“Do you think I should take one or two?” I asked the fishmonger. I noticed his thick accent when he replied: clearly, he was not American. “He sounds Portuguese,” I kept thinking while staring at the slow movement of his lips in the hope to decipher clearer information. The fact that he was mumbling and that, beside me, a woman was telling her son off rather loudly did not help either.
He started to enumerate a series of numbers which I had a hard time to hear distinctively, and told me about how much fish weight to count per person. The exercise started to become painful as I was trying to convert the numbers quickly in my head, hoping to understand what they meant in grams — the measurement system I will always be more familiar with, no matter how hard I try! But the information became all tangled up in my head. How much did he say? For how many? I eventually gave up. Why would I care after all? All I needed to do is choose two nice looking pieces of fish and we would eat what we could, and save the rest for a salad the next day, if necessary.
“You want to keep the heads?” he asked in an assertive tone assuming that I would.
“Oh yes, please! These are nice fish,” I continued on. “But do you mind cleaning them?”
I’ve always hated to clean fish. Pas vous ? Of course, if I have to do it, I can but let’s be frank here: I really don’t like it. Scaling would still be all right, but getting the guts out of the fish, “ah non merci, please no”. So when I can, I’d rather have someone else do it for me. Wouldn’t you?
He packed my fish, held it back to me, and with a teasing smile, he then added: “Bon appétit!” That put a smile back on my face, and only half an hour later, I was back home with two wonderful and clean branzini, excited at the thought of preparing a simple but scrumptious dinner.
Branzini — also called European seabass, le bar in French — is a wonderful piece of fish, don’t you think? I love its silver white color, and its delicate firm texture. When I prepare it whole, I try to keep the cooking method simple, to appreciate the full flavor of the fish. In summer, it is ideal grilled, but at this time of year, I prefer to bake it in the oven with a lot of herbs, perhaps a dash of white wine, and julienned vegetables like leek and carrots — this is the way my mother likes to cook it, and I’ve learned this cooking method from her.
This time, however, I decided to prepare the fish in the same way I remembered eating it when we vacationed in Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante in the Caribbeans a few years ago. I remember the small stands we would found each day on a different beach, where we were able to get a homemade meal made of a grilled whole fish — probably caught the same morning — rice and beans with a tossed salad. Accras always started our meal. Sometimes the wait until lunch was served on the table was fairly long, but did we mind? Ah ben mais non, not when we were able to have a swim as a way to wait.
Since it is a little early in the season to be venturing out to BBQ anything — unless you are comfortable doing it in freezing rain or snow — my two branzini were baked in the oven, wrapped tightly with a lot of fresh herbs, a dash of coarse sea salt and crushed pink peppercorns, wedges of lime, grated ginger and my favorite fruity olive oil. We ate them with coconut flavored steamed rice and a green salad, and to finish, we enjoyed a refreshing fruit salad made of strawberries and raspberries combined to stewed rhubarb, pistachios and coconut milk — oh yes, I will have to tell you about this one delicious dessert another time.
Now of course, we did have neither the beach nor the flavor of the French Caribbeans. Nevertheless, the simplicity of our island-flavored food was all we cared about.
I licked my fingers and the juice the fish left around my mouth in hope of finding more. Who said that two pieces were actually enough?