I have tomato envy. I read all those posts of fellow food bloggers who are buying heirloom tomatoes at farmers markets, or even harvesting perfectly ripe tasty tomatoes from their own backyard. And given the local climate here, I have to make do with tomatoes that come from a greenhouse and are just not the same. If you do have access to good tomatoes (as well as fresh sea bass), do yourself a favor and make this recipe. I promise it will be an outstanding way of tasting what summer is supposed to taste like!
This is one of the first recipes that I loved from Biba Caggiano, my favorite Italian cookbook writer, and I have made it lots of times over the last 15 years or so. It has always been good, but I’ve been having problems with the fish becoming flaky and falling apart. Now that I have been experimenting with sous-vide cooking for quite a while, I know that the perfect temperature to cook sea bass is about 50C/122F, and that it will start to flake at around 55C/131F. So now I have improved the original recipe with my new knowledge of food science gained from using sous-vide, without actually using any sous-vide equipment to prepare it. You only need an instant-read thermometer with a probe. (If you don’t own such a thermometer, I do recommend that you procure one. They are only $20 or so, and will make it so much easier to cook fish and meat.) By poaching the fish in the tomato sauce at 50C/122F, the fish will be cooked through as well as juicy and tender, rather than flaky or even dry. An added advantage is that there won’t be a lot of fish juices leaking into the sauce, so the sauce will stay nice and thick.
Fillets without skin of 1 sea bass, about 250 grams (1/2 pound) (obtained from a seabass of around 500 grams/1 pound)
750 grams (1.7 lbs) ripe plum tomatoes
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp capers (preferably salted, but sour is also okay), rinsed and dried
1 Tbsp pitted black olives (preferably taggiasca), coarsely chopped
2 anchovy fillets, coarsely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh flatleaf parsley, finely chopped
Salt seabass fillets lightly on both sides and refrigerate until the sauce is ready (about half an hour).
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Fill your sink or a bowl with cold water. With a sharp knife, cut a cross in the end of each tomato.
When the water boils, put in the tomatoes for 10-30 seconds until you see the skin coming off.
Take the tomatoes out of the pot with a slotted spoon and cool them in the cold water.
Cut each tomato in half crosswise and take out the seeds with your fingers (or a small spoon, but fingers is easier).
Cut the tough part out where the tomato was attached to the plant and discard.
Put the tomatoes in the food processor together with the olives and anchovies.
Heat the oil in a skillet in which the fish will fit in a single layer. Add tomatoes, season lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the sauce bubble gently, stirring now and then.
To check whether the sauce is done, expose a bit of the bottom of the pan by moving away the sauce. If a thin watery fluid will leak out of the sauce almost at once, it is not done yet and needs to be cooked longer.
The sauce is done when it doesn’t ‘leak’ anymore. Now it is time to taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Here comes my tweak to the recipe. Take the pan off the heat and let the sauce cool off to about 60C/140F.
Add the sea bass fillets on top of the tomato sauce. They should be completely surrounded by tomato sauce.
Move tomato sauce from around the fish on top of the fish with a spoon to completely cover them.
Cover the pan and start without any heat but monitor the temperature, which should not drop below 50C/122F. If it does, turn on the heat as low as possible and turn it off again if the temperature rises too much. Try to keep the temperature of the tomato sauce between 50C/122F and 53C/127F. Cook the fish like this for half an hour. It should now be cooked through without becoming flaky.
Sprinkle the top of the fish with parsley and capers. Cover again and cook for another minute to let the capers and parsley warm through.
Use one or two flat spatulas to transfer the fish with the sauce on top to warm plates. Serve at once.
Pairs well with most crispy Italian whites. We enjoyed it with a dry erbaluce di caluso.
11 thoughts on “Sea Bass poached in fresh Tomatoes (Branzino al Pomodoro Fresco)”
Very nice. BTW, I have two of Biba Caggiano’s books. They are amongst my favorites.
I have most of her books. This one’s from Modern Italian Cooking.
I share your tomato envy. Having made my own tomato sauce down in France, I am depressed at the prospect of the winter dross we can buy in Irish supermarkets.
I wouldn’t be surprised if those are imported from the Netherlands 😉 I remember being very surprised when I saw Dutch tomatoes advertised in France. I can’t believe anyone would buy those if you also have local ones (even though the Dutch ones LOOK better, they certainly don’t TASTE better…)
Biba was Mom’s favorite and still is for my Zia. Last time I went home, I served Zia a branzino roasted whole with fennel and lemon. Never thought to serve it poached in tomato. Hmmm. Maybe next time.
Roasted branzino (or orata) is great!
Roasting fish is always difficult to get just right, although lately I’ve had more success because I’ve started using a probe thermometer and took it out at 50C/122F 😉
Love branzino in all its incarnations! Wish it wasn’t so damned expensive over here
It certainly is one of my favorite fishes, and luckily it is caught locally.