is a huge draw (that happens for most people, in many areas of life). You don’t want to look, but you can’t turn away. The aroma of an outdoor market is best, since the fish aren’t cooped up (though being dead, they are stuck where they are, I suppose), and sea breezes, hopefully good ones, waft by. The Trapani market in southwestern Sicily is possibly my favorite. It’s small but startling. Politically incorrect 60-pound swordfish and tuna drip blood onto the stone street below. Colored plastic tarps hang above to cut the sun and keep out the rain. Sicily is full of all the big bad fish nobody’s supposed to touch anymore, but it’s also loaded with “good” fish too, the intense little oily ones, sardines, anchovies, so shiny, and piles of octopus, cuttlefish, squid, mussels, both big and minuscule. It’s been a few years since I’ve experienced a Sicilian fish market in person, but I shop in Manhattan markets, not as raw and pagan an experience, nothing sending me down on my knees to soak up the puddles of blood, but still.
I like the fish shop at the Chelsea Market, The Lobster Place. It’s no Trapani or Siracusa, or Catania, but it smells right, and the selection and freshness are about the best one can do, outside of buying at the Greenmarket. The big slabs of sea bass looked particularly fresh the other day, so I brought one home and began thinking of ways to make it say spring to me. Chervil was what I wanted to taste with it.
Chervil is not a particularly Italian herb, but its gentle cross between anise and fennel is a very Italian taste. In the south of Italy wild fennel, a much stronger herb, grows rampant and is used in many fish dishes, most famously in pasta con le sarde. Chervil, so much gentler, so soft to the touch and lacy, is overlooked, I believe. I think we must as cooks think about it. Maybe the reason many people ignore it is that they don’t hear its message. What it’s telling you is that it’s best matched not with sardines but with more delicate fish.
Roasted Sea Bass with Tomato, Orange, and Chervil
2 approximately 1-pound sea bass fillets, skinned
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup dry breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
A generous pinch of hot paprika
¼ teaspoon sugar
2 pints grape tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
A few large sprigs of thyme, the leaves lightly chopped
The juice and grated zest from 1 large orange
Freshly ground black pepper
A splash of Pernod or another pastis
A palmful of small capers, rinsed
A large handful of chervil, lightly stemmed, the sprigs left whole
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Run your fingers over the top of the sea bass fillets. If you feel any bones, pull them out with tweezers. Choose a baking dish large enough to hold the fish fillets comfortably with no overlapping. Drizzle the bottom of the dish with a little olive oil. Lay the fish fillets in the dish.
Place the breadcrumbs in a small bowl. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and season with salt, the hot paprika, and the sugar. Mix well. Pat this mixture over the tops of the fish fillets to coat them lightly all over. Give them an extra little drizzle of olive oil, and place them in the oven until just tender and beginning to flake, about 10 minutes.
While the fish is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the grape tomatoes. You should hear a nice sizzle. Shake them around a bit so they cook evenly. After about a minute, add the garlic, and keep shaking the skillet. After another minute or so the tomatoes will start to burst and let off a little juice. Now add the thyme, orange juice, and zest, and season them with salt and black pepper. Let this bubble for about a minute or so, allowing the orange juice to reduce a bit. Add a splash of Pastis to the skillet, and let it bubble away for about 30 seconds. By this time the tomatoes should be bursting but still holding their shape. Add the capers.
When the fish is ready, take it from the oven. Set out four dinner plates. Divide up the fish onto the plates, and spoon some of the tomato sauce, with its pan juices, on top. Garnish with the chervil sprigs. Serve right away.