I love to prepare sea bass sous-vide followed by crisping up the skin in clarified butter. This way it is possible to have crispy skin (using flour and clarified butter) combined with tender juicy flesh (by cooking sous-vide). Everybody loves this dish and thus I’ve served it as a starter with a herb salad for so many times that it was time for something new. And so this new dish was born: sea bass sous-vide with triple fennel and a creamy white wine sauce that includes the reduced stock made from the head and bones of the sea bass. Triple fennel means fennel served three ways: as a salad, fried, and braised. The three preparations of fennel complement each other nicely and all go well with the sea bass. The amount of fennel seems huge, but when you braise fennel it will be reduced a lot.
What we call “sea bass” in Europe (spigola or branzino in Italian, loup de mer in French) is not the same as (Chilean) sea bass available in the United States. If European sea bass is not available, you can prepare a similar dish with another fish such as snapper.
If you don’t have sous-vide equipment, you can use a ziploc bag, the water displacement method to put the fish in the bag with as little air as possible, and use a digital thermometer to heat a pot of water to the proper temperature and then monitor the temperature while the fish cooks. Given the short cooking time of only 10 minutes, that is certainly feasible and believe me that it is worth the trouble! The fish cooked this way is THAT good.
This is a great dish, especially when paired with a nice slightly oaked white burgundy such as Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, or St. Aubin.
2 sea bass of about 500 grams (1.1 lbs) each, filletted (skin on), heads and bones reserved for the stock
4 fennel bulbs
salt and freshly ground white pepper
extra virgin olive oil
125 ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine
60 ml (1/4 cup) cream
1 Tbsp corn starch
For the stock
1 stick celery
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
Remove the eyes and gills from the fish heads. Make fish stock using the ingredients indicated. Filter the fish stock and then reduce it to 125 ml (1/2 cup).
Trim the fennel and use the trimmings for the fish stock. Select 4 fennel ‘leaves’ for the fried fennel. Of the remaining fennel, select about one quarter of tender inner leaves for the fennel salad and slice as thinly as you can. Put the undressed fennel salad in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and put it the refrigerator. Slice the remaining fennel for the braised fennel.
Set up an ‘assembly line’ of three bowls. Put flour in the first bowl, a beaten egg in the second bowl, and breadcrumbs in the third bowl. First dip each piece of fennel in flour and turn it around to coat on all sides. Shake off excess flour. Dip into beaten egg, coating on all sides and shaking of excess egg. Finally dip into breadcrumbs, coat on all sides and shake off excess breadcrumbs.
Everything up to here can be prepared beforehand. Start from here about 15-20 minutes before you’d like to serve.
Dress the fennel salad with salt, juice from 1/2 lemon and extra virgin olive oil.
Cook the sea bass fillets sous-vide (in a sous-vide cooker or in a pot of water using a digital thermometer to monitor the temperature) for 10 minutes at 48ºC/118ºF. (When monitoring the tempeature, try to keep it between 46ºC/115ºF and 50ºC/122ºF.)
Meanwhile, combine the white wine and the reduced stock in a saucepan. Reduce to 125 ml (1/2 cup) over medium high heat. Add the cream, stir, and cook for a minute. Mix the corn starch with cold water and add the slurry to the sauce. Stir and cook for another minute to thicken the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground white pepper.
Heat more clarified butter in a non-stick frying pan over high heat. When the butter is very hot, add the sea bass fillets, skin side down, and cook for a minute until the skin is brown crispy. Again there is a fine line between brown and crispy on the one hand and burnt on the other. Stay on the right side of that line. Do not cook the fish on the flesh side, as that would dry it out.
It is a good idea to have someone else dress the plates with the fennel and sauce while you crisp the sea bass skin, in order to serve everything hot.
As already mentioned in the introduction, this is outstanding with a good white Burgundy that is slightly oaked such as Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet or Saint-Aubin. Get a 1er cru if you can afford it; Saint-Aubin is very affordable.
Simple but nice: pasta with carrot sauce.