Sea bass is one of my favourite fish. Known as bar in north and west France and loup de mer in the Mediterranean; branzino or spigola in Italian; lubina in Spanish and zackenbarsch in German, it is generally thought to be one of our finest fish. It has quite a delicate taste and although I chose to add some summery flavours to mine tonight, you need to be careful not to overpower it.
I have to confess to dithering slightly in Sandys fishmonger in Twickenham. A board proclaimed they had ‘small wild salmon’ and wild salmon is a very special treat indeed, and only available in season – but I’d eaten salmon just a couple of nights ago, so decided I’d save that choice for another day. Then, should I have the sea bass or the sea bream … I like them both … but I saw a perfectly sized small bass so went with that. It cost me just over £5 and I thought I’d maybe want the whole fish, but I asked to have it filleted for ease of eating (feeling lazy as well as indecisive!), and when I opened the bag at home I could see that one fillet would be plenty, so the second went into the freezer for another time.
I usually pan-fry fish like this but fancied cooking it en papillote with some tomatoes, herbs and a dash of white wine. This was not creativity on my part but came about because I’d seen a photo of a similar dish I’d eaten at A Cena some time ago while sorting out some stuff on the blog a day or two ago, and thought I’d try it myself. Like the dish at A Cena, I decided to add some sun-dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil but I also add some fresh baby cherry tomatoes too. I had some thyme and fennel (the herb) growing in my garden, which I thought would work well in the dish, and I opened a lovely bottle of Gavi wine – to add some to the fish and have a glass to drink with it.
I wanted to add a mild onion flavour but had to take into account that the fish would only take about 10 minutes to cook. I thus chose a shallot. The ones I’d bought were quite large so I used just half and sliced it as thinly as I could. I sliced some of the sun-dried tomatoes and cut the cherry tomatoes in half.
I cut a large piece of greaseproof paper and smeared some olive oil over the middle. Then I lay the sea bass fillet on top, skin side down. Next I scattered over the sliced shallot, followed by the sun-dried then fresh tomato. I lay some sprigs of fresh thyme and fennel on top. I seasoned lightly with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Next I had to fold it all up carefully so that it was fairly tightly packed. I found a brilliant YouTube online with James Martin showing how to do it ‘Cornish pasty’ style. For those not familiar with Cornish pasties, here’s a how-to photo guide!
Fold the bottom edge of the greaseproof paper over to the top.
Start making small folds across at an angle.
Keep going with the folds, folding in fairly tightly towards the edge of the fish.
Near the end, leave the last bit open so you can pour in a little wine.
It’s very important to use good wine or you will ruin your fish. Partly because bad or old wine always makes bad sauce or gravy and is vinegary, but also in this instance because the wine won’t have long to cook. Once you’ve poured in a little, fold the last of the paper across to make a tight parcel through which no air should pass.
I did all the folding on a large baking tray so I wouldn’t have to lift the parcel. I put it into a pre-heated hot oven – 220C/200 Fan/Gas 7 – for 10 minutes.
I decided to serve it in the parcel on a plate and put the vegetables I’d cooked – some new potatoes tossed in butter and chopped fresh mint, and some tender stem broccoli dressed with olive oil and lemon juice – in a side dish to keep it all separate.
The aroma from the fish as I opened the parcel was wonderful, really glorious. And it had cooked to perfect tenderness.
The fabulous thing about cooking en papillote is that the fish stays so gorgeously moist and takes up the flavours that you’ve added. I thought I’d got this just right – some lovely summery flavours that complemented the fish beautifully without overwhelming it. I should really cook fish like this more often!