Tuesday 29 January 2013

Sea Bass stuffed with Fennel

This...is...seriously delicious! The combination of fennel and sea bass is hardly unusual, but here (helped by the judicious addition of a slug of pernod) the flavour, and the creaminess of the stuffing, combined with the  soft flakiness of the fish cooked en papillote is simply sensational. And equally good cold, too....so, excellent if cooked on one day and served as a summer lunch dish on the following day. Apparently, this is a Roux family favourite; and, having tried it, I can readily understand why!

The only tricky part is the process of boning the fish before stuffing it. In fact, as with all boning, the first time you do it, it's largely a question of a good sharp knife, and a careful approach; and after a few times of having done it, you'll wonder what the fuss was all about. With sea bass, the method is as follows:
Go in from the back. Slide the blade of the knife in along one side of the back-fin, and carefully make a cut the length of the fish, feeling the blade against the backbone as you go; once you've cut the entire length of the backbone, go in again but from the other side of the back-fin and repeat the process. Then, reach in and carefully break (or cut with e.g poultry shears) the backbone as close as you can to the tail end of the fish, and starting at that end carefully pull  the backbone out, working your way towards the head (you may need carefully to free the far side of the skeleton, pulling gently, as you go); when you get towards the head, you'll find some rib bones going into the flesh of the fish, and these you should either free, using the blade of the knife, or else snap them off, and remove them later, using tweezers, after you've taken the backbone out entirely. If your fish hasn't already been gutted, then at this point, as you reach the stomach cavity, you should also gut the beast. When you've freed up as far as the head end of the backbone, then break or cut that end as well, and remove the entire bone from the fish. You should end up with a nice clean pocket, ready for the stuffing. If, as is often the case, the fish you get has already been gutted, leaving an opening in the belly, then you will now have a fish which is open on both sides - this doesn't matter, it just means you need to be a bit more careful when it comes to stuffing and wrapping it.

And the recipe...

For two generous servings, and some left over.

Ingredients: 1 seabass, boned as described above (if it hasn't been scaled before you got it, then do so now, or else you risk loose scales ending up on the plate, when you come to serve); half a medium Onion; half a medium fennel bulb; 2 tbs Olive Oil; half a cup of Cream; 1 tbs Pernod; 2 tbs Cornflour; Salt and Pepper.


1. Very finely dice the Onion and Fennel. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan, and sweat the diced vegetables for five minutes or so, until they have collapsed but not yet started to colour.

2. Add the Cream, raise the heat, and cook for a few minutes, stirring, until the Cream has visibly thickened.

3. In a small bowl, mix the Pernod into the Cornflour and stir to make a smooth paste; stir this into the Fennel-Onion mixture (the Cornflour stops the Cream in the stuffing from splitting when the fish is being baked). Transer the mixture to a bowl and allow to cool down; add salt and pepper to taste.

4. Once cool, the stuffing should be quite dense. Spoon it into the boned fish, to recreate the shape of the fish when whole. With a piece of greaseproof  paper about six inches longer than the fish and deep enough to roll the fish in it two or three times, carefully roll up the fish inside the paper, and twist the ends firmly round, to make a sort of christmas cracker.

5. Put into a roasting pan or onto a baking sheet and into an oven pre-heated to 220 degrees C; for a fish appropriate for two or three servings, the fish should be done in twenty minutes.

6. To serve, cut the 'cracker' open with scissors, and then use the tines of a fork to peel awaythe top skin of the fish. Using two serving spoons, cut into the fish, to lift out each portion, steaming and delicious (the bottom skin of the fish should stay in place as you lift the fish and its stuffing away).

Serve, either with small braised onions, or else with diced salsify, roast in duck fat.

Sunday 27 January 2013

The Earthquake...

came without warning. I suppose, they always do. Had we been concentrating on Italian news broadcasts, then it might have been less of a surprise, since it seems they'd had one several days earlier over in the Gran Sasso region...however, since that hadn't merited a mention on Radio Four, it had passed us by, entirely.

I'd just come in from (finally) finishing the new bed beside the South-East pergola, where the sight-lines for the new construction had ended up taking the pergola right over the pre-existing flowerbed, which meant creation of a new bed, and then moving all of the plants (six roses, a deutsia, a cotoneaster, an abelia, and a 'cuckoo' shrub which arrived, unannounced, several years ago from the vivaio, hiding in the pot that brought a magnolia stellata...but which has subsequently grown to become quite a handome whatever-it-is). The day was sunny but cold, and it wasn't tempting to remain outside any longer than necessary. Four-footed was a bit disgruntled, as he believes that once outside, we should stay there until dusk (or dinnertime, whichever comes first). And so, mid-afternoon, I was idly looking at my computer screen (TD doing likewise, on the other side of the desk), and became vaguely conscious of a noise as though somebody was walking heavily over the floor overhead (unlikely, since it is only a low-ceilinged attic) or in the room next door (equally unlikely, since nobody else was in the house); then, there was a sensation not unlike those times at an Islington dinner party, when a Northern Line train passes underneath, with a distant rumble. As the french-windows began to rattle noisily, making the four-footed jump up and stare, and pictures started to do likewise, we looked at each other and said - with remarkable acuity - "My God! It's an earthquake!"...by which time the whole house was shaking alarmingly, with a distinct sideways motion underfoot. Part of me had visions of the thirteenth century walls which tower over us (and don't look in good shape at the best of times) coming crashing through the roof...and part was thinking that surely we should get under the table, or something, but that it would be quite complicated to do, as the stretcher arrangement doesn't lend itself to people and dog seeking refuge there....And as I was still pondering this and wondering if it was going to get any worse, after ten seconds or so, it finished. Thankfully. Followed by an eerie silence, as I imagine the entire city did what we were doing, which was to sit there in mild shock for a moment or two.

Apparently, it was a five-on-the-richter-scale event, and the epicentre was in the Garfagnana. Not very far away, relatively. No serious damage anywhere, though, and no casualties. In fact, really nothing to laugh at, at all. Once is quite enough, though.