Makes 6 servings
It's a red-letter day when Dennis Tsunoda brings white seabass, an excellent moist, mildly firm fish that is highly regulated by the Department of Fish and Game in an effort to rebuild its numbers after overfishing for the last fifty years. A member of the croaker family (unlike other sea bass, which are groupers) that grows to ninety pounds, it has delicate flesh that readily absorbs flavorings. Wrapping the fillets in fennel fronds before roasting perfumes the fish without overwhelming it (look for spring wild fennel for this, which has a more pronounced flavor than common bulbing Florence fennel). The fish is pan-crisped and finished in the oven, a convenient technique I learned from Anne Willan, founder of La Varenne Cooking School, but it is also delicious grilled. When white seabass is unavailable, use other mildly firm fish such as California halibut. The fish is nice with Meyer Lemon Relish (page 49 of the book) and roasted fennel (page 104).
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Choose the longest fennel fronds and discard the thickest part of the stems. Cut the fillet into 6 equal pieces, pat dry, rub with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Wrap the fronds around the fish pieces, starting and ending on the skin side. Place skin side down on a plate.
In a large, heavy ovenproof skillet, preferably well-seasoned cast iron, heat 2 teaspoons oil and the garlic clove over medium-high heat until the garlic is golden and the oil is very hot. Discard the garlic. Working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding, add the fish, skin side down. Cook the fish without moving the pieces until the skin is crisped and brown, about 4 minutes. The fennel will adhere to the fish. If your skillet is large enough, return all the fish to the pan skin side up, or transfer to an oiled baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and roast until the fish is opaque at the center when tested with a knife tip, 4 to 6 minutes. Use scissors to cut through fronds to make it easier for guests to peel away the fennel. Serve with lemon slices.
Cook's Tip: This technique works well with small whole fish. Season the cavities of 3 whole fish (1-1/2 pounds each) with salt and pepper and fill with the lemon slices and some of the fennel and wrap with the remaining fronds. Brown the fish in the skillet as above, about 4 minutes per side, and finish in the oven, about 10 minutes more. A general timing rule for cooking fish is 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
This page created October 2007
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