The December 2007 issue of Saveur magazine, had a phenomenal article on roasting various meats. Since then, I've been using their techniques and putting all kinds of variations and my own creative stamp on dishes. If you can get your hands on this back-issue I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn the fundamental perfection techniques for roasting pork, beef, chicken or fish.
My favorite dish which grew out of this fun experimentation is my "Roasted Branzino with Tangelo-Olive Tapenade."
My techniques are the same as the segment of the article on "Striped Bass with Salsa Verde" but the ingredients I used are different and my own style. That's the beauty of great articles or recipes, they inspire you to create something all your own!
The best thing the fish segment taught me is how to solve a problem I've had roasting whole fish. In roasting, you don't want the protein to be lying in the pan or juices, otherwise you're braising or steaming and the texture and flavors are different. Roasting proteins, on the bone, brings out the maximum flavor while preserving the moisture of the flesh. With chicken, poultry or beef you can use a roasting rack to hold the meat off the bottom of the pan so the heat is completely dry. With fish, however, the skin will stick to the rack and pull off when you remove it. Even using aluminum foil with non-stick spray has undesired side effects. This article showed how to make a "roasting rack" for the fish using ribs of celery. Genius! So simple, as genius often is, and it makes all the difference in the world. The fish roasts perfectly, entire body intact, until you're ready to fillet it elegantly at table-side. Here's what my branzino looked like prior to roasting. The photo shows several techniques - the bed of celery as a rack, scoring the fish and tucking thin slices of lemon into the slits and stuffing the cavity with aromatics. All of these are key techniques to a succulent and flavorful whole fish.
Here's how my recipe turned out
Serves 2-4 depending on size of fish
1 whole branzino, cleaned (means gutted and scaled; let your fishmonger do it)
3 ribs celery, whole
5 T. extra virgin olive oil
coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 lemon, sliced very thin and cut into half-moon halves
2 stems fresh basil and leaves removed for tapenade
3 stems fresh tarragon and leaves removed for tapenade
4 fronds fresh fennel (we always use the bulbs in recipes but KEEP those fronds and stems!)
For the "Tapenade" mine isn't completely traditional but close:
3 scallions white and light green only, minced
4 fresh basil leaves, minced
leaves from tarragon, minced
1 tangelo, zested and juiced
1/4 lb. mixed green and black olives, pitted and chopped
1/2 tsp. capers, chopped
kosher salt to taste
black pepper to taste
1. In a small non-reactive bowl, mix together all the ingredients listed for the tapenade. Taste to ensure you've got good balance of flavors. If you can make this a day in advance, all the better. If not, make it as early as possible before you're ready to roast the fish. Its taste improves the longer it sits within 24 hours (no more).
2. Pre-heat oven to 400˚F. Unwrap the fish on a cutting board and cut two or three angled crosswise slits on each side, which go about halfway to the bone. (This is called scoring.) Rub the fish with 2 T. extra virgin olive oil on the inside and out of both sides. Season with sea salt and pepper on the inside and out, covering lightly but uniformly. Tuck one lemon half-moon into each of the slits you scored in the fish. Put the remaining slices and the basil stems, tarragon stems and fennel fronds into the belly cavity of the fish.
3. Grease a baking sheet with 1 T. olive oil. Arrange the celery ribs to make a rack for the fish, using in both horizontal and vertical fashion. I cut my third celery rib in half and placed one each under the head and the tail. Drizzle 2 more tablespoons of olive oil on the celery. Place the fish on top of the celery-rack making sure none of its body is lying on the baking sheet directly.
4. Place the fish on the baking sheet in the oven, uncovered, and roast for 18-20 minutes until the skin is crispy and the flesh feels tender but still slightly firm. You can use a fork to peel back a little of the skin at the tail and see if the flesh flakes, if you're uncertain.
5. Remove from oven and carve immediately. Properly carving a fish is best done visually rather than verbally. Luckily, Saveur thought of that too! Don't worry, it just takes a little practice! Serve with the olive-tangelo tapenade and enjoy!
Once you get the concepts down, try all kinds of fish and aromatics and you'll be having delicious roasted fish with ease.
For more ideas on how to use Branzino, check this out.