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Fishy Delights 

Simple to prepare and delicious, this sea bass recipe is nothing to wrinkle your nose at

The other day, George walked into the house, wrinkled up his nose and said with some disgust, "It smells like fish!" His voluntary food chain does not include denizens of the deep blue.

Fish seems to be a regular part of my diet, although that's mostly unintentional. It's just that I work in an environment where Food Is Significant. We have many, many meetings at lunchtime, and what's on the menu is often as much discussed as what's on the agenda. Salmon is a key player in our gatherings.

But I don't often otherwise eat fish, save for sushi, unless the mood hits--as it has in the past few weeks. And when it does, I usually find myself at Le Bistro, as Andrew and I did last week. It was the night before I left for Vassar for my godson's graduation, and I wanted to put off packing and have a great, comfortable meal--which is what I can count on from Laurent in his restaurant. Besides, I was in the mood for fish and, in particular, his horseradish-crusted Chilean sea bass.

This column is not about restaurant reviews, so I don't need to explain how consistently excellent the sea bass is, or rave about the richness of the artichoke bisque we had that night. There's no point in mentioning the amazing things that happen to one's taste buds when eating Laurent's scallops and green chiles with goat cheese, as Andrew discovered that night.

But I would be failing you miserably if I did not say a few words about something new on his list--the bistro-style carpaccio of scallops. It is an amazingly good dish: thinly sliced raw scallops topped with lemon juice and zest, centered on a plate with spokes of avocado, sliced strawberries and tiny dollops of hot Chinese mustard. The combination is truly mouthwatering. Laurent said we were the first brave enough to order it. I am here to tell you that if it is on the menu, and you don't try it, it's your loss. And if you don't know Laurent and Le Bistro--which, once upon a time, was Katherine & Company and, before that, a Winchell's doughnut stand--you're missing out on two of the best things Tucson has to offer.

But back to George and his complaint about the aura of fishiness on East River Road. He was two days off, but he was right.

A couple of afternoons before, I had tossed the aforementioned Andrew a trio of cookbooks and asked him to find something that sounded good that we could cook together for dinner that night. He had fish on his mind, and in no time at all, we settled on a China Moon recipe for Black Sea Bass baked in a salt crust. It's a happily simple-to-prepare dish with a typically great China Moon story behind it--and it comes from Seville, which is about the best city I've ever visited.

Here's the recipe:

  • 1 black sea bass (1 3/4 pounds, cleaned)
  • Coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
  • 5 pounds kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 lemons, halved crosswise, for garnish
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Rinse and dry the fish; season the cavity with pepper. Spread two pounds of the salt in the bottom of a 13-by-9-by 2-inch baking dish, pressing the fish lightly into the salt. Pour the rest of the salt on top of the fish and use a plant mister to spray (or your hands to sprinkle drops of water on) the surface of the salt, and pat it down along the shape of the fish to form the crust.

Bake in the center of the oven for 25 minutes. Remove the casserole and let it sit for three minutes. Starting from the sides, break the crust and discard the salt. Gently lift the fish and remove it to a cutting board. Fillet the fish and transfer to a platter; drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarsely ground black pepper. Garnish with the lemon slices and serve immediately. The recipe serves two nicely.

So, we couldn't find sea bass at the nearby Bashas', and we didn't want to drive across town to the 17th Street Market. Instead, we got an equal weight of red rock fillets and some cheesecloth. We did the salt layer on the bottom, as directed, put down two layers of cheesecloth, the fillets and another two layers of cheesecloth. We wrapped the fish, poured on the rest of the salt, misted it and shaped the crust. And it worked perfectly, with the added bonus that the filleting was already done when we unwrapped the finished dish.

We ate the fish with a spinach salad, potato croquettes, a crusty loaf from Ilse's and a very cold sauvignon blanc. It was a terrific meal, fun to shop for, prepare and enjoy with a friend, and it was far, far better than George's wrinkled expression could ever suggest.


From the mailbag:

To Robert C.: Wow! Thanks for those words. One of these columns is going to be about MFK and the lunch I had with her. Good food helps us through all times, hey, my friend?

To Pat J: Thanks for your note. If I could ever learn to make the bracciole your mom did, I'd be a happier man.

To Ray F.: As you can tell, I know where honor is due! See you soon, I hope!

To m&M: You think I get rid of plates? Heaven forbid--they just go back to the farm and become part of the museum. But, thanks for your comments.

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