"Do you have anything that's the equivalent of branzino?"
I thought it was a reasonable question. I was at the farmers market in Sarasota, and the fresh fish vendor had a list of available species behind him. With fish, often times the same fish can be called different things in different parts of the world, so I figured it was worth a shot.
"That's the same thing as swai," the guy tells me. "It's a trash fish they farm in Asia. We don't carry anything like that."
I know he is wrong, but I smile, say thanks, and walk away.
He is right about swai being a trash fish they farm in Asia. Well, it's a catfish, anyway. Maybe "trash" is a little pejorative. But branzino is a small sea bass, mostly from the Mediterranean. I didn't know if maybe there was an equivalent elsewhere, but I was pretty sure it wasn't a catfish.
At this point, the branzino dish was just on the list of dishes I might make, because I had to figure out what I could get first. So I went into Whole Foods, which is right next to the farmers market, and saw that they had bronzini. Logic and Wikipedia told me that that was the same as branzino. But they only had one. sigh. I needed at least two. So I called the Tampa Whole Foods, which had two, and I went there to pick them up.
When I got there, they were already bagged and waiting for me. I was a little wary of this, because it's fish, and I want to see it before I buy it. But I figured, what am I going to do at this point? Not buy it? I was committed to the dish, and I've never had anything but good luck with fish at this Whole Foods. So I asked the clerk if the fish was cleaned, he said yes, and I bought the rest of the ingredients.
I got home, and apparently "cleaned" meant something entirely different to the Whole Foods guy than it did to me. See, I was expecting no guts. This was a bad expectation. Apparently, cleaned just means descaled. I wanted "cleaned and gutted." Now I know.
What this all means, is that I got to learn how to gut a fish. Turns out, there is nothing to it. One big pass with the knife, then just be OK with sliding your fingers through a bunch of slimy bits, and it's all over.
From there, it was easy. I washed my hands. Three times. Sliced up the fennel, olives and herbs, and put them in the cavity of the fish, where all the guts had just been.
I made the lemon jam that goes along with it, but I think all my ratios were off, because I was using some really big Meyer lemons, and the skin was sort of bitter. I'm looking forward to trying to make the jam again. It didn't come out great.
What did come out great was the braised fennel. I love fennel in restaurants, but whenever i make it at home, not so much. But this was really easy. Just braise in white wine, then saute with some sugar. It was fantastic.
The fish was good. Not my favorite fish dish ever, but decent. Not sure I got great fish, because the meat was a little soft. Or maybe that's just how branzino is. It was fine. We finished the fish.
Up next: cardoon gratinato