Living large and savoring a fancy dish of rockfish

October 22, 2003|By Rob Kasper

ONCE THE KIDS were out of the house, our lives were going to change. My wife and I were going to eat more fish, read complex novels and generally fill in our vast areas of cultural voids.

That was the theory. In reality, like so many other self-improvement projects, this one has been slow to get traction.

But the other night, roughly two months after the kids left for college, I took some action on the fish front. I prepared a very fancy dish: rockfish with saffron and fresh tomato sauce, perched atop fennel.

This happened on a plain old weeknight, and no company was coming over. It was, I figured, the way real grown-ups dined - those who did not have kids, notorious fish haters, clamoring at the table, demanding immediate helpings of pizza or other massive portions of plebeian grub.

I don't know what it is about fish that puts most kids off. Perhaps it is the aroma or the fact that it is something their parents want them to eat that makes kids cringe when presented with a fine fish dinner. There are, I am sure, some exceptional children whose palate draws them to demand Dover sole for their birthday dinners.

But in my experience, unless the fish in question is a square patty, a fish stick or has emerged from a round can with a label reading "tuna," most kids are not going to cotton to it.

More than once I have grilled a glorious hunk of swordfish or baked a succulent red snapper covered with tomatoes and herbs, only to have my offspring push it away and end up eating cereal for supper instead.

Those days of whines and upturned noses are behind me now, so when I spotted a recipe for rockfish and fennel (another food that is not a kid favorite), I jumped at it.

I found it in The Balthazar Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $37.50), a new work that contains recipes from the Balthazar, a 180-seat brasserie that sits on Spring Street in Lower Manhattan. I have never been there, but it is on my list of places to visit once the kids get out of college.

The recipe contained saffron, a pricey spice for a household with two tuition bills, but it required only one teaspoon and I felt like living large.

There were three components to the dish: a tomato sauce, a fennel confit and the rockfish or, as it is called by folks beyond the Chesapeake Bay, striped bass.

The saffron went into the tomato sauce, which was made by cooking five chopped-up tomatoes with an onion and two cloves of garlic. I was disappointed to learn that this mixture was then put through a food mill. That made the threads of saffron disappear. I wanted to show them off, like expensive jewelry.

The fish was cooked very quickly in a very hot skillet. This did fill the house with a distinctive aroma. But while kids would call it a "smell," I prefer to think of it as a fragrance.

Making the fennel confit gave me some problems. The recipe called for cooking three fennel bulbs in three - yes, three - cups of olive oil. The idea is that I could then use the infused oil to dress salads and drizzle over fish.

What wasn't clear was what I was supposed to do with the fennel after cooking it in the oil. It turned out I was supposed to put it in a bowl under the sizzling rockfish and tomato sauce.

Once I figured out how to put this dish together, it was quite flavorful. The fennel confit was a pleasing companion to the slightly sweet rockfish.

Had I been familiar with fennel confit, I could have quickly solved the problem of how the dish was assembled. But until recently, I haven't been eating fish on weeknights and I haven't been running with the confit crowd.

Striped Bass With Tomato and Saffron on Fennel

Serves 6

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

1 packed teaspoon saffron

pinch of red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons salt (divided use)

5 beefsteak tomatoes, roughly chopped

6 fillets of striped bass, about 6 ounces each

fresh ground pepper to taste

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 tablespoons basil leaves, cut into thin ribbons

2 cups fennel confit ( see below)

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over a low flame. Add the onion, garlic, saffron, pepper flakes and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and 1/2 cup water. Simmer for 20 minutes. Pass through a food mill and set aside.

Pat the fish fillets with a paper towel and season the flesh side with the remaining teaspoon of salt and a few grindings of pepper. In a large, nonstick saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil over high heat until it smokes. Shake the pan with one hand while adding three fillets, skin side down, with the other. Shake the pan again to distribute the oil.

Cook the fish for 3 minutes on the skin side, and 2 minutes more on the other side. (Transfer to baking sheet and hold in the oven while you cook the other three fillets.)

Add the basil to the cooked fennel and heat in a small saucepan. Divide the tomato mixture into 6 bowls, then do the same with the fennel. Top with the fish fillets and serve immediately.

Fennel Confit

Makes 2 cups

3 fennel bulbs, tough outer layer removed

3 cups extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

4 star anise pods

Cut the fennel bulbs in half and remove the core. Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 30 minutes.

Cool to room temperature in the saucepan and then strain the oil into a bowl or bottle. Store the fennel-infused oil in the refrigerator, covered. It can be used to dress salads or drizzle over fish.

Remove the star anise, and cut the cooked fennel into strips, and serve with the striped bass and tomato-sauce assembly.

- Adapted from "The Balthazar Cookbook" by Keith McNally, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson (Clarkson Potter, 2003, $37.50)

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