THE ONE THAT DIDN’T GET AWAY
Roasted Branzino w/ Lemons & Fennel
When I was growing up my cousins and I would catch pumpkin seeds early on a summer morning at the end of our dock on Lake Boone in Massachusetts.
(I'm the 'cousin' in the yellow shirt)
I have no idea why these little fish were called pumpkin seeds, but right after we caught them my father and uncles would clean them and my mom and aunts would fry them for breakfast. Catching those fish from a Huck Finn tree branch pole and line w/ white bread rolled into a ‘spit ball’ for bait is the only fish story I’ll ever tell. But this was a big lake w/ far bigger fish stories… the 50 pound trout that snapped the line and swam to freedom was a favorite. Are there really 50 pound trouts?
Other than its affinity for living in the water, branzino is no pumpkin seed. Branzino is described as a small Mediterranean sea bass (‘small’ is such a subjective word – compared to a pumpkin seed, a branzino is huge; compared to a tuna, it’s microscopic) w/ a “mild flavor and delicate texture.” Not really a ‘fishy’ fish lover, Richard had me at ‘mild flavor’ when he told me he was going to roast one for dinner. He decided on Giada de Laurentiis’ roasted branzino w/ lemons, fennel and pancetta.
Anything w/ pancetta is OK by me. Giada recommends cooking the whole fish to “ensure it will stay moist and flavorful” – Fine, just don’t serve it on my plate w/ a dead eye staring up into mine… nor do I want to see its lips pursed as if it wants to say something… like “help.” So, w/ those criteria set, Richard roasted the whole branzino (sans head) he “caught” at the fish store and made as “sides” sautéed zucchini, tomato & shallots
and some cous cous… continuing the Mediterranean “theme.”
I’m happy to report that the one that didn’t get away was absolutely delicious… and that’s no fish story.
Giada de Laurentiis’
Roasted Branzino w/ Lemons & Fennel
2 teaspoons olive oil
8 ounces pancetta, cut into ¼ inch dice
vegetable oil cooking spray
2 whole branzino (or striped bass or red snapper) – about 1-1/2 pounds each, scaled & gutted,
head removed (yay!!!)
salt & freshly ground pepper
2 lemons, zest grated, lemons thinly sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, fronds coarsely chopped (about ¼ cup), bulb thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
½ cup dry white wine
Place an oven rack in the lower third of the oven, Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200-C)
Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until brown and crisp, about 8 – 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Set aside.
Lay a piece of heavy-duty foil on a baking sheet. Spray the foil w/ vegetable oil cooking spray. Lay the fish in the center of the foil and cut two 2-inch diagonal slits on each side of each fish, taking care not to cut through the bone. Season the cavities w/ salt and pepper.
In a small bowl, mix together half of the lemon zest, the fennel fronds, and the thyme.
Divide the mixture among the two cavities. Fill the cavities w/ the lemon and fennel slices, reserving 4 lemon slices to place on top of the fish. Scatter the cooked pancetta and any fennel that didn’t fit in the cavities around the fish. Pour the wine over the fish and arrange 2 lemon slices on top of each fish.
Lay a piece of foil over the fish and crimp the edges of both top and bottom pieces of foil together to form a packet.
Roast the fish for 30-35 minutes, until the flesh flakes easily and is cooked through. Let rest for 5 minutes.
Carefully remove the top piece of foil and transfer the fish to a cutting board. Remove the fennel and lemon slices from the cavity and arrange on a platter along w/ the pancetta from the baking sheet. Pull back the skin from the fish. Using a sharp knife, separate the top fillet from the backbone of each fish. Using a metal spatula, transfer the fillets to the platter. Lift the fish backbone from on top of each of the bottom fillets (it should come off easily) and discard. Using the spatula, transfer the two remaining fillets to the platter, leaving the skin behind. Sprinkle the fish w/ the remaining lemon zest before serving.