A sea bass with pimientos de Padrón. | Andrew Valente


Good cooking isn’t all that difficult, so long as we learn some of the basics and put in a fair amount of practice. Even competent cooks, however, can make some fundamental mistakes when it comes to doing fish. The worst possible error is overcooking. When that happens it’s too late: nothing can be done to save the fish or the dish. Even top restaurant cooks (especially top restaurant cooks) frequently make another serious mistake: they overload fish dishes with frilly bits that do nothing to enhance the main ingredient. When that happens it’s too late: the dish is on the table and the cook can hardly come rushing in to extract his ridiculous additions.

Sometimes, however, it’s not the cooks who are to blame for the fussy finish: it’s the publishers of cookbooks and TV producers that insist on highly decorated fish dishes. Publishers want cookbooks with an absolute glut of pretty pictures because they think that will lead to more sales. Sometimes the cooks end up using ridiculous ingredients as adornments simply because the publisher’s ‘stylist’ thought it would look better that way. We don’t have stylists at home, and that means our fish dishes needn’t ever include frills that do nothing whatever to improve on the original recipe.

Sea bass, more than any other fish, calls for exact cooking times and a very Japanese presentation: as minimalist as possible. My perfect sea bass would be one that is gutted but with the head and back bone intact, lightly floured and pan-sautéed in butter over a medium heat until the skin is golden and crisp. Giving the skin a crisp finish can be a bit tricky because there is a definite danger of overcooking the flesh. I would forego the crisp finish to ensure the flesh is juicy and tasty.
You can get the skin to be crunchy, however, by giving it a few quick but careful licks with a kitchen blowtorch.

Two sea bass fillets in a German recipe. Photo: Andrew Valente

A sea bass as simple as this calls for a presentation that looks much too plain to be interesting: that’s the exact kind of display you are looking for. With this floured and sautéed sea bass I’d serve some patató, the small Mallorcan potatoes of roughly the same size, which you’ll find in all supermarkets.
Simmer them until almost cooked, peel while still hot, score the surface with the point of a knife, and sauté them in butter until of a nice deep golden colour. A tablespoon of shiny shredded spinach wilted in hot butter would add a nice splash of colour. And that would be it. Nothing else would be needed in the way of decoration. Photographed like that for a cookbook, the picture wouldn’t win any kind of prize, but the sea bass would captivate lovers of sautéed fish. Sea bass done like this would be juicy, of a smooth texture and a delicate taste. Sometimes creamy, intensively flavoured sauces are served with sea bass, but I don’t think they contribute anything to the fish.

If anything were added to this sautéed sea bass, I’d make it some melted unsalted butter to give an extra layer of lubrication, which in most simple fish dishes is seldom a bad idea. Even a farmed sea bass treated in this way would be truly marvellous, although some of my Mallorcan fish-loving friends wouldn’t agree. Their little problem is they still haven’t discovered that today’s farmed fish can be delightful, especially when we give it the culinary respect it so much deserves.

The production of farmed fish has advanced light years since its timid first steps in the late 1960s when it was an innovative and little understood concept. Marine biologists and other scientists have thoroughly investigated this way of increasing fish supplies without seriously depleting the world’s seas and oceans. Their decades of meticulous research has paid off richly and some fish farms in Scotland and Norway are now producing incredible sea bass and salmon. Even some experts find it difficult to differentiate between them and the genuine wild varieties.

A superb farmed salmon at El Corte Inglés. Photo: Andrew Valente

This kind of farmed fish has yet to appear in Mallorca but you will always find excellent farmed sea bass (lubina), salmon, bream (dorada) and turbot (rodaballo) at El Corte Inglés. The farmed sea bass is extremely versatile and apart from sautéing it as described, it can be successfully baked, pan-fried, steamed, butterflied and filleted. El Corte Inglés fish counter will clean sea bass (and other fish) exactly as you want them. That includes butterflying and taking off the fillets, the two chores customers find most difficult. You should try to avoid pan-frying a raw butterflied sea bass or a dorada because there’s a danger of it drying out.

The best way to butterfly sea bass, dorada and similar fish is to first sauté them exactly as described above. When the whole sautéed bass is on the plate, the top fillet is carefully opened out and the spinal bone is separated and snipped out with a pair of scissors. That way you are left with a cooked butterflied sea bass, but one that is juicy and tasty because it was cooked with the head and backbone intact. It’s the difference between a leg of lamb roasted on the bone, or rolled without the bone. The bone always contributes extra juiciness and a richer taste to any fish or meat. These are some ways of getting more out of your sea bass and other farmed fish. The most serious error is that of overcooking and that’s the one you’ll make perfect with frequent and careful practice.