A whole roasted branzino: Doesn't that sound dreamy? And how about whole branzino roasted with sliced lemons, limes, oranges and onions, and twigs of fresh thyme? What would you think if I told you this was one of the easiest fish dishes you could possibly make – and also one of the most impressive?
You'd say "sign me up" – am I right??!!
OK, so first, branzino. You might know it as Mediterranean sea bass, or – its French name – loup de mer. Some people call it branzini, which is also the plural of branzino in Italian (Italian pals, please correct me if I'm wrong!). It's a delicately flavored fin fish with soft, white flesh – and it's surprisingly easy to cook. Even if you tried to ruin this dish, you'd probably fail. And roasting is my favorite fool-proof way to cook it.
First, go to the store. Ask the fishmonger for whole branzini. One smallish one – about three quarters of a pound – per person is ideal. Two biggish ones are just right to serve three, which is what I used to do before the kid left for college. Ask the fishmonger to scale, gut and clean them, and snip off the pectoral fins (those are the ones on the side of the fish near the gill). If they forget to, you can do that at home -- just give them a snip with your kitchen shears or scissors. Tell the fishmonger to leave the heads and tails on, as it makes a nicer presentation. Unless you're the kind of person that can't bear to see them – then off they go. Roasting them on the bone results in the best flavor, and flesh that stays super-moist, so resist the urge to have them filleted.
OK, you've got your branzini. When you're ready to roast them, give them another rinse in the sink, focusing on the cavity. Pat them dry.
If you're a confident cook, you don't even need a recipe for this; it's that simple. Drizzle a little olive oil in a glass baking dish or other roasting pan. Scatter some sliced onion on the oil, then lay the fish over the onion. Season the fish inside and out with salt and pepper, tuck some fresh thyme and a few thin slices of citrus (lemon, lime and orange or any combination) inside their cavities, scatter more thyme, onion and citrus slices over them, drizzle with a little more olive oil, and roast in a 400 degree oven for about 35 minutes.
Transfer them to a serving platter and fillet them at the table. You can be totally casual about it (as we do for family dinners), or – if you're serving them to guests (a double recipe makes a great dinner party for four) – you can fillet each, transfer to a plate, sprinkle with a few flakes of Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper and offer a bottle of your best, fresh, fruity olive oil to drizzle over that lovely white flesh.
What to serve with it? Some simple blanched-then-sautéed rapini or green beans, sautéed zucchini or spinach. Or start dinner with a simple arugula salad with shaved parm and good balsamic vinaigrette and follow with the fish, maybe with some roasted potatoes.
OK. I'm making myself hungry. Do try this and let us know how it goes!