I’m a bit of a nerdy collector of cookbooks, judging by the groaning bookcase next to my kitchen.
From ‘The Cook Book’ by Terence and Caroline Conran, first published in 1980 to Gary Rhodes’ ‘New British Classics’ (1999) and ‘Seafood’ by Rick Stein (2001) these are well thumbed books that have influenced my love of food and cooking over the years.
So it was with a heavy heart that I decided that many of them had to go to the charity shop, to allow me room in the bookcase for even more books.
But I just couldn’t bring myself to part with books that seem like old friends and it was while looking through the above Rick Stein ‘Seafood’, that I came across a recipe that, although I haven’t made it for a while, remembered it being such a simple yet delicious dish that can be prepared in no time at all.
Perfect for summer eating, I have adapted the recipe by using sea bass fillets instead of monkfish.
A quick word on sea bass. I usually buy farmed sea bass from Greece or Turkey, as wild sea bass numbers in UK waters are in danger of collapse due to overfishing. In fact, the UK Government have in place many restrictions and certain bans on commercial bass fishing in UK waters.
Even the lone fisherman casting his line off the beach or rocks, now has to throw back any bass he or she catches.
But good farmed sea bass is a more-than-able substitute. A little smaller than wild, the taste is still wonderfully delicate with firm flakes of fish. And if you crisp up the skin when cooking, well, you can keep your pork scratchings for me, this is the real deal - and healthier to boot.
Ask your fishmonger if the fillets have been scaled though. If they haven’t, he or she will quickly scale them for you which is a simple job, and means you can achieve that crispy skin nirvana, which I think is essential to the eating pleasure of sea bass, or any fish come to that.
Mrs Grumpy Cook Club would disagree of course, thinking fishy skin is the devil’s food, but if for some bizarre reason you don’t like it, just take it off, even without the crispy skin, this is such a good dish.
INGREDIENTS serves 4
4 sea bass fillets
1 tbs olive oil plus a small knob of butter (optional)
750g of new potatoes
75g watercress, roughly chopped
Approx 85ml virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar, good quality
Sea salt flakes and coarse crushed black pepper
Boil the potatoes in their skins in some salted water until tender. Drain and dry off.
While they are still warm, add the olive oil and crush them against the side of the pan with a fork, or between your fingers as I do. Crush them until the skins burst open so don’t overdo it, you don’t want mash!
Add the chopped watercress, season well and stir round to combine everything.
Season the fish on both sides, and lay in the pan, skin side down. Sometimes I score the skin with three slashes which can help to keep the skin from curling up when it hits the hot pan, but it’s not necessary. If you see the skin curling, just keep it flat for a few seconds with a fish slice.
I add a knob of butter at this stage, but again it is an option. I just prefer the nice golden colour it gives to the fillets, as well as a wonderful taste.
Fry the fillets skin down for about 3-4 minutes or until the skin is lovely and crisp and golden. Flip them over and cook flesh side down for only a minute or two.
Remove to a warm tray with some kitchen roll on it, while you gently reheat the potatoes and watercress if needed.
A couple of tablespoons of the buttery fishy juices left on the frying pan can enhance the flavour of the potatoes, but this is yet another option.
Spoon a pile of the watercress and potato mixture onto a plate, and lay a fillet of sea bass, skin up on top. If skinless, lay it the ‘right’ way up.
Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil around the plate, followed by some quality balsamic vinegar.
Sprinkle with a few salt flakes and course ground black pepper, and stand back and admire your work of art - or as in my case, eat it!