A dinner in Provence

Entertain: Fish roasted with olives and tomatoes in the style of southern France makes a fine summer dish.

August 29, 1999|By Betty Rosbottom | Betty Rosbottom,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

During the past 10 years, my husband and I have been fortunate enough to spend a few weeks each summer in southern France. Celebrated for its natural beauty, the region boasts rugged mountains, beautiful beaches and endless fields of lavender and flowers.

For art lovers, there are myriad museums that house masterpieces of painters who lived and worked in Provence. Then, of course, there's the perfect summer weather -- warm and almost always sunny.

But my reason for returning time and again to this area is to savor the delicious yet unpretentious food. Nowhere else in France is the cuisine quite so vibrant, colorful or uncomplicated.

I relish eating in local Provencal restaurants and bistros where the chefs have a talent for using simple ingredients to create memorable recipes.

This year, I sampled many delectable dishes during our dining-out forays, but one in particular stood out among all the others.

At L'Auberge du Jarrier in the town of Biot, I tried roasted sea bass fillets topped with tomatoes and olives and drizzled with basil-scented olive oil.

Each bite brought such bliss that I couldn't wait to try my own version when I returned to America.

At home, I searched for fresh sea bass in vain and instead used halibut fillets, which proved a fine substitute.

I quickly pan-fried the fish, and topped it with slivered black and green olives and sliced cherry tomatoes.

Then I poured basil oil (olive oil blended with chopped fresh basil and garlic) over the fillets before roasting them in a hot oven.

This Provencal-inspired main course, the piece de resistance at a recent summer supper for good friends, was easy to prepare.

I made the basil oil and sliced the olives and tomatoes early in the day.

At serving time, it took only a few minutes to saute the fish and add the garnishes, and then five minutes for the fillets to roast. Corn on the cob and zucchini make fine accompaniments.

Provencal Roasted Fish With Tomatoes and Olives Serves 4

About 7 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, plus 4 sprigs for garnish

1 medium garlic clove, coarsely chopped

8 black Mediterranean olives (such as kalamata)

8 green Mediterranean olives

8 ripe cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced

4 halibut fillets, each about 1/2 inch thick, 7 ounces with skin removed (see note)

salt, freshly ground black pepper

Place 4 tablespoons oil, 2 tablespoons chopped basil and chopped garlic in container of food processor or blender and process, turning on and off 30 seconds or more, until basil is minced. Pour into small bowl and set aside. (Basil oil can be prepared 4 hours ahead. Cover and leave at cool room temperature.)

Pit olives and slice lengthwise into 1/4 -inch slivers. If olives are too difficult to pit, simply slice slivers from sides of olives and discard pits. (Olives and tomatoes can be prepared 4 hours ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before using.)

When ready to cook fish, arrange oven rack at center position. Line rimmed baking dish with aluminum foil.

Pat fillets dry with paper towels. Use enough remaining oil to coat bottom of heavy large skillet and set over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, add fillets and cook just to sear, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side. With spatula, carefully transfer fillets to prepared baking dish. Salt and pepper fish very generously.

Scatter olives and tomatoes over top. Drizzle with basil oil. Roast fish at 425 degrees about 5 minutes until fish flakes easily when pierced with knife and flesh is opaque all the way through. Remove from oven and arrange on serving plate. Drizzle any pan juices over fish. Garnish each fillet with fresh basil sprig. Serve immediately.

Note: You can try other firm-fleshed white fish in this recipe. Cod will work but does not have as much flavor as halibut. It is important to adjust roasting time according to thickness of fish used. If fish is thinner, reduce cooking time. If thicker, increase time.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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