Bream with Onions and Black Olives
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
"The black olives of Provence are small, wrinkled, salty; all the tang of the South is in them. If you can't buy these little black olives in Soho, at least avoid the great brownish ones sold in most delicatessen stores; they really haven't anything of the same character."
Elizabeth David (1960)
This is a recipe of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's and might be the simplest recipe on the blog to date. However, if you don't like olives, this is definitely not one for you. I can't help conjecturing that this dish might have been derived from the classic French version of a pizza, the Pissaladière.
This, for me, is very much a sunny day dish because the flavourings are provoking of thoughts of the Mediterranean holiday and do indeed suit the types of fish encountered in the Med. These include bream, sea bass, mackerel, gurnard and red mullet, which as read as they are written, start to appear on the market stall in roundabout April, through the summer months and until about September/October. All of these will respond well to this treatment, but there's no reason not to use other fish if you prefer. Pollack or grey mullet, for example? However, now that the black bream have started, and will become more prolific in the next few weeks, I have jumped on the opportunity to use bream here.
The minimal array of ingredients in the recipe do invite that what are used are of as good a quality as possible, and this is especially so with the olives - the sort of olives sold in delis are are just the thing you want here. That might make Ms David turn in her grave, but then I'm willing to hazard a guess that the delis of today (well, some at least) are substantially superior to those of the 1960s.
The onions in this dish want to be cooked or sweated nice and slowly so they colour and caramelise gently to a rich golden-brown, rather than being dark and crispy. When I cook them for this recipe I find myself thinking of a colour and texture along the lines of that in a classic French onion soup. Basically, you can't cook the onions too long, but you can cook them over too high a heat.
The cooking time for the fish will depend on the type of fish and the thickness of the fillets you use. 4-5 minutes is a good guide for bream and would be about right for red mullet too. Gurnard, being quite meaty, will probably take around 8 minutes, with sea bass needing somewhere in between. Mackerel will need the least amount of cooking. Do note that the skin of the fish will not be crispy in this dish so may not be to the taste of some to eat.
I think this is enjoyable served with boiled potatoes and a salad or green vegetable and, at this time of year, some purple sprouting broccoli is an ideal choice of green vegetable.
Bream with Onions and Black Olives
Ingredients (Serves 2)
Fillets of fish (see intro) sufficient for two, scaled and ideally pin-boned
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 thyme sprig (optional)
50ml white wine
75g black olives, stoned and roughly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large frying pan or shallow casserole and, when hot, add the onions, the bay leaf and thyme sprig (if using). Once they start to sizzle reduce the heat and allow to cook gently until the onions are soft and golden, but not deeply caramelised. This will take around 20 minutes and it can be helpful to use a lid for some of the cooking time to help the onions sweat in their own steam rather than fry.
Pour in the wine and add the olives and, over a medium heat, allow to bubble away until the wine has all but evaporated. At this point season with salt and pepper.
Move the onions and olives to the side of the pan and place the fish fillets, flesh side down in the centre. Cook for 2-3 minutes on the flesh side, or until the flesh has turned opaque about one third of the way through the fillets, then turn them over and continue to cook until done. Depending on the type of fish this could be anything from 3 to 4 minutes to perhaps 8 minutes (see recipe intro).
Season again and serve straight from the pan.
"Hugh's Three Good Things", Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2012), pp. 222: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hughs-Three-Good-Things-Fearnley-Whittingstall/dp/1408828588