Thursday, 23 May 2013

Pan roasted black bream with crab, confit fennel, asparagus, clams and sea purslane

As I wrote a couple of posts ago, I have recently been pretty obsessed with cooking fish. I tend to do this with food; I will go through stages of really concentrating on one group of ingredients, or method of cooking and will use it in lots of things that I make. Previously it has been adding breaded, deep fried things (see cod cheeks, pork cheeks and oysters in the last few months), or asparagus which I can’t get enough of at the moment. The fact that the very short British asparagus season is in full swing, and combines with fish so beautifully means that they take high priority on the menu. And simply both ingredients are delicious and I take great pleasure in eating them.

This dish came about in a bit of an accidental way. The ingredients and concept are classic enough, but the finished meal was not really what I intended when I started thinking of what to cook. For the last few weeks I have had some wacky idea in my head about curing an oily fish, initially sardine fillets, in rhubarb to create a fresh tasting, vibrantly pink element to a dish which also included some chargrilled fillets for contrast. I imagined that it would produce a lovely looking little salad, and couldn’t wait to get experimenting with it. Flaw in my plan no.1: when I enquired to my local fishmonger about sardines, I was told that they were ‘pretty scarce’ at the moment. That was the sardine thought grounded, but fair enough I would use the trusty mackerel instead. So off I went to the fishmongers on Sunday, and as my luck would further have it, a good weekend had seen them cleared right out of mackerel. Bugger. 

I’m rubbish at creating quick, inventive things to cook on the spot, so I felt really thrown at that point and a little panicked that I was just going to buy a load of random things that wouldn’t come together. This is where the joy of a local, independent fishmonger came in. After a quick chat, it was decided that black bream is really in season, and would work perfectly with the ingredients that I planned to use. They are pretty mad looking fish, with big heads and dark silvery flanks, but fillets that you get from them are amazing, very similar to seabass. Along with the clams and purslane that I also bought, to my delight I was also given a bag of freshly picked white crab meat. Menu sorted I left a happy bunny (apart from the flat tyre I got on the way home...). Thanks a lot to the excellent as always Jonathan Norris in Victoria Park village. 

This dish is pretty simple to put together, with the only time consuming thing being the fennel confit. Once this is made everything else can be prepared and cooked quickly. Cooking fish is something that takes experience, as it only takes a minute or two to overcook and ruin, but with a little practice it’s dead simple. The key is to make sure that the pan is hot before you add the fish, and that you cook it skin side down for the majority of the time.   

Serves 2


For the bream:

1 black bream (or gilthead will be fine), filleted and pinboned
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1/2 lemon, juice only

For the confit fennel: 

2 bulbs fennel, finely sliced, fronds kept for garnish
600ml olive oil, or enough to just cover the fennel
2 bulbs garlic, whole
150g white crab meat
1 lemon, juice only
Salt and pepper

For the asparagus puree:

8 asparagus stalks, heads removed and kept for pickling
30g butter
1/2 lemon, juice only
Salt and pepper

For the pickled asparagus:

The heads of the 8 asparagus
200ml white wine vinegar
3 tbsp caster sugar
6 black peppercorns

For the clams:

1 small handful clams
1 glass white wine

For the samphire:

1 small handful samphire, rinsed
1 tbsp butter
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

To finish:

1 small handful sea purslane, rinsed
Fronds from the fennel

To make the confit fennel, put the sliced fennel and whole garlic in a medium-sized saucepan and cover with the olive oil. Cover the top of the oil with a cartouche and set on a low heat for 35-45 minutes, or until very tender. Drain well, discard the garlic and set aside. 

Take the prepared bream and crab out of the fridge and allow to get to room temperature. If the fillets are big then cut into two neat pieces. 

For the puree, fill a medium saucepan with salted water and bring to the boil. When boiling, add the asparagus stalks and boil for 3-4 minutes or until tender. Drain and transfer to a food processor with the butter, lemon and seasoning. Blitz well, then taste and adjust if needed. Set aside in a warm place.

To pickle the asparagus tips, put the sugar, white wine vinegar and peppercorns in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. When the sugar has dissolved, put the asparagus into a small bowl and cover with the pickling liquid. Set aside.

Put the cooked fennel into a saucepan and gently warm up on a medium-low heat. Season well and squeeze over the lemon juice. Keep heating through as you finish the other elements of the dish.

Heat a large non-stick frying pan to a medium-high heat and add a good glug of olive oil, 2-3 tablespoons. 

While the pan is getting hot, put another small pan on a medium heat and melt the butter for the samphire. When melted, add the rinsed samphire and seasoning and cook for a minute or two until just al dente. Squeeze over the lemon and keep warm. 

Also put a small saucepan on a medium-high heat for the clams. When hot, pour in the clams and add the white wine, which should bubble straight away. Put a lid tightly over and shake the pan a couple of times. Cook for a minute or two until the shells open. Remove the clams into a bowl, and pour the white wine liquor into the fennel saucepan along with the white crabmeat. Mix well and taste, adjusting seasoning and acidity. Cook for another minute and take off the heat. 

When the frying pan is hot, season the bream fillets all over and gently place skin side down, holding them flat to the pan with your fingers for a couple of seconds to stop them curling up. Cook for 2-3 minutes on the skin side only, and while this is happening baste the flesh side with the hot oil, running the back of the metal spool down each fillet. This will gently cook that side too without the need to flip the fish. After 3 minutes the skin should be crispy, add the butter and lemon and remove from the heat while you plate up. 

Spoon a good tablespoon of the asparagus puree onto the middle of each plate, then lay some of the confit fennel on top. Place the cooked bream onto the fennel, then place the clams, pickled asparagus, samphire, purslane and fennel fronds around the edges. Squeeze over a touch more lemon and serve.

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