Pan-Fried Sea Bass with Herby Salsa and Fennel Chips

This was a meal born out of necessity: I was short on time, short on inspiration and short of the will to do much in the way of cooking. Fennel chips are a staple in our house because they are healthy (being oven-cooked), easy and delicious. The question remained: what to have with them? Normally I would sear a couple of tuna steaks and serve alongside a zingy salsa verde, but I nearly always do that and I fancied a change.

Lurking, unloved, in the back of my freezer was a bag of sea bass fillets. They needed to be used, Christmas is coming and I will need the freezer space. Now what? Something was required to tie my posh fish ‘n’ chips together and tartare sauce, lovely as it is, is a bit too overpowering for sea bass. Instead I put together a simple, fresh, citrusy herb salsa and… wow. What a delicious meal it was. You can’t really call chips – however they are cooked – a light meal; in this meal though that is exactly what they became. It may be cold December right now, but this is a meal that would be equally appropriate for a warm spring evening, eaten in the garden with a good Pinot Grigio alongside it.

I’m making a calendar entry right now, just so I don’t forget to make this again in April…

At this stage, to avoid confusion, I should point out that fennel chips are not made of fennel, they are regular thick-cut potato chips scattered with fennel seeds – a match made in heaven for just about any fish, cooked any way you like.

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RECIPE – Feeds 2

For the chips:

2 large floury potatoes (e.g. maris pipers, roosters) per person, plus 2

olive oil

fennel seeds

sea salt

For the salsa:

2 ripe tomatoes, skinned, and finely diced

1 long red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, chopped

a small bunch of fresh coriander, leaves only, chopped

zest and juice of a lemon

a pinch of sea salt

To serve:

3 or 4 sea bass fillets, skin on

sea salt

the juice of half a lemon

a few good handfuls of rocket

lemon wedges


METHOD 

First get the chips cooking…

As a rule of thumb, allow two large floury potatoes per person, then add two more for the pot. So if you are cooking for two use six potatoes, if cooking for four people use ten large potatoes – believe me, there will be no leftovers.

Pre-heat the oven to 220C / 200C fan / gas 7.

Peel the potatoes and chop them into thick and chunky chips. The chips at the extreme sides are likely to end up skinnier so will be more crispy, adding great contrast.

Place the chips in a large pan of unsalted cold water, bring to the boil. Keep an eye on the water and when it just begins to boil set a timer for three minutes. After three minutes drain the chips in a colander and let them steam themselves dry for a minute or two. Hang on to the empty pot, you will need it again.

Give the chips in the colander a good shake, the edges of the chips should roughen and fluff up slightly. Tip the chips back into the pan and drizzle a good glug of olive oil over the chips – don’t overdo it, all you are trying to do is coat each chip with a film of oil so it doesn’t stick to your baking tray. Agitate the pan to spread the oil around, then take a small handful of fennel seeds and scatter them all over the chips, agitate the pan again then tip the chips out onto a large roasting tray.

Give each chip plenty of room, if you crowd them together they will steam and so won’t roast so effectively. You only need a millimetre or two between each chip, but if you need to use two roasting trays then use two roasting trays. Scatter more fennel seeds over the chips, ensuring they are evenly distributed. Season lightly with sea salt, then roast on the middle shelf for approximately an hour. Turn them after 30 minutes to ensure even browning and so you can gauge how much longer they will actually need.

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Now make the salsa:

To de-skin your tomatoes: boil a kettle, lightly score a cross in the base of the tomato and put it into a cup. Pour the just-boiled water over the tomato and leave for 10-15 seconds. Empty the hot water out and immediately refill it with cold water. Lift out the tomato, insert the point of a knife under the score and lift the skin away, you should find that the skin peels off easily. If you leave the tomato in the hot water for too long it will begin to cook, and the skin will not come so easily.

Cut the tomatoes into quarters then slice into thin strips, then slice across to make fine dice. Combine with the rest of the ingredients, season with the salt, then put the salsa to one side.

Pat the sea bass fillets dry with kitchen paper, then place on more kitchen paper, skin side up and season with a little salt. Allow to sit for 15 minutes or so; the salt will draw more moisture out of the skin. Pat the skin dry; the skin needs to be as dry as you can possibly make it so that the skin will turn beautifully crisp. Now turn the fillets over onto more clean, dry kitchen paper and lightly season the flesh side. Then heat the oil in a large frying pan.

When the oil is hot, but not smoking, fry the fillets, skin side down, over a medium heat for approximately 3 minutes until the skin is crisp and the fish moves freely in the pan. Carefully flip the fish over, squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the pan, and cook for a further minute.

Remove from the pan onto a chopping board, skin side up and, using a sharp knife, cut each fillet in half.  Place a good handful of rocket leaves on the plate, arrange the fillet pieces on the rocket, then drizzle the salsa over the top. Serve with lemon wedges on the side of the plate.

Serve the chips separately, in the middle of the table along with the remaining salsa, so people can help themselves.

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