You would think that working from home might mean that we dine on fancy, elaborate dinners, and that Andrew eats like royalty around here. I run an elaborate ruse: come weekdays, we’re all about quick meals around here. Roast chicken is for the weekend, and so is stuffed cabbage. Mondays through Fridays, it’s all about the manageable, or if I am feeling lazy – take-out.
But sometimes, instead of cooking a meal I can’t wait to write about, I fail. I burn dinner. I discover that chickpeas and kale stewing together in a slow-cooker, while sounding amazing in theory, look like the split pea soup they used as vomit in Poltergeist.
[I just wrote “vomit” on my blog. Excuse me for my brutal honesty.]
Most often, I get lost in my work only to realize that I have fifteen minutes until Andrew comes home and, it’s far too late to start anything that doesn’t end with a fried egg on top.
But I can always roast a whole fish such as branzino, a process that takes give-or-take fifteen minutes. Which means that weeknight dinners that look, smell, and taste of sophistication and elegance is in my reach even if I’m in a pinch.
Roasting a whole fish for dinner is one of my favorite things to do. Branzino is affordable unlike, say, wild salmon or tuna. It’s fairly sustainable (given my limited understanding of fish sustainability). It’s a perfect portion for one person and can easily be scaled up. There is little (if any) mess involved and the clean up is a cinch. It’s healthy. It’s fast. And it’s totally doable in twenty minutes or less.
A few weeks ago, while preparing the fish, I went ahead and stuffed the branzino with lemon, rosemary and garlic, a common practice in our kitchen. I heated the oven while I prepped the fish, slipped it in when the oven was ready, and for a few brief moments while the fish cooked, I felt transported to somewhere on the Mediterranean coast. [Note: if you find it a bit out of your budget to travel to Italy for a vacation, this just might be a poor man's substitute.]
Halfway through the roasting time, I decided to throw in a handful of Mars grapes, a purple seedless grape variety I had picked up at the farmers’ market a few days before. Mars grapes, my current autumn addiction, are just like Corcord grapes: grapey and jammy, with juicy flesh that easily slips out of the thick grape skins, minus the seeds. It’s the lack of seeds that now makes these muffins a cinch to make.
Roasting grapes is nothing new; people do it all the time. But I’ve never roasted grapes with fish and haven’t really seen it anywhere. It sounded good to my mind’s palate, so I gave it a go, hoping that roasting these so-grapey-it-almost-tastes-unreal grapes would turn out gloriously. I was hoping that the grapes would caramelize and take on deeper jam notes and work well with the lightness of branzino.
My hunch was a good one. When we sat down to dinner, spooning the roasted grapes over the fish, it was indescribably good. The kind of good that makes you easily bid goodbye to summer, and welcome fall with open arms. The kind of good that makes you realize that if ever in a pinch, you’ve got dinner covered. The kind of good that I’ll keep on regular dinner rotation (for weekdays and weekends) for years to come.
Branzino with Roasted Grapes
This method of roasting a fish can work beautifully for a lot of whole fish that’s of the same size and texture. Dorade (orata) is a great substitute if you can’t find any branzino. Branzino is another fancy name for European seabass, but lately, there’s been some controversy about what is the proper usage of the term “bass”, and these days more and more people refer to the fish as just branzino. Some of its other names are loup de mer or sea dace.
If you’re not hear a farmer’s market or there aren’t any grape farmers near you selling their fall harvest, don’t despair. Just find your favorite supermarket grape and throw it in with the fish – it will be delicious, no matter what. Also, while it might be tempting to throw the fish and the grapes in the oven all at once, I highly recommend adding the grapes halfway through the fish roasting time. Cooking the grapes for too long can lead them to dry up and burn and stick to your baking pan.
1 (1-pound) head-on branzino, scaled and gutted
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 small garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 or 3 slices lemon
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, optional, to taste
1 cup grapes (your favorite kind – I used Mars)
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Lemon wedges, for squeezing on the fish
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
1. Heat the oven to 450oF; position the rack in the middle. Rinse and thoroughly dry the fish and place is on a shallow baking pan. Using a pastry brush, brush the inside and the top (but not the bottom side) of the fish with oil. The reason for that is that you want the fish skin to stick to the bottom of the baking pan so it comes off easily when you are serving the fish.
2. Place a rosemary sprig, garlic clove, and lemon slices inside the fish cavity, and generously season with salt inside the fish and out. Use a bit more salt than you think you might need – the fish is a sturdy creature and can take it. Add the black pepper if using.
3. Transfer the fish to the oven and cook for 10 minutes. Add the grapes and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the fish is flaky and the flesh is opaque white when you peel a little bit of the skin off. The grapes, by now, should look a little soft and wrinkly, slightly burst, and leak out. Transfer the baking pan to a cooling rack.
4. Arm yourself with two large spoons and carefully peel back the top of the skin. Gently spoon the flesh of the fish on the top side of the spine and transfer it to a plate. Repeat until no more meat remains on top. Gently lift the spine out of the other half of the fish and set it aside. Using your spoons, gently lift the rest of the fish meat that remains on the pan. This will not make for a pretty presentation, but this is meant to be served family-style, among friends.
Check the fish meat for any remaining bones, and spoon the grapes over and around the fish. Drizzle everything with olive oil, squeeze a few drops of the lemon, and sprinkle with the flaky sea salt.
Serves 1 to 2.