I had never heard of branzino before my trip to the Amalfi Coast. It's a Mediterranean sea bass. I suppose if you blind folded me and did a taste test between branzino and, say, Chilean sea bass, I may not be able to differentiate between the two. But I love anything Mediterranean so I'll go with branzino any day. My favorite way to prepare it is to char it on the outside and then transfer it to the oven and roast to perfection.
First I cover the branzino with extra virgin olive oil. I season the cavity with sea salt, sliced lemon and Mediterranean oregano. If I'm serving with the fennel, red onion and tomato side dish, I add the fennel fronds to the cavity. I don't put oil in the cast iron skillet. When experimenting with this recipe I put oil in the pan and the skin peeled off. My cast iron skillet is well seasoned - so it doesn't need oil - but if you're using a new pan or one that isn't seasoned, try using Pam or a similar cooking spray.
I found Mediterranean Oregano at the store - it has a lemony flavor
Next I seal the fish for easier cooking and to keep the lemons inside the cavity. Last night was the first night I laced up the fish - I was reaching for the oregano and saw the turkey lacer package and a light bulb went off in my head. Not only does lacing the fish closed keep the lemons securely in the cavity, it also makes it easier to stand the fish up when going from stovetop to oven (more on that later).
Who'd have thunk?
As always, heat the pan over medium heat for 10 minutes before cooking. You should use a cast iron skillet with the lines so you get the grill marks - it's worth the investment to get one - I use mine all the time. Some people have one for fish and one for meat, but I just have the one (though I haven't cooked meat in quite some time - I am phasing out red meat except for special occasions (see Summer in the City post).
The perfect char
Grill the branzino for about 5 minutes on each side. Keep an eye on it and flip when you see those great grill marks.
I used my fan, opened the window and lit a candle - though branzino doesn't create too much of an odor
When you've grilled both sides give the branzino a minute or two to cool, then stand it up. This way that great charred skin will remain intact. If you roast with one side down the skin will peel off on that side.
Roast in a pre-heated 400 degree oven for 10 minutes
A great side dish is roasted fennel and red onion. I put in the cast iron skilled for a few minutes each side to get the grill marks. As a general rule, fennel and onion go great with fish.
I transfer the fennel and red onion to my Le Creuset oven safe pan and roast for 20 minutes - which works out perfectly time-wise. The branzino is on the stovetop for 10 minutes and roasts for 10 minutes. I add sliced cherry tomatoes when I transfer the pan to the oven.
Et Viola! The branzino is fork tender
Last night I had eggplant and tomato on the side instead of the roasted fennel, red onions and tomatoes. I will post the eggplant recipe tomorrow. This dish may look a little intimidating but once you get the hang of it you'll be amazed at how easy it is to roast your own fish. Be sure to tell the fish monger that you're roasting the branzino when you ask him to clean it. Otherwise you may end up with filets.
Note: when the branzino is roasted, tilt the head back, snap it off and find the spine. Carefully lift the spine away from the fish. Pull it out with confidence - be steady - it will peel right off. These are the only bones to worry about. Cut the tail off. Don't think about removing that great charred skin!
1 medium branzino per person
1 lemon, sliced
1 tablespoon Mediterranean oregano (or regular oregano if you can't find Mediterranean)
1 fennel bulb (you can stuff some of the fennel fronds into the cavity of the branzino, too)
1 small to medium red onion
1/2 cut sliced cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste
For the fennel, red onion and tomato mixture
Cut stems off of the fennel, and cut the bulb into quarters; reserve fronds for branzino cavity
Chop onion into quarters
Cover with 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Season with sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Grill on cast iron skillet for a few minutes on each side
Roast in 400 degree for 20 minutes
For the Branzino
Rinse the branzino
Cover branzino with the olive oil, rub over branzino covering all surfaces
Season cavity with oregano, sliced lemon and sea salt (and fennel fronds if serving this side dish)
Using turkey lacer, sew the cavity shut
Place branzino in the cast iron skillet, cooking for 3 - 5 minutes on each side
Let cool for a minute or two
Stand the branzino up in the pan
Transfer to the 400 degree oven and roast for 10 minutes
Serve over fennel, onion and tomato mixture