Venetian Hours: A French Cook in Venice: Sea Bass and Potatoes
In France, many a festive occasion is highlighted with sea bass. And since France and Venice are first cousins once removed, it turns out to be rather the same in Venice. A big fat bass is considered a treat.
Both places make sea bass in a salt crust, which is perhaps the cooking method that best preserves the juices, but when you have a nice wild one, which is rare enough these days, it will stand up to roasting.
I got inspiration for this recipe from a traditional Venetian recipe called branzino con patate et olive, or sea bass with potatoes and olives, in which they cook the bass on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes. One finds it in the better restaurants, but rarely in the touristy ones, perhaps because it’s time-consuming, although not difficult.
I’m wild about vegetables, so I added the sun-dried tomatoes, which add not only color, but a deeper flavor and more texture, an idea I got from Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso near San Apostoli in our neighborhood of Cannaregio. The baby Swiss chard is also my addition.
Sometimes I add olives, sometimes not. Other times, I add capers, and other times both. This partially depends on whether the bass is wild or farmed. The farmed ones lack full flavor and these additions add some life as well as contrast to the dish. Onions can also add spark, especially to a farm-raised bass.
As always, my French touch means that I add a bit more wine than the Venetians. I do like my sauce. After all, that’s what life is all about, isn’t it?
Whole sea bass, wild if possible, cleaned and scaled, about 3 lbs. or 1.5 kg
4 large potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
10 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped finely
1 large onion, thinly sliced
Parsley, chopped coarsely
2-3 cups white wine
4-5 branches of fresh rosemary
One bunch of young Swiss chard or bietola
Black olives (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Heavy metal roasting pan
Click here for a conversion chart.
- Preheat oven to 425°F / 220°C.
- Thinly slice the potatoes.
- Pour 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil into the roasting pan. A broiler pan or heavy roasting pan is perfect.
- Place the potatoes and sun-dried tomatoes in the pan, in a single layer, turning them to evenly coat them in the olive oil.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Place in oven, turning every 5 minutes and adding oil if they start drying out. Cook until the potatoes start to feel soft, but firm, when pricked with a knife or 15-20 minutes.
- Remove the vegetables from the oven. Turn carefully in the pan juices.
- Evenly distribute the onions, parsley and branches of rosemary, setting one branch aside.
- Place the sea bass on the bed of potatoes. Insert one branch of rosemary in the cavity.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Add one cup of white wine to the bottom of the pan.
- Place in the oven and lower the temperature to 400°F / 200°C, adding more white wine every time it evaporates and turning the potatoes each time. This prevents the potatoes from sticking and rehumidifies the sun-dried tomatoes.
- After 15-20 minutes, use a metal spatula and check whether the top of the fish is cooked by carefully trying to lift it off the bone. It is important to use a metal spatula because it “cuts through” the fish; a rubber one is thicker and might mangle the flesh. If it can barely be lifted away from the bone, the top is nearly cooked, so remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn it. You may need two heavy-duty spatulas or utensils to do so because of the weight.
- Return it to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, checking it in the same manner using a metal spatula to see if it is cooked, and adding white wine as necessary.
- When the fish is fully cooked — just enough to lift it off the bone — lay the leaves of chard over the fish and vegetables and return to the oven for 1 minute, just enough to wilt it.
- Remove the baking pan from the oven and turn the chard in the rendered juices. Filet the fish; it will usually be possible to simply lift it off with a metal spatula.
- Serve immediately.
- Serve salted capers as a garnish.
- Serve any white wine left in the pan as sauce.
Tip: If you hesitate about adding this much white wine, you can substitute half of it with freshly squeezed orange juice. The exact cooking time of the sea bass varies depending on the thickness of the fish, thus the importance of using the spatula technique. There is no need to add lemon when serving, since the white wine gives an acidic edge. You can also use turbot for this dish; follow the same steps, but because it is not as thick as bass, the cooking time will be less.