I wanted Zach to write this post, to wax poetic about fish, to convey how these scaly, slippery creatures captivate his imagination and his tastebuds. He loves fish - as pets and as dinner - and he often jokes (too seriously for my liking) about working on a commercial fishing boat. Once he's conquered the open ocean he wants to spend his days wading in a stream fly-fishing, with a grill a few steps away so he can throw his catch directly on to the fire and enjoy the fresh, flakey white fish while tying on the next fly.
Initially he wanted the grill in the stream, but I reminded him that, 1) fire and water aren't the best of friends and, 2) it probably isn't allowed. I also reminded him that he doesn't know how to fly-fish, and that it's actually much harder than it looks. And that yes, I know Brad Pitt made it look easy (and incredibly sexy) in A River Runs Through It, but settling to that mesmerizing flick-of-the-wrist rhythm is likely more maddening that it is mediative for a beginner.
I know I shouldn't crush his dreams, but when it comes to fish, I tend to be a bit of a dream crusher. They make me nervous, the scales, the beady slippery eyes, and the tiny translucent bones. I think it all stems from my hatred of tuna fish. Tuna fish has been my numero uno least favorite food for as long as I can remember. The thought of the slimy grey fish packed into a tiny tin can gives me the heebie jeebies. I have the heebie jeebies just typing this. I don't live by many hard and fast food rules, but I do believe that you shouldn't eat something if it smells bad, which in my book extends to tuna fish, hardboiled eggs, and stinky cheese, all of which leave me gulping for air at the nearest open window.
Until recently I never made fish at home. I was too scared that the entire apartment would smell like fish for days. But Zach's love for fish and his persistent plea that we eat it for dinner eventually pushed me to the market where I bought salmon with the skin. I smeared it with herbs dotted it with butter and roasted it until just cooked through. We ate the salmon along side lemon risotto and roasted tomatoes and I swear salmon has never tasted so good. The blend of delicious fresh ingredients and the satisfaction of having conquered the unknown at home made for a particularly tasty meal. And best of all, the kitchen didn't smell, not one bit. Since then we have been eating salmon at least once a week, covered in herbs and yogurt, or herbs and mustard, or wrapped in parchment paper packages, or simply resting on a bed of basil with olive oil drizzled on top.
Salmon was the first step, a baby step. I was happy to stick to salmon, but Zach had other plans, plans that involved a head, eyes, a tail, a spine, and gills. I panicked and made promises about maybe Friday, or perhaps next week, or next month. But then Zach got lucky and whole sea bass was on the menu at our cooking class in Italy. When Zach saw the fish waiting in a pan with tomatoes, potatoes and olives, he himself starting glistening like a sleeve of fish scales. The fish was excellent, wonderfully light and flakey, and cooked in the perfect company of juice sweet cherry tomatoes, soft comforting potatoes, and slightly bitter black olives.
Half the fun of a cooking class is taking the lessons home. Inevitably you forget something (we forgot the wine) but the meal is memorable none the less, both because it is delicious and because you can reminiscence about where you were when you ate it/made it for the first time.
// Roasted Whole Sea Bass with Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Olives //
* we learned in our class that a 1kg fish takes 30 mins at 350ºF // 180ºC
** our pan was clearly a bit too small, but we just made sure the body was in the pan with the head and tail peaking of the edge
1kg // 2.2lbs whole wild Sea bass
500g // 1lb cherry tomatoes
500g // 1lb fingerling potatoes
200g // 4 oz pitted olives (whatever color you like best)
a dash of white wine
a few healthy glugs of olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC
Peal the potatoes. Place the potatoes in a pot and pour in water until they are just covered. Bring to a boil and let the potatoes cook until you can easily insert a fork into their center (timing will depend on size of potatoes). Once cooked, drain the potatoes and let rest until cool enough to peal. Peal, discarding the skins, and chop into slices
Chop the cherry tomatoes into four equal segments. In a large bowl combine the tomatoes with the chopped potatoes and olives. Pour in a few glugs of olive oil, enough so the vegetables are coated. Sprinkle in a couple pinches of salt and a few twists of fresh pepper from a grinder. Mix so everything is evenly coated.
Now it's time for the fish. Ideally your fish monger cleaned the guts out for you, if not you will have to undertake this yourself (something along these lines). Place the clean fish in a pan. Spoon in the tomato-potato-olive mixture, as much as will comfortably fit. Pour in a dash of white wine over the vegetables and follow with the vegetable broth, so that the liquid comes just a fingertip up the side of the pan.
Place in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently peel the skin off the fish, leaving the flakey filets underneath. Try to remove the filets without removing too many bones along with it. Serve with tomatoes-potatoes-olives.
Paired here with the fish pictures are some of my favorite sea shots from our trip. It was amazing how quickly the color of the sky and sea would change. Funny enough it the weather has been somewhat similar and dramatic here in Zürich, from sunny one minute to rainy the next to thunderstorms and back to sunny. I was heading out for a run yesterday afternoon and I saw the clouds rumbling in and I knew I better turn around before getting drenched.
I don't want to give you the impression that I was totally calm cool and collected about cooking our beautiful wild sea bass. I totally wasn't. I think I must have uttered a gazillion panicked 'what if.." questions in between taking photos and peering over Zach's shoulder. I was extra nervous that our fish which was too big for the pan would bubbly and goop over the sides and leave a stinky fish puddle in the bottom of the oven. (A makeshift aluminum catch-all on the rack underneath solved that problem). Generally Zach was Mr. Calm-Cool-&-Collected and just proceeded as we had been instructed during the class while I flapped around like a fish out of water. He assembled the ingredients, skinned the fish, and gently removed the tender filets. It's good to know that we each have our roles, he can handle whole fish and the grill, and I'll do everything else.
Despite my flailing about, the fish was wonderful, perfectly cooked and lightly flavored. It's not a fishy fish, but rather a mild white fish. We ate it on the balcony, a wonderful start to a season of dinners outside.
So back to my asking Zach to write this post. He was totally on board, ready to type and make his grand debut on House to Haus, but then Saturday slipped away and all the sudden it was Sunday and he left, headed back to the Adriatic for work, but this time to the other side. He is in Dubrovnik right now, and just sent me this picture (below) from his hotel room...
...hmpf, a room with a view if I ever saw one. I think I'm going to have to start tagging along on his business trips. I'll just hang ocean side while he goes to meetings. I hope he's getting his fill of fresh Adriatic fish...