Fillet of Sea Bass with Poached Fennel and Consommé
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
"There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue for you."
William Shakespeare ("Hamlet", 1600-1602)
I'm very partial to the pairing of fish with fennel, both in fresh and seed form, and particularly so with those fish we might associate more with the Mediterranean, such as bass, bream, mackerel (see Steamed Mackerel with Fennel) and red and grey mullet. One of my favourite treatments for a whole barbecued fish, especially grey mullet, is a rub of fresh thyme, crushed fennel seeds and salt and pepper before the fish meets the heat. I also have a recipe for red mullet with quick-pickled fennel ready for later in the year when the red mullet are back on the stall. Rick Stein is just as enthusiastic about this pairing and his books are littered, for want of a better expression, with fish recipes featuring fennel, this one being little more than a take on one from "Rick Stein's Food Heroes: Another Helping" and which has been through a number of incarnations in my kitchen.
The heart of the recipe is in the consommé and almost all the work is in its preparation. Making a consommé can sometimes be presented as quite an intricate affair, sufficiently so as to possibly put off even a keen foodie from doing it very often. But if kept simple it's not too much bother and is actually quite a satisfying and rewarding endeavour seeing the crystal clear results of your labours. The majority of the job of the clarification process is done by allowing the fat from the stock to rise to the surface where it is congeals and collects in the proteins of the egg white, and Rick Stein's approach focuses just on this part of the process, dispensing with the remaining, more elaborate steps that a 'purist' technique would demand. As a result, it is the simple approach needed to encourage us to make a consommé more enthusiastically.
Because the flavourings in the consommé are at least vaguely evocative of Chinese cuisine, choosing a starch to make this a complete meal is a little challenging. Potato is not appropriate because of these flavourings, rice doesn't fit texturally and noodles don't really fit because of the shape and size of the fish and the fennel. Bread is certainly not the right choice. Rather than fight with nature I have simply chosen to propose this dish be served as a course in its own right, possibly as a starter but even better as a fish course in a four or five course meal, and have adjusted the recipe proportions accordingly.
Rick Stein suggests a white Cassis to accompany this - I would be happy to agree, but good luck finding a reasonably-priced one in the UK!
Other than to adjust the ingredient quantities in the recipe, I have simplified the composition of the consommé by omitting the shell-on prawns in the original formula and I've used fish rather than chicken stock so as to make the dish fully pescatarian. The result is, of course, less fulsome of, less rich in, flavour, but I think pleasingly and fittingly so if to be offered not as a main course.
In fact by making these alterations this recipe naturally lends itself to the use of a whole medium-sized sea bass as, even though the fish is served as fillets, its head and bones are just the right quantity to make the amount and strength of stock for the consommé. The recipe is written to follow this path, with each fillet cut in half to give four 100g portions approximately, but alternatively, of course, prepared fillets can be used along with a ready-prepared fish (or chicken) stock.
The aniseed flavours of the fennel and star anise in this recipe can be boosted through the use of a touch of Chinese 5 Spice on the fish before cooking and this will inherently lead to a dish evocative of Chinese cuisine. This can be reinforced with the use of sesame oil for the cooking of the fish. For a more 'neutral' final flavour the Chinese 5 Spice can be omitted and a flavourless oil such as groundnut or sunflower oil can be used.
The fish can be pan-fried or grilled with equally pleasing results. You may not need all of the two fennel bulbs but you want to aim for 3-4 slices per person. A mandolin is the best device for slicing the fennel but is used at own risk. Leftovers and trimmings of fennel are excellent kept in the freezer for future stocks.
Fillet of Sea Bass with Poached Fennel and Consommé
Ingredients (Serves 4 as a starter or fish course)
1 whole 750g sea bass, scaled and filleted into 2 x 200g fillets, head and bones reserved
2 fennel bulbs, sliced very thinly from root to tip, thickest part removed, fronds reserved
Chinese 5 Spice, a few pinches (optional)
Sesame oil (or sunflower, groundnut or other flavourless oil)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the consommé:
4 spring onions, roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly choppd
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
Thumb-sized piece of ginger peeled and roughly chopped
½ red or green chilli, deseeded and roughly chopped (optional or quantity to taste)
1 tsp tomato purée
½ star anise
Fennel seeds, 2 pinches
10 black peppercorns
2 egg whites
1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
800ml light fish stock (see Note), or 500ml fish stock diluted with 300ml water
If making the light fish stock from the head and bones of the sea bass, do this first following the directions in the note and making sure to let the stock cool at the end.
To make the consommé, put the spring onions, carrot, celery, ginger, chilli, tomato purée, star anise, fennel seeds and black peppercorns in a blender and blitz to a paste. Put the egg whites, fish sauce and stock in a saucepan, turn on the heat and bring gently to the boil, whisking regularly. When it comes to the boil, allow it to boil vigorously for 20-30 seconds, whisking constantly so that a froth develops on top. Reduce the heat to low and allow the contents of the pan to simmer very gently for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve lined with a double thickness of muslin.
If grilling the fish, preheat the grill to its maximum setting and set the oven shelf close to the grill element. Heat 600ml (or more if you have more) of the consommé in a deep frying pan and when it comes to the boil add the fennel slices in a thin layer. Once back to the boil lower the heat and poach gently for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave until ready to serve.
Meanwhile cut each fish fillet in half (to give four 100g pieces approximately) and season each fillet half on the flesh side with salt and pepper and just a pinch of the Chinese 5 Spice if using, and only salt on the skin side. Rub all over with your chosen oil. If grilling the fish then place the fillets, flesh-side down on a greased baking sheet and put under the grill for about 3 minutes or until the skin starts to crisp. If pan-frying the fish, heat a dry non-stick frying pan until medium-hot and put the fish, skin side down, in the pan. Fry for about 2 minutes on the skin side, then turn the fish over, turn off the heat and allow the flesh side to cook in the residual heat for a minute.
To serve, spoon 3-4 slices of fennel per person into wide soup bowls. Divide the consommé over the fennel slices in each bowl and place a fish fillet on top. Garnish with the reserved fennel fronds and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Light sea bass stock (makes 800-900ml): Wash the sea bass head and bones well and put them in a large saucepan with 1 small onion and 1 small carrot, peeled and sliced, 1 celery stick and an outer layer of fennel, both sliced, plus a small thyme sprig, a small fresh bay leaf, a few parsley stalks and 5-10 black peppercorns. Cover with 1 litre of cold water and bring to the boil. As soon as the liquid boils, reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 20 minutes, skimming as necessary, then strain through a fine sieve. Leave to cool and use straight away or refrigerate for up to 2 days.
"Rick Stein's Food Heroes: Another Helping ", Rick Stein (2004), pp. 52: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Food-Heroes-Another/dp/0563487526
Steamed Mackerel with Fennel, Bute St Seafoodie