Thursday, 25 June 2009

Seabass with potatoes and black olives

I have just come back from Rome, where I think I slightly overdid it on the seafood front. In fact, although I was there for only three days, I did manage to eat spaghetti with clams twice, a tartar of white fish three times and spiced tiger shrimps once. So much for not liking seafood growing up. The only non-fish-based dish I allowed to pass my lips was a simple and typically Roman pasta bomb called caccio e peppe. As soon I have figured out THE recipe (which seems to consist of little other than a particularly hard to source Italian cheese, lots of pepper, a dash of cream and a total disregard for caloric content), I promise I will share. In the meantime, be grateful that you might just slip away for your summer holiday in blissful ignorance of the corruptive power of this dish, still lithe enough to wriggle into your bathing suit.

I came back to London on Sunday night but have yet to shake off the seafood addiction. It continued merrily on Tuesday when, on my way back from a work-related event at Wimbledon --yes, I know, tough job-- I passed by a fishmonger selling some gorgeous-looking clams. Now, this would be nothing to swoon over in France or in Italy, but in the U.K. clams aren't that popular and can be difficult to come by. This was too good an opportunity to pass up and so that same evening I made spaghetti with clams, known as spaghetti alle vongole in Italian, once again. Unfortunately it couldn't be captured in all its steaming, parsley-scented splendor because it was wolfed down before I could remember where I had put the camera.

It was one of these evenings when the Neapolitan, determined to finish painting the ceiling in our new bathroom, wasn't to be vexed.  And there is no surer way of vexing an Italian than making him wait for his dinner.

Fortunately for you, I was really in a cooking mood this week and so last night I decided to rustle up a seabass with potatoes and olives. This is a dish popular throughout Italy, although perhaps most in Sardinia, and I have eaten it many times, but I have always felt jittery about making it at home. Although the Neapolitan has taught me several fish dishes, I still lack the confidence I have with meat. If you're in a similar position, trust me blindly, this dish doesn't fail.

This is ideal for a romantic dinner or when you have a few friends over. The reason I specifically say a few friends is that it can be difficult to fit more than two whole seabass in the shoe-box-sized ovens that are customary in most modern apartments. But if you're the proud owner of a gigantic oven, please don't let me stop you and invite a small Neapolitan family.

This recipe takes only moments to prepare and the result is impressive, both in taste and in presentation.
You could use fillets, saving yourself the hassle of cleaning the fish, but the dish would lose some of its glory and flavor. Using the whole fish also means you can then use the bones to make a fish broth that will come in handy for the seafood risotto recipe I will post later this week.

Ingredients (for four)
2 seabass, cleaned, but with the heads and tails left on. 
400g (1 pound) cherry tomatoes 
600g new potatoes
20 black olives (1 cup) pitted or not.
4 cloves of garlic
A glass of dry white wine
Olive oil

Wash the potatoes. There's no need to peel them. Slice them very thinly, as you would for a gratin dauphinois. Spread them at the bottom of an oven-proof porcelain dish large enough to comfortably fit your fish later on. Walsh and halve the cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle with maldon sea salt flakes and a good grind of pepper. Throw in a couple of cloves of garlic, pealed, and the black olives. Pour in the glass of white wine.

Bake in the oven at 200 degrees for 10 minutes. This step is necessary to make sure your potatoes aren't undercooked. Now add your fish and a splash of good quality olive oil. Cook in the oven for roughly 30 minutes. The easiest way to check that your fish is done is to insert the teeth of a fork near its central spine and seen if the flesh easily detaches from the bone. If it doesn't, pop back in the oven and check again in 5 minutes.

When it's cooked, take out the fish and serve the flesh on individual plates next to the potatoes in their lovely olive and tomato juice. Drizzle with best-quality olive oil.

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